bauhaus
imaginista
Article

The Bauhaus and Morocco

The Fine-Arts School of Casablanca bulletin, 1965.

The twentieth century was very rich in terms of trends and movements, and yet, the Bauhaus seems to have sown more incisively than many others the seeds of a number of fundamental ideas that germinated worldwide. As Herbert Bayer declared in the interview mentioned above, “Walter Gropius had founded in 1919 an absolutely new school, the first of its kind in the world”. No school that saw itself as in any way innovative could ignore it. And the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca was indeed an innovative institution. Equally important in the 1950s and 1960s had been the diffusion of Bauhaus Imaginista, reaching out to artists in a number of different modes in time and space through both formal and informal channels. In soliciting the attention and experience of an international-pioneer generation, its reception was mainly based on correspondence and affinities. Mutual encounters released new, innovative creative energies.

Changing the Present, Building the Future

In May 1982, the Moroccan newspaper Al-maghreb asked me to write an article for their issue on the ongoing Rabat conference “Rencontre entre Architectes et Plasticiens”. I was to contribute with an outline history of the artists who had attended the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca, and their productions and theories between the 1960s and 1970s. In documenting that work, I quoted the statement made by Walter Gropius: “architects, sculptors, painters, we must all turn to the crafts […] the artist is an exalted craftsman”. The team of the school of Casablanca knew about the Bauhaus Manifesto and had interpreted it, I wrote, in “an imaginative, flexible, independent” way. Many years before, in 1965, when presenting a group exhibition of the school’s students, I had written that their collective work was “inspired by the ideas and methods of the first real modern art school, the Bauhaus”. The reference to Gropius and the Bauhaus in connection with the school of Casablanca should not surprise, nor, as we shall see, should the fact that its painters often mentioned the discovery of Klee, and also Kandinsky, as important for their early formative experience.

In the years when Western nations were committed in new projects of partnership, with what was then called the “Third World”, young artists and students from the Maghreb and other parts of the world, had been granted scholarships by a range of countries. They had grown up in the passionate climate of the struggle for independence, were talented, open to modernity, and eager to connect with twentieth-century international art movements, which were different in production and spirit from colonial ideology and culture. Scholarships offered the opportunity to get acquainted with a variety of situations, art movements, research areas and styles, and also to learn, or hear about, the innovative Bauhaus Weimar and Dessau periods.

Teachers Belkahia, Chabaa, Melehi and the Italian artist Bonalumi with the students of the Painting Atelier, Casablanca 1965, © Mohamed Melehi.

Toni Maraini’s art history course, pedagogical brochure of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, 1962–65.

The Moroccan painters Mohamed Melehi and Mohamed Chabâa — the first to join the Casablanca school as art teachers in the 1960s — had been studying for some years in Rome. Italy had been connected with the Bauhaus from very early on and, at the time, was involved in a wide debate on the question. In a 1953 article dedicated to the Bauhaus “from Weimar to Ulm” the Italian avant-garde magazine Arti Visive had published excerpts from Max Bill’s writings on rational functionalism and the New Bauhaus at Ulm. The following year, however, in 1954, the same magazine published a note saying that a “Mouvement International pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste contre un Bauhaus imaginaire” was born in opposition to Max Bill’s Ulm Bauhaus, which was to be considered “only a simple school of Industrial art”. The note informed readers that Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo of Milan’s “Nuclear Art” movement had participated with their friend Asger Jorn in the birth of the above-mentioned Bauhaus Imaginista. There was enough material to fuel discussions and debates among architects and artists, and among artists themselves, the latter being more interested in the free, creative, cosmopolitan and transnational message of the Bauhaus Imaginista than in the Ulm School. It was in this climate that young artists and students from Italy and abroad (mainly from the Mediterranean area) passionately debated about art. And it was towards the end of the 1950s or early 1960s that I met Melehi and Chabâa along with another young Moroccan artist, Mohamed Ataallah, in Rome. All three were born in northern Morocco — under the Spanish protectorate at the time — and had started their early studies at the Institut National des Beaux-Arts Tétouan (National Institute of Fine Arts of Tétouan), and then Spain. These common ties and the Italian experience were going to count for their future collaboration. The main desire of their generation at the time was to contribute. So, once back to Morocco, in the midst of the post-colonial artistic and cultural renewal, the three artists fully engaged with that enterprise, now brought together as a group at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca.

The Casablanca Group: (from left to right) Ataallah, Belkahia, Hafid, Hamidi, Chabaa, Melehi, exhibiting in the Jama's El Fna Square of Marrakech, 1969.

The École des Beaux-Arts of Casablanca was located in a quite smart small building surrounded by a garden in the central area of Casablanca. It had been created under the French protectorate, and before independence the school was attended by a small select number of Europeans. A few years after independence, though, things were going to change. Farid Belkahia, a dynamic and talented painter, was appointed the school’s new director in 1962. He had just returned to Morocco after a period of work and study in Prague, a cosmopolitan centre which had been receptive to the creative ideas of the Bauhaus. As Belkahia later stated, recalling his formative years, he had “been altogether shaken by the discovery in Prague of Paul Klee’s paintings”. Recalling his own formative years, Mohamed Chabâa, in turn, had declared something similar about the period in which he had discovered Kandinsky’s “lyricism”, the former crediting Kandinsky with helping him realize “the possibility to express myself in abstract painting”. Along with a number of other interviews, both of these statements were published in 1967 by the Moroccan magazine Souffles founded by a handful of poets with the collaboration of the above-mentioned artists. Souffles was going to play a highly significant cultural, intellectual and ideological role in Morocco. The collaboration between the literary and the visual—two fields that up until then had been quite separate—opened the way to a wide range of illustrated poetry editions and productions.

The School's art magazine Maghreb Art, No. 2, 1966.

When appointed as the new director of the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca, Belkahia opened up the institution to Moroccan students and tried to renew the activities, programs and pedagogy of a school still very much colonial in practice and spirit. But he needed a new team of teaching staff. After meeting Melehi in 1964, who had recently returned from a spell of teaching in the United States, he invited him to be in charge of the school’s painting department. As I was then travelling with Melehi in Morocco and had just graduated in art history, Belkahia proposed that I should create a course in art history. A year later, Mohamed Chabâa joined the School to teach graphic art. Meanwhile in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, the same three painters organized what could be seen as the group’s first entirely independent exhibition. The press called them “artistes contestataires” (Protest artists), named them “le Groupe de Casablanca” and spoke of a “new aesthetics”. Single cases of artists, men and women (such as Chaïbia Tallal, a woman painter “discovered” in the 1950s by the Cobra group), had been producing very interesting work in Morocco, but, as they were mostly autodidacts, the protectorate had pretended that Moroccan art could only be picturesque, spontaneous and “naïf”. The artists of the Casablanca school were to contest such a policy and turn to new research areas, both in the field of abstract art and in the figurative arts.

Once in the school, Belkahia, Melehi and Chabâa engaged in changing its pedagogy and program. Arab calligraphy and a new ethos of free research on signage and lettering, graphic design and publicity, photography and art history were introduced besides sculpture, painting, ceramics and a two-year course in the basics of architecture. Weekly tutorials between students and teachers were organized to discuss any problems students were experiencing and to better understand how the school could form them into contributors to the “building of a national art and culture”. Students were encouraged to engage in experimental practice using different techniques and materials, and to work in groups. They were asked to organize their own department’s exhibits, realize large panels and to collaborate with the teaching team on a number of public exhibitions. On several occasions, the school organized journeys to visit historical sites, to learn about traditional urban and rural architecture, arts and crafts. A small magazine was published titled Maghreb Art which treated these subjects. Besides lessons on modern art—which for the first time included the study of the Bauhaus alongside general historical notions—the art history course turned to non-European art, that of the African Continent and the Maghreb, for example, which up until then had hardly been considered by the previous school’s curriculum.

After 1966, the painters Mohamed Ataallah, Mohamed Hamidi and Mostafa Hafid joined the teaching team. Hafid had studied art in Poland and Hamidi in Paris. Such varied backgrounds counted much for the spirit of the school. Their personalities, works and styles were different, yet they shared some basic views. As Hamidi declared recalling his experience in Paris, “at that time new fields of investigation opened up to me, and I discovered the paintings of Matisse, Klee and Bissière”. The reference to a variety of painters, discovered in the formative years, almost always included the name of Paul Klee (this was true in the case of some other Maghrebi painters as well). Besides teaching in the school, all of these artists engaged in a number of projects that had a relevant impact nationally. Having signed collectively a polemic declaration/manifesto that took a critical stance on official post-independence art and cultural policies, the Casablanca Group (Casa Group as they became known) organized several public open-air exhibitions/events called “Présence plastique”, to which I was contributing written work. The most famous open-air exhibit, today quoted as a milestone, was held in 1969 in one of Marrakech’s most traditional and popular public squares, the Jema el-Fna.

Wall murals of Farid Belkahia and Mohamed Hamidi in Asilah (North of Morocco), 1980, © Mohamed Melehi.

Article of the Moroccan magazine Tel Quel, 2004.

During those years, and over the next decade, the Casa Group realized important works in collaboration with architects. A significant amount of modern architecture had been produced in Morocco under the protectorate. After independence, the most innovative leading figures of its modern movement—Jean-François Zévaco, Henri Tastemain and Elie Azagury, joined by younger architects such as Patrice de Mazières and Abdeslam Faraoui—realized many projects, which marked a new important phase. The artists of the Casablanca school, who advocated “an organic synthesis and integration of all the arts and their different techniques”, collaborated with them. Their most consistent projects were made for the cabinet d’architecture Faraoui-de Mazières. As Patrice de Mazières noted “in 1967 […] we were told about the existence of the Fine Arts School of Casablanca […] It was a revelation for us, the discovery of a research centre in the field of plastic arts similar to our own […] that marked the beginning of a friendly collaboration that was enriching for us all.” Painted frescoes and/or large mural panels in brick, wood, stone, ceramic, even tapestry and mosaic were realized for architectural projects. Belkahia’s large panels in copper and in painted leather stand out as examples of the pioneering production of this time. A number of other Moroccan artists were soon to collaborate with architects.

At this point, however, in the 1970s, the situation was beginning to change considerably. A younger, equally talented generation, of men and women, were engaging in a variety of new research and practical work. Some of them had studied at the Casablanca school. In the meantime, the main artists who had taught at the school, and its director Belkahia, one after the other, had left the institution. A historical task had been achieved: the School had played a pioneering role in changing and reinvigorating the art culture of Morocco and opened the way to new horizons. While dedicating more time to their personal projects and productions, the group continued, however, to engage in activities on the national level, collaborating both with the Tétouan school and groups and artists from the North and South of Morocco. A number of public events were organized in the spirit of “Présence plastique”. In particular, when a festival was founded in the traditional town of Assilah, south of Tangier, in 1978 — among others, by Melehi and several other artists including Mohamed Kacimi, Houcine Miloudi, Abdallah Hariri and Malika Agueznay — where people gathered to paint frescoes and murals on the outdoor walls along the streets. The outcome was powerful. But by then Moroccan modern art had entered an altogether new period.

When the Past is Imaginista …

Let’s return to the Bauhaus “connection” and consider another aspect: the role of the Casablanca school in the study, reappraisal and elaboration of what could be called the school’s past Imaginista roots.

The history of how cultural anthropology, ethnography and journeys beyond the boundaries of the West led the Western world to “discover” other cultures and art forms, which inspired new movements and artists in the Europe, thus challenging Eurocentric academic studies as well as the prejudice towards popular arts and crafts once considered “minor”, is now well researched. In the almanac Der Blaue Reiter—which included, alongside Russian folk art, works from Africa, Asia and Oceania—Kandinsky, Marc and Klee had opened up the debate over formalism again in a few words: “as to mock European aesthetics, forms speak everywhere an absolute language”. An altogether new musée imaginaire was being constituted whose “absolute language” was universal. Some Western artists had contributed to this process by turning to new plastic forms and visions. This was clear in the case of both Der Blaue Reiter and the prominent members of the Bauhaus. In particular, the many notes, sketches, drawings and paintings relating to their journeys in North Africa documented how both Klee and Kandinsky had been inspired by the discovery of local arts and crafts, colour palettes, symbols and forms of abstraction. Whereas some painters travelling in Africa and the Orient had been conditioned by an exotic quest, Klee and Kandinsky’s approach was open and empathetic.

Small poster of the Marrakech open-air exhibit.

Page from the interview of Toni Maraini with Herbert Bayer, in: Integral, No. 12–13, 1978.

I had the occasion to interview a Bauhaus artist called Herbert Bayer in 1967. He was living in a house in Tangier, which is where he had first arrived in 1963. I visited him there with the painter Melehi, who, since Bayer was quite unknown in Morocco, had wanted to introduce readers of the Casablanca art magazine Integral to Bayer’s important historic role and production. The article was published in the 1978 issue of Integral. When talking about his stay in Morocco, Bayer declared “Morocco has meant a lot to me; before coming here, I painted using monochrome colours and sophisticated forms, but once here I engaged in a new plastic experience and changed the direction of my research; I began a new way of painting, turning to primary colours and pure geometric forms.” Attracted by the great variety of geometric patterns and colours of Islamic and local traditional arts, Bayer had elaborated some of their elements in an altogether personal way. The interesting part of this story is that Melehi had been receptive to Bayer’s artwork as much as to his typographic innovations.

Such twentieth-century stories of journeys, encounters and “discoveries” interlace with a similar reverse story. It led the pioneering generation of artists from Morocco, the Maghreb and the “Third World” to experience what the French art critic Pierre Restany called a “transhumance journey”: finding inspiration in the art and theories of Western avant-garde production, these artists discovered elements of their own roots. Where colonialism had tended to underestimate or deny spiritual and aesthetic values in the visual traditions of the “other”, the Western avant-garde had perceived things from a different perspective. In his book Feuillets épars liés—a collection of essays on the genesis of Algerian modern art—the painter and critic Mohammed Khadda put it in this way: “the young Algerian artists who studied and travelled abroad could not remain indifferent to the stimulating appeal of universal culture in its different aspects. […] When looking for their singularity, they had the occasion to observe how […] European contemporary arts had been influenced and enriched by discovering the art treasures once plundered by colonialism […]. African arts had stimulated Cubism […] Matisse had used arabesque, the admirable Klee had been seduced by the Orient […]. In truth, our painters had made a long detour to discover signs and forms of their precious heritage.” Khadda also judiciously observed that Algerian artists had to be cautious not to mythicize their own traditions and, while searching for “a creative genealogy”, it was essential they kept a critical view-point, turning only to what was “still alive, passionate and instructive […] as a source of reference”. A reference “modern”, ante litteram, and both local and universal; it was no different from the “transhumance journey” of the modern artists from Morocco

The Casablanca school played a pioneering role in the study of the “precious heritage” of its students. Since 1964, we collectively engaged in a number of field-research projects, travelling throughout the country to gather information, take photographs and notes, study sources and document the works of male and female artisans and their skills, knowledge and organization. I say “we” as I was part of a team and wrote studies and articles on those questions. A lot of attention was given to the signs and symbols, their aesthetic, iconography and history within the Afro-Mediterranean space. Whereas once a Louis XIV chair or a still life had been held up by the school as an example of fine craftsmanship or of what to paint, now a beautiful rural traditional carpet — the work of a woman artisan from the Houz region — was hung on the wall of the painting class to inspire students. The carpet was friendlily named “Klee’s carpet”. For a short period, Bert Flint — a Dutch-born researcher who was collecting rural pieces of art throughout Morocco focusing on iconology — joined the school. The “source of reference” confirmed how meaningful a triangle, wavy line, a lozenge, or a colour could be. They were all elements of a cryptic language — or, to say it with Asger Jorn’s Imaginista declaration of the visual realm — they were “silent myths”. Painters of the Maghreb were inspired in a radical free and personal way by such a “source”. It confirmed that abstraction was not the fruit of an “Occidental alienation”, as the traditionalists had claimed. This was beautifully expressed in 1968 in the Manifesto of the Algerian Awchem (Tattoos) group. In Morocco at the time there were a couple of artists outside the Casa Group, following a similar quest. In particular Ahmed Cherkaoui — who, as the Moroccan writer Edmond Amran El Maleh has pointed out “in his formative years of study in France and Poland had been much influenced by Bissière and Klee” — produced a very forceful body of work by turning to the signs and symbols of his childhood memories. The Casa Group, spotting the talent of Cherkaoui, soon included him in a number of their exhibitions. The importance of the Casablanca school, however, was to have been the first to theorize, clearly in words, the contribution of “silent myths” to the wider mosaic of a universal “absolute language” of art.

One must bear in mind the situation at the time. Though urban Islamic art and architecture had been thoroughly studied during the colonial era by a number of eminent scholars and Orientalists, urban and rural “popular” arts and crafts, their patterns and forms, were still labelled with the colonial terms of "arts indigènes" and considered merely “decorative”, “folkloristic” and “minor”. Part of the Casablanca school’s work of re-evaluation was treated in the publication Maghreb Art — and later by Integral — and of course in the school’s various faculties and in its various courses in art history and architecture. It was during these meetings and discussions that the past resurfaced, when the concepts of Gropius on artist/craftsman and craftsman/artist were to reveal their true importance in overcoming the rigid boundaries that had once separated the arts.

Traditional carpet of a Houz woman artisan hanged in the School Painting Atelier and called "Paul Klee's Carpet", 1965.

Conclusion

The twentieth century was very rich in terms of trends and movements, and yet, the Bauhaus seems to have sown more incisively than many others the seeds of a number of fundamental ideas that germinated worldwide. As Herbert Bayer declared in the interview mentioned above: “Walter Gropius had founded in 1919 an absolutely new school, the first of its kind in the world”. No school that saw itself as in any way innovative could ignore it. And the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca was indeed an innovative institution. Equally important in the 1950s and 1960s had been the diffusion of Bauhaus Imaginista, reaching out to artists in a number of different modes in time and space through both formal and informal channels. In soliciting the attention and experience of an international-pioneer generation, its reception was mainly based on correspondence and affinities. Mutual encounters released new, innovative creative energies.

All images are from the private collection of Toni Maraini.

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