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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Revolutionary ceramics and textiles: USSR, 1919-1931

Patterns

Porcelain

Mihály Biró, 1886-1948

Bud­apest nat­ive Mihály Biró (1886-1948) joined the So­cial Demo­crat­ic cause early in life. He spent the peri­od between 1910 and 1914, design­ing strik­ing and widely noted posters and il­lus­tra­tions for the SZDP [Hun­gari­an So­cial Demo­crat­ic Party].

Fol­low­ing the First World War, Biró be­came the graph­ic mouth­piece of the new Red Army of the Hun­gari­an So­viet Re­pub­lic. The ad­vent of the right-wing dic­tat­or­ship of Miklós Hort­hy soon forced him to flee to Vi­enna, however, where he cre­ated the Hort­hy Port­fo­lio (1920), con­sist­ing of col­or litho­graphs doc­u­ment­ing the at­ro­cit­ies of the Hort­hy re­gime.

Along­side the polit­ic­al posters — Biró’s true call­ing — he also cre­ated posters for in­di­vidu­al busi­nesses and the boom­ing film in­dustry. Biró fi­nally fled from Aus­tro­fas­cism in 1934 and settled in Czechoslov­akia, where he be­came ill and deeply de­pressed. In 1938, he suc­ceeded in flee­ing on to Par­is, where he was to stay un­til 1947.

It was only in 1947 that he was able to re­turn to Bud­apest, where he died in 1948.

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Georgii Krutikov, The flying city / Георгий Крутиков, «Летающий город» (1928)

Летающая кабина Жилой комплекс "Трудовая коммуна".

The very first detailed study of Krutikov’s sensational Flying City has been translated and published.

25€ VAT included (24,04€ + 4% VAT)

softcover
English
21 x 16 cm
100 halftones images
160 pp
ISBN: 978-84-939231-8-1

Georgii Krutikov epitomized the utopian ideal of the Russian Avant-garde. In 1928, while still a student at the Moscow VKhUTEMAS, the budding architect presented his visionary solution to the seemingly impending problem of unsustainable population growth; a flying city.

Encapsulating the spirit of the times, Krutikov’s soaring city caused a sensation, daring to reimagine and remake the world as an exercise in possibility; rationalized through data, realized in sketches and plans.

Architectural historians and devotees of Russian modernism have cited the influence of Krutikov’s “Flying City.” Yet, for decades, little was written about this remarkable project, its precocious author or his subsequent career.

Calling down Krutikov’s city from the clouds, eminent scholar Selim O. Khan-Magomedov separates myth from fact to uncover a wealth of previously unseen visual and documentary material, affording insight into this truly revolutionary work, its fascinating creator and a varied later career that spanned influential membership of Nikolai Ladovskii’s rationalist Association of Urban Architects (ARU), his contributions to urban planning, his post-constructivist designs for the Moscow Metro and his passion for preserving Russia’s architectural heritage.

Жилой комплекс "Трудовая коммуна" Жилой комплекс. Жилище гостиничного типа

Written by SELIM O. KHAN-MAGOMEDOV

(1928-2011) has been widely recognized for his outstanding contribution to the study of the Russian avant-garde movement during the 1920s and 1930s. He has written countless monographs, articles and books, including the legendary Pioneers of Soviet Architecture, Pioneers of Soviet Design and One Hundred Masterpieces of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde. He has written on the most important architects of the Russian avant-garde, including Konstantin Melnikov, Alexander Vesnin, Nikolai Ladovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Moise Ginsburg, Ivan Leonidov, and Ilya Golosov. Khan-Magomedov contributed greatly to the scholarly research about Russian avant-gardists, and studying the personal archives of over 150 Russian architects, artists, designers and sculptors, which revealed a number of previously unknown facts about their lives.

Khan-Magomedov held a doctorate in art history and was an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Art.  In 1992, he was awarded the Russian Federation’s “Distinguished Architect” title, and in 2003, he was awarded the State Prize of Russia for his contributions to the field of architecture.

Translated by CHRISTINA LODDER

Professor Christina Lodder is an established scholar of Russian art. She is currently an honorary fellow at the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent, Vice-President of the Malevich Society, and co-editor of Brill’s Russian History and Culture series. Among her publications are numerous articles and several books. She has also been involved with various exhibitions such as Modernism (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2006) and From Russia (Royal Academy, London 2008).

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Louis Lozowick, communist lithographer (1892-1973)

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A few years back the excellent art and architecture website SOCKS Studio made a post featuring
“The diesel era lithographs of Louis Lozowick, 1920s-1940s.” They included some of his biographical details along with examples of his work. I would like to expand briefly on Lozowick’s role in disseminating principles of the Soviet avant-garde as well as his political involvement in American communism during the interwar period.

Lozowick was a Russian-Jewish émigré who spent the majority of his life in the United States. Born in 1892 outside Kiev, then part of the Ukrainian province in the Russian Empire, Lozowick fled the pogroms that followed the 1905 Revolution by moving to New York in 1906. He continued his training as an artist and worked as an illustrator until the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, whereupon he renewed his commitment to Marxist politics.

561a3ec445ca4e06d65d30c8efb13cc1Louis Lozowick, Modern Russian Art

Frequently contributing to such periodicals as Broom and Transition, Lozowick later helped found the journal New Masses in 1926. One year after the infamous trial of the Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, Lozowick designed a very constructivist cover to commemorate their martyrdom. Prior to that, he’d already begun a series of lithographs portraying major American industrial cities in bold, angular contrasts. Each painting was given simply the name of the city portrayed as its title — New YorkChicagoPittsburghCleveland, Detroit, etc. — and were widely reprinted.

Sometimes he would paint versions of these stylized cityscapes. His choice of colors was sometimes reminiscent of other artists in the Precisionist movement, as it came to be called, as well as European and Soviet artists. Compare, for example, his piece Cleveland (1927) with the Industrial Scene (1930) rendered by his fellow precisionist painter Miklos Suba. Or else view Lozowick’s Red Circle (1924) alongside Victor Servranckx’s Factory (1922). Max Thalmann’s woodcut of a Manhattan cross-street from 1925, a narrow valley flanked by towering skyscrapers on either side, presages Lozowick’s Bulloch Hall ten years later. Likewise, though left uncolored, Lozowick’s Corner of a Steel Mill resembles a colorful fantasy by Iakov Chernikhov. During a trip to Kyrgyzstan, Lozowick depicted the construction underway in Soviet Central Asia in a manner akin to his depictions of industrialism in the US. The similarities are everywhere striking.

After the atrocities of Nazi Germany became known in 1945, Lozowick joined many of his peers in reluctantly supporting Zionism. Heartbroken by the loss of so many of his friends and relatives, he donated to various charities for Israel. For this, he would be listed in a pamphlet circulated by the virulently anticommunist and antisemitic Senator Jack Tenney, The Zionist Network. Lozowick’s memoirs were gathered and posthumously published as Survivor from a Dead Age. If anyone has a copy and would like to scan and upload it, I’d be very grateful.

Below you can read “A Note on Modern Russian Art,” written by Lozowick for Broom in 1923. You can also scroll through a gallery of his lithographs by clicking on any of the icons that follow.

A note on modern Russian art

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It is well the devil can quote Scripture: we know thereby the character of Satan, even if we are in the dark as to Holy Writ. St. Paul of Aix, St. Apollinarius of Paris, Revelation, Apocrypha and other books in the Bible of modern art have been quoted so copiously and interpreted so liberally by the modern Russian artists, in their fight against orthodoxy, that their own identity is never left in doubt.

The advent of the Soviets resulted in a heightened productivity among modern Russian artists. Whatever state patronage of the arts may be worth in general, it is undeniable that in Russia the Soviets gave a great impetus to artistic effort by inaugurating a program of reform on a scale hardly paralleled in any other modern State. They abolished the old Imperial Academy, organized a Free College of Artists in its place, opened new free art schools, established Museums of modern art (Museums of Artistic Culture) organized popular lectures and traveling exhibitions, supported the artists, bought their works, employed them in staging popular revolutionary festivals, issued new art publications — in a word did everything to encourage the growth of art and to bring it nearer to the masses. Continue reading

László Moholy-Nagy and his vision

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You can download the 1969 translation of
László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1927) by clicking on the embedded link. A while ago I posted some of Moholy’s work, but this is much more comprehensive. Otto Stelzer’s postscript to the 1967 reissue of the classic Bauhausbuch release appears below along with some examples of his films, photographs, and paintings.

Nearly out of space on my WordPress account. So I might have to set up a Paypal account and start soliciting donations. For now, though, enjoy.

Painting

Otto Stelzer
Janet Seligman
(March 1969)
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László Moholy-Nagy saw photography not only as a means of reproducing reality and relieving the painter of this function. He recognized its power of discovering reality. “The nature which speaks to the camera is a different nature from the one which speaks to the eye,” wrote Walter Benjamin years after Moholy had developed the experimental conditions for Benjamin’s theory. The other nature discovered by the camera influenced what Moholy, after he had emigrated, was to call The New Vision. It alters our insight into the real world. Much has happened in the meantime in this field and on a broader basis than Moholy could have foreseen. Painting, Photography, Film today exists as a new entity even in areas to which Moholy’s own creative desire could scarcely have led: for example, in the Neo-Realism of Bacon, Rivers, Warhol, Vostell and many others whose reality is no more than a second actuality produced by photography.

Moholy is one of those artists whose reputation continues to grow steadily after their death because their works have a prophetic action. Moholy always saw himself as a Constructivist but he passed quickly through the static Constructivism of his own time. In a few moves he opened a game which is being won today. His light-modulators, his “composition in moving colored light,” his leaf-paintings of the forties, represent the beginnings of a “kinetic art” — even the term is his — which is flourishing today. Op Art? Moholy did the essential spade-work of this school (the old expression is in order here) in 1942, even including the objective, important for Op artists, of a “use”: with his pupils in Chicago he had evolved studies for military camouflage. The display of these things, later mounted in the school of design by his collaborator and fellow Hungarian György Kepes, was at once the first Op exhibition, “Trompe l’oeil,” and its theoretical constituent. New materials? Moholy had been using celluloid, aluminium, plexiglass, and gallalith as early as the Bauhaus days. Modern typography? Moholy has influenced two generations of typographers. Even in the field of aesthetic theory Moholy found a new approach; its aim was a theory of information in art. Moholy enlisted pioneers of this now much discussed theory as long as twenty-five years ago, nominating Charles Morris, the authority on semantics, to a professorship at the New Bauhaus, Chicago and inviting Hayakawa, another semanticist to speak at his institute. In 1925, when the Bauhaus book now being re-issued first appeared, Moholy was regarded as a Utopian. That Moholy, this youthful radical, with his fanaticism and his boundless energy, radiated terror too, even among his colleagues at the Bauhaus, is understandable. “Only optics, mechanics, and the desire to put the old static painting out of action,” wrote Feininger to his wife at the time: “There is incessant talk of cinema, optics, mechanics, projection and continuous motion and even of mechanically produced optical transparencies, multicolored, in the finest colors of the spectrum, which can be stored in the same way as gramophone records” (Moholy’s “Domestic Pinacotheca,” p. 25). Is this the atmosphere in which painters like Klee and some others of us can go on developing? Klee was quite depressed yesterday when talking about Moholy.” Yet Feininger’s own transparent picture-space seems not wholly disconnected from Moholy’s light “displays.”

Pascal discovered in human behavior two attitudes of mind: “One is the geometric, the other that of finesse.” Gottfried Benn took this up and made the word “finesse,” difficult enough to translate already, even more obscure. “The separation, therefore, of the scientific from the sublime world…the world which can be verified to the point of confirmatory neurosis and the world of isolation which nothing can make certain.” The attitudes which Pascal conceived of as being complementary and connected are now separated. The harmonization of the two attitudes of mind to which the art of classical periods aspired is abandoned. The conflict between the Poussinistes and the followers of Rubens, conducted flexibly from the 17th to the 19th century, became a war of positions with frozen fronts.

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The Bauhaus carried on the conflict until the parties retired: on the one side the sublime: Klee, Feininger, Itten, and Kandinsky too, whose “nearly” Constructivist paintings still reminded Moholy of “underwater landscapes’; on the other “geometricians” with Moholy at their head (“forms of the simplest geometry as a step towards objectivity’), his pupils and the combatants, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, all closely connected with the Bauhaus. On the one side the “lyrical I” (in Benn’s sense), on the other the collectivists, “one in the spirit” with science, social system and architecture, as Moholy formulated it in a Bauhaus lecture in 1923.

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“¡Que viva Mexico!” Eisenstein in North America (1931)

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For anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing, Experimental Cinema was basically an organ of Soviet avant-garde movie-making published in English. It includes articles written by Sergei Eisenstein, Béla Balázs, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and numerous others from that milieu. El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko were employed as photographers for the journal. You can download a few issues published between 1930 and 1934 courtesy of the Internet Archive. Movie posters for some of the films discussed in its pages can be found in my post from a few days ago on the Stenberg brothers.

The following review of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, Que viva México!, was written by the American filmmaker and studio producer Morris Helprin. At the time, both he and his wife were committed communists. Later, Helprin became president of London Films in Hollywood (one article in Experimental Cinema called Hollywood “the sales agent of American imperialism”). Still, quite a neat summary and some behind-the-scenes details. If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can download the following texts or watch the full-length movie below.

Eisenstein in Mexico

Morris Helprin
Experimental Cinema
September 1932

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“Que Viva Mexico!”

It is the first film made in the Western hemisphere to assume the mantle of maturity. The furthest step yet from the idiocies of corn-fed Hollywood. It turns its tail up at the banal; thumbs its nose at the benign. It is pictorial rhetoric of such vital force that it thunders and roars. Yet it contains every aspect of the popular cinema.

QUE VIVA MEXICO!

That day at Los Remedios, when we walked over the hills in search of a suitable location, served as an indication of Eisenstein’s preciseness, his exciting demands that his subject be even in quality. All Mexico around us was “beautiful enough to swoon in.” Here was no prettiness of the postcard cinema, none of your oak-paneled pictures that need but sprinklings of chemical brilliants to turn them into revolting chromes. The top of a mountain and an ancient aqueduct jutting at a seven-thousand foot height into a stilled canopy of swan-white clouds. You could set your camera down at almost any spot and grind. And have a beautiful scenic.

But the Russian, followed hastily by Tisse, his cameraman, Aragon, a young Mexican intellectual who serves as a guide, interpreter, and go-between, a camera boy, and myself, trailed by five peons who were the day’s actors at a peso each, led a frantic chase to find the spot. Following which were at least a dozen of the spots. Continue reading

Bauhaus photography

On the present state of photography

Walter Peterhans
Red 5, special issue on
the Bauhaus
(1930)

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The transformation that is taking place before our eyes in photographic methods and their effects is critical. What does it consist of?

It is striking in the seeming unity and forcefulness of working methods and results. But really it does not exist. The illusion of similarity is based only on a rejection of traditional techniques and pictorial methods and on a turn away from the facile, and thus convincingly boring and accurate likeness of Mr. X. It is based too on a shared avoidance of manual procedures that, after the fact, deny photography’s technical principle — detailed, precise reduction of the image in the film — and in its place substitute mechanical coloring. We fail to recognize the magic of its precision and detailing, thus allowing what we already possessed to disappear — all in an attempt to make it the equal of the graphic arts, which rightly display other qualities arising from their different technical means. Hence we have not even noticed that photography is capable of giving us its own new vision of things and people, a vision of upsetting forcefulness, and that it gives this through its own characteristic selection from among the abundance of existing facts, a selection made possible by the decided individuality of its technique.

Consider a ball on a smooth plane. It presents us with various views according to the illumination and the play of shadows. It is a combination of individual properties that we join out of habit. The combination changes. It is always the ball on the given plane, though our eye does not experience the intense harmony to which it gives rise. This occurs, rather, through understanding, through the concept of the ball; in other words, the combination, for the eye, is fortuitous. With manual procedures it is possible to stress the rudiments of a picture and to allow what is not appropriate to disappear. Through exaggeration, deformation, suppression, and simplification manual procedures effect the selection, the transition from object to picture. This is the process of combination from memories, from fixated portions of various views. The transplantation of this method into photography is called chromolithography and bromoil print. But, whereas there the exploitation of the brush is the technique itself, in the pigment process it interrupts the work of the quantities of light that are active at every point and obliterates the activities appropriate to each of these two different technical methods. Continue reading

The hammer-and-sickle kitchen-factory in Samara (1931)

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Ekaterina Maximova’s 1931 fabrika-kukhnia [factory kitchen or canteen] on Maslennikov in Samara is a constructivist wonder in the shape of a hammer and sickle. Soviet “factory kitchens” were intended to provide proper nutrition to workers and liberate women from domestic slavery (i.e. the anonymous toil and drudgery of child-rearing and housework). Many such public kitchens were built and opened in the 1920s, but the one designed by Maximova is without a doubt the most spectacular.  As with most constructivist buildings in Russia, however, especially in the hinterlands, strategies to preserve this avant-garde monument have been less than adequate. Or more frequently, entirely absent.

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Archnadzor noted in an article from March 2008 that “if this building had appeared in a capital, it would have been esteemed and entered the textbooks of architectural history long ago.” (Though the sad state of similar constructivist buildings in other parts of the former USSR should call this assumption int0 question, with the exception of Melnikov’s oligarch-sponsored pieces and Kharkov’s polished Gosprom façade). Most of Maximova’s original design — both the interior and exterior — has unfortunately been destroyed in the course of the extensive reconstructions and modifications it underwent over the 20th century.

In an effort comparable to many countries’ pre- and post-WWII preservation measures, the factory had already been extensively refurbished by 1944. The entire front façade was remade, and covered the face of the building like a sarcophagus built in the classical style. Some internal changes and coverings were also made. In 1998-99 the building was once again transformed, this time into a shopping center. Threatened by demolition several times since, the building now houses stray dogs and the homeless.

fabrika01Samara01

Its function and purpose highlight several aspects of the era’s industrial art. These architectural concepts were ideally employed for factories, workers’ clubs, canteens, garages and modern working-class housing projects, airy and sunlit, and even in Moscow a quarter built purposely to maximize sunlight exposure in all the flats; art became a practicality, industrialized, and intended to serve or otherwise stimulate the masses. Housing projects were designed as a vessel to attune Soviet citizens to the perks of communal living.

The hammer and sickle layout must seem an ideological extravagance, a symbolic excess, but similar projects were realized in Moscow and Leningrad: a school in a vaguely similar hammer and sickle shape, or a Red Army theater in the shape of a star. Maximova’s building thus “demonstrated the progressive aesthetic, engineering, and ethical ideas of the Soviet avant-garde.” It was also one of the first buildings in the Volga area with concrete lift slabs/floor structure, a showcase of modern, creative technology.

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The factory kitchen itself was located in the hammer, from which three conveyor belts brought the food to the canteen in the sickle. There were two floors, with airy mezzanines and staircases, and the building also housed a sports facility, reading room as well as the kitchen’s administration. The interior and plan design formed an integral, dynamic part of the building’s aesthetic impact; however, these aspects are rarely considered by the city council when it comes time for renovations, considering their lack of expertise.

In the TV-program Dostoianie respublika, it is mentioned that neither federal nor local government is willing to lend aid to these decaying structures. Another tragic example of this is Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building in Moscow, which appears on the UNESCO list of endangered buildings, while it is literally falling apart (often with people inside, as Owen Hatherley observed during a recent Moscow excursion). Back in 2008 there were again plans of transforming the Samara kitchen-factory, this time into an office center, but by February 2010 the restoration plans stagnated. Today the building faces destruction once more.

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