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WChUTEMAS exhibition at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, Copyright: "DW/Katsiaryna Kryzhanouskaya
Image: DW/Katsiaryna Kryzhanouskaya

The Russian Bauhaus

Katja Kryzhanouskaya / jb
December 17, 2014

Russia's art and architecture school of the 1920s has long been overshadowed by its famous German counterpart, Bauhaus. A new exhibition in Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau brings overdue recognition.


In the 1920s, all of Europe was fascinated with Walter Gropius' art school, known as Bauhaus. Its revolutionary ambition to unify arts and craft to create high quality products and buildings made it the spearhead of a new avant-garde.

The Bauhaus style and vision were widely embraced, also in what was then the Soviet Union. Particularly in Moscow, many artists and intellectuals were eager to follow Walter Gropius' ideas.

Gropius had founded his Staatliches Bauhaus, or state Bauhaus school, in 1919 in Weimar. The following year saw the foundation of the Russian state art and technical school in Moscow, known as Higher Art and Technical Studios and abbreviated simply as Vkhutemas.

More than just Gropius

"While the Bauhaus school was revolving around its undisputed mastermind Gropius, the Vkhutemas had about a hundred figures like him," said Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. The renowned exhibition hall, founded by a great uncle of Walter Gropius, has recently opened its new exhibition "VKhUTEMAS - A Russian Laboratory of Modernity."

Among the Vkhutemas' influential avant-gardists were celebrated architects like Alexey Shchusev, Nikolai Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov and painters like Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, and Wassily Kandinsky, who later taught Bauhaus classes at the Russian school.

Students at the Russian state art and technical school, Vkhutemas, in 1927, Copyright: Staatliches Schtschussew Museum für Architektur Moskau
Students at the Russian state art and technical school, Vkhutemas, in 1927Image: Staatliches Schtschussew Museum für Architektur Moskau

Strong ties between Weimar and Moscow

Art historians and critics have often referred to the Vkhutemas as the Russian Bauhaus. And indeed, there is more that unites than separates the two avant-garde powerhouses of the 1920s. The Vkhutemas also aimed to unite arts and crafts and infuse artistic visions into the modern process of production.

The curricula and organizational structures of the two schools were almost identical. Both were divided into eight faculties: painting, sculpting, textiles, graphic reproduction, ceramics, metalwork, and woodwork. So it comes as no surprise that Gropius and the Vkhutemas established student exchanges in 1927 and 1928.

Very much in contrast to the competitive selection process in Weimar, there were no special prerequisites needed to study at the Vkhutemas. Consequently, the number of students at the Vkhutemas was much higher than at Staatliches Bauhaus - 2,000 compared to only 150 respectively.

Pressefotos Martin-Gropius-Bau WChUTEMAS EINSCHRÄNKUNG
The students' bold abstract studies had a big impact on the Russian avant-gardeImage: Staatliches Schtschussew Museum für Architektur Moskau/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014

Students outperforming professors

Students at the Vkhutemas were expected to learn artistic as well as mechanical skills. First, they studied abstract compositions and concepts, then they were assigned practical tasks like designing newsstands, water towers or communal housing.

The student designs at times exceeded those of their professors in vision and courage. For instance, after Ivan Leonidov presented his thesis before the school's examination board, the professors got up from their chairs to show their admiration for Leonidov's work and let him know that he had outdone his teachers.

A. Wesnin: Abstract composition 1922 Oil on cardboard, Copyright: Staatliches Schtschussew Museum für Architektur Moskau
An experimental design study of "space and colour", 1921Image: Staatliches Schtschussew Museum für Architektur Moskau

Overdue recognition

Despite all the genius, the representatives of Vkhutemas never really found a unified artistic voice. The school's leadership, politics and personnel changed numerous times throughout its existence. In 1930, 10 years after it was founded, the Vkhutemas was closed as part of a Soviet education reform.

They were largely forgotten in the subsequent decades, their achievements outshined by the ubiquitous Weimar Bauhaus. Many art historians are convinced that this will change in the future and that the brilliance of the Vkhutemas crowd will finally be recognized.

The exhibition in Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau - open to visitors through April 6 2015 - certainly is a start.

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