Brochure and wall text

Brochure and Wall Texts of the Exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto

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. 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 between 1919 and 1939—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.

Another Bauhaus related exhibition, this one in Tokyo in 1931, was more overtly influenced by Bauhaus aesthetics. Organized by the architect Renshichiro Kawakita and recent Bauhaus graduate Takahiki 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 regular 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.

I THE BAUHAUS (1919 – 1933)

The exhibition bauhaus imaginista: Corresponding With begins with the Bauhaus Manifesto published by Walter Gropius in 1919, who argued that in the future there should be “no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman.” Originally written to recruit students to the new school in Weimar, over time the Manifesto has become a seminal text in the history of twentieth century art education. On the verso page of this short pamphlet is a woodcut print of a cathedral, done in the Expressionist style by Lyonel Feininger, one of the instructors recruited to teach at the new school. As in the cathedral motif itself, the Manifesto’s claim of a “return to the crafts” refers back to medieval guilds. Beside courses in architecture, painting, and sculpture, the first Bauhaus curriculum offered instruction in all the “branches of the crafts,” including woodcarving, ceramics, cabinetry, lithography, weaving, mural and glass painting, and metalwork. Rather than teach academic painting technique, courses by modernist artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee instructed students in the basic principles of “Gestaltung,” the creative process of forming composition and design.

The Bauhaus was established in Weimar, the capital of a newly democratic Germany, at a time of post-war crisis, when art education reformists aspired to foment broad social renewal. In general, the pedagogical principles of the Bauhaus focused less on the individual object than rethinking the relation between material, culture, and creation within the context of a new democratic society envisioned in the early years of the Weimar Republic. In its first years the school was at the confluence of many different influences and ideas, including folk art, Anthroposophy, twelve-tone music, synaesthesia, yoga and occultism, all of which influenced Bauhaus teaching—especially in the courses given by Johannes Itten. In this context, idealistic views on Indian philosophy, art, and architecture became reference points to several other Bauhaus teachers in search of a virtual cosmopolis. This hybridity and pancultural orientation helped to facilitate a lively correspondence between artists, teachers, and students from Europe and Asia, promoting the cross fertilization of ideas and innovations within the various national and regional contexts in which these exchanges occurred.

Under its three successive directors—Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—the pedagogical approach of the Bauhaus gradually evolved towards the functionalist approach of its later incarnations. In the mid-1920s, Gropius and new staff members, including László Moholy-Nagy, became increasingly interested in progress and industrialization and sought to synthesize technological advancement in both handcrafted objects and designs for industrial prototypes. This program for greater collaboration between design and industry grew in prominence after the Bauhaus relocated to Dessau in 1926. Its curriculum and purpose-built facilities signified a more clearly defined program to create a utopian environment within the context of industrial modernity—a functionalist orientation continued by Hannes Meyer after he assumed the directorship in 1928, as well by the theoretical predilections of Japanese students then enrolled at the school who, upon their return, would play an important role in developing a distinctively Japanese design pedagogy. The Bauhaus Dessau was dissolved in 1932, following the NSDAP’s municipal elections, and Bauhaus masters and students subsequently resumed their work later in the year at an abandoned telephone factory in Berlin-Steglitz. A collage by Bauhaus student Iwao Yamawaki references the closure of Bauhaus Berlin, sealed by the municipal police and SA troopers in April 1933.

II INDIA – Kala Bhavan (1919)

The art school Kala Bhavan was founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1919 at Santiniketan, a utopian community about 100 miles north of Calcutta established in the previous century by the poet’s father, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore. Born out of the need to rehabilitate traditional Indian culture after the demoralizing impact of British rule, the school was established as an experiment in education that broke with academic tradition, and created a form of rural modernism decoupled from industrial modernization.

In synthesizing its distinctive aesthetic, teachers at Kala Bhavan drew from an eclectic range of sources, including India’s craft traditions, the Buddhist cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora, as well as pan-Asian influences such as Javanese batik and Far Eastern brush-and-ink painting, mostly in scroll format. Students at the school also studied western sources, such as the British Arts and Crafts movement as well as the continental European avant-garde, including the Bauhaus. As a result of correspondence between the two schools, work by Bauhaus masters was exhibited in Calcutta in 1922.

A range of arts and crafts were taught, including painting, sculpture, ceramics, bookbinding, lithography, leatherwork and batik. One of the school’s core principles was the notion that art and craft were integral to community vitality. In keeping with this ethos, murals and sculptures were created across the campus, while crafts fairs and festivals of theatre, dance, music, and puppetry were regularly held. Equally important was the small-scale manufacture of designs from Kala Bhavan in craft workshops set up in nearby Sriniketan in order to improve the rural economy.

While Kala Bhavan had no formal curriculum, a strong educational ethos took root in its first two decades. Instrumental to its development was artist Nandalal Bose, the school’s first principle. The basis for the school’s pedagogy can be seen in the instructional postcards he produced to illustrate his ideas, as well as the writings on education by Tagore, as well as those of the artists Benode Behari Mukherjee and K.G. Subramanyan.

III JAPAN – New School of Architecture and Design (1932–1936)

Writers on art in Japan closely followed the complex history of the Bauhaus during the 1920s and 1930s. This interest and curiosity is demonstrated in the writings of the critic Sadanosuke Nakada as well as the architect and designer Takehiko Mizutani, both of whom were in direct contact with the Bauhaus in Germany. In his influential article, “The State Bauhaus,” printed in Mizue art journal, Nakada cited Walter Gropius’ advocacy for the merging of art and technology, the “synthetic art” of the Bauhaus.

This synthetic approach was characteristic of the energetic activities of the architect Renshichirō Kawakita, whose pedagogy was directly inspired by the Bauhaus. Although he never left Japan, Kawakita became known to the international avant-garde in 1930 after receiving fourth prize for his proposed design for a theatre in Kharkov, Ukraine (whose model is on display in the exhibition). In 1931, Kawakita opened the Seikatsu Kōsei Kenkyūsho (Research Institute of Life Construction) in Tokyo to research Bauhaus design principles and study their application in Japan. Together with Nakada, Mizutani, and other advocates of Bauhaus-inspired design, he organized exhibitions and lectures to introduce experimental design and education regionally across Japan. A year later, the institute reopened as a private school named Shin Kenchiku Kōgei Gakuin (New School of Architecture and Design), where teachers with Bauhaus experience developed a curriculum based on the Bauhaus Vorkurs. The staff included Mizutani, whose experimental study work, “Brass Sheeting, Cut into Circular Shapes and Intersected” (also is included in the exhibition), was originally produced in the Vorkurs led by Josef Albers’ in 1927. The married couple Michiko Yamawaki and Iwao Yamawaki, who both studied at the Bauhaus Dessau in the 1930s and became closely associated with Kawakita upon their return to Japan in 1932, also served as instructors at the school.

The key printed matter carrying Bauhaus ideas and principles to the general public were the magazine Kenchiku Kōgei, I See All (Architecture and Design, I See All), edited by Kawakita and published in fifty volumes from 1931 to 1936, and the book, Kōsei Kyōiku Taikei (Manual for Teaching through Construction), by Kawakita and Katsuo Takei, published in 1934. The latter was designed to introduce new methodologies and teaching materials to a wider audience, specifically grade school art teachers. Despite competition from the traditional arts pedagogy practiced at prestigious schools such as Tokyo Academy of Arts, Kawakita’s progressive vision had a profound impact on the subsequent development of design and design education in post-war Japan.

The Installation work by Luca Frei commissioned for this exhibition is inspired by the interpretation and development of Bauhaus educational principles in Japan.

Luca Frei
Model for a Pedagogical Vehicle

The installation, Model for a Pedagogical Vehicle, which includes elements of handcraft, architecture, and printmaking, is both visual and tactile, and can be approached on many levels. Its conception originates in the artist’s reading of four photographs documenting the “Seikatsu Kosei Exhibition” at Bunka Gakuin (School of Culture) in Tokyo, organized by Renshichiro Kawakita in 1931 as a means of introducing Bauhaus ideas and pedagogy to a Japanese audience.

The display structure refers in part to the set designs of Jikken Kōbō (Experimental Workshop, 1951–57), a group who are emblematic of the reception of the Bauhaus in post-war Japan. In this sense, the installation as a whole can be seen as an attempt to reconnect the distinct approaches to Bauhausian pedagogy and philosophy prevalent before and after the Second World War.

Paper studies reproductions: Eric Gjerde

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