bauhaus imaginista

The Bauhaus was established in 1919 in Weimar as a new model of a design school in the imme­diate aftermath of the First World War and the German Revolution. It brought together a younger generation of students and teachers who rejected the nationalistic, militaristic, and authoritarian past and insisted on the social relevance of the arts in an emerging democratic society. Helping to shape this radical imagina­tion for new practices, new forms of learning, and new lifestyles was the idea that the individ­ual and the material environment should be freed from all that was unnecessary and that the relationship between the arts, craft, design, and the building should be rethought.

From its inception, the Bauhaus was internationally oriented; students and teachers travelled from different parts of Europe and Asia to join the school. The rise of the right wing forced the Bauhaus to move from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 and to Berlin in 1932, before the National Socialists seized control and perpetrated their violence through the state apparatus. The school closed in 1933 and, consequently, many students and masters fled Germany to settle in different parts of the world.

bauhaus imaginista provides a rereading of the cosmopolitan conditions of the Bauhaus from a transnational perspective, through a series of histories that have been investigated by the curators and a team of researchers since 2016. The exhibition in Berlin follows on from events in Rabat, Hangzhou, New York, Kyoto and Tokyo, Moscow, São Paulo, Lagos, and New Delhi in 2018. It shows how the Bauhaus, through contact with other schools and mod­ernisms developed, and how its concepts and methods were refracted, adapted, or rejected through contact with local conditions: including Cold War struggles, the Non­-Aligned Movement, dictatorships, processes of decolonization and development projects, as well as the burgeoning artistic and popular cultures in the postwar period. The exhibition follows these transmissions of knowledge, through migration as well as the interpretation, appropriation, and imagination of Bauhaus practices, in China, North Korea, India, Morocco, the Soviet Union, Nigeria, the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and Brazil.

bauhaus imaginista takes four different Bauhaus objects as points of departure for thematic and conceptual chapters linked to the school and its reception in diverse geographies. At the Haus der Kulturen der Welt these chapters are presented as four distinct exhibitions situ­ated in different parts of the building:

Lyonel Feininger, Kathedrale [Cathedral], 1919, Cover and one page of the manifesto and programme of the Bauhaus (Walter Gropius), April 1919. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Corresponding With departs from the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto published by Walter Gropius. This drew on radical movements that wanted to overcome the academic art institution, and which championed the social value of craft as a way to redress the aliena­tion of nineteenth­ century industrial capitalism. The Bauhaus school was at the confluence of interna­tional ideas on modernism and educational reform, rethinking the relationship between the applied and non-­applied arts, between manual and cognitive knowledge. As an educational experiment, it was exceptional in putting various ideas and practices into a new curriculum and re-imagining the role of the arts in relation to society.

The Bauhaus opened in April 1919 in the same year the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore established the art school Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan in West Bengal. Like the early Bauhaus, Kala Bhavan devel­oped a modernist language while referring to the past, including the craft traditions of India as well as the British Arts and Crafts movement, and it worked towards decolonizing Indian culture. Another Bauhaus-related educational experiment—Shin Kenchiku Kōgei Gakuin (School of New Architecture and Design)—was founded by Renshichirō Kawakita in Tokyo in 1932, in collaboration with Japanese Bauhaus graduates. This Tokyo school combined modernist crafts and industrial forms of production with Japanese ideas on aesthetics.

The exhibition chapter Corresponding With compares the philosophy and practice of these three schools, linked by letters, the exchange of ideas, writings, and personal encounters. Considered in relation to one another and in terms of early twentieth-century art education as part of transnational and transcul­tural exchange, these schools shared a critique of European academic art education and the desire to reshape society through radical pedagogy, at the same time as they distanced themselves from rising nationalisms.

Paul Klee, Teppich (Carpet), 1927, Hans-Willem Snoeck, Brooklyn, New York, Photo © Edward Watkins.

Departing from Paul Klee’s 1927 drawing Teppich (Carpet), the exhibition chapter Learning From addresses the study and appropriation of cultural production outside the modernist main­ stream, principally from non-­Western sources. Engagement with pre-modern artifacts and practices was a constant feature of the work of teachers and students at the Bauhaus and continued to inform their approach after the school’s closure. In the United States, in the middle of the twentieth century, the exploration of local craft practices and pre­-Columbian cultures in North, Central, and South America helped to develop the formal language of ab­ straction including the development of weaving and the fiber arts, which employed ancient forms and techniques.

In post-­revolutionary Mexico and postcolonial Morocco, translating local art practices into a modernist language acquired a sociopolitical dimension, as the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Workshop for Popular Graphic Art, or TGP) in Mexico and École des Beaux Arts in Casa­blanca demonstrate. The incorporation of pop­ular, indigenous, and Afro-Brazilian cultures into the lexicon of Brazilian modernism acted as a countermodel to European modernism, but occurred simultaneously with the continuing impacts of colonial violence.

In questioning the division between the high and low arts through non­-Western cultural practice, the Bauhaus contested the classicism of the European art academies but failed to take into account the sometimes violent and illegitimate appropriation of cultural goods, as well as the social, economic, and political disruption European colonialism left in its wake.

Marcel Breuer, Collage ein bauhaus-film. fünf jahre lang, 1926, in: bauhaus. zeitschrift für gestaltung, Nr. 1, 1926. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © Thomas Breuer.

The starting point for the exhibition chapter Moving Away is Marcel Breuer’s collage ein bauhaus-film. fünf jahre lang (a bauhaus film. five years long), published in the first issue of the journal bauhaus in 1926. Breuer’s “filmstrip” presents the rapid development of his chair designs at the Bauhaus to a future in which the designed object becomes obsolete. Moving Away examines how Bauhaus debates on de­sign evolved during the first half of the twentieth century, and how they changed in relation to different societal conditions and geographies.

The growing influence of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 1930s forced many Bau­haus teachers and students to emigrate, others fell victim to the regime. Geopolitical storms, generated by Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler’s seizure of power, also had an impact upon discus­sions concerning international design, architec­ture, and urbanism. After the Second World War ended, the Cold War, the end of European colonial rule, and the achievements of the Non-­Aligned Movement exerted a countervailing effect on design policy including in newly inde­pendent states, where ambitious building pro­jects included modernist campus architecture.

Moving Away looks at how Bauhaus design con­cepts and the standards of design they embod­ied were received by other societies, and how they were altered through this diaspora. With case studies in China, India, Nigeria, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and Taiwan, through archival and filmic research and commissioned artworks, Moving Away explores how Bauhaus design evolved through its entanglement with social, cultural, and political exigencies.

Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Reflektorische Lichtspiele (Reflecting Light-plays), 1922, light performance, apparatus reconstructed 2016. Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate © 2016.

The Bauhaus object for the exhibition chapter Still Undead is Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Farblichtspiele (Reflecting color-light plays) from 1922. Producing a combination of moving abstract shadows, light forms, and sound, it emerged as a creative development at the Bau­haus from outside the curriculum. As the start­ing point for Still Undead, the Farblichtspiele opens up numerous strands for consideration, including the Bauhaus parties, experiments with light, the artist as engineer, as well as new media in art, popular culture, and commercial design. Schwerdtfeger’s apparatus and similar works that followed it at the Bauhaus have also been an important reference for Expanded Cinema, pointing to a future in which sound, experimental film, and digital culture would all form part of contemporary art.

Still Undead traces a chronology of artistic experiments with new technologies that have emerged from academic institutions, including the New Bauhaus in Chicago, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies and Media Lab at MIT, as well as the sound and performance facilities at Leeds School of Art. This chapter explores how these innovations from within the context of academia led to collaborations with industry and commerce, as well as spilling over into the fields of digital technology, art, popular and counter­ culture. Still Undead shows how, in the context of the postwar societies of Great Britain, the United States, and West Germany, artistic exper­imentation transcended institutional structures on the one hand, while on the other, it was inte­grated into them. The blurring of the borders between experimentation, institutionalization, and commercialization, which was already char­acteristic of the Bauhaus, has now become the norm. This tendency emphasizes the neces­ sity to re­politicize art, technology, and popular culture today.

●Interview with the Curators Marion von Osten and Grant Watson