Book cover for the architecture department at VKhUTEMAS
Book cover for the architecture department at VKhUTEMAS, by El Lissitzky, 1927

The Beehive: Creating a Communist Utopia

At the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 history took an unexpected turn and the art of the Russian avant-garde suddenly was in a position of power. Russian avant-garde art became the new image and voice of Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) government. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) became part of Lenin’s hive as cultural bureaucrats and teachers. The Revolution held their first taste liberty, a promise of spiritual renewal that they all embraced. Lenin set out to create a communist utopia where for the first time in history all the people of Russia had the right to self-determination. One of Lenin’s first acts was the Decree on Land1, which declared that the landed estates of the aristocracy and the Orthodox Church should be nationalized and redistributed to peasants by local governments. He also put into place new reforms on capitalism, marriage, divorce and abortion. Lenin established a number of art schools that applied the philosophies of the Russian avant-garde to architecture, applied arts and graphic design. Founded in 1920 in Moscow, two of the main art schools Lenin established were the Higher Art and Technical Institute (VKhUTEMAS) and the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK). These two schools played a huge role in the evolution of avant-garde theory. They were a place for the radical thinkers of the art world to have political and ideological discussions that shaped art movements like suprematism and constructivism.

Classroom at VKhUTEMAS
Classroom at VKhUTEMAS

Often referred to as the Soviet Bauhaus, VKhUTEMAS, was perhaps the center of the beehive for actual creative fabrication. It was similar to Germany’s Bauhaus, only much larger. Lenin’s goal was “to prepare master artists of the highest qualifications for industry; and, builders and managers for professional-technical education.”2 By establishing this school, the new revolutionary government’s approach to art became a vital part of building its new society. Artists who taught at VKhUTEMAS included: Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Vladimir Tatlin. The school had 100 faculty members and an enrollment of 2,500 students.3 Vkhutemas was formed by a merger of two previous schools: the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts. The art faculty taught courses in graphics, sculpture and architecture; while the industrial faculty taught courses in printing, textiles, ceramics, woodworking and metalworking. It was a center for three major movements in avant-garde art and architecture: suprematism, constructivism and rationalism.4 The faculty and students transformed views on art and reality with the use of precise geometry with an emphasis on space, in one of the greatest revolutions in the history of art.

The Electrification of the Entire Country
Gustav Klucis, (left) “The Electrification of the Entire Country,” 1920, photomontage

Oppressed Peoples of the Whole World
Gustav Klucis, “Oppressed Peoples of the Whole World,” 1924, photomontage

One of the revolutionary techniques used at VKhUTEMAS was photomontage, which was initially developed around 1918 in Berlin. Photographer Gustav Klucis (1895-1938), student and later a teacher at VKhUTEMAS, became famous for his creations of political art for both Lenin and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). The first poster above, The Electrification of the Entire Country, shows Lenin on top of a circle carrying a new building. This image implies that he is creating a new infrastructure on top of the old (the circle). In 1921 Klucis married one of his students, Valentina Kulagina (1902-87), who collaborated with him until his death. At this point you see the photographic work of Klucis combined with more graphics. The second poster above, Oppressed Peoples of the Whole World, was probably a Klucis/Kulagina collaboration, because the graphics and photos seem to be distributed equally. The text in this poster reads:

The oppressed
peoples of the world
under the banner of the Communist International
overthrow the
imperialism

_______

As the founding director of INKhUK, Kandinsky was given the groundbreaking task of creating an open environment where artists could freely discuss new ideas on art. The institute was set up as a section of the Department of Visual Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education to determine the course of artistic experimentation in post-Revolutionary Russia.5 INKhUK became an artistic society of painters, graphic artists, sculptors, architects and art scholars. From 1920 to 1922 all of the new theories of the Russian avant-garde were passionately debated here. Experimental work was explored and theorized through INKhUK, while educational programs were developed at VKhUTEMAS. INKhUK offered two types of curriculum: “Laboratory Art,” which was a more traditional approach to art; and “Production Art,” which focused on producing art with machines. The latter group proved the more influential of the two and directly contributed to the development of constructivism. The institute focused on fostering theoretical solutions to the problems of abstraction, constructivism and production art.

Axonometric Painting
Gustav Klucis, “Axonometric Painting,” 1920, mixed media

In the mixed media piece above by Klucis we see a representational piece of both laboratory and production Art. This constructivist composition uses geometric volumes that have three points of axonometric projection and possess texture. The artist is creating a “new revolutionary form” from the traditional line, plane, volume and color. Klucis has created a three dimensional form using a two dimension picture plane. To increase the three-dimensional quality to the work he has added glass, metallic shavings and sand. The artist wrote, “I set for myself the unusual task of applying hard work to exhaust all the currents, all the “isms” and thus to free myself from the dead weight of the past, from the old school and to find new forms for the present.”6

Suprematism

Supremus No. 56
Kazimir Malevich, “Supremus No. 56,” 1916, oil on canvas

In March 1913 Kazimir Malevich’s (1879-1935) world was “rocked” when he saw the exhibition of Aristarkh Lentulov’s cubist paintings, which opened in Moscow. All the major Russian avant-garde artists of the time immediately absorbed the cubist principles and began using them in their own work. Malevich evolved cubism and his interest in Eastern philosophy to create suprematism. Malevich said about himself that he was much like God. He felt that, like God, he too created things that had never existed before, using his own materials. He went on to say, “What I create is not subject or subordinate to any of the laws of nature.” You can take any one of his paintings, like Supremus No. 56 or Supremus No. 58, and turn it in any direction you want. No matter how the painting is viewed, it will make no difference to your understanding of the work. The painting does not follow any physical laws, it has no “up” or “down,” it is not ruled by gravity. Malevich felt this reflected the laws of physics in outer space, or that of the universe. To Malevich this painting was about letting go of all materialism, but to the art world he had created total abstraction and the development of suprematism.

Red Square (A Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions)
Kazimir Malevich, Red Square (A Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions),” 1915, oil on canvas

In 1915 Malevich created a painting the world knows as Red Square that he titled A Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions. To Malevich this painting was about letting go of all materialism, but to the art world he had created total abstraction and the development of suprematism. His contemporaries heavily criticized the painting. In response he said, “I am glad I am not like you. I can go further and further in the unknown wilderness of life. It is there where real transformation can take place.” Malevich was exploring themes of spirituality in two-dimensional space, which he called “cosmic space,” the idea of the weightlessness of pure form. With the painting, Red Square, Malevich was creating not just a painting, but a symbol. Here we see that the color red is the most active and the color white the most passive. He believed that these two colors represented all the colors of the spectrum. By using only these two colors he had represented all colors.

Malevich painted his first black square in 1912 and created a series of four black square paintings. He said he had created a code with this painting that represented all forms of art, because the square was a basic shape used by all types of artists. As the color white represents all colors in the spectrum, Malevich believed the artist could create all other colors from white, which is why he used white in his paintings as a symbol. The image below is a representation of an old Indian diagram that explains Malevich’s theories on the development of his first black square as described in his 1915 manifesto From Cubism to Suprematism. The black square in the center is the concentration of spiritual energy. The small squares around it represent all other civilizations on earth and provide a kind of motion to the piece.

Kazimir Malevich, (Left) “Black Cross;” (Middle) “Black Square;”  (Right) “Black Circle”
Kazimir Malevich, (Left) “Black Cross;” (Middle) “Black Square;” and (Right) “Black Circle,” 1923, oil on canvas.

About these paintings

Black Cross – Malevich felt the cross was an old symbol of choice, meaning a crossroads, which in ancient times would be the most dangerous place you could stand. And often it would be the place guards would occupy to protect the ruler’s land.

Black Square represents the earth and Black Circle represents the moon.

In Black Circle the sphere is raised up in the air within the square that contains it. With these two paintings Malevich is representing a spiritual staircase from the earth to the moon.

Black Square stands in the center between Black Cross and Black Circle. To Malevich these paintings are symbols: the cross stands for choice, the square for mankind and the circle for the spirit.

El Lissitzky, graphics
El Lissitzky, graphics, 1922-26

Suprematist Graphics

Lazar Lissitzky (1890-1941), known as El Lissitzky, was a member of the cultural section of the Moscow Soviet party and welcomed the revolutions of 1917. He was commissioned to design the first flag of the All-Union Central Executive Committee, which was carried across Red Square on May 1. 1918.7 Lissitzky’s art practice included painting, graphics, engravings, book illustrations, posters and exhibition design. He was a professor at VKhUTEMAS, where he set up an interior design department. His artwork was greatly influenced by suprematist theory. In 1920 he joined The Champions of the New Art, which united the students of Malevich’s art studio. From 1919 to 1924 Lissitzky created a series he called prouns (projects for the affirmation of the new). The concept behind prouns was to create a utopian architecture that consisted of geometrical forms that were brought to balance. His painterly and graphic prouns served as a basis for future architectural designs.8

The Factory Workbenches Await You
El Lissitzky, “The Factory Workbenches Await You,” Propaganda Board in Viebsk, 1919-1920

Air Rum
Counter-relief, 1915 Reconstruction: Counter-relief “Air Rum,” 1993, steel, aluminum, levkas, glue paint. Execution by Dmitry Dimakov, Elena Lapshina and Igor Fedotov.

Constructivism

Russian constructivism began in 1915 when Vladimir Tatlin started exhibiting his corner-counter reliefs that used the waste products of industry and daily life. In 1920 Naum Gabo developed constructivist theory in his Realistic Manifesto – where the term was used for the very first time. Unlike suprematism, where artists created symbols based on cosmic ideas, Gabo resonated with constructivism, where the spiritual experience was the actual creation of the piece of art, rather than the final product. Constructivism used found materials employed in the industrial production process of everyday life, rather than creating a piece of art from scratch. Tatlin concentrated on the possibilities inherent in the materials he used – metal, glass and wood. He wanted above all to bend art to modern purposes and, ultimately, to tasks suited to the goals of Russia’s communist revolution.

Monument to the Third International
Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International (1919-20)

Monument to the Third International, also known simply as Tatlin’s Tower, is his most famous work, as well as the most important achievement of the constructivist movement. He initially created the tower as a monument to celebrate the 1917 Russian Revolution. However, in March 1919 communist parties from across the world met in Moscow to unite under a single organization, the Communist International, so Tatlin rededicated his project to this historic meeting and its vision for the future. In late 1920 Tatlin unveiled his first model for the proposed monument, which would have been a spiraling tower over 1,312 feet high, a third higher than the Eiffel Tower, which would have made it the tallest building in the world in those days. Although impossible to build at the time, Tatlin’s planned monument had enormous impact on modern architecture in its sheer ambition and use of modern materials (iron, steel and glass, as opposed to stone or marble). It also became a world-famous symbol of utopian thought.9

The Monument to the Third International
Nikolai Punin, “The Monument to the Third International,” 1920, Communist Art

Tatlin’s Tower was designed to be the Communist International headquarters; it was realized as a model but never built. There were to be three glass units inside of the framework of the tower: a cube, cylinder and cone. These glass units would provide functional space for meetings and would rotate once per year, month and day, respectively. Tatlin wanted to use steel and glass because they symbolized industry and technology. The constant motion of the geometrically shaped units embodied the dynamism of modernity. It crystallized his desire to bring about a synthesis of art and technology, and has remained a touchstone of that utopian goal for generations of artists since. The arc of his career has come to define the spirit of avant-gardism in the twentieth century, the attempt to bring art to the service of everyday life. 10

Painterly Construction
Lyubov Popova, “Painterly Construction,” 1920, Two-sided painting, oil on canvas

Influenced by Kazimir Malevich’s suprematism, Lyubov Popova’s (1889-1924) second series of constructions are based on the interaction between large, semitransparent color planes embedded into each other that create a dynamic tension.

Workers’ Club
Alexander Rodchenko, Workers’ Club, 1925 (reconstruction, 2008)

Artist Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and architect Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) designed the Workers’ Club for the 1925 International Exhibition of Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris. The original furniture set was lost and it has since been reconstructed multiple times. From the 1920s until the 1980s, clubs were established in factories and collective farms to be the leading centers for information and, of course, propaganda. These clubs became known as red corners functioning not only as information centers but also as a creative place where amateur theatrical, musical and art ensembles were formed, which laid the foundation for the proletarian culture. The Workers’ Club resembles a factory workshop, but instead was a place for workers to relax. Rodchenko designed a rotating rig for a wall newspaper system that he called the Lenin Corner. In addition, there was a rotating chess table and built-in bookcases. In this way these objects could be easily transformed for different uses and even folded up when not being used. Rodchenko incorporated typography into the design, which became one of his fundamental discoveries in the organization of public spaces.11

Blue Crest
Wassily Kandinsky, “Blue Crest,” oil on canvas, 1917

Over Cast
Wassily Kandinsky, “Over Cast,” oil on canvas, 1917

Abstraction

Though Kandinsky never became a Communist, he gained immense prestige as a prophet of the new abstract art with the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He was given official positions and he enthusiastically embraced his new roles. From 1918 until 1921 Kandinsky worked with the People’s Committee of Education in the capacity of art training and museum reform. He became the chairman of the State Purchasing Commission at the Museum Bureau and participated in the founding of twenty-two provincial museums. The collections of these new museums came from the redistribution of the artwork of the aristocracy and the Orthodox Church. During his time in Moscow Kandinsky wrote On Materialism in Art.

Due to the influence of Malevich’s Suprematism, Kandinsky’s paintings evolved from organic to geometric shapes starting around 1917 and lasting until the end of his life. Kandinsky developed theories on color and shapes that guided his artistic creation. In regards to the primary colors Kandinsky developed the following theory:

Yellow – creates movement inward, into one’s inner self
Blue – creates movement outward, away from one’s inner self
Red – creates tension

Bustling Aquarelle
Wassily Kandinsky. “Bustling Aquarelle,” oil on canvas, 1923

Transverse Lines
Wassily Kandinsky. “Transverse Lines,” oil on canvas, 1923

According to Kandinsky, the artist begins with a picture plane that is generally either rectangular or square. Therefore, it is composed of horizontal and vertical lines. The horizontal lines produce a cold tonality, while the verticals impart a warm tonality. The artist intuits the inner effect of these lines according to the tonality he wants to give to his work. Kandinsky considered the picture plane a living being, which the artist “fertilizes” and feels “breathing.” In regards to composition Kandinsky felt that elements in the upper part of the picture plane corresponded with looseness and a lightness, while elements below evoked condensation and heaviness. The artist’s job is to listen and know these effects so that the creation of artwork is not a random process, but the fruit of authentic work and the result of an effort towards inner beauty.12

In the latter half of 1921 Lenin became seriously ill, believed to have been caused by the metal oxidation from the bullets that were lodged in his body from a 1918 assassination attempt. However, research from the 1880s lead to syphilis. In 1922, he suffered two strokes and took up residence at his home outside of Moscow. In Lenin’s absence, Stalin began consolidating his power, ultimately taking over Lenin’s regimen. In March 1923, Lenin suffered a third stroke, eventually going into a coma and dying on January 21, 1924. With Stalin’s rise in power the Communist Party’s propaganda machine began to shift its preferences in art. The revolution of new artistic thought that had flourished under Lenin was quickly silenced. All of the schools he had established were dissolved by 1930. Once Stalin came into power the avant-garde movement was forced underground and remained virtually unspoken of in Russia until after his death in 1953. The creative swam of radical thinkers were no longer free to pollinate our world. In 1921, on an “official mission” in Germany, Kandinsky decided to remain there. Malevich died in 1935 and disciples buried his ashes in a grave marked with a black square. Both El Lissitzky and Tatlin remained in Russia, but many of the avant-garde artists either left or were killed. Stalin squashed the entire evolution of avant-garde ingenuity in Russia and replaced it with his own brand of art, Soviet Realism.

Sources

  1. The Fundamental Law of Land Socialization [Decree of the Central Executive Committee, February 19, 1918], http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/russ/land.html
  2. (Russian) Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Вхутемас
  3. Sybil Gordon Kantor, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, MIT Press, 2002, ISBN 0262611961
  4. https://monoskop.org/VkHUTEMAS
  5. https://monoskop.org/INKhUK
  6. http://www.tretyakovgallery.ru/
  7. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 88.
  8. Harvard University Art Museums and Busch-Reisinger Museum, El Lissitzky: Catalogue for an Exhibition of Selected Works from North American Collections, the Sprengel Museum Hanover and the Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg Halle, Harvard College Press 1987, page 15.
  9. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 76.
  10. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/lost-art-vladimir-tatlin
  11. Anna Dikovich, Sergey Yepikhin, Alyona Rasskazova, Kirill Svetlyakov, Natalia Sidorova, Sofia Terekhova, Yana Shklyarskaya and Galina Shubina; The State Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val: A Guide to Russian Art of the 20th Century; Paulsen Moscow, 2015, page 82.
  12. http://www.wassily-kandinsky.org/Bustling-Aquarelle.jsp

About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.

Russian Art Tours – www.russianarttour.com
Cathy Locke’s artwork – www.cathylocke.com

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