VKhUTEMAS: The “Soviet Bauhaus”

Architectural Review

Agata Pyzik
May 8, 2015

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VKhUTEMAS was an art and technical school set up in 1920 in Moscow that saw itself as a realization of the new revolutionary government’s approach to art, and which was to become a vital part of building a new society. Often this ‘building’ was in the most literal sense: one of the chief skills taught there was architecture, next to industrial and technical design, textiles, painting and sculpture. This exhibition in Martin-Gropius-Bau focuses on the school’s architecture teaching, and on the highly interdisciplinary, experimental methods developed there by some of the greatest Russian architects of the 20th century, such as Nikolai Ladovsky, Moisei Ginsburg, and Konstantin Melnikov. They were able to produce such pioneering results by treating artistic education as part of a whole. Many of these architects were also fascinating painters. At the same time, few of VKhUTEMAS students’ boldest designs were built, and the school faced a political backlash as early as 1929.

This “Soviet Bauhaus” (as the exhibition’s subtitle has it) raises interest today not only because Constructivist luminaries such as Rodchenko, Klutsis, and Popova taught there, but also because of an emerging interest in the less explored aspects of the art of the revolutionary period. The Berlin show concentrates on the pedagogic work of teachers and usually unknown students at VKhUTEMAS, whose rarely seen work hangs next to the better-known abstract compositions of Stepanova or Rodchenko’s spatial constructions.

Given the traditionalist legacy of tsarism, these artists had first to break with the 19th century. This is visible in the early 1920s work of Nikolai Kolli, later the job architect on Corbusier’s only completed Soviet building, Tsentrosoyuz. His drawings of foliage compositions on Neoclassical architecture show how attaining Constructivist form meant learning from the past as well as its rejection. The school’s architecture faculty initially combined three threads: Neoclassicist, taught by Ivan Zholtovsky; the experimental Rationalist school, headed by Ladovsky; and a non-conformist pedagogical program led by Melnikov and Ilya Golosov, the “New Academy.” The link between classicism and Modernism is here less sharp than it’s often portrayed — there are many student drawings, which, in order to reach for new spatial forms, reach first to French visionary architects, such as Boullée and Ledoux, and develop these in an ever more stern, reduced way.

This relationship between the French Revolution and classicism is echoed in the creation of a new, atheistic, rational Soviet state and society, cherishing internationalism and heroes of modernity, in such projects as the Cathedral of International Understanding by the Rationalist and VKhUTEMAS teacher Vladimir Krinsky, or Ladovsky’s Monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo. Successive rooms show how students’ responses to extremely matter-of-fact tasks, such as “production exercise to determine and represent a form,” produced extremely varied results, bulky edifices or thin, fragile towers, coming in bright, contrasting colors, and using collage and photomontage, to establish new forms of space. Students had a lot of freedom, leading to extraordinary diploma projects such as Nikolai Sokolov’s Constructivist spa, which was envisaged to be partly under a mountain, a reminder that one of objectives of early Communism was comfort and luxury. Another final-year project is Georgi Krutikov’s Flying City, accompanied by a Surrealist photomontage predicting the space program and proving that traffic will soon become too congested and dangerous — as early as 1928!

In the end, VKhUTEMAS’ undoing was part of increasingly pragmatic late 1920s politics, which demanded its greater involvement in national industry. Although students like Ivan Leonidov attempted more utopian approaches to planning than the likes of the showcase steeltown Magnitogorsk, they were rejected. Finally, the school’s dissolution was an inevitability tied not just to the Stalinization of Soviet Russia, but to the tendency by 1930s modern architects everywhere to abandon experimentation in favor of a more bland International Style.

Student projects

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Complex frontal composition based on nuance and contrast combination of plastic and shade, using elements of rhythm

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Student exercises for the color course

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Lenin and David Bowie

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David Bowie has died. In tribute, I’m posting some portions of the second chapter of Agata Pyzik’s excellent book Poor but Sexy, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago. You should definitely pick it up if you haven’t already. To complement it, I’m including some photos of Bowie in Moscow and around the Eastern Bloc.

A word about Bowie’s flirtation with fascist symbolism during the 1970s: Quite clearly it was a deliberate aesthetic provocation meant to shock the public, part of his Thin White Duke persona. Same goes with that Playboy interview: he was coked out of his mind, responding to decades of British postwar malaise. Bowie also made use of communist, East European, and avant-garde symbolism around this time. Not trying to make excuses for the guy, just pointing out that this part of rock’n’roll’s broader obsession with totalitarianism during this period.

Either way, don’t expect sound politics from celebrities. Lemmy also liked to collect fascoid paraphernalia, as many have pointed out. He was a great musician and artist all the same. Regarding Bowie’s sexual improprieties, allegedly sleeping with Lori Maddox when she was seventeen and he was in his early twenties (as part of a ménage à trois with another man), again I am not interested in his private life. Picasso slept with younger women in Paris, but this hardly makes him less of a painter. Caravaggio murdered a couple people in cold blood, and he is similarly undiminished.

Surely no one will fault us for mourning Bowie’s death simply because he did not make great contributions to Marxist theory.

Ashes and brocade

Berlinism, Bowie, post punk,
new romantics and pop culture
during the second Cold War
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Had to get the train
from Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that I could do that
Just walking the dead
a man lost in time
Twenty thousand people cross Bösebrücke
fingers are crossed just in case
where are we now?

— David Bowie, “Where
Are We Now?” (2013)

I could make a transformation
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Is there concrete all around or is it in my head?

— David Bowie, “All
the Young Dudes”

The 1970s were the era of defeat. As the sixties were extremely intense in terms of political and social change, from the early seventies the flux went steady. David Bowie, who debuted in the late sixties, marked this change when he invented Ziggy Stardust in 1972: no more real heroes, from now on the most desirable thing was to be fabricated. What is genuine, authentic, is boring. The only hero that really matters, is pure artifice, cut out from the comic books, movies and dressed in everything that’s glamorous. Bowie more than anyone contributed to the cherishing of artifice in pop music, realizing the idea of a “hero for a day,” only following the course mass culture had been taking for decades. Was he conscious of that? Some of his lyrics of the era mark the mourning of the depoliticization of his generation: in the lyrics to the song “Star,” he mentions “Bevan (who) tried to change the nation,” and posing himself instead as someone who “could make a transformation as a rock & roll star.” Facing the “growing nihilism of his generation, he still believes that as a star of artifice, he can carry on their political task. “All the Young Dudes,” a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople in ’72, reeks of the youth’s disappointment and disillusionment, forming a kind of “solidarity of the losers” anthem. Bowie, always too erratic to make any firm political commitment, was rather in love with various dubious figures, “cracked actors,” (the inspiration for Ziggy was a forgotten singer who was believed to be a combination of god and an alien), necromantics like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger’s satanism, Fascist dictators. He was, nevertheless, obsessed with certain elements of modernity. He was driven to German culture, especially the Weimar period, expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, theater, Brecht. His first break-through hit concerned a man lost in space, after all, and the space age gets a strongly melancholic treatment from Bowie, as his character Major Tom is rather terrified by the silence of space. Another obsession, as we will see, was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bowie’s fixation with “totalitarianism” applied to both sides. At one point he planned to stage an adaptation of the Soviet-Czech comic book Octobriana, about a socialist she-devil super-heroine — a samizdat publication, that was circulated between creators only through the post. Bowie could only have learned about it from its 1971 American edition. On the other side, his dalliance with the far right was something more than just the famous Sieg Heil he made to fans in 1976 at Victoria Station. It’s not an accident pop bands are very rarely left-wing, and Bowie’s reaction to the economic crisis of the seventies was to imagine becoming a right wing politician who’ll “sort things out.” “I believe strongly in Fascism,” Bowie said; “the only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air is to speed up the progress of a right wing tyranny. People have responded always more efficiently under a regimental leadership.” Bowie recognized, if only half-consciously, the appeal and meaning of the pop idol as a dictator. In Peter Watkins’ film from some years earlier, 1967’s Privilege, a young, cherubic, mega-popular singer is hired by the fascistic authorities, who use his popularity to ensure their control over the masses, in a truly Orwellesque, Big Brother-like take on the police state (which here has much more to do with Nazi Germany than communist states). Yet Watkins’ scared, weakened, traumatized singer, terrified of the masses, couldn’t have been further from Bowie, who relished in fame.

So Bowie’s fascination with Germany and Berlin was only partly expressionism – much of it was also quite simply, fascism. He became a chief Schwarzkarakter for Rock against Racism, whose magazine pictured him next to Enoch Powell and Hitler. The press deemed his Thin White Duke look “more Nazi than Futurist (sic)’. He also caught the attention and sympathy of the National Front, who in an article called “White European Dance Music,” said that “Perhaps the anticommunist backlash and the aspirations towards heroism by the futurist movement, has much to do with the imagery employed by the big daddy of futurism, David Bowie. After all, it was Bowie who horrified the establishment in mid seventies with his favorable comments on the NF, and Bowie who might have started an “anti-communist” music tradition which we now see flourishing amidst the New Wave of futurist bands. Who might the NF’s publicist have meant as the “futurist movement”? It was the growing synthpop and New Romanticism that was emerging from the post-punk bands. Punk by itself might have evoked a resistance towards the establishment, but by then it was dissolving. Although we are used to seeing industrial/synthpop/postpunk as ruthless modernists, the bands were actually rarely openly left wing. The political message, if any, was rather vague. Bands dwelling on the space age came often from dispossessed areas, which they then made topics for their music, but the result didn’t have to be politically sound. It was this later, new romantic period that brought Bowie to the left, with the stern words about “fascists” on Scary Monsters.

But even if we treat those remarks as just the drugged out delirium of a coked-up degenerate, which they were, it can’t be denied they had an influence on popular music. If you take the whole fascination with the Germanic in post punk bands, like Siouxsie and the Banshees or, omen omen, Joy Division, the twisted outpourings of their leaders weren’t just simply teasing their parents. They were flirting with the outrageous (Siouxsie), against the war generation, or they were openly right wing, like Ian Curtis. They had little to do with the struggles of Baader-Meinhof that ended tragically few years back. Curtis was confusing his obsession with Hitlerism with another obsession with a concentration camp prisoners (Stephen Morris has said in an interview that Joy Division were supposed to look like Nazi camp victims) or wider, the idea of the underdog, which tapped into their Bowieesque Eastern Bloc fantasies, like that of “Warszawa,” an eternally concrete, sinister city. Yet Bowie’s image of contemporary Berlin must’ve been seriously twisted, if he thought he could find shelter there with another drug addict, Iggy Pop, in a place that had already become one of the most narcotics-dependent places on earth. West Germany and West Berlin had for years been a territory of political dysphoria. The New Left’s legacy was melting. In a context of pseudo-denazification, militancy reached its peak around 1968 and the police shooting of Benno Ohnesorg. By 1976, when Bowie moved to Berlin, it had become the armed terrorism of RAF, the Red Army Faction. Continue reading

Against kitsch criticism

Not to be elit­ist or de­lib­er­ately “high brow,” but I feel like the ana­lys­is of pop cul­ture phe­nom­ena has more than run its course in left­ist circles. Or rather, be­ing op­tim­ist­ic, it’s be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate the wheat from the chaff, to sift genu­ine in­sights from a sea of banal­it­ies. Per­haps the real cri­terion is time, see­ing wheth­er or not a giv­en work or series stands up to re­valu­ation after a few years. At least then, once philo­sophy’s painted its gray on gray, there’s some sense of bal­ance and per­spect­ive. Did movie x or y truly cap­ture something of the cul­tur­al Zeit­geist? Is it still rel­ev­ant today? Hence the more qual­ity re­flec­tions tend to ar­rive only after the fact, like Agata Pyzik’s “Mauer Dream­story” (on An­drzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Pos­ses­sion) or Fre­dric Jameson’s “Real­ism and Uto­pia in The Wire (on the hit show by Dav­id Si­mon).

Writers for The New In­quiry and even Jac­obin would do well to re­vis­it an old es­say by Har­old Rosen­berg on “kitsch cri­ti­cism,” which ex­am­ines that odd situ­ation where a piece of writ­ing or com­ment­ary comes to re­semble the ob­ject it sup­posedly cri­tiques: dull, eph­em­er­al, and ul­ti­mately for­get­table. Ori­gin­ally pub­lished in Dis­sent back in 1958, and later re­pub­lished in Rosen­berg’s in­flu­en­tial col­lec­tion The Tra­di­tion of the New, it ob­serves that

[o]ne of the grot­esquer­ies of present-day Amer­ic­an life is the amount of reas­on­ing that goes in­to dis­play­ing the wis­dom secreted in bad movies while prov­ing that mod­ern art is mean­ing­less. Yet it is noth­ing else than the in­tel­lec­tu­al­iz­a­tion of kitsch.

Un­like his con­tem­por­ary, Clem­ent Green­berg, who would prob­ably agree with him that end­less in­quir­ies in­to mass cul­ture are a waste of time, Rosen­berg did not think that kitsch could be elim­in­ated by simply cham­pi­on­ing mod­ern art. “There is no coun­ter­concept to kitsch,” he main­tained. “Its ant­ag­on­ist is not an idea but real­ity. To do away with kitsch it is ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape, as it was ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape of Sardin­ia in or­der to get rid of the mal­ari­al mos­quito.” Neither by del­ic­ate de­mys­ti­fic­a­tion nor po­lem­ic­al an­ni­hil­a­tion can kitsch be re­moved.

So please, lay off the art­icles al­tern­ately de­clar­ing “Death to the Gamer” or stand­ing “In De­fense of Gamers,” or dreck about how Break­ing Bad is some­how ra­cist or the black fam­ily sit­com is in ter­min­al de­cline. Lana Del Rey is cool, and I even like some of her songs, but ded­ic­at­ing a whole is­sue of a magazine to the Kul­turkritik of her latest al­bum just seems to me like the­or­et­ic­al overkill.

I say this as someone who ap­pre­ci­ates many of the clas­sic stud­ies of film, tele­vi­sion, and mass me­dia con­duc­ted by Ben­jamin, Ad­orno, Barthes, and oc­ca­sion­ally some even today. For their sake, if not for mine, knock it off.

Just a brief up­date, Decem­ber 2016: For whatever reas­on, the amount of “cri­ti­cism” writ­ten in this vein has only in­creased. Sam Kriss is a very tal­en­ted writer, of­ten an in­sight­ful crit­ic. But his calls to “smash the force” (i.e., “[the latest Star Wars is] not just in­fant­ile bour­geois ul­traleft­ism; it’s Blan­quism in space”) and “res­ist Pokémon Go (i.e., “this form [of game] de­mands a par­tic­u­lar type of en­gage­ment, that of a vi­cious, sticky-fingered child”) fall flat. Kriss has done pop cul­tur­al cri­tique quite well in the past, one need only look at his bril­liant sen­dup of Hildebeast in “Just Plain Nasty” for proof of this fact. If you’re look­ing for a funny and un­ex­pec­tedly com­pel­ling in­ter­pret­a­tion of Star Wars, check out “The Rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of Luke Sky­walk­er: One Jedi’s Path to Ji­had” in­stead.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Lenin workers’ club in Paris (1925)

Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for the 1925 exhibition222 Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for the 1925 workers club in the Soviet Pavilion, Paris122

My friend Agata Pyzik, author of the excellent Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (Zer0: 2014), recently uploaded some pictures from her visit to Moscow. One of them shows her holding a copy of her book inside a reconstruction of the Lenin Workers’ Club by Aleksandr Rodchenko, originally designed for the 1925 Paris Exposition. The scale reconstruction traveled to Tate Modern back in 2009, and currently resides in the State Tretiakov Museum in Russia, which is where Agata had her picture taken.

She left a copy of Poor but Sexy in its display of revolutionary literature — a valuable addition, in my opinion. Right now I’m waiting to hear back from the LARB about my review of it, though if I don’t hear back from them soon I’ll likely submit it elsewhere. All I can say is pick up a copy and read it posthaste.

tumblr_inline_mhuto1o47j1qz4rgp1 rodochenko international_exhibition_of_modern_decorative_and_inudstrial_art1335908254148

For now, here are some photos and drawings of Rodchenko’s famous design along with some well-known passages written at the time of the exhibition. It appeared as part of the same show that saw the premier of architect Konstantin Mel’nikov’s outstanding Soviet Pavilion. Continue reading

Mauer dreamstory

Agata Pyzik
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The following is an early draft from Agata Pyzik’s excellent book-length debut, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West. I’m about halfway through writing a review of it, which I’ll probably pitch to Radical Philosophy or Art Margins. Everyone reading this should pick up a copy immediately. Pyzik’s interpretation of Possession and other films, reproduced below, is one of my favorite sections.
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(Cross-posted from Faces on Posters as well as
nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour)


Picture-321 Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 11.13.13 PM.

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I didnt want that to happen, but it did.

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“A woman who fucks an octopus” — that was the way Andrzej Żuławski pitched his 1980 film Possession to the producer, fresh after the success of his French film L’Important C’est D’aimer, about a fallen actress, played by a sad-eyed Romy Schneider, who is made to act in pornographic movies, surrounded by other failed artists, including an unusually melancholic, tender performance from Klaus Kinski. He was also right after the fiasco of his three-hour long monumental metaphysical SF On a Silver Globe (1978) — an adaptation of a futurological fin-de-siècle novel by his great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski — pulled before completion by the hostile communist authorities and shelved until 1987, when only Żuławski had a chance to “finish” the film. Around that time, he was abandoned by his wife Malgorzata Braunek, actress in his Third Part of the Night and The Devil, due to his famously domineering and possessive personality as a partner and a director. Left in shock and depression, he started plotting a misogynist fairy tale about a monster…

The sleep of reason produces demons, and one of them materialized when Anna, living in West Berlin with her functionary nice husband and child in a neat, three-storey block estate, realized she despised her husband. She confesses that to him. The rest is what happens after that confession.

Possession was made in the golden era of the genre of exploitation, and it must be due to the communal genius that things conceived as forgettable schlock to this day shine with a magnificent mixture of the visceral and the metaphysical, with cinematography, colors, costumes and set design taken from a masterpiece. Argento and the lesser gialli creators, Jean Rollin with his erotic horror, the expansion of an intellectual SF, started and inspired Tarkovsky, all paved the way for Possession, a still unrivaled study of a marital break-up, thrown in the middle of political turmoil in divided cold war Berlin. Still, Possession had a special “career” in the UK, if by career we understand horrible reception, extremely negative reviews and eventually putting it to the “video nasties” list of banned films. “Film nobody likes,” it was deemed too arty for the flea pits and too trashy for the art house.*

Possession21 0004

Today perhaps we can’t imagine what it was like to live in a city surrounded by barbed wire and under a constant look of armed guards. When we first see Anna, played by a disturbingly pale, un-Holy Mary-like Isabelle Adjani and Mark (Sam Neill), we instantly see something is terribly wrong: their windows are under constant scrutiny, and surrounded by wire — the symbol of political oppression just as of the marital prison, of conventional life. Continue reading