From nowhere to VKhUTEMAS
The world’s first dedicated school of practical design
VKhUTEMAS was the originator of a revolution in creative output, the results of which can be seen all around us today in the design of buildings, objects and our appreciation of art itself.
The People’s Commissariat (ministry) of Enlightenment, (Narkompros) was a construct of the Bolshevik government immediately after the 1917 revolution. Anatoly Lunacharsky, a ‘westernised’ revolutionary was its first minister. He and his advisors embarked on a highly radical reorganisation of education throughout the country. Art and creative subjects in general were given special focus.
The Free State Artistic Workshops, Свободные государственные художественные мастерские (СГХМ, SGKhM) were established in 1918 on truly liberal principles. Students enjoyed unheard-of freedoms and could even choose their teachers. (One of many notable students of the two-year existence of the SGKhMs was Gustav Klutsis, of whom we shall read more.) However, these institutions were considered unproductive and difficult to manage so a more structured approach was sought. In 1920, two Moscow branches of SGKhM were united, restructured and given a new identity: VKhUTEMAS.
The new institution was founded to provide artists, both visual and plastic, and architects for the industrial, economic and political development of the country. Students were to be taken primarily from the working class and initially required no special qualifications to enter.
The new workshops were to follow a radical system of education. In 1920, VKhUTEMAS comprised eight faculties, which were real workshops: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Printing, Ceramics, Textiles, Woodwork and Metalwork. Students had to study the ‘basic’ disciplines for two years: Colour, Space, Volume and Graphics. Personal imagination and practical experience with materials were at the core of the learning, itself based on the concepts developed in the foundation subjects. The foundation years immersed the students in concepts that were being explored by the Russian Avant-Garde and so this was reflected in much of the output of VKhUTEMAS graduates.
The Petrograd branch, (SVOMAS) established in 1921, also on the basis of ‘free access’ workshops was run on similar lines but had a more conservative approach.
|Mon:||Sculpture workshop, Political Diploma, Physics, Discussion|
|Tue:||Drawing , Geodesics, Architectural workshop, Construction art|
|Wed:||Sculpture workshop, Political Diploma, Architectural workshop, Descriptive geometry|
|Thu:||Higher maths, Watercolour painting, Architectural workshop,Theoretical technology, Techchnology of building materials|
|Fri:||Painting, Political Diploma, Higher maths, Construction art|
|Sat:||Sculpture workshop, Political diploma, Architectural workshop|
The emphasis on practical, workshop experience is clearly seen in the timetable. It shows a wide-ranging and challenging syllabus.
An example of the lack of central, government control of creativity is the existence at VKhUTEMAS of three different architectural workshops with distinct styles and opposing philosophical and practical approaches. At the same time, the teachers and their students were designing real buildings, some of which remain today. Former students and teachers went on to design of stations on the Moscow Metro and participated in the program of vast post-war Stalinist building.
Towards the end of VKhUTEMAS there were also significant conflicts of artistic outlook in the painting department, and several staff members left in protest at the announcement that easel painting would no longer be practiced – from now on painting had to be socially and economically useful. Artists had to turn to photography, collage, propaganda posters, and street decoration.
The USSR participated in the 1925 International Exhibition in Paris. The country was still emerging from the Civil War and bereft of materials. However, current and future staff members of VKhUTEMAS as well as its students featured in both the design and the content of the Soviet pavilion. The pavilion building was designed by an architectural faculty teacher, Konstantin Melnikov, and featured exhibits of the work of students of the various faculties, as well as projects by other VKhUTEMAS staff members such as Aleksandr Rodchenko. Articles designed by students won several gold medals and Melnikov’s design received the Grand Prix.
In 1927, VKhUTEMAS was renamed VKhUTEIN (Higher Artistic and Technical Institute) in order to signify a re-concentration on the production of things useful to the national economy. Painting was relegated to a minor position in the curriculum and the foundation course, the unifying feature of the multi-discipline training, was dissolved. Stalin had wrestled power from less bloodthirsty rivals and it became clear that original thinking in any field would be discouraged. Various studies were undertaken to establish if indeed the VKhUTEIN was producing output useful to the construction of socialism. The answer was no, but that conclusion was an excuse to close down the home of artistic free thought and the practical education of valuable, inspirational men and women. By the end of 1930 all the faculties, staff and students were transferred to other institutions. The Leningrad branch was also closed down, becoming the ‘Institute of Proletarian Fine Art’.
The staff of VKhUTEMAS included the following world-famous artists and architects:
Liubov Popova, Konstantin Melnikov, Gustav Klutsis, Ivan Zholtovsky, Nikolai Ladovsky, Aleksandr Drevin, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Ilya Golosov, Aleksandra Ekster, Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitzky.
A Hunted Generation
Gustav Klutsis initially qualified as a student and stayed to teach at VKhUTEMAS. One of his fellow teachers was the older Aleksandr Drevin. They both continued their artistic careers after the dissolution of the institution. Klutsis was very active in the production of artifacts of socio-political significance, such as street furniture that gave citizens the opportunity to read and listen to propaganda. Drevin was completely apolitical in his work and refused to change his style. They were both arrested without any legal reason in January 1938 by the NKVD (KGB) and were shot, at the Butovo Polygon on the same day, in February 1938. The Soviet government later realised this had been a ‘mistake’ and the two were rehabilitated in 1956.