The short-lived VKHUTEMAS: The life and death of the first Soviet industrial design institute

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The short-lived VKHUTEMAS: The life and death of the first Soviet industrial design institute
VKHUTEMAS. L. Lisitsky, 1927
Let’s go back to the 1920s when the Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops (VKHUTEMAS) were established. They completely changed the perception of artists’ work. This story highlights their teaching principles and explains why the workshops were abolished so quickly.

VKHUTEMAS became the first post-revolution education institution for training Soviet-era creative specialists, where Soviet national industrial design education was conceived. About 1,500 artists, sculptors and architects graduated from the Institute in the ten years of its existence. VKHUTEMAS professors, including representatives of Avant-Garde, Constructivist and Rationalist movements, developed new education methods.

Alexandra Selivanova, the curator of the exhibition VKHUTEMAS-100: Avant-Garde School at the Museum of Moscow, narrates the history of the institute where artists who would determine the development of Soviet and Russian art were trained.

This is a joint story courtesy of mos.ru and the Moscow Agency for Recreation and Tourism (Mosgortur).

The pre-VKHUTEMAS era

Before the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, the Academy of Arts, established by the Senate in 1757, oversaw artistic education in Russia. For over 100 years, the academy remained the only national higher education institution for training graphic artists under European standards. Not just anyone could enroll in the academy as it only accepted men and those who could pay the tuition.

The academy was abolished in 1918 and replaced by the State Free Artistic Workshops (GSKHM). The new institution stipulated entirely different education principles: Entrance exams were canceled, women were accepted together with men, and primary education certificates were no longer required.  Prospective students were only expected to display enthusiasm; they trained at individual workshops and chose various masters at their own discretion.

The State Free Artistic Workshops, 1918

The Workshops were established on the basis of the Stroganov Art School (GSKHM I) and the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (GSKHM II). Both schools closed that same year, and the workshops relocated to buildings on Myasnitskaya and Rozhdestvenka streets. Professional artists taught the basics of painting, graphic art and sculpture.

Two years later, it became obvious that the new education institution had to be overhauled too because professors and students were discontent with the absence of a clear curriculum and because the country needed professional industrial artists. In the autumn of 1920, the GSKHM I and the GSKHM II were merged into the Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops (VKHUTEMAS).

VKHUTEMAS established

In December 1920, Vladimir Lenin signed a resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars (Government) on opening VKHUTEMAS in Moscow but actually it started working already in autumn. According to uncovered documents, VKHUTEMAS was a specialised artistic-technical educational institution for training skilled professional artists for the industry, as well as instructors and managers for the professional technical education system.

The workshops differed considerably from earlier artistic education institutions because they trained artists for reforming the country’s lifestyle, rather than narrow specialists for art’s sake. The new artists were actively involved in societal life. VKHUTEMS had eight faculties, including three artistic (Architecture, Sculpture and Painting) and five production faculties (Textile, Polygraphic Industry, Ceramic, Wood-Working and Metal-Working). The latter two eventually merged into the Wood and Metal-Working Faculty (Russian acronym, DERMETFAK).

A propaedeutic (introductory) course became one of VKHUTEMAS’ main methodological innovations. Regardless of their chosen occupation, students had to study at the Main Department consisting of preparatory courses of various faculties for the first two years. They studied basic universal aspects of all occupations, including colour, graphic art, volume and space.

The propaedeutic (introductory) course consisted of science-and-technological and artistic disciplines/subjects, the humanities and social-science subjects constituting the foundation of students’ general education. The introductory course allowed VKHUTEMAS students to become versatile specialists. The main department’s courses changed over the years, terms became shorter, but the main base of introductory disciplines/subjects remained the same prior to shutdown.

The Rector’s Office

During its existence, VKHUTEMAS had three rectors, namely, Yefim Ravdel, Vladimir Favorsky and Pavel Novitsky. Yefim Ravdel mostly prioritised Avant-Garde art and advocated an academic system that encouraged students to obtain knowledge, while fulfilling specific artistic orders. Professors and students did not like the idea of studying production art alone. Consequently, the People’s Commissariat (Ministry) of Education of the RSFSR appointed a new Rector named Vladimir Favorsky in 1923 at the request of the students.

The new Rector was able to attain a compromise between Traditionalists and Avant-Garde artists. He also resolved a conflict between production and artistic faculties that emerged back under Yefim Ravdel and formalised the compulsory for all students the Main Department as part of the VKHUTEMAS structure. Under Favorsky, entrance exams were introduced in 1923, and an artistic faculty for working people opened. The latter trained workers and peasants prior to enrolling at the workshops.

In 1926, Pavel Novitsky replaced Favorsky and immediately started promoting production faculties. The third Rector focused on training industrial specialists, under the workshops’ original goals. Under Novitsky, the institution was renamed as the Higher Artistic-Technical Institute (VKHUTEIN) in 1928. The Main Department course was shortened to 12 months, and the entire course term was increased from four to five years. The new Rector noted that the Institute should train new specialists, namely, production artists capable of implementing specific production works.

The professors

Over the years, outstanding Soviet artists, including sculptors Vera Mukhina and Alexei Babichev, architects Alexei Ginzburg and Nikolai Dokuchayev, painters and graphic artists Pyotr Miturich and Vasily Kandinsky and trailblazing industrial designers El Lisitsky and Alexander Rodchenko, taught at the workshops. VKHUTEMAS brought together educators with different views and artistic approaches, including Avant-Garde proponents Pyotr Konchalovsky, Ilya Mashkov and Vladimir Tatlin. They worked together with Ivan Zholtovsky, Alexei Shchusev and Vasily Yakovlev, who did not like Avant-Garde concepts. Educators, members of different ideological camps, preached one and the same formal-analytical teaching method. Students of all VKHUTEMAS faculties were expected to engage in active intellectual work and to analyse reality, rather than copy it.

Individual workshops also offered numerous classes. The Painting Faculty was a bright example of organising this academic process. Its students could freely choose various professional artists and wander from one workshop to another one, from Mashkov to Kuprin and from Kuprin to Falk.

The students

“The Workshops admitted students of all ages and from all social strata. Many of them fought in the Civil War … There were many students from outlying Russian provinces. The Working People’s Faculty contributed many students aged between 18 and 40-plus,” artist Valery Alfeyevsky noted, while recalling his VKHUTEMAS years.

Students seldom quarreled and the descendants of professors’ families maintained good relations with rural residents. The very first students included Varvara Armand, the daughter of famous revolutionary Inessa Armand. Like all other VKHUTEMAS students, she lived in a dormitory on Myasnitskaya Street. Vladimir Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya once called on her. That evening visit took place somewhere in 1921 and later became a VKHUTEMAS legend. Students told Lenin about their life, gave him some porridge to eat and discussed the creative work of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who often visited his friend Rodchenko in the dormitory. Lenin himself initiated a discussion of poetry. Krupskaya later recalled that Lenin asked students whether they were reading Alexander Pushkin’s works. The students replied indignantly that they did not, called Pushkin a member of the bourgeoisie and told Lenin that they liked Mayakovsky. “Lenin smiled and said that, in his opinion, Pushkin was better,” Krupskaya later wrote.

Sculptural composition Vladimir Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya at VKHUTEMAS by Alexei Sotnikov. 1965

Students combined their fascinating studies with no less interesting leisure options. They staged performances, published wall newspapers and Samizdat-style magazines, organised creative soirees and dance parties, recited verses and lampooned their professors. They also devoted enough time to sport, including boxing, target shooting, rowing and volleyball clubs. Some students scored major successes. The coach of Alexander Deineka believed that the aspiring artist should have dropped painting in favour of a professional boxing career.

VKHUTEMAS graduated artists whose names are forever linked with the history of national art, including sculptors Nina Zelenskaya and Ilya Slonim, painters and graphic artists Alexander Labas and Yury Merkulov, architects Tevel Shapiro and Anatoly Zhukov, icon painter Yevgeny Spassky, playwright and screenwriter Mikhail Volpin.

Theory and practice

VKHUTEMAS attached great significance to cooperation with production facilities. Its faculties strove to provide students with as many advanced training options as possible. The Ceramic Faculty signed an agreement with the Dulyovo Porcelain Plant. In turn, the Textile Faculty signed a similar document with Tryokhgornaya Manufactory and the 1st Printed Cotton Factory. Students studied and worked at the same time. Lyudmila Mayakovskaya from Tryokhgornaya Manufactory and Varvara Stepanova, a designer with the 1st Printed Cotton Factory, lectured at the Textile Faculty.

The Architecture Faculty’s curriculum changed year after year. Professors often told students to carry out assignments linked with topical architectural competitions and even involved them in real construction projects. For example, a student named Nikolai Travin designed the Khavsko-Shabolovsky residential development, which now houses the Avant-Garde Centre.

Red Stadium, a huge sport centre on Vorobyovy Gory with a stadium for several thousand spectators, ranks among the most famous of unrealised student projects. Students were actively involved in this construction project but later the project was closed due to landslides in the vicinity.

Stadium on Vorobyovy Gory by Nikolai Kolli. Project explication in drawings

VKHUTEMAS graduates, architects Mikhail Barshch and Mikhail Sinyavsky, built the Moscow Planetarium. Both men stayed at the Institute after graduation and worked there as assistants. When a competition for the best Planetarium building design was announced, professional architects dismissed it as unimportant. In turn, Barshch and Sinyavsky submitted their own version and won.

Planetarium building design by Mikhail Barshch and Mikhail Sinyavsky

VKHUTEMAS students often fulfilled state orders. For example, the Ceramic Faculty manufactured souvenirs for the 3rd World Comintern Congress, held in Moscow in 1921. Students also helped make decorations for city festivals. Notably, students of the Painting Faculty decorated the 1923 All-Russian Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition on Vorobyovy Gory. Students of the Sculpture Faculty created its sculptures, and their colleagues from the Architecture Faculty decorated structures and pavilions.

The VKHUTEMAS-VKHUTEIN fades away

In the late 1920s, Soviet authorities started fighting Avant-Garde art, and the shutdown of VKHUTEIN was a logical consequence of this crackdown. From now on, art was supposed to reflect the line of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), be understandable and embody official perceptions of a better life. It became impossible to maintain diverse forms and styles. Artists were told to standardise their ends and means, and Socialist Realism became the main artistic trend. Several years prior to shutdown, Soviet authorities started dismissing undesirable professors and students. Numerous denunciations and in-house conflicts led to the Institute’s liquidation in 1930.

The former VKHUTEMAS building in the early 20th century

Several faculties managed to survive. Some of them became part of new specialised institutions, and others merged with similar institutions. The Moscow Polygraphic Industry Institute was opened in a building on Myasnitskaya Street. It was established on the basis of the Polygraphic Industry Faculty of the Leningrad and Moscow subsidiaries of VKHUTEIN. Former Dean and Rector Favorsky headed the Moscow Polygraphic Industry Institute. Professors and students of the Sculpture and Painting Faculties were transferred to Leningrad and joined the Institute of Proletarian Graphic Arts there. The Ceramics Faculty merged with the Experimental Institute of Silicates. Other faculties were disbanded completely.

Many VHUMTEMAS professors stopped teaching and those who remained were scattered all over the country. The teaching system changed completely at artistic institutes and universities. All VKHUTEMAS established know-how was completely forgotten until the 1960s when assistants of VKHUUTEIN professors and professors themselves were able to reinstate some of this knowledge at higher education institutions.