As a former museum of applied art, it is fitting that the Martin-Gropius-Bau should mount one of the largest exhibitions to date devoted to the Russian art school VKhUTEMAS. Known as the “Russian Bauhaus,” the school was founded in 1920 as part of an overhaul of the Russian educational system in the wake of the 1917 revolution. Like the Bauhaus, founded the year before, VKhUTEMAS was formed by merging a fine-art academy with an applied-arts school. It also shared with its German counterpart many of the same goals, including, above all, a commitment to the idea of the artist as a productive member of society.
“VKhUTEMAS: A Russian Laboratory of Modernity, Architecture Designs 1920–1930” comprised some 250 works by students and teaching staff, which included El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, and Vladimir Tatlin, among others. Focusing on VKhUTEMAS’s architectural workshop, the exhibition offered a sweeping overview of the state of drawing during this fertile decade.
Pencil, ink, gouache, and watercolor were all deployed, sometimes in combination with printed matter, as in Alexander Vesnin’s proposal for decorating the school’s facade on the tenth anniversary of the revolution. Despite the school’s emphasis on functionalism, few of the works in the show resembled actual plans. Indeed, many appeared unrealizable. They were most interesting for the way they reflected the preoccupations of European modernism; under the guise of architectural rendering, VKhUTEMAS artists hammered out new relationships between space, form, and color.
The show presented names still unfamiliar to a Western audience, like V. Krinsky, who experimented with dynamic kiosk designs, alongside more familiar figures such as Rodchenko, whose 1925 sketch for a Workers’ Club was also on view, and Rodchenko’s wife, Varvara Stepanova, represented by her bold costume designs. Many of the works included were being exhibited for the first time—testimony that nearly a hundred years after the birth of the Russian avant-garde, its history is still being written.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 92.