The “Workshop for Popular Graphic Art” in Mexico: Bauhaus Travels to America

Agustín Villagra Caleti, “Bonampak” (detail),
in: Meyer (ed.): TGP México, 1949,
Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne.

The global developments that led in 1942 to the appointment of Hannes Meyer, second Bauhaus director, as head of the workshop for popular graphic art, Taller de Gráfica Popular (henceforth referred to as the TGP), made it a focal point for migrating Europeans in flight from fascism. This essay aims to shed light on how the TGP was influenced by Europeans granted asylum by Mexico before and during World War Two, and, conversely, to explore the degree to which these exiled visual artists, writers, and architects’ ideas came to be influenced by their contact with artists active in the TGP.

Historical Connections

For more than 500 years, Europe and the Americas have shared one history. From the sixteenth century onward, colonial conquest and rule, and the waves of migration these conquests set in motion—especially from Europe to the Americas—created complex processes of exchange and dependency that continue into the present day. This is an entangled history, one in which modernity and colonialism are inextricably intertwined.1 Post-revolutionary Mexico is one spatial and historical context within this entangled history, most notably in the era of the Lázaro Cárdenas del Río government, which began in 1934. With respect to the Bauhaus, three significant events highlight the interconnectedness of these global movements: the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920, the 1917 October Revolution and the First World War. The Weimar Republic, emerging from the latter, presented the opportunity for a singularly new social experiment, and out of a similar reformist impulse came the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar in April 1919, one of “the most dramatic moments of recent German and international cultural history.”2

The global developments that led in 1942 to the appointment of Hannes Meyer, second Bauhaus director, as head of the workshop for popular graphic art, Taller de Gráfica Popular (henceforth referred to as the TGP), made it a focal point for migrating Europeans in flight from fascism. This essay aims to shed light on how the TGP was influenced by Europeans granted asylum by Mexico before and during World War Two, and conversely, to explore the degree to which these exiled visual artists, writers, and architects’ ideas came to be influenced by their contact with the artists active in the TGP.

Leopoldo Méndez, New York, 1940, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

Fourteen years after its founding, the Bauhaus was closed down by the National Socialist regime. Hannes Meyer, school director from 1928 to 1930, left Germany for the Soviet Union shortly after his dismissal by the mayor of Dessau, in the autumn of that same year. The USSR’s revolutionary transformation after 1917 had provided the Bauhaus with numerous sources of inspiration (e.g., constructivism), and there had in the 1920s already been several collaborations between the school and the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops in Moscow (Vkhutemas).3 Meyer was able to capitalize on these connections up to 1936, when the ideological tide turned against him, forcing a departure.4 Following a brief stay in Switzerland, in 1938 Meyer traveled to Mexico via the United States,5 after receiving an invitation from President Cárdenas to become director of the newly founded Instituto del Urbanismo y Planificación (Institute of Urbanism and Planning) at Mexico City’s Instituto Polytécnico Nacional (National Polytechnic Institute).

The Instituto Polytécnico Nacional’s founding was one important outcome of the Mexican Revolution. The revolution was the most radical act of decolonization and democratization in Latin American history since Mexico’s original declaration of independence from Spain in 1810 and the war of independence that followed, ending Spanish rule in 1821. Apart from Bolivia, Mexico was the only nation in Latin America where a real land reform in favor of the peasants actually took place (1951), albeit to a limited degree.6 It was not until the government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), however, which built the most democratic state to be seen in Mexico until the 1990s that a Mexican administration acted on the ideas and claims of the 1910 revolutionaries.7 Political and economic powers associated with the domestic and foreign oligarchy were transferred to workers and peasants; the fossil fuel industry’s built infrastructure, along with the oil itself, was nationalized and placed under the management of a state-owned company, PEMEX; a radical agricultural reform program converted large-scale landholdings into collective properties known as ejidos. Friedrich Katz notes that this type of radical political and social agenda was only possible because of the then looming threat of war against Germany, meaning the United States was keen to find an ally rather than an enemy on the American continent.8

President Cárdenas’s “socialistic” policies were realized specifically in his educational program for workers and peasants,9 whose leading advocates were to be found among the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR), an association of revolutionary writers and artists that grew out of the “cultural missions” charged with propagating the revolution’s objectives in murals, graphic art and theater productions. The TGP, which was founded in 1937, was an outgrowth of the graphic arts sector of this association. Hannes Meyer clearly stated that it was no coincidence that the birth of the TGP coincided with Cárdenas’s term in office.10 All the artists who worked together at the TGP had previously been active in the “culture missions.”11 As evidence of stylistic links between the Bauhaus and the TGP, the print New York by Leopoldo Méndez, one of the TGP’s major artists, incorporates the design principles of Lyonel Feininger’s Cathedral of Socialism12 while also paying homage to the Bauhaus Manifesto, whose frontispiece featured Feininger’s woodcut.

In 1940 Manuel Ávila Camacho’s presidency marked a decisive turning point in the developments initiated by Cárdenas, bringing the “unique attempt to modernize Mexico” to an end.13 The Instituto del Urbanismo y Planificación was closed down. The collaboration between the TGP and the exile community, including Hannes Meyer and Georg Stibi, begins at this point.

Transnational Migration

Driven by fascism, political violence and the threat of impending war, Hannes Meyer joined a wave migrants heading west across the Atlantic Ocean, destined ultimately for Mexico. The political context of his European exodus, Meyer’s prior professional and personal experiences, his choice of destination and interactions with Mexican society in situ, the networks he established around the TGP, his disputes and conflicts with local and exiled political groups alike, his efforts to keep in touch with people left behind in Europe—all these activities left their mark on the society that accommodated him and are also characteristic of the transnational praxis of migration itself.14 This approach looks at migrants as social actors in a broad historical and cultural context, and in processes that James Clifford describes as a “diasporization of culture and identity.”15

In this context, the TGP may be understood as a transnational sphere revitalized and transformed by the arrival of migrants from Europe, from other Latin American countries (Ecuador, Guatemala) and from the United States, who each brought cultural experiences from their homelands and the ports of call visited while en route. In this way, the TGP established itself as a place of transitory encounters and coexistence.16

In the journey of La Bauhaus, the cultural transactions of the TGP and the imaginary itself as praxis are rendered comprehensible within the specific historico-geographic context of Mexico during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The imaginary (imaginative), which Arjun Appadurai describes as “a constructed landscape of collective aspirations,” became in this context social praxis, presenting itself as a key to grasping the relationship between globalization and migration.17 When James Clifford views such migrations as a culture of connections formed in motion—as routes and roots (traditions and identities that are taken along on the road or by air)—this also emphasizes that “travelers” are also facilitators of diverse cultural experiences; with Clifford, “natives” also become “travelers.”18 Being that travel is greatly affected by sex, class, race, and culture, travelers, including researchers, artists, migrants, migrant workers and diasporic peoples, take different routes through modernity.19 However, the facilitators of transnational migration itself are also “informants,” complex individuals whose function is to communicate “cultural” knowledge and to argue in favor of this cultural knowledge, appearing as new actors in migration’s transnational context. “Informants first appear as natives; they emerge as travelers.”20

At present, many of the indigenous workers and asylum seekers from Central America who enter the USA are reliant on so-called coyotes, individuals who smuggle people across international borders.21 But coyotes also played a part in the influx of European migrants to Mexico in the Cárdenas era, when asylum seekers were welcomed. The German writer Ludwig Renn describes the work of “his” coyote, the journalist Heinrich Gutmann, a member of the League for German Culture (Liga Pro Cultura Alemana) in Mexico, to which Hannes Meyer and Renn himself later belonged:

“The young man greeted me with enthusiasm, addressed me informally as if he too were a communist, and was very friendly. But he realized that I would soon see through him and confessed his real job with a smile. He was one of the coyotes, a professional briber named after the large Mexican predator. I soon saw these men lounging around in front of the door of the ministry of the interior, waiting for helpless foreigners who wanted to lodge applications, but who spoke no Spanish. … The coyotes waited for these foreigners, told them what the necessary paperwork would cost, and then coolly went with the appellant directly into the room where the paperwork was processed. There, the coyote pushed a number of banknotes under a sheet of paper to the apparently very busy official, and the deed was done. Of course, he also made some money on the deal for himself.”22

Gutmann exemplified these “complex individuals,” simultaneously travelers/migrants and informants/facilitators. That travelers from very different social, cultural and political spheres, and completely disparate regions, needed and still rely on coyotes says a great deal about the various ways in which migrants experience borders.23 In fact, Gutmann played an important role in subsequent collaborations between the German migrants and the TGP.24

Agustín Villagra Caleti, “Bonampak”, in: Hannes Meyer (ed.): TGP México. El taller de gráfica popular. Doce anos de obra artística colectiva, La Estampa Mexicana, Mexico 1949, p. 120, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne.

The New Themes and Networks of the TGP

Following the election of Manuel Ávila Camacho to the presidency in 1940, as well as internal conflicts and a loss of financial funding, many influential artists left the TGP.25 Due to a chronic shortage of money, the rent for the workshop could not be paid. Under these conditions, the collaboration with the exiled Europeans proved to be the workshop’s salvation.26 For instance, in 1942, a number of Germans exiles decided to publish a black book about the terrors of the National Socialist regime. This launched the collaboration between the TGP and the Bewegung Freies Deutschland (Movement for a Free Germany),27 its cultural organ the Heinrich Heine Club (the focal point of German communist party emigrants) and the publisher El libro libre.28 Hannes Meyer was commissioned to design the book: he convinced artists from the TGP to illustrate the volume. 10,000 copies were printed. Also in 1942, Anna Seghers’ novel The Seventh Cross was published simultaneously in Mexico and the United States with a dust cover designed by Leopoldo Méndez, testifying as well to the productive collaboration between El libro libre and the TGP. Meyer was appointed director of the TGP that same year. Although the KPD journalist and publicist Georg Stibi29 replaced him from 1943 to 1946, he resumed the post in 1946 and served until 1949. Eight editions of graphic art portfolios, postcard editions and albums were published under his leadership; eleven editions were published under Stibi.30

Meyer’s collaboration inspired the productivity of the TGP, above all in three respects complying with the principles of the Bauhaus:31

1. Meyer and his wife Lena Bergner used Bauhaus-influenced design principles to improve the typographic design and layout of the posters, advertising leaflets, published books and graphic arts portfolios produced by the TGP. These were largely standardized, distinguished by an economical design featuring consistent typefaces and statistical drawings.32 Here, Meyer was able to realize what had previously remained beyond his reach as an architect. His typography combined the basic principles of the Bauhaus; it mediated between man and machine, uniting art and technology in an unprecedented manner. The typography compelled the designer “to return to (the) craftsmanship (of the printer – KN).”33 The modern, “new” Grotesque typeface—a non-serif typeface propagated by the Bauhaus—was designed to symbolize a socially minded industrial society, proletarian solidarity, progress and internationalism.34

2. A collective working method, one of the guiding principles of the TGP from its inception, was joined, as Meyer phrased it in his article, “bauhaus und gesellschaft” (bauhaus and society), by art imagined as “manifesto and mediator of a collective society.”35 In his essay “The New World” from 1926, Meyer had already created the image of a globalized world: “Cooperation rules the world. Community rules over individual being.36 When Meyer, like many other contemporary architects, painters, and writers, expressed his enthusiasm for machines and modern means of transport—airplanes, ships and cars37—he was expressing something more than technophilia. Technological development was regarded as a precondition for and product of an internationalist form of social progress transcending national borders. Hannes Meyer welcomed the erasure of the “boundaries of city and countryside,” the greater opportunities for movement, the disregard of national borders and reduced “separation between one people and another.” “The simultaneity of events expands our concepts of time and space out of all proportion … with speed records signifying indirect winnings for all.” Modern means of transport “undermine the local concept of the homeland. The fatherland fades away. ... We become citizens of the world.”38 One might even think Meyer had predicted the “routes” (Clifford) of the Bauhaus in the New World. It is not a coincidence that in Weimar-era Germany the supplement to the Typographischen Mitteilungen, the Bildungsverband der Deutschen Buchdrucker (Educational Association of Printers) magazine, was called “Das Schiff” (The Ship), and the new Grotesque typeface, “Zeppelin.”39 (Disseminating their political message was also a central component within the collective work of the TGP from 1944 to 1947, when participating artists worked together with directors Stibi and Meyer on a project using a single technique, resulting in a collection of 85 linocuts about the Mexican Revolution. The linocut technique was inexpensive, permitting print runs that could reach a mass audience. Inspired by José Guadalupe Posada, the group strove to present history in a lively and realistic fashion, “as if they had been there.”40 Of the artists who participated, Leopoldo Méndez’s work built most strongly on that of Posada. His print depicts Posada, who from his workshop witnesses a forced military recruitment of peasants. The print shows him in the process of rendering this event graphically, “while behind him, Flores Magón, leader of the liberal party before and during the revolution, holds the piece he has already written about it in his hand and a printer reaches for lead type from the type case.”41 The objective was to express “in the graphics a connection to the historic developments of the revolution, relevant to the present times.”42 Hand in hand, graphic designer, printer and politician produced the press release. In his renowned Holzschnittbuch (1954), the “renowned art expert and seasoned observer of German and European modernism” Paul Westheim, editor (until 1933) of the journal Das Kunstblatt in Berlin and author of the journal Freies Deutschland in Mexico, highlights precisely the above as the intended aim of the graphic artworks produced by the group.43)

3. A chronic lack of funds had been a problem for Meyer since the Bauhaus days. Under his leadership in Dessau, he organized a competition open to both students and masters to produce wallpaper designs that, upon coming to market, proved a commercial success.44 As directors of the TGP, Meyer and Stibi each thought up marketing strategies accessible to both Mexican and American markets. They offered not only books and portfolios of graphic art but also summer courses, which helped to replenish the coffers of the TGP. Due to the success of this entrepreneurial activity, the publishing house La Estampa Mexicana (The Mexican Print) was founded in 1943.

Hannes Meyer’s work in Mexico and an entire era of the TGP concluded in 1949 with the publication of the book TGP México. El taller de gráfica popular. Doce años de obra artística colectiva (TGP Mexico. The workshop for popular graphic art. A record of twelve years of collective work). Edited by Meyer and published in Spanish and English, this was “without a doubt his most lasting contribution to the TGP”.45 In it, the TGP artists and the German migrant editors explored the indigenous peoples of Mexico and their pre-Hispanic past, focusing specifically on re-evaluating indigenous Mexican cultures.

Fernando Castro Pacheco, “La muerte”, in: Meyer: TGP México, 1949, p. 62, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne.

A View of the Pre-Hispanic Past in Mexico and the Edition Doce Años de Obra Artística Colectiva

Major changes were taking place in Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s, affecting not only the prevailing economic and social structures but the perceptions and interpretations of the pre-Hispanic past as well. Under Cárdenas, relations between indigenous peasants and workers newly awarded political and economic rights—from whom the Criollos, descendants of European settlers, considered themselves separate—and other groups in Mexican society required redefinition, entailing a complete departure from the racial classifications that until then had formed the basis of the structural exploitation of the subaltern classes. The Mexican anthropologist Edmundo O’Gorman, brother of the architect and painter Juan O’Gorman,46 had in 1958 initiated a revision in thought about the modern age with his thesis that America was not discovered, but invented by Europe. This critical perspective made a “previously invisible history visible,” contributing to the decolonization of hegemonic knowledge.47 Accordingly, the emergence of the historical-geographical entity called “America” within European culture should not be credited to Columbus but considered an ideological and philosophical process of European origin. Spain and Portugal, the modern global actors of the sixteenth century, were superseded in the seventeenth century by England, France, and the Netherlands.48 To those outside the Western world, the eighteenth century—regarded as the age of the Enlightenment by intellectuals within the now dominant world powers (as well as in Germany)—“with its extraordinary increase in both philosophical musings and concrete attention to colonial practices”, according to Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “… was also a century of confusion.”49 The scientifically-founded racism that served as a basis for colonial relations of dependence on both sides of the Atlantic was a product not of the nineteenth century, but the “philosophical reasoning” of the Enlightenment.50 All non-European groups were subjected to a wide variety of philosophical, ideological and practical schemes, based on the hypothesis of mankind’s different developmental “stages.”51 “Westernized (or more properly, ‘westernizable’) humans—natives from Africa or of the Americas—occupied the lowest levels of this nomenclature”.52 The coloniality of power comes to the fore in the classification of peoples and cultures by Westerners, and is based on the idea of “race.”53 And since the revolutions for independence in America, which discursively separated North/Anglo from South/Latin America, the entirety of “Latin” America has often been regarded by Northern Americans as dependent on and subordinate to the United States.54

From the Cárdenas era to the early 1950s, the emerging critique of the concept of modernity and its historical association with European Enlightenment constituted the discursive context both of the work of the TGP and the European migrants associated with it. Debates around “new ways of seeing” the pre-Hispanic past revolved in Mexico primarily around the material legacies of the Aztec society, which originated around 1200 AD. Within the Enlightenment tradition, the material testimonies of the Aztecs were regarded, even by contemporary historians and anthropologists, as evidence of a “barbaric” culture standing in stark contrast to the “civilizations” of Europe. However, political conditions created by the Cárdenas government necessitated previously excluded, “invisible” indigenous groups now have forms of political representation in the public sphere.

In an attempt to fulfill this objective, Hannes Meyer’s 1949 edition, TGP México. Doce años de obra artística colectiva (The Workshop for Popular Graphic Art: A Record of Twelve Years of Collective Work— henceforth referred to as Twelve Years), addressed indigenous culture, anti-fascism, international solidarity, anti-imperialism and the education campaigns of the Cárdenas government.55 The book begins with the statement that no Mexican artist should ignore the rich pre-Hispanic heritage, accompanied by a photo of Chichen Itza, the Mayan city first excavated twenty years before. Its contents consist of a combination of typography and other typographic elements, original graphics, photographs and graphic reproductions (partially printed on colored paper), using an unconventional landscape format, with spiral binding and a plastic dust cover in black.56

In the nature (i.e., sensibility) of indigenous groups, Meyer finally found the collective spirit the Bauhaus had previously endeavored to foster. Without this spirit, the TGP and its artistic outputs could not have existed. The Indian subconscious emerges in the best artworks of group members; for instance, the graphics by José Chávez Morado, whose “acid critique of society is shot through with diabolic fantasy.”57 Another drawing by Antonio Franco, assistant to Diego Rivera and Clemente Orozco and a pupil of Frida Kahlo, shows the Warriors’ Temple in Chichen Itza. Jean Charlot, introduced in Twelve Years as a guest artist, had been commissioned in 1929 to reconstruct decorations found in this temple for the publication of a book. The Meyer edition included examples of his chromolithographs Mexihkanantli (Mexican Mother), published as illustrations for Nahuatl texts. In fact, many of the prints, whose subject matter was based on modern themes, were created using a distinct and coherent graphic language reminiscent of the pre-Hispanic codices; as were the handouts, flyers, and primers of the TGP in this period.58 At the same time, if one considers the copies of murals of Bonampak by Agustín Villagra Caletec [sic], the book appears to be almost as topical as a daily newspaper.

The temple complex in Chiapas, home to the Lacandón Maya peoples, was discovered by chance three years before Twelve Years’ publication. Villagra worked in Chiapas from 1947 to 1948, making copies of murals in the complex. The German-Jewish art historian and publisher Paul Westheim utilized these to illustrate his book Arte Antiguo de México (The Art of Ancient Mexico), first published in Mexico in 1950.59 As a role model within the TGP, Posada’s call for topicality was, in this instance, abundantly met where pre-Hispanic archaeology was concerned.

Another example of the adoption of pre-Columbian symbolism and stylization is provided by Leopoldo Méndez’s snake woodcut, which also deployed the imagery of surrealism and magical realism in its execution.60 The snake occupied a highly significant role in both pre-Hispanic and contemporary Mexican popular culture. Its vast coiled body virtually fills the picture frame. The open mouth with forked tongue is regarded as a divine attribute.

The snake has many associations in Mayan symbology. It can represent water, caves, the heavens, transformation and rebirth:61 the “feathered snake” Quetzalcóatl, one of the major Mesoamerican divinities, symbolizes life and fertility. The similarity with Mayan codices— in this instance, the Madrid Codex—which Meyer noted become apparent here.62 The snake is also the most important symbol of Coatlicue, mother goddess of Aztec culture, who in Twelve Years appears in an illustration by F. Castro Pacheco as La Muerte (death). Coatlicue, one of the many representations of the Aztec “Mother of the Gods” associated with human sacrifice,63 was herself by far the most important reference figure in the evaluation of Aztec culture, and the history of her likeness is an uncanny symbol of the repression and rediscovery of pre-Columbian iconography in Mexico, with the monumental sculptural depiction currently exhibited in Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology having several times been buried and rediscovered. First, immediately after the Spanish conquest, the massive sculpture, considered an inappropriate pagan idol by Spain’s Christian conquistadors, was buried. At the close of the eighteenth century it was rediscovered by chance during building works in central Mexico City, and fully excavated for the visit of Alexander von Humboldt. Following his departure, the carving was again buried. Only in the twentieth century was it permanently unearthed.64

Lena Bergner, “Amate-Baum”, drawing and Hannes Meyer, “Los Remedios”, linol cut, 1948, in: Meyer: TGP México, 1949, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, © Heirs of Lena Bergner/© Heirs of Hannes Meyer.

Even a hundred years later, at the time of the revolutionary rediscovery of the indigenous peoples as historical and political subjects, Coatlicue remained a symbol of Aztec culture’s irremediable otherness, its “primitive and barbaric” nature.65 The European view of Latin America in the early twentieth century was shaped, as mentioned previously, by an understanding of modernity dating back to the Enlightenment, with Western writers seeking the “non-Western” and the exotic in Latin America. D. H. Lawrence and Georges Bataille, for example, were both enthralled by the idea of Aztec human sacrifices. In 1940, in his essay “El arte o de la monstruosidad,” Edmundo O’Gorman, author of The Invention of America, characterized the figure of Coatlicue as a destroyer of every order that reason ever built.66 Coatlicue was even called into service as a reference figure for a painful event in recent Mexican history, the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968. According to Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, she represents a repressive, authoritarian order with roots in Aztec society; in this interpretation, the massacre is a tragic updating of the Aztec’s obsession with human sacrifice, its motive force in their culture. For Carlos Fuentes, “the night of Tlatelolco” (Elena Poniatowska) was an event asserting the superiority of “Western” culture over that of ancient Mexico.67 The fate of Coatlicue and her fluctuating meanings over the course of history compels us to examine the various conditions of her reception from within the perspective of colonial history;68 indeed, Coatlicue’s repeated burials and excavations symbolize the difficult process of rendering visible a long-obscured history where coloniality and modernity interacted and intermingled. According to Walter D. Mignolo, this troubled history is, in fact, an excavation process more than a straightforward process of historical inquiry, “because it is impossible to simply recover coloniality, insofar as it shapes and is shaped by the processes of modernity”.69

Just under twenty years before the events of Tlatelolco, nearly coincident with the publication of Twelve Years, Paul Westheim made a significant intervention in this debate. Of all the European intellectuals in Mexico, Westheim had contributed the most to reviving the public’s interest in the objects of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic culture. An ardent admirer of Aztec sculpture, he identified in it characteristic features of expressionism, an idea he had already addressed in an article published years before he arrived in Mexico in his Berlin journal, Kunstblatt. He described the religion of the Aztecs as the bloodiest, most fanatical70 of all the Mesoamerican religions, considering Coatlicue as one of the most horrifying and demonic configurations in the Aztec pantheon, the most epic of all works of Aztec art.71 For him, her monumentalized monstrosity was sublime, and he identified surrealistic traits in her depiction—as Caplow did with Leopoldo Méndez’s snake—particularly in view of her contrast with the art of Western antiquity, which typically created a copy of nature. By contrast, in surrealism, as Westheim states, realistic elements are taken out of context, isolated and placed in heretofore unknown and ingenious contexts.72

Hannes Meyer and Paul Westheim shared a view of pre-Hispanic art and the indigenous cultures of Mexico that dismantles the chronological and spatial disparities between the Mesoamerican past and the European present, thus “expand(ing) our concepts of space and time out of all proportion,” as Hannes Meyer stated in his essay “The new world.”73 For the first time, the Aztec culture was seen as a manifestation of the most modern forms of European art, expressionism and surrealism. This genuinely broke new ground in the perception and interpretation of Mexican pre-Hispanic culture, especially since Westheim had previously placed hitherto neglected contemporary Mexican graphics on a par with European modernism.74 In a reversal of this logic, and in accordance with the Bauhaus’s political claim of being a social phenomenon serving a collective society,75 Hannes Meyer and the artists of the TGP considered themselves the heirs to indigenous culture, with Meyer seeing the political aims of the Bauhaus reflected in the way collectivity manifested in social organization and design itself. This entirely new view of indigenous cultures and their art which Meyer and Westheim both adopted ran parallel to a cultural paradigm shift, from the discovery to the invention of America, a development that ruled out exoticizing and primitivizing interpretations.

New Landscapes

Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Luidger – Luidger.

While Hannes Meyer’s formal design was based on the principles of the Bauhaus, it also included elements derived from the pre-Hispanic past and contemporary indigenous people, thematizing politically charged global processes. In total, his approach identifies indigenous ways of living and cultural practices as equally representations of modernity and the imaginary produced within contemporaneous society.76 It conforms with more recent critiques of the Eurocentric concept of modernity associated with the Enlightenment, countered by a notion of Americanity.77

The Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano and his American colleague Immanuel Wallerstein go beyond the critique of the discursive differences rooted in hegemonic knowledge that heretofore were used to differentiate indigenous populations, considered to be outside modernity, and non-indigenous ones within Mexico or within Latin America. They emphasize that the difference between Anglo and Latin America is not an essential one proceeding from, for example, differences in character between Anglo and Latin Americans, but arrived with the emergence of a modern/colonial world system.78 With the concept of Americanity, they affirm the theory of the invention of America proposed by Edmundo O’Gorman half a century earlier.

“The common history of the Americas, including their own name, lies in their historical foundation: the colonial matrix of power, or capitalism as we know it today, and modernity as the imperial ideology of Western Europe.”79

The biographies of the Bauhauslers who migrated to America show that the Bauhaus, on its travels in the New World, did not at first differentiate between Anglo and Latin America. The architectural designs for Mexico City or for Chicago were equally innovative. There were differences in the way in which these designs were realized, and the coloniality of power certainly played a role in this. It should be our responsibility, therefore, to shape Americanity as a concept through research.

From its inception, the Bauhaus was characterized by a tension between mobility—figured in the technology of modern transportation—and staying put. The design of an “organized form of existence” with “people’s schools, people’s parks, people’s houses … people’s flats”80 requires us to settle. But modern means of transport “undermine the local concept of the homeland. The fatherland fades away … We become citizens of the world.”81 How did Hannes Meyer deal with this contradiction? “Finally all creative action is determined by fate/by the landscape / … a conscious experience of the landscape / is building as determined by fate. / As creators we fulfil the fate of the landscape.”82 The landscape is not the fatherland. The landscape “for those settled is singular and unique.”83

Hannes Meyer was not only the editor of Twelve Years. He appears in the album together with Lena Bergner as a “guest artist,” with realistic, large-scale drawings of the landscapes of his exile. Mexico had become Meyer’s landscape. But he did not settle down in it. His stay in Mexico and as director of the TGP was only temporary. Four years after the end of the war he returned to Switzerland utterly impoverished. A few of the Estampa Mexicana albums travelled with Meyer to what was for him a familiar European landscape, in the interim made strange, divided into East and West. At Zurich’s Museum of Arts and Crafts in 1951, three years before his death, Meyer organized the exhibition Mexikanische Druckgraphik. Die Werkstatt für graphische Volkskunst in Mexiko (Mexican prints: The workshop for popular graphic art in Mexico). Meyer’s fellow exile in Mexico, Georg Stibi attempted to popularize the artists of the TGP in the German Democratic Republic after his political rehabilitation.84 The different ways of leaving and arriving, enforced or voluntary, form an intractable dialectic concerning the possible ways of remaining.85

  • 1 Sebastian Conrad and Shalini Randeria (eds.): Jenseits des Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale Perspektiven in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften 2, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York 2002, p. 2 and 17 et seqq.; on the relationships of modernity and colonialism see Walter D. Mignolo: The Idea of Latin America. Blackwell Manifestos, Blackwell Publishing, Hoboken 2005, p. 5, and ibid.: “La colonialidad a lo largo”, pp. 56–57; Aníbal Quijano/Immanuel Wallerstein: “Americanity as a Concept,” pp. 23–40.
  • 2 Eberhard Voigt: Das Jahrhundertende. Das Design und dessen Funktionen in der Gesellschaft, Ms. Berlin, Berlin 1996, pp. 5, 91.
  • 3 Ibid., pp. 5 and 7.

  • 4 Karin Carmen Jung: “Planung der sozialistischen Stadt. Hannes Meyer in der Sowjetunion 1930–1936“, in: Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin, und Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt a. M., Hannes Meyer 1889–1954. Architekt, Urbanist, Lehrer, Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, Verlag für Architektur und technische Wissenschaft, Berlin 1989, pp. 264–289, here: pp. 286–289.
  • 5 Meyer first travelled to Mexico in 1938, staying for a four-month period. His second visit began in June 1939, at the invitation of President Cárdenas, and would last ten years. Hannes, Meyer: “Biografische Angaben,“ in: Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin und Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt a. M., Hannes Meyer 1889–1954. Architekt, Urbanist, Lehrer, Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, Verlag für Architektur und technische Wissenschaft, Berlin 1989, pp. 355–362, here: p. 355.
  • 6 Aníbal Quijano: “Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina”, in: Lander, Edgardo (ed.), La colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas latinoamericanas, 201–246, CLACSO, Buenos Aires 2005, p. 237.
  • 7 Friedrich Katz: “Un intento único de modernización en México: el régimen de Lázaro Cárdenas”, in: Maihold, Günther (ed.), Las modernidades de México. Espacios, Procesos, Trayectorias, 11–22. ADLAF, MexArtes-Berlin.DE, IAI, México D.F. 2004, p. 20.

  • 8 Ibid., p. 17.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 19.
  • 10 Hannes Meyer (ed.): TGP México. El taller de gráfica popular. Doce años de obra artística colectiva = The Workshop for Popular Graphic Art: A Record of Twelve Years of Collective Work, La Estampa Mexicana, México D.F. 1949, p. vi.

  • 11 Helga Prignitz-Poda: Taller de Gráfica Popular = Werkstatt für Grafische Volkskunst: Plakate und Flugblätter zur Arbeiterbewegung und Gewerkschaften in Mexiko 1937–1986/Ausstellung u. Kat, Ibero-Amerikan. Inst. Preuß. Kulturbesitz, Berlin 2002, p. 5.

  • 12 Cf. Deborah Caplow: Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print. Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture, University of Texas Press, Austin 2007, p. 155. In the first mystical-expressionistic phase of the Bauhaus Weimar the cathedral symbolized the traditional masons’ guilds that built the great medieval cathedrals. These guilds served as a template for the Bauhaus workshops (Eberhard Voigt: Das Jahrhundertende, 1996, p. 7).
  • 13 Katz: “Un intento único”, 2004, p. 11.
  • 14 Karsten Paerregaard: “Power Recycled: Persistence and Transformation in Peruvian Transnationalism”, in: Zoomers, Annelies (ed.), The Andean Exodus. Transnational Migration from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA), Amsterdam 2002, pp. 1–28, here: p. 2.
  • 15 Clifford: Routes, 1997.

  • 16 Cf. Clifford: “Traveling Cultures”, 1997.
  • 17 Arjun Appadurai: Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London 1996, p. 31.

  • 18 Cf. James Clifford: On The Edges of Anthropology (Interviews). Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC, Chicago 2003; Clifford: “Traveling Cultures”, 1997.
  • 19 Cf. Ibid.
  • 20 Clifford: “Traveling Cultures”, 1997.
  • 21 Stefanie Kron: “Zonas fronterizas, ¿ciudadanos transfronterizos? – Transmigración, género y ciudadanía en la frontera guatemalteca-mexicana”, in: Kron, Stefanie/Noack, Karoline (ed.), ¿Qué género tiene el derecho? Ciudadanía, historia y globalización, EditionTtranvia, Berlin 2008, pp. 259–284.

  • 22 Cited in Wolfgang Kießling: Exil in Lateinamerika. Kunst und Literatur im antifaschistischen Exil 1933–1945, Verlag Philipp Reclam jun., Leipzig 1980, pp. 167–168.

  • 23 Clifford: “Traveling Cultures”, 1997.
  • 24 The TGP made contact with Heinrich Gutmann in 1938. He commissioned the TGP to produce a series of posters for the first organization for German exiles in Mexico. Helga Prignitz: TGP. Ein Grafiker-Kollektiv in Mexico von 1937–1977, Verlag Richard Seitz & Co., Berlin 1981, pp. 62–63.
  • 25 Prignitz: TGP, 1981, p. 230.
  • 26 Prignitz-Poda: Taller de Gráfica Popular, 2002, p. 12.
  • 27 The Movement for a free Germany was the successor organization of the League for German Culture.
  • 28 Prignitz-Poda: Taller de Gráfica Popular, 2002, pp. 17–18.
  • 29 Georg Stibi was regarded as “recalcitrant” by other members of the KPD in exile, who were often extremely confrontational in their interactions with one another. Anna Seghers was the only member of this group to ignore the ban on contact with him. While this is not the place to delve into the relationships between the German exiles, more about the subject may be found in, e.g., Kießling: Exil in Lateinamerika, 1980 and Fritz Pohle: Das mexikanische Exil: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politisch-kulturellen Emigration aus Deutschland (1937–1946), Metzler, Stuttgart 1986.
  • 30 See below for the book titled TGP México. El taller de gráfica popular. Doce años de obra artística colectiva. Prignitz-Poda: Taller de Gráfica Popular, 2002, p. 23, fn. 13, p. 21, fn. 11.
  • 31 Prignitz: TGP, 1981, p. 230.
  • 32 Ibid.
  • 33 Gropius, Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, (19 Oct. 2018).
  • 34 (19 Oct. 2018).
  • 35 Translated from the German by D.Q.  Stephenson. From Hannes Meyer: Buildings, Projects, and Writings, Arthur Niggli Ltd., Teufen AR/Switzerland 1965.

  • 36 Hannes Meyer: “The new world,” (1926) in: Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (eds.): The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, University of California Press, Berkeley 1994, pp. 445–48, (19 Oct. 2018).

  • 37 Cf. Sonja Neef: "An Bord der Bauhaus,” in: Ibid: An Bord der Bauhaus. Zur Heimatlosigkeit der Moderne, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2009, pp. 11–26 (, 19 Oct. 2018). Frank Lloyd Wright celebrated the age of steel and steam and Le Corbusier coined the term “machine à habiter” (machine for living in). Voigt: Das Jahrhundertende, 1996, pp. 5, 7–8.
  • 38 Hannes Meyer, “The new World”, (1926) 1994.
  • 39 Typographische Mitteilungen, issue 26, 1929. The work “Gesang an den Hammer” (Ode to the forge) by the poet Heinrich Lersch, later controversial due to his stance on fascism, printed in Das Schiff, issue 1, 1929, states: “... Messengers of liberation, airplanes, silver into the ether, / metallic doves of peace / Ocean liners, steel ships, strong agents of fraternity! Locomotives, goods trains, wheat, wool and oil! Ploughs and motors, helpers of the people, dynamos, bridges and tracks / And especially the binding, building cement! Ore and coal! Iron! / Brotherly presents! Mutual friendships! Pledging togetherness! / Together we forge the sacred family of humanity ...,” p. 1.
  • 40 Prignitz, TGP, p. 231.
  • 41 Prignitz: TGP, 1981, p. 231.
  • 42 Ibid.
  • 43 Tanja Frank: postscript, in: Tanja Frank (ed.), Paul Westheim. Karton mit Säulen. Antifaschistische Kunstkritik, Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag, Leipzig/Weimar 1985, pp. 322–342, here: p. 324. Das Kunstblatt was founded in 1917 by the Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag. Ibid. The TGP artists revert “to conventional ... images to be broadly comprehensible to the people and to keep alive the enthusiasm with which they fought for their liberation” (Paul Westheim, Holzschnittbuch, cited in Prignitz: TGP, 1981, p. 232.
  • 44 Private communication, Dirk Scheper, 14 May 2008.

  • 45 Prignitz-Poda: Taller de Gráfica Popular, 2002, p. 23.
  • 46 Juan O’Gorman’s major works include the studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in San Angel and the mural in the main library building of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
  • 47 Mignolo: The Idea of Latin America, 2005, pp. 4–5 and 33; Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “Unthinkable History,” in: idem: Silencing the Past, Beacon Press, Boston 1995, p. 70–107, here: p. 78. This new school of thought is to be viewed in the context of an early critique of the colonial situation emerging from anthropology (i.e., Michel Leiris: Situation coloniale). Critical anthropologists saw in the 1050s “the end of empire become a widely accepted project, if not an accomplished fact.” James Clifford, introduction, p. 8. See also: Edmundo O’Gorman: La invención de América. Investigación acerca de la estructura histórica del nuevo mundo y del sentido de su devenir. Colección Tierra Firme. México D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica (1958) 2004.
  • 48 Trouillot: “Unthinkable History,” 1995, p. 87; Enrique Dussel: “Europa, modernidad y eurocentrismo”, in: Edgardo Lander (ed.): La colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales, CLACSO, Buenos Aires 2005, pp. 41–53, here: p. 47.
  • 49 Mignolo: The Idea of Latin America, 2005, p. 5; Trouillot: “Unthinkable History”, 1995, p. 74.
  • 50 Ibid., pp. 89–90. “If the philosophers did reformulate some of the answers inherited from the Renaissance, the question ‘What is Man?’ kept stumbling against the practices of domination and of merchant accumulation. The gap between abstraction and practice grew, or, better said, the handling of the contradictions between the two became much more sophisticated, in part because philosophy provided as many answers as colonial practice itself. The Age of Enlightenment was an age in which slave drivers from Nantes bought titles to nobility to better parade with philosophers, an age in which a freedom fighter such as Thomas Jefferson owned slaves without bursting under the weight of his intellectual and moral contradictions.” Ibid., p. 78.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 76.
  • 52 Ibid.
  • 53 Walter D. Mignolo and Freya Schiwy: “Beyond Dichotomies: Translation/Transculturation and the Colonial Difference”, in: Mudimbe-Boyi, Elisabeth (ed.): Beyond Dichotomies. Histories, Identities, Cultures, and the Challenge of Globalization, State University of New York Press, Albany 2002, pp. 251–286, here: p. 238.
  • 54 Mignolo: The Idea of Latin America, 2005, p. xv.
  • 55 Prignitz-Poda: Taller de Gráfica Popular, 2002, p. 23. The book was published in a print run of 1,600. Five hundred copies feature the original graphics. One of these is found at the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.
  • 56 Hannes Meyer, introduction to TGP México, emphasis retained from the original text.
  • 57 Ibid.
  • 58 Ibid.; cf. the statements below regarding the snake by Leopoldo Méndez.
  • 59 This book was first translated into English in 1965 and German in 1966.
  • 60 Westheim described Aztec art as a variant of mythical realism. For more on Leopoldo Méndez snake graphic, cf. Caplow: Leopoldo Méndez, 2007, p. 178.
  • 61 Ibid., pp. 178–179.

  • 62 Ibid., p. 179.

  • 63 Also “Goddess of the Skirt of Snakes,” “Snake Woman,” “Goddess of Impurity,” “Our Mother,” with reference to human sacrifice; Jean Franco: “La venganza de Coatlicue”, in: Maihold, Günther (ed.): Las modernidades de México. Espacios, Procesos, Trayectorias, ADLAF, MexArtes-Berlin.DE, IAI, México D.F. 2004,” pp. 23–33, here: p. 23.
  • 64 Ibid., p. 24.
  • 65 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 66 Ibid., pp. 27–28.
  • 67 Ibid., p. 29.
  • 68 Mignolo: The Idea of Latin America, 2005, p. xi.
  • 69 Ibid.
  • 70 Westheim (intentionally?) seizes on Victor Klemperer’s LTI – Notizbuch eines Philologen (Lingua Tertii Imperii) (The Language of the Third Reich) treatment of the word “fanatical,” restoring the negative connotation which it had possessed since Rousseau and the Enlightenment, and which was given a positive connotation in the language of the Third Reich. Klemperer has examined “fanatic” in association with “belief.” Laza emphasizes that fanaticism and fanatic are words tying in with a utopian worldview—the total surrender to God, the state of devout rapture. The LTI gave the word a positive meaning. Fanaticism became a virtue; irrational fascination was made into a positive core virtue. (15)
  • 71 Paul Westheim: Arte antiguo de México. Fondo de Cultura Económica, México D.F./Buenos Aires 1950, p. 311.
  • 72 The author describes surrealism as the abstract vision which is intensified by concrete representations. Ibid., p. 318.
  • 73 Meyer: “The new world,” (1926) 1994.

  • 74 Prignitz, TGP, 1981, p. 14.
  • 75 Hannes Meyer: “bauhaus und gesellschaft”, in: Typographische Mitteilungen. Zeitschrift des Bildungsverbandes der deutschen Buchdrucker, Vol. 26, No. 8, p. 183, 1929, “wir suchen/keinen bauhausstil und keine bauhausmode”, Ibid.
  • 76 Chakrabarty notes the difference between such representations and the “nightmare of ‘tradition’ that ‘modernity’ creates”; emphasis of K. Noack; Dipesh Chakrabarty: Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historial Difference, University of Princeton Press, Princeton 2000, p. 46.
  • 77 Aníbal Quijano & Immanuel Wallerstein: “Americanity as a concept, or the Americas in the modern world system”, in: International Social Science Journal, Vol. 134, 1992, pp. 583–591, here: 23–40; Quijano, Colonialidad del poder, 2005, p. 216.
  • 78 Mignolo: The Idea of Latin America, 2005, p. 46.
  • 79 Quijano & Wallerstein: “Americanicity”, 1992, emphasis of the original.
  • 80 Meyer: “bauhaus und gesellschaft,” 1929.
  • 81 Meyer: “The new world,” (1926) 1994.
  • 82 Meyer: “bauhaus und gesellschaft,” 1929.
  • 83 Ibid.
  • 84 Prignitz-Poda: Taller de Gráfica Popular, 2002, pp. 24.
  • 85 Clifford: On the Edges of Anthropology, 2003, p. 29.
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