Walking through the pre-Stalin Soviet art and design exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum ("The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930," through Feb. 15), is much like walking through a Bauhaus exhibition.
It is amazing how much, often direct influence the Russian constructivists and suprematists had on the pre-Hitler German design school. The Bauhaus, in turn, had enormous influence on modern art and architecture and the American cityscape.
The Russian avant-garde was largely inspired by Braque's and Picasso's Cubism. But with revolutionary fervor, the Russians applied Cubism and the whole idea of "non-objective" or abstract art to their attempt to create a new proletkult, or proletarian culture. They wanted their art to transform all the implements of daily life -- posters, typography, furniture, clothing, stage-sets, utensils and architecture.
Architecture, in fact, was to be the primary transformer of life. They could not build anything, of course, because times were terribly poor. But they made countless drawings and models of buildings. Their imagination was rich.
The idea was to create a totally new, man-made environment, making, as Mayakovsky put it, "the streets our brushes, the squares our palette." The architect, said one of the Vesin brothers, was to be "the appointed builder of socialism."
The Bauhaus, was launched in 1918, the year the German revolution ended World War I. Its founder was the architect Walter Gropius, who later taught at Harvard. His successor was the architect Mies van der Rohe, who later taught at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
The German avant-garde used much the same language as the Russian. It wanted to create a new Gesamtkultur, or total culture. Its first manifesto, written by Walter Gropius, called for "a new building of the future which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a thousand workers as a crystal symbol of a new faith." The Bauhaus building in Dessau, designed in 1925, bears a striking resemblance to Kasimir Malevich's "Suprematist Architection" of 1922, which is in the Hirshhorn show.
It is easy to cite further examples. Konstantin Melnikov's Rusakov Club for workers in Moscow strongly resembles Marcel Breuer's. Whitney Museum in New York. El Lissitzky's constructivist posters strongly resemble Herbert Bayer's Bauhaus typography. Malevich's architectural ideas are very close to those of Mies van der Rohe. Vera Nikolskaia's color paintings are almost identical to those of Josef Albers. The Russians always seem to have gotten there earlier.
There is nothing sinister about this. The Zeigeist, "the spirit of the times," often sparks the same creative impulses simultaneously in artists who have never heard of one another, particularly in times of high emotional tension.
Another strong influence on the Bauhaus was the Dutch group of and designers led by Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg which called itself "de Stijl." The ubiquitous Russian, El Lissitzky, also belonged to the group.
It was founded in 1917 and pledged to "absolute abstractions." As the Dutch art historian H. L. C. Jaffe explains it, de Stijl's abstract geometry derived from Holland's history of wresting its land from the sea: "After all, we hardly know 'nature' in the strict sense of the word. It has therefore been built up according to the human principles of economics and rationality, that is to say, according to Euclidean geometry. Straight lines and right angles are the pattern which centuries of human activity have stamped on the soil which previously hardly existed.
Van Doesburg was much interested in teaching at the Bauhaus, but Gropius refused to let him in. Whereupon Doesburg set up shop in a nearby inn and attracted more curious students to his lectures than would ever have attended his classes.
The foremost Bauhaus link with the Russians was Wassily Kandinsky.
Born in Russia, Kandinsky went to Germany to study art before the revolution, returned to Russia to help launch the revolutionary abstract movement, then returned to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus. In Moscow, he had been the leading spirit of Vkhutemas, an art school that was similar to the Bauhaus in its aims and identical in its creative turmoil.
Another link was the simple fact that Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union had close cultural relations. The Russian avant-garde held several exhibitions in Germany between 1922 and 1930. Lazzlo Moholy-Nagy, the brightest designer at the Bauhaus, was an avowed constructivist. Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were board members of the Soviet-organized "International Front of Contemporary Architecture," which Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French modernist, also joined. What evolved was indeed an "International Style," as American architecture historians were to call it later.
The reason we have so long known so little about the German-Soviet partnership in abstractionism is quite simple: Two dictators, Hilter and Stalin, did their best to suppress all traces of what both called "degenerate art" in their countries. The Russian avant-garde virtually disappeared in the 1920s. The Germans went to America in the 1930s.
The Bauhaus, a state school, had always been under fire from the right for its "cultural bolshevism," particularly when its budget appropriation was voted on. It would have been unwise for Gropius or the chief Bauhaus historian and propagandist, Sigfried Gideon, to admit to the red sheep in the family. Nor is there any mention of it in Ans Maria Wingler's monumental book on the Bauhaus, published in English by MIT Press in 1969. m
In America the cause of Bauhaus design and architecture was soon championed by millionaires, such as Nelson Rockefeller, and big business, such as the Container Corporation of America. It would have been tactless as well as pointless to bring up that youthful affair with the Soviet avant-garde.