The acronym for Vysshie khudozhestvenno-tekhnicheskie masterskie (Higher state artistic and technical studios).
The Vkhutemas school in Moscow has often been termed the "Soviet Bauhaus" due to its temporal and pedagogical proximity to its more famous German counterpoint. This essay argues, however, that the two schools in fact operated independently of each other, with choice moments of mutual exchange, focusing on the site of the avant-garde magazine as evidence of this. A vitrine exhibition at MoMA Library—BAUHAUS VKhUTEMAS: Intersecting Parallels, on view through October 26, 2018—features many of the materials discussed below.Show More
The Vkhutemas school in Moscow has often been termed the "Soviet Bauhaus" due to its temporal and pedagogical proximity to its more famous German counterpoint. This essay argues, however, that the two schools in fact operated independently of each other, with choice moments of mutual exchange, focusing on the site of the avant-garde magazine as evidence of this. A vitrine exhibition at MoMA Library—BAUHAUS ↔ VKhUTEMAS: Intersecting Parallels, on view through October 26, 2018—features many of the materials discussed below.
In the early twentieth century, two institutions of radical pedagogy—the Bauhaus in 1919 and VkhUTEMAS,1 which was established in 1920 as the successor to SVOMAS,2 set up in 1918—developed in tandem and more than a thousand miles apart. Points of comparisons between the German and Russian schools of architecture and design are notable: both were founded with state support in the years directly following the First World War on principles of structural interdisciplinarity, and both were shuttered by the early 1930s. But there were also significant material and philosophical differences between the two, rooted as they were in disparate economic and political circumstances.
Vkhutemas is often referred to in relation to its more famous counterpart as the “Soviet Bauhaus,” relegating it to the diminutive other, and belying an assumption of a flow of influence from West to East. In fact, an exchange of ideas moved in both directions, though only occasionally and partially. In many ways, we are looking at two distinct schools existing at the same time in different places, with some salient points of productive contact. These points were generated through a variety of modes, including correspondence, exhibitions, and travel (in the form of student exchanges and guest lectures).
The intersections were likewise made visible and further encouraged in magazine publications. This platform was used across the interwar avant-gardes to strategically signal transnational alignments and to cross-promote the work of other movements, as well as to engage in a public dialogue about avant-garde aesthetics and their social utility. In Moscow, the magazine Sovremennaia arkhitektura (Contemporary Architecture) reported on various developments at the Bauhaus, including an article in its very first issue on the move of the school from Weimar to Dessau.3 And in the Bauhaus magazine, initiated in 1926, personalities associated with Vkhutemas were featured. Developments at the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas were not, of course, only regarded with interest in Germany and Russia, but also garnered trans-European interest and involvement. To take just one example, information and images related to both schools were shared with some frequency in the magazine Stavba (Building) in Prague.4 When one room of the First Exhibition of Contemporary Architecture, held in Moscow in the summer of 1927, was dedicated to works from the Bauhaus—“comprising photographs and drawings of student designs for furniture, ceramics, light fittings, fabrics, and typographical work”—a reviewer stated that the objects on view “were for the most part already known to us through the publications of the Bauhaus.”5 In evidence here is the successful utilization of the increased capacity of the print periodical to disseminate images and ideas in the early twentieth century more broadly than was previously imaginable.6
As the magazine has become increasingly valued as an important material site for telling cultural histories, it behooves us to turn to these dynamic platforms of exchange to help tease out and complicate the perceived flow of ideas between Vkhutemas and the Bauhaus. And while certain texts and images pertaining to either school, its teachers, and students may be well-known in isolation, a holistic, full-page view of the periodical layout takes into account the curatorial strategies of its editors, and evidences the connections and mutual points of interaction that they themselves noted, and found worth highlighting. The examples featured here speak to the importance of reading the content of a given periodical as it was published, adding a layer of interpretation to what is available from a close reading of texts extracted and reprinted elsewhere. It also points to the importance of researching more fully the print circulation of well-known images.
The magazine ABC: Beiträge zum Bauen, in particular, is considered here for its rhizomatic properties, as it points to a multiplicity of interconnections in the avant-garde reaching in several directions. The history of ABC also underscores the seminal role of El Lissitzky—head of the architectural department at Vkhutemas before departing for Berlin in 1921, and then upon returning to the school in 1925—who played a major role not only in making sure that Soviet developments in architecture and design were known west of Moscow, but also in influencing art production and theory there.
Sima Ingberman describes ABC, published between 1924 and 1928, as “acclaimed for its radical Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] approach to modernism and for its role in presenting new Russian designs to the West.”7 The latter point can be attributed to the part that Lissitzky played in developing and designing the magazine. While in Berlin, Lissitzky was the coeditor and designer of Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet (with Ilya Ehrenburg) and G (with Hans Richter), two magazines that were instrumental in circulating information about Soviet Constructivist art and architecture internationally.8 Mart Stam, who initiated ABC, had met Lissitzky in Berlin that same year; Stam would go on to lecture at the Bauhaus from 1928 to 1929 (when the school was in Dessau and under the directorship of Hannes Meyer). He sought the editorial guidance of Lissitzky for ABC, which Lissitzky willingly provided, and in exchange, Lissitzky “encouraged the group [of ABC editors] to join the network of small international constructivist magazines that he promoted.”9
The real fulfillment of this suggestion is evident in the second volume of ABC, each issue of which came in a bright orange wrapper with big and bold black letters (another contribution by Lissitzky that was, at the time, becoming a familiar trope in New Typography and Constructivist graphic design) that follows a practice common across the interwar avant-garde magazines of cross-promoting and signaling aesthetic alignments through advertisement. The Bauhausbücher series and publications by Adolf Behne, Le Corbusier, and Lissitzky are advertised on the inside front cover, and a list of international magazines, including Blok in Warsaw, G in Berlin, MA in Vienna, and Stavba in Prague, is printed at the back.
Lissitzky’s editorial hand is also evident in a series of issues from the first volume of ABC. In the second issue, in 1924, a student work from Nikolai Ladovsky’s core course on “Space” at Vkhutemas is pictured.10 Running alongside the image (of a proposal for a factory tower) is an announcement that the next issue of ABC will offer a “report on the problems and goals of the new Russian architecture (with illustrations).”11 As advertised, the following issue, a double issue which centered on the theme of “Concrete” (and including work by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who would later become the third and final director of the Bauhaus in 1930), features on its front page an article entitled “Russian Architecture,” which introduces Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the Pamiatnik III Internatsionala (Monument to the Third International). It also presents another student work for the same project highlighted in the previous issue, and on the last page, an advertisement by Lissitzky for his own Berlin atelier. The now-iconic photomontaged self-portrait, of a hand holding a protractor, overlaid on a head shot of the artist, with graph paper behind, is a visual manifesto of Constructivist, rationalized tendencies. The hand with protractor is repeated (without the artist’s visage) on the cover of the now most famous Vkhutemas publication, which was published by the school’s in-house print shop in 1927.
Perhaps the most compelling instance of the interactions between figures associated with both the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas showcased in ABC comes in a special issue from 1926 that was guest-edited by Meyer. As described in the commentary from a reprint of the magazine, Meyer’s issue “presents a representative, international cross section of currents in the constructivist art of the twenties.”12 One double-page spread includes two works by Lissitzky as well as models by Naum Gabo13 and Kazimir Malevich, two other Vkhutemas affiliates. The band of text that runs alongside these illustrations is an excerpt from the typographer Jan Tschichold’s “Die neue Gestaltung” (“New Design”), which was featured in an issue of Typographische Mitteilungen (Typographic News) from 1925 that Tschichold guest-edited, and is followed by a brief text by Lissitzky. This particular excerpt from Tschichold walks through a series of isms, from Impressionism and Cubism to Dada and Suprematism (of which Malevich is the exemplary figure) to Proun and Constructivism (both associated with Lissitzky), and it ends with a description of the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas—rather than with two more isms. The editorial decision to excerpt the original text to cut off at this point and not later suggests that Meyer deliberately chose to emphasize the march of early twentieth-century artistic developments as having reached its apex in these two schools, which are described by Tschichold as “independently parallel movements.”14 Tschichold emphasizes that while contemporary and comparable, Vkhutemas and the Bauhaus “were founded independently and inadvertently at almost the exact same time, and consistently carried out their work along the same path; that is, in the shared conviction that only in the integration of all artistic work as construction [Bau] does it become meaningful.”15 In short, and to return to the argument with which I opened, while the two schools came together ideologically on critical points, emblematic of the general avant-garde vision across the European continent in the interwar period, they were working independently of each other, different trains on parallel tracks occasionally stopping in the same station.
Notably, Tschichold dates the inception of Vkhutemas to 1918, which, in fact, marks the beginning of SVOMAS. This timing also contradicts the assumptions that the Bauhaus, founded in 1919, and its pedagogical mission served as models for Vkhutemas. In fact, Lissitzky, in 1927, would go so far as to suggest that Walter Gropius, the founding director of the Bauhaus, was influenced by Vkhutemas, claiming: “Rumors of the revolution in Russian artistic life, and fragmentary information about the structure of the Vkhutemas had percolated into Germany. Walter Gropius gathered avant-garde artists around himself, and was fortunate to be put in charge of part of the former Academy of Weimar.”16 While Tschichold and Lissitzky did their part to set the insemination of Vkhutemas before the Bauhaus, as Christina Lodder rightly points out, “The Vkhutemas, as such, did not exist at the time the Bauhaus was founded, and it is difficult to imagine that the relatively chaotic State Free Art Studios could have had any precise influence on the German school.”17
In terms of establishing influence, the question is not so much who came first, but rather where points of intersection are visible and, in the case of the magazines, visualized. Where Tschichold’s text in its original appearance in Typographische Mitteilungen ends with a discussion of photography and film, it is telling that Meyer, in his special issue of ABC, cuts it short to conclude with a study of these two architectural schools. Meyer would be appointed by Gropius the following year to lead the newly formed architectural workshops, and would take over as director in 1928, orienting the school in a more clearly socialist direction, and attempting to forge interactions with its Eastern counterpart.18 Meyer’s special issue of ABC is a harbinger of the networks that he would aim to cultivate from within the Bauhaus.
In the same year that Meyer put out his special issue of ABC, Lissitzky, now back in Moscow, edited (with Ladovsky) the single issue of Izvestia ASNOVA (The Bulletin of the New Association of Architects). This was the publication of an organization of the same name, which was established in 1923 in Moscow by Ladovsky and his Vkhutemas colleagues Nikolai Dokuchaev and Vladimir Krinsky.19 The front page, which employs the bold black lines of Constructivist typography, bears a striking resemblance to ABC, and indeed a horizontal line of text advertises the “international figures” who will appear in the publication, including ABC founder Stam, along with another editor Emil Roth. Adolf Behne and Le Corbusier, who had had work advertised in ABC, are also named. And Karel Teige, an editor at Stavba is listed as well. Similar to the other Central and Eastern European avant-garde magazines of the time not published in German, basic editorial information is included in Russian, German, and French, indicating—along with the graphic legibility of New Typographic tendencies—an ambition to be circulated and read beyond the Russian linguistic zone.
The few examples offered above, with emphasis on a single periodical, should evince the potentiality for mapping an extensive network of the protagonists who were observing, sharing, commenting upon, and comparing developments at the Bauhaus and the Vkhutemas in the 1920s. The Czech example of Stavba, too, reminds that this exchange was not insular, and that plenty more examples can be summoned to better grasp the extended influence and interchanges of these two schools of modern architecture and design. In turn, more attention to such research will help us to better understand the legacies of both institutions.
The acronym for Vysshie khudozhestvenno-tekhnicheskie masterskie (Higher state artistic and technical studios).
The acronym for Svobodnye gosudarstvennye khudozhestvennye masterskiye (Free state art studios).
Christina Lodder, “The VKhUTEMAS and the Bauhaus,” in The Avant-Garde Frontier: Russia Meets the West, 1910–1930, eds. Gail Harrison Roman and Virginia Hagelstein Marquardt (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 1992), 214.
Stavba was an important Czech architectural magazine that played a seminal role in garnering collaboration between the Bauhaus and members of a young, leftist avant-garde in Czechoslovakia. After being shown a copy of Stavba by the architect Adolf Behne, the first Bauhaus director, Walter Gropius, wrote to Karel Teige, one of the magazine’s editors and a leading figure of the group Devětsil, asking for assistance in recruiting work by Czech architects for the 1923 Bauhaus “International Architecture” exhibition. For more on this connection, and the further development of this relationship, please see my article “‘To Reach Over the Border’: An International Conversation Between the Bauhaus and Devětsil,” in Umění/Art, Journal of the Institute of Art History in Prague, 64, nos. 3–4 (December 2016): 291–303. In volume 2 of Stavba, from 1923, Behne provides articles in distinct issues on both Russian and German art. Behne, apparently known by the nickname of "Ekkehard," or "loyal guard, loyal friend," introduced a range of important figures who would come to have some association with the Bauhaus, including László Moholy-Nagy (who joined the faculty in 1923) and El Lissitzky (an instructor at Vkhutemas who lived in Berlin in the early 1920s). Éva Forgács, The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics, trans. John Bátki (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1995), 21. Behne also included in his 1927 publication Der moderne Zweckbau two images from the Vkhutemas, of student and faculty work.
Lodder, “The VKhUTEMAS and the Bauhaus,” 213. Review by N. Markovnikov, “O vystavske sovremennoi arkhitektury” (“Concerning the Exhibition of Contemporary Architecture”), in Izvestia (8 July 1927). Reprinted in Khazanova, et al., Iz istorii sovetskoi arkhitektury 1926-1932 Vol. 1 (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Nauka, 1970), 80.
Many have written on the impact of technological advances in the printing industry, and specifically their impact on the dissemination of printed matter in the early twentieth century. See, for instance, Claire Badaracco, Trading Words: Poetry, Typography, and Illustrated Books in the Modern Literary Economy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909–1923 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Robin Kinross, Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History (London: Hyphen Press, 1992); and Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulffman, Modernism in the Magazines : An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
Sima Ingberman, ABC: International Constructivist Architecture, 1922–1939 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), xi.
Christina Lodder notes that “the first description in print of the overall aim of Vkhutemas (although it was not cited by name),” was printed in Veshch in February 1922. The statement was made in an article entitled “The Exhibitions in Russia,” and though unsigned, was likely written by Lissitzky. Lodder 204.
Ingberman, ABC, 17.
For a nice overview of Ladovsky’s teaching at Vkhutemas, see Anna Bokov, “Space: The Pedagogy of Nikolay Ladovsky,” Walker Art Center, https://walkerart.org/magazine/space-the-pedagogy-of-nikolay-ladovsky.
ABC: Beiträge zum Bauen 1, no. 2 (1924): 4. The image featured here is the same student work that appears in Behne’s Der moderne Zweckbau (Munich, Berlin, Vienna: Drei Masken Verlag, 1926), 56-57.
“The Contents of ABC in Summary,” in ABC: Beiträge zum Bauen, ed. Werner Möller (repr., Baden: Verlag Lars Müller, 1993), 13.
To return to Stavba, this very image had in fact already appeared there in 1924 (vol. 3, no. 6). In a series of articles that accompany the 1993 reprint of ABC: Beiträge zum Bauen, there is also an article dedicated to the relationship of ABC and Stavba. See Otakar Máčel, “The New Movement: Stavba and ABC, A Comparison,” in ABC: Beiträge zum Bauen 1993.
Jan Tschichold, “Die neu Gestaltung,” ABC 1, no. 2 (1926): 3. Originally published in Typographische Mitteilungen Special issue (Oct. 1925): 193-195. Translations from this text are my own.
El Lissitzky, “Baukhauz.” Quoted in Lodder, “The VKhUTEMAS and the Bauhaus,” 199.
For instance, in May 1928, Gunta Stölzl traveled to Moscow with two students (Peer Bücking and Arieh Sharon) “as part of a reciprocal arrangement whereby students of the Vkhutemas school in Moscow had visited the Bauhaus in the summer of 1927.” Adrian Sudhalter, with research contributions by Dara Kiese, “14 Years Bauhaus: A Chronicle,” in Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 332. Meyer himself would travel to Moscow after being deposed from the Bauhaus in 1930, and organize an exhibition of Bauhaus work at the State Museum for New Western Art there in the summer of 1931.
Ingberman, ABC, 13.