USC News

Menu Search

LAS scholars examine the legacy of Kandinsky’s doomed experiment in interdisciplinary arts – the RAKhN.

Professor John E. Bowlt, director of USC’s Institute of Modern Russian Culture.The Tragedy of the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences

Photo by Irene Fertik

The Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences was born in 1921 at an opportune moment in Russia – even if it died tragically less than a decade later.

Co-founded by the painter Visilii Kandinsky, the Academy (abbreviated as RAKhN in the Russian language) was a truly interdisciplinary collaboration among Russia’s artistic and intellectual elite at time when a revolution was changing the world and radical ideas were reverberating through avant-garde painting, theater, architecture, and philosophy.

The academy’s activities and intellectual debates surrounding the visual arts and art history have been documented for the first time in the most recent volume of Experiment: A Journal of Russian Culture, published in the fall of 1997 by USC’s Institute of Modern Russian Culture. The volume includes archival material, such as writings by Kandinsky and other academy members, as well as photographs of academy members.

The volume begins with several essays by an international group of scholars of Russian culture who assess RAKhN’s contribution to the study of art and art history.

“The academy was a think-tank made up of eminent professors and intellectuals whose common passion was the history of philosophical and artistic culture,” said John E. Bowlt, editor in chief of Experiment, and a professor of Slavic languages and literature. “What happened to the academy is a tragic story; it’s as if our great professors at our universities were suddenly destroyed.”

The academy was closed in 1930 and many of its members were killed, the victims of a witch hunt launched by the Stalin regime. Their work was locked away until the early 1980s, when scholars began recovering archived material after the fall of the Soviet Union.

RAKhN members – who represented the visual and performing arts, art history, philosophy, psychology, biology, sociology and other disciplines – sought to preserve the highest traditions of early 20th-century Russian culture. Their goal was no less than to “fathom the mysteries of the world” through the sciences, philosophy and art, according to a forward written by Dmitrii Sarabianov of Moscow State University.

According to Bowlt, RAKhN offers an important legacy to the study of visual arts and to academe in general.

FOREMOST, RAKhN was a pioneering effort in Russian culture to create a science of aesthetic creativity. Academy members undertook the exploration of the field of “artistic sciences,” spearheaded by Kandinksy, who espoused a scientific theory of painting as a formula based on form and color.

The academy was also probably one of the earliest interdisciplinary research institutes. “Musicians would think about painting, physicists would think about architecture, or social historians might think about music,” Bowlt said. “We’re trying to continue this interdisciplinary approach in higher education today.”

Furthermore, academy members did much to propagate artistic culture in the public arena. They published documents, organized exhibitions and lectures, staged performances of dance and theater, and kept a vast archive of books and photographs related to art and art history, Bowlt said.

The complex goal of RAKhN, as articulated by Kandinsky, was to provide an elaborate theory of art history, and to provide this with a scientific grounding, as well as to inquire into the potential relationship between art and the sciences, according to Nicoletta Misler, guest editor of Experiment, Vol. 3, and a professor at the Oriental Institute of the University of Naples. Misler was a visiting professor at USC in 1995.

In two papers published in the journal, “Work Plan for the Visual Arts Section” and “The Primary Elements in Painting,” Kandinsky seeks to examine the structures common to diverse arts, to correlate them and create a new artistic synthesis. He examines topics such as movement, color, time, mood and form, and how these synthesize during the act of painting. Kandinsky also paid attention to the psychological dimension of artistic activity.

“Kandinksy tries to reduce art to a formula,” Bowlt said. “He’s saying it’s a science. If that’s true it’s a democratic statement – and everyone can learn to paint.”

After choosing permanent exile in Germany, Kandinsky soon lost touch with colleagues at RAKhN, which the Stalin regime viewed as a citadel of idealism and a final refuge for intellectuals who refused to adjust. By the late 1920s, the citadel was under heavy attack, and only a few could maintain contact with colleagues abroad, writes Misler.

Another important figure in the Academy was Gustav Gustavov Shpet, an idealist philosopher and art historian who is now recognized for the sincerity of his intellectual pursuits and integrity of his scholarship. De-voted to the well-being of the academy, in particular its philosophical department, Shpet’s work served as a broad basis for the study of the arts, writes Elizabeth Durst, a graduate student in Slavic languages who wrote the foreword to Shpet’s paper, “On Various Meanings of the Term Form.”

Probably the most moving section of the volume is Bowlt’s translation of the transcript of Shpet’s inquisition in 1929 before a special commission that sought to purge the academy members. In “RAKhN on Trial: The Purge of Gustav Shpet,” Bowlt relates that Shpet was accused of a number of trumped-up charges, including mismanagement of RAKhN funds, nepotism, and favoritism.

“It’s very sad and moving because you have these people who were strongly encouraged by the authorities to say things against him,” Bowlt said. Shpet, knowing he would be killed, realized that his defense was useless even as he tried to rebut the charges.

“As his tragic defense demonstrates, Shpet himself realized that this was the final chapter of his professional – and physical – existence,” Bowlt writes.

The volume also includes works by art historian Alexander Gabrichevsky, who wrote a significant essay on painting; Alexander Larinov, a linguist, art historian and dance critic who offered a theory of the history of the alphabet and symbolic signs; Boris Shaposhnikov, an art historian and administrator who wrote essays on the museum as a work of art, spatial arts and contemporary painting; and Sergei Skriabin, a 23-year-old graduate student who had interesting ideas about art history, philosophy and psychology.

A number of graduate students in the department of Slavic languages and literature provided translations for the Russian works. They include Thea Durfee, Durst, Christopher Gilman, Frank Goodwin and Mark Konecny.

LAS scholars examine the legacy of Kandinsky’s doomed experiment in interdisciplinary arts – the RAKhN.

Top stories on USC News