bauhaus imaginista: Corresponding With

Exhibition at MoMAK in Kyoto

Luca Frei, Model for Pedagogical Vehicle, 2017, Wood, textile, gouache
Photo: Karl Isakson.

The exhibition Corresponding With takes its starting point from a manifesto produced by Walter Gropius in 1919 to establish the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar (Weimar State Bauhaus). The manifesto was of its time and took its impetus from a broader movement in culture cognizant of the symbolic and material relevance of handmade crafts in redressing the alienation and destruction of nineteenth century industrial capitalism.

Shriniketan workshop, photo: Grant Watson, 2017.

The emphasis on material experimentation was reflected in the Vorkurs or “preliminary course,” where the fundamental principles of the Bauhaus were introduced: a corresponding emphasis on craft took root in the Bauhaus’s newly-established workshops. The German school was at the confluence of international ideas on modernism, including radical education reforms emphasizing the need to rethink the arts in order to establish the foundation of a new society. During the inter-war period, from 1919 to 1933, the Bauhaus served as an exceptional pedagogical experiment; the only institution in Europe to systematically enact the reformist agenda of the international modernist movement by formulating a radical art and design curriculum.

Through the unique opportunity presented by the 2019 Bauhaus centenary, in this exhibition the international project bauhaus imaginista discusses the Bauhaus in relation to art and/or design schools in India and Japan that were also putting radical ideas into pedagogical practice: The Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan (active since 1919) and the Tokyo-based Research Institute of Life Construction (later renamed the School of New Architecture and Design), active between 1931 and 1936. The relationship between these institutions and the Bauhaus is equally the result of serendipity, shared concerns, and direct influence. For example, the Bauhaus opened in April 1919 and that same year the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore opened the Kala Bhavan art school as part of Santiniketan, a utopian religious community founded by his father in West Bengal, approximately one hundred miles north of Calcutta (today Kolkata). As in the early Bauhaus, Kala Bhavan drew inspiration both from local traditions as well as the British Arts and Crafts movement. In 1922, the Austrian art historian Stella Kramrisch, who taught classes at Kala Bhavan, wrote a letter to Bauhaus instructor Johannes Itten, where she suggested holding a Bauhaus exhibition in India—prompted, it is believed, by Tagore’s own journeys to Europe, in particular, Germany, which he had visited the previous year. The exchange of letters between the two instructors resulted in the first international Bauhaus show at the Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta/Kolkata that December.

Seikatsu kōsei exhibition at Bunka Gakuin in Tokyo (1931), published in: Kenchiku Gaho, Vol. 22, No. 10.

Another Bauhaus related exhibition, the Seikatsu Kōsei Tenrankai (Exhibition of Life Construction) in Tokyo in 1931, was more overtly influenced by Bauhaus aesthetics. Organized by the architect Renshichiro Kawakita and recent Bauhaus graduate Takehiko Mizutani, the exhibition featured an integrated environment, including examples deriving from the Bauhaus Vorkurs and a curriculum proposal intended for a new institution. This exhibition effectively launched the education experiment Seikatsu Kōsei Kenkyūsho (Research Institute of Life Construction), founded by Kawakita in Tokyo in 1931 and later renamed Shin Kenchiku Kōgei Gakuin (School of New Architecture and Design).

This school continues to have a significant influence on contemporary Japanese design education. Like the Bauhaus Weimar, in its early days the Tokyo school combined traditional Japanese design concepts with modernist ideas and new industrial forms of production. In this context, Kawakita published (with Katsuo Takei) a book on Kōsei education, Kōsei Kyōiku Taikei (Manual for Teaching through Construction), in 1934. The Japanese word kōsei has many interpretations: structure, composition, organization, building, or education. Kawakita used it in a way that encompassed all these meanings, thus transforming specific Bauhaus principles into a uniquely Japanese version of modernist educational theory.

The exhibition Corresponding With presents and compares educational practice and philosophy at these three schools, which, although operating in different socio-cultural contexts, were in contact through letters, the movement of people, and art works. The exhibition presents rarely shown documents about their respective teaching methods and workshop environments, aesthetic languages and material cultures. Works by teachers and students, syllabi for individual courses, the objects produced in workshops manufacturing everyday objects, crafted in accordance with the school’s guiding principles, and the aforementioned writings are presented together for the first time.

Corresponding With allows the three schools to be seen in relation to one another, as well as offering a reconsideration of early twentieth century art education as part of a global attempt to reshape society through education and aesthetics— where both local initiatives and transcultural exchange equally played a part—rather than as an exclusively European project. It is the shared emphasis of these three institutions in aligning idealism with practicality, and by doing so, holding open a space for a species of experimental design research with broad social applications, that makes them each of relevance for today, particularly in relation to the project of developing new institutions.

Eric Gjerde, Reconstruction of a paper study from the Seikatsu kōsei exhibition at Bunka Gakuin in Tokyo (1931).

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