Eric Gjerde, “Reverse-engineered circular arcs from Bauhaus preliminary course”.
My path to becoming an artist has been that of an autodidact, so it was daunting to be asked to reproduce Bauhaus-inspired objects for an esteemed group of scholars and academics. After all, what other bits of cut and folded paper have been subjected to such close historical scrutiny for such an extended duration? Yet I leapt at the opportunity, as this particular subject has been my main focus of the last few years. And the invitation also provided a great opportunity to do some further sleuthing into the Bauhaus’s hidden past.
My work constructing three-dimensional art using folded paper objects naturally led me to Josef Albers and his own obsession with paper’s potential as a medium of instruction. In Albers’ preliminary course at the Bauhaus, students worked primarily with scissors and paper. By cutting and folding, they explored concepts of material qualities, surface transformation, structural constructs, and efficiency of use.1 Students were given sheets of paper and an objective, after which Albers would leave the room. Returning some hours later, he would analyze and critique the constructs the students had made, giving the most credit and praise to work that best used the inherent qualities of paper in their solution. He felt these exercises taught many things, in particular the value of ‘learning by doing’: “The best education is one’s own experience. Experimenting surpasses studying. To start out by ‘playing’ develops courage, leads in a natural manner to an inventive way of building and furthers the pedagogically equally important facility of discovery…”2
As part of my research into paper structures at the Bauhaus, I visited the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut, just outside of New Haven, where Albers last taught at Yale University. Examining many samples from Josef’s personal collection of paper structures and constructs from his entire teaching career, it was evident to me that paper was one of his key tools used when working with students; along with his own forms used for teaching, he had retained many pieces done by students, interesting to him for one reason or another. This spoke to me about his connection to paper and his legacy of using it for instruction.
Since 2014 I have been teaching classes on paper construction, drawing specifically on the work of Albers and his preliminary course. One of the byproducts of teaching a technique is the necessity of perfecting it, repeating the same set of operations many times. Thus, I have folded and cut an innumerable number of paper sheets in the process of developing my facility with Albers’ exercises. Additionally, over the last two years I have been attempting to systematically reverse-engineer many of the Bauhaus papercut objects, and this has given me a lot of practical insight into Albers' method for constructing for these items.
“This old book also contained instructional text and example photos, which helped to match up diagrams with the objects Luca was looking to recreate.”
My prior research and experimentation proved to be very useful on this project. Luca Frei also helpfully shared with me some images scanned from a Japanese book published in the 1930s; images that were fundamental to understanding the pieces I needed to recreate. While the scholar in me became enormously excited after seeing these photographs, they were not of the best quality, being grainy and fuzzy—not the easiest images on which to base a reconstruction.
Thankfully, the small selection of scanned pages Luca shared included several pages reproducing instructional documents. These are the only images depicting how to create some of these paper objects I have ever seen that date from the Bauhaus-era itself. These images were an amazing find, and further, they also corroborated many of my past suspicions about how the objects depicted within the photographs were constructed.
Eric Gjerde: "Unique instructional diagrams for creation of Bauhaus paper exercises, from 1930s Japan. These were key for confirming specific construction techniques that may have been used for this work."
Over the years I have managed to accumulate a wide selection of books on the Bauhaus. And in this time I have pored through most of them in search of other examples of the papercut objects that preoccupy me. Of these, perhaps the two references which have yielded the most answers to my questions about these objects are Josef Albers: To Open Eyes by Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz, and the epic tome The Bauhaus by Hans Wingler. My copy of both are extremely dog-eared, full of bookmarks and abundantly annotated with marginalia.
Of the objects I have reconstructed, the most difficult was what appeared to be a long vertical tower. The source photographs I had at my disposal were old and of poor quality, and it was challenging to reproduce the details of this work. However, as I worked on it, I had the sense I might have seen it somewhere else before. In various photographs I found several examples of a similar exercise from Albers' preliminary course. These not only provided the structural concept, they also reinforced the likelihood of at least one having been reproduced in Japan as a "representative" object from the Bauhaus.
Eric Gjerde: "Several photos of the final maquette of the tower reproduction. The folded angles give this piece surprising rigidity, which demonstrates anew its value as a teaching exercise."
After spending days reconstructing this tower-object, obsessing over details, proportions and measurements, I found myself staring vacantly at a souvenir magnet on my refrigerator, something I had picked up at the Bauhaus Dessau museum gift shop. On its face was a photograph of the balcony terraces of the student dormitory. I suddenly noticed these balconies at Dessau are remarkably similar in their measurements and proportions to this tower exercise. Perhaps the similarity is coincidental, but the image on the magnet rendered important clues on how to proceed, at a time when I was at a loss as to how to continue.
Another of the structures I have tried to reproduce is an ethereal, dome-like shape, which fascinated me from the first moment I saw it. Previously I had made a few objects similar in form, but nothing so large or complex. I was curious how they managed to create it back in 1931. The basic answer came from another page in Luca’s copy of the Japanese Bauhaus exhibition catalogue depicting very simple instructions for how to construct these dome shapes. I then found a slightly different example in the Bauhaus literature, which provided further insight.
Eric Gjerde: "Time lapse video of the dome model being laser cut in my studio."
However, this process was not as easy as it at first appearance. I quickly learned that small variations in the width of the circles, the size of the cuts, and the overall number of circular layers altered the shape of the final object considerably. My studio, home and office were very soon littered with my failed attempts to reproduce this model. Ultimately, I settled on a proportion that approximated the dome in the photographs, using a three per cent reduction in diameter applied to every successive layer. (I can attest to the fact that whoever first created this object was a person of unusual talent and dexterity: he or she had to cut all its components by hand, while I relied on a 45W CO2 laser to achieve the precision cutting building the dome required.)
Eric Gjerde: "Several photos of the final dome model reconstruction. This was my best approximation of the original piece, and I believe it does it justice in the reproduction."
Another object, a long, circular tower suspended from a string was equally challenging. None of the historical documentation showed its details to my satisfaction. They merely gave a slight hint as to what the object was and how it might have been constructed. I combed through other historical references without luck. Many circular objects had been made at the Bauhaus, demonstrating the creative use of compass and razor blades. But there were no photographs depicting this particular circular tower. As it so happens, I had created a similarly hanging object the year before based on the square. In the end I adapted this object’s design as best I could to fit the circular form. While pleased with the final result, I will never really know to what extent my reconstruction departs from the original.
Eric Gjerde: "Several photos of the final maquette of the tower reproduction. The folded angles give this piece surprising rigidity, which demonstrates anew its value as a teaching exercise."
The last object I wish to present is seemingly the simplest, but in fact it’s the most complicated. This object is a type of deformed latticework. While it is not of an unusual nature, being commonplace in our modern-day, parametrically-driven world of 3D design, it was also equally familiar to Bauhaus students of the 1920s and 1930s. Albers would routinely take his preliminary course students to visit factories and workshops; the process of making these lattice-works out of steel was at the time a common process. For the piece photographed in the original Japanese exhibition, we see a student faithfully reproducing that expansion effect out of paper. However, as with the dome shape, every small change in proportions produces a radical difference in outcome. Of each of the versions of this piece I constructed in my attempts to match the original, no two objects have the same appearance. Trying to match an object depicted in a tiny blurred photograph from 1931 took much trial and error before I was satisfied with my work. Over the year I have made quite a few of these, and even as I write this I am staring at one example that hangs from the ceiling of my studio. The beauty of the form and seductive quality of the negative space this object displays belies its simplicity of construction. Some artists, like Haresh Lalvani and Matt Shlian, have formed entire bodies of work around the possibilities inherent in this simple shape.
Eric Gjerde: “Latticework reconstruction. No two glimpses of this object reveal the same view; the negative space here is what we are tasked to regard, and it gives the object surprising complexity.”
The experience of recreating these historical objects for the centennial of the Bauhaus—thus breathing new life into them—has truly been a joy for me. Albers always wanted his students to "open their eyes" and see things anew. In the course of my efforts to recreate these different papercut objects I have had to set aside many preconceived notions and instead look with my eyes and simply "see."
When asked by his parents what he wanted to be when he grew up, five-year-old Eric replied, “a paperologist.” Throughout his childhood and adolescence he enjoyed paper crafts and origami— a frequent birthday gift was stacks of paper and rolls of tape. Eric continues to fold, teach, and share his talent through hands-on workshops, origami conventions, art exhibitions, and through his popular site www.origamitessellations.com on the Internet. → more
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ln December 1922, ‘The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the lndian Society of Oriental Art’ was held at Samavaya Bhavan, number seventeen Park Street. Paintings by artists from the ‘Bengal school’—all of them members of the lndian Society of Oriental Arts—were exhibited. Most of these artists painted in a manner, which would have been recognisable as that school’s invention, a particularly lndian signature style, with mythology as preferred subject. Hung on the other side of the hall was a large selection of works from the Bauhaus. → more
Even though the progressive artists of the interwar period ultimately failed in their plan to realize the new, egalitarian society they had envisioned, their influence was lasting. The international avant-garde produced some of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, some members of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers council for art) occupied important positions at the Bauhaus—above all, its founding director Walter Gropius. → more
The works from Anna Boghiguian shown here are from an installation commissioned by the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) titled A Play to Play as part of the exhibition Tagore’s Universal Allegories in 2013. These works incorporate elements associated with Tagore, from the artist’s frequent visits to Santiniketan. → more
Although the Bauhaus opened its door in 1919, it took more than three years for Gropius to fully organize the school’s faculty, since with the departure of several of the old art school’s professors, such as Max Thedy, Richard Engelmann and Walther Klemm, open positions had to be regularly filled. But Gropius’s first appointments indicated the course set toward an international avant-garde school, a school of invention. → more
Lena Bergner developed carpet patterns applying specific methods learned from Paul Klee discernible in her finished work. The results, however, are quite unique. This is precisely what Klee sought to achieve with his classes at the Bauhaus: to point to paths of design so that the formal language is not arbitrary, without, however, prescribing predetermined outcomes. → more
Kawakita called the educational activities that developed around the central axis of the School of New Architecture and Design “kōsei education.” The term “compositional/structural education” is often taken nowadays to refer to a preparatory course in composition derived from the Bauhaus—plastic arts training in which plastic elements such as color, form and materials are treated abstractly. → more
The art school Kala Bhavan was founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1919 at Santiniketan, a utopian community about 100 miles north of Calcutta established in the previous century by the poet’s father, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore. Born out of the need to rehabilitate traditional Indian culture after the demoralizing impact of British rule, the school was established as an experiment in education that broke with academic tradition, and created a form of rural modernism decoupled from industrial modernization. → more
Having experimented with Mazdaznan’s teachings on nutrition, breathing and character while studying at the Stuttgart Academy of Art (1913–16), Johannes Itten used these findings for the first time as a “teaching and educational system” while directing his Viennese painting school (1916–19). By 1918/19 at the latest (still before his move to the Bauhaus), Itten had also learned about Mazdaznan’s racial model. But how did the racialist worldview of the Swiss Bauhaus “master” affect Bauhaus practice? → more
Mazdaznan had a significant although often misunderstood impact on the life and work of Johannes Itten, a key figure in the development of the Weimar Bauhaus. A devout practitioner of Mazdaznan, he was responsible for introducing it to students of the Bauhaus in the early 1920s. This essay explores the intimate relationship between Itten, Mazdaznan and the Bauhaus and, in so doing, also underscores how in its infancy the Bauhaus was very different from its later incarnation as a school associated primarily with technical innovation. → more
The Otolith Group have been commissioned to produce The O Horizon for bauhaus imaginista, a new film containing studies of Kala Bhavana as well as the wider environments of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Through rare footage of art, craft, music and dance, it explores the material production of the school and its community as well as the metaphysical inclinations that guided Tagore’s approach to institution building. → more
“My method of bringing new life to archival images is to look at what happens at the margins rather than the center of a picture. I am also obsessed with making links, based on the belief that everything is connected. And also with what I call ‘narrative environments,’ mediating spaces facilitating new forms of engagement.” Luca Frei is a commissioned artist for bauhaus imaginista: Corresponding With. He talks about his approach to his installation for the exhibition at MoMAK in Kyoto. → more
Unlike the Bauhaus, Kala Bhavana had no written manifesto or curriculum. However, a corpus of writing developed around the school, largely produced by the school’s artists and teachers. The academic Partha Mitter, whose own writing has explored the interplay between the struggle against colonialism, modernism, and the cultural avant-garde in India, has selected a group of texts on education in Santiniketan. → more
The impact of the Bauhaus teaching methods reached far beyond Germany. Conversely, throughout its existence, a Japanese sensibility permeated the Bauhaus, springing from the Japonisme of individual professors, until its closure in 1933. This article analyzes the reciprocal impact of German and Japanese design education in the interbellum period in order to shed new light on the tightly knit network of associations then connecting Japan and Europe. → more
In the late nineteenth century the self-styled Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha'nish founded Mazdaznan, a quasi-religious movement of vegetarian diet and body consciousness, which flourished across the USA and Europe until the 1940's. The Egyptian Postures is a guide to the most advanced Mazdaznan exercises that Johannes Itten taught his students at the Bauhaus. This edition of Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha’nish’s original instructions has been newly edited and illustrated by Ian Whittlesea with images of actor Ery Nzaramba demonstrating the postures. → more
It was the special qualities of the Swiss artist Johannes Itten, whose career as a primary and secondary school teacher was characterized by adherence to the principles of reform pedagogy, to have introduced a stabilizing structural element into the still unstable early years of the Bauhaus: the preliminary course which—in addition to the dual concept of teaching artistic and manual skills and thinking—was to remain a core part of Bauhaus pedagogy, despite considerable historical changes and some critical objections, until the closure of the school in 1933. → more
The emphasis on material experimentation was reflected in the Vorkurs or “preliminary course,” where the fundamental principles of the Bauhaus were introduced: a corresponding emphasis on craft took root in the Bauhaus’s newly-established workshops. → more