●Edition 4: Still Undead
Mar. 15–Jun. 10 2019

bauhaus imaginista, Berlin

  • Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin
  • John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10, 10557, Germany

Today in the 21st century the question still remains how to reimagine the relationship between the arts and society. The need to radicalize art education as a part of this question ran through the 20th century and when thinking of the historical Bauhaus, an example of radical pedagogy immediately appears. 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 artists and architects who rejected the nationalistic, militarist and authoritarian past and insisted on the social relevance of the arts in an emerging democratic society. This radical imagination for new practices, new forms of learning and new forms of life was shaped by the idea that the individual and the material environment should be freed from everything which was not necessary and rethinking the relationship between art, craft, design and the building. In the light of the Bauhaus school’s centenary, how can we from a contemporary perspective reimagine design and culture production as a social project, and invent the necessary kinds of institutions for the ‘advanced practices’ of today?

Paul Klee, Carpet, 1927, pen on paper on cardboard.
© 2017 Christie’s Images Limited.

Already from its inception, the Bauhaus was internationally oriented. Students and teachers travelled from different parts of Europe and Asia to become part of the school. As the curators of the project, we understand the global circulation of Bauhaus ideas not in terms of impact, but rather though its participation in international networks prior to 1933, and how this was mirrored in the school’s afterlife. The school itself was heterogeneous, and at different times, took ideas from the Arts and Crafts movement, socialism and communism, as well as spiritualist and esoteric concepts. It linked to revolutionary soviet Constructivism, and its members participated in movements such as the International Congress of Architecture (CIAM). This diversity also produced contradictions and conflict. There were discrepancies in its utopianism, for example despite steps towards toward women’s emancipation, gender hierarchies and stereotypes persisted at the Bauhaus, and tensions between art and design education, between learning and commercial production, between egalitarian aspirations and a largely upper middle-class clientele for its products went unresolved. Ultimately this complexity mitigates against any canonical reading of the Bauhaus or attempt to reduce it to a style, which has been reflected in our approach.

Walter Gropius vision of the Bauhaus – as the school’s first director from 1919–27-constituted a break with classical and academic training including its separation between the fine and applied arts. This revision was also important in parts of the world where decolonising education meant doing away with art/craft hierarchies often imposed through European colonization. Gropius believed that experimental and artistic research can intervene in the conditions of mass production. Hence the preliminary course introduced formal and material studies, which fed into the workshops and eventually through to collaborations with industry. Under the Bauhaus’s second director Hannes Meyer (1927–30) a socialist and poly-technical understanding of design was realized including spatial, topographic and societal research, before in its last phase the Bauhaus took the form of an architecture school under the directorship of the architect Mies van der Rohe (1930–33). The Bauhaus in all its different phases from 1919 to 1933 consistently remained a school for practitioners by practitioners, based in material experimentation, contrasting with the privileging of cognitive over practical and manual skills today.

Lyonel Feininger, Kathedrale [Cathedral], 1919, Cover and one page of the manifesto and programme of the Bauhaus, April 1919, 32.1 x 19.4 cm, Woodblock print.
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Photo: Atelier Schneider, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

It was the rise of right-wing that forced the Bauhaus to move from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 and to Berlin in 1932, before the National Socialist seized control of the state and perpetrated its violence through the state apparatus. In 1933 the Bauhaus was closed by the National Socialists and the school was forcibly dispersed causing many to flee Germany, and as a consequence of this the Bauhaus radiated out, to many nations and cultures – bauhaus imaginsita follows this transmission which took place through international students and masters working in many different parts of the world. Through personal encounter and through the study, interpretation, appropriation and rejection of the Bauhaus curriculum. Through our research we have tried not only to explore the international reception of the Bauhaus in the Twentieth Century but to also understand the stakes of each chapter, its themes and ideas, in terms of a contemporary politics. Our research conducted in collaboration with scholars from Brazil, China, India, Japan, Morocco, Nigeria, Russia and the United States, indicates how Bauhaus ideas and practices are refracted through contact with local conditions, cold war struggles, non-aligned politics and dictatorship, as well as processes of decolonization and development projects.

bauhaus imaginista is divided into four chapters. Each chapter departs from a focal object selected from Bauhaus masters and students. What these four objects have in common is their propositional character and their material ephemerality. They include a copy of the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto by Walter Gropius, the 1927 drawing Teppich (Carpet) by Paul Klee, the collage ein bauhaus-film by Marcel Breuer from 1926, and ‘reflecting colorlight plays’ by Kurt Schwerdtfeger from 1922. Our curatorial approach has been to decipher these objects in relation to their own historical specificity, but also for what they suggest going forward as a genealogy of forms, practices and concepts.

Marcel Breuer, Collage „ein bauhaus-film“, in: bauhaus. zeitschrift für gestaltung, Nr. 1, 1926.
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.

Chapter 1 ‘Learning From’ takes Klee’s drawing of a north African caret to reflect on the modernist appropriation of art from outside the European mainstream. It includes the revival of craft knowledge in post-independence Morocco at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca, the influence of pre-Columbian textiles on Bauhaus émigrés to the Unites States and figures such as architect Lina Bo Bardi, who embraced the Bauhaus as well as the popular to redefine Brazilian modernism. This chapter questions the asymmetrical power relations present in cultural appropriation, addressing the blind spots in histories of study and collecting as well as the arguments for reparation. It explores the powerful dislocation of meaning which occurs when materials are taken from indigenous groups who simultaneously experience the destruction of their culture and environment.

Chapter 2 ‘Moving Away’ takes the evolution of the chair in Breuer’s collage to trace how Bauhaus design is transformed by societal and geopolitical change. From the modernization of the USSR to post-independence India, there is pressure for architecture and design to adapt. Former directors Meyer and Gropius had to update Bauhaus modernism, while courses at the Ulm School of Design and at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad both take and leave Bauhaus ideas. Departing from flight and migratory existence, this chapter reflects on the geopolitical realities within which design, art and architecture are entangled. It looks at how during the 20th Century the modernist plan conceived between architects, designers and the state serviced both progressive and repressive ends. The subsequent critique of planning and state intervention, along with privatization and deregulation of the public domain, has weakened a collective response to our present crisis of inequality and climate change. This suggest the urgent need to regain the power to plan collectively in the name of the common good.

Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Reflecting light play, 1922, light performance, apparatus reconstructed 2016.
Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate © 2016.

Chapter 3 ‘Corresponding With’ departs from the Bauhaus Manifesto to explore early twentieth century art and design pedagogy at the Bauhaus and at two other connected schools: Kala Bhavan, established in 1919 by Rabindranath Tagore in India, and Seikatsu Kōsei Kenkyujo (Research Institute of Life Construction) established by Renschichirō Kawakita in Japan in 1931.

These three avant-garde institutions participated in cosmopolitan networks and variously navigated the tensions between internationalism, nationalism, colonial rule and the rise of Fascism. This chapter considers the potential of art, design and pedagogy to shape the semiotic values embedded in material cultures, to move this away from a reactionary ethos. It looks at how institutions, including schools of art and design can imagine new ways of living and respond to patriarchal, xenophobic and nationalist pressures.

Chapter 4 ‘Still Undead’ uncovers a history of light and sound experiments starting with Schwerdtfeger’s ‘reflecting light games’. Subsequently developed by László Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus (later named Institute of Design, IIT) in Chicago, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by his colleague György Kepes, and at Leeds College of Art in the United Kingdom, such experiments transgress the boundaries of academia and enter the world of popular culture through electronic music and strobe lighting. This chapter addresses the overlapping territories of artistic expression, hedonism, micro politics, self-fashioning and commerce. It questions how in a neoliberal economy, the creative energy exemplified by art schools, and its surplus beyond the curriculum, can be oriented towards political ends, including antifascism and the queering of norms, and not be subsumed by commodity culture.

This international research project could only be realized by working intensively with a group of international collaborators including artists, designers, architects, activists, historians, cultural theorists, anthropologists and others – principally from Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Morocco, Russia, the UK and the US. We are extremely grateful for their generosity and for them sharing their ideas with us. We would also like to acknowledge the support we received from institutions in these countries; from our core partners The Bauhaus Cooperation Berlin Dessau Weimar, the Goethe Institute and the House of World Cultures; Finally, as the first large-scale project of its kind – one that does not take western perceptions of the Bauhaus as its guide but rather attempts to undo this episteme from the perspectives of Morocco and Nigeria, China, Russia, Japan and India and Brazil and the United States, we propose this exhibition as a point of departure to reflect both the wealth and breadth of new knowledge about the Bauhaus beyond Germany, but also the potential to germinate future study, reflection and imagination.