Bauhaus Calcutta

ln December 1922, ‘The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the lndian Society of Oriental Art’ was held at Samavaya Bhavan, number seventeen Park Street. Paintings by artists from the ‘Bengal school’—all of them members of the lndian Society of Oriental Arts—were exhibited. Most of these artists painted in a manner, which would have been recognisable as that school’s invention, a particularly lndian signature style, with mythology as preferred subject. Hung on the other side of the hall was a large selection of works from the Bauhaus. 

Catalogue of The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition, Indian Society of Oriental Art, Dec. 1922.

ln December 1922, ‘The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the lndian Society of Oriental Art’ was held at Samavaya Bhavan, number seventeen Park Street. With its impressive facade, this street cuts away at an angle from Chowringhee whose grand buildings confront the park with different styles (the grandest of all being the lndian Museum), presenting a slice of colonial architecture pasted onto an irregular metropolis that sprawls out from it in all directions.

By all accounts the opening of the Fourteenth Exhibition drew a large crowd, from Calcutta’s artistic circles and from the city’s high society. The inauguration began with the governor’s speech and the protocol of lighting the lamp (in accordance with Hindu custom), a ceremony that was performed on this occasion by the dignitaries Mr. Havell and Mr. Abanindranath Tagore. Visitors to the opening included many of the city’s foremost artists, as well as literary people, students, bureaucrats, government officials, businessmen, critics and of course the poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose backstage influence must have been in part responsible for the configuration of works on display. The exhibition was divided into two discrete groupings. On the left wall were paintings by artists from the ‘Bengal school’ such as Ksitindranath Mazumdar, Asit Halder, R.N. Chakravarty and others, all members of the lndian Society of Oriental Arts. Most of these artists painted in a manner, which would have been recognisable as that school’s invention, a particularly lndian signature style, with mythology as preferred subject.

There were pictures delineating gods and goddesses, idealised scenes from village life and there were works using caricature and satire to poke fun at Calcutta’s rich. One prominent painting was of Siva meditating at the mouth of the Ganges, sitting motionless in an alcove of rocks as the river pours through his lap and down to the Gangetic plains below. Another was of a woman crossed legged in the doorway of a simple rustic dwelling, a parrot perched lightly on her palm. The artist Gaganendranath Tagore negotiated a broad spectrum of genres from Art Nouveaux, Cubism, South East Asian and specifically lndian traditions to polemical cartoons. His painting was called ‘Puppets at Play’. lt evoked an historically ambiguous but perhaps ‘medieval’ world, inhabited by elaborately styled mannequins positioned before some ornamental city ramparts. And everywhere there was the play of numerous cultural traditions, evident in the manipulation of style and content (a synthesis between the self-consciously ‘oriental’ and the ‘occidental’) with the paintings arranged as a decorative yet decidedly political statement.

Hung on the other side of the hall was a large selection of works from the Bauhaus. These works were not entirely a novelty in Calcutta, as several visitors to the exhibition would have seen similar things in reproduction―brought back to lndia by Tagore and kept in his library at Santiniketan. However such a comprehensive range of material, experienced first hand, must have made a strong impression on those present and provoked some interesting reactions. On loan from the Weimar was an extensive display of watercolours, drawings, woodcuts and other graphic works from several leading Bauhaus members, including Klee, ltten, Feininger, Macke and Kandinsky (as well as a selection of projects produced by their students)—representing the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of that school seen anywhere outside of Europe.

Bauhaus exhibition list by Lyonel Feininger, Calcutta 1922, Landesarchiv Thüringen   

Also present that night was the pioneering critic and great connoisseur of the lndian art world O.C. Ganguly, the main force behind the publication ‘Rupam’ and also ‘the Journal of the lndian Society of Oriental Arts’. He was by popular consent the best writer in Calcutta, and had been personally entrusted with the job of deciphering this work from an lndian perspective by Rabindranath Tagore himself. Apparently in an aside, Tagore had said to him: “Ordhendu, now you have the originals before you, you shouldn’t have any more qualms about the difference between the originals and the copies. I hope we can all expect a flurry of very illuminating writing from your pen.” Brought face to face with these paintings for the first time, the critic rose to the occasion and set about putting the case before his Bengali readership, touching in particular on the abstract, expressive and generally unnaturalistic character of the Bauhaus school. He wrote:

“These artists are no longer concerned with forms derived or deduced from nature but are free to play with forms devised in their own imagination and arranged in a new order, with new emotional stresses and juxtapositions.”

From this Ganguly drew a more general conclusion believing that something of greater importance was afoot then merely the invention of a new style, something which could have implications beyond the European context from which it emerged. He recognised abstraction as a watershed, and saw in the use of purely formal criteria, the potential for an increasingly democratic art historical understanding to unfold―one which would trouble the classical cannon as it was perceived and reverse the hierarchy of values imposed on the East by the West.

ln the past we used to differentiate artworks and award them merit in relation to their origin. Value was to do with precedent and lineage. So for example, a work from Ming China or Sunga or Gupta era of India were nothing in front of a Greek sculpture. But now a Sunga or Sung sculpture will be judged by the formal qualities, the form becomes the ultimate judge and that represents a sort of new and democratic objectivity. Now you see an open door through which light is seeping, what do you see abstract value, volume, intensity, form.

However, Calcutta audiences did not universally approve of the exhibition and different constituencies took offence for divergent reasons. Some believed it to be counterproductive to show European art at a time when the emphasis (as demonstrated by the Bengal School) was on working towards a regeneration of lndian painting. Other more conservative commentators felt that the works were variously incomprehensible, barbaric, ugly and even politically subversive—and accused the artists of setting out to shock, by deliberately behaving in a gross and uncivilised manner. Ganguly staunchly rebuffed these complaints, and defended the Bauhaus on the grounds that even if viewers were unable to take an aesthetic pleasure, then they must at least respect the work for its conceptual beauty.

He wrote:

“This so called Bolshevism or anarchist art as you call it, will not languish under your dismissal or accusations of its being hideous, barbaric, clumsy, perverse, idiotic, insane or pathological. The exponents of this new movement have come forward with an elaborate philosophy and comprehensive theory of art that defend their point of view which is itself a valuable contribution to aesthetic theory.”

Perhaps sensing that there might be some scepticism, the most spirited defence came proactively in the lndian Society’s own catalogue essay, which naturally enough sought to persuade its readers. Here the claims made on behalf of the Bauhaus artists (in the florid style of the times) reach their most lyrical and wide ranging.

© Rabindra-Bhavan-Archive, Shantiniketan.

It is for the first time that Western art is represented in lndia by a number of the most advanced and most sincere works of continental artists. They do not belong to any school but come from different parts of Europe: each having his own manner and technique. The artists met in Weimar and in spite of their variety of form found themselves united in their aim to realise the eternal truth of all art and to visualise it, by the means supplied by the present age, in their creed They joined hands and became the masters of a state―school of art, and the method of their teaching is to hold up an example of their own inspired truthfulness and severe discipline. Neither masters nor students are followers of any’ isms’ although they are bound to make use of them to a greater or smaller extent For ‘Cubism’ or ‘Post lmpressionism’ are conventions of form, developed out of the need of the moment, and no one in whom the present is alive can escape their formulae. Kandinsky the Russian painter has been for more than ten years the herald of the ‘Spiritual in Art’. His power of abstraction is unswerving, put into action as it is by the fervour of mysticism which has no other name than that of Russia. He was the first to paint pictures without any subject matter. He avoided all allusions to literature and nature and so made himself free to infuse his inner experience into mere lines and mere colours which are organised into compositions of intoxicating harmony. Kandinsky is the ‘expressionist’ amongst the painters. lf the end of civilisation foretold for Europe of the present day is to come true, it must be said that the artists are fighting heroically their last forlorn fight. But all death means resurrection and art itself is immortal. The lndian public should study this exhibition, for they then may learn that European Art does not mean ‘naturalism’ and that the transformation of the forms of nature in the work of an artist is common to ancient and modern lndia and Europe as an unconscious and therefore inevitable expression of the life of soul and the artistic genius.

Despite the immediate discursive flurry inspired by the show, today, ‘The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the lndian Society of Oriental Art’ exists as a fragment of art historical folklore and few records of it remain. lt circulates like a rumour amongst interested parties, or as a footnote in the biography of one or other of the Tagore family (as the Bauhaus exhibition that occurred in Calcutta of all unlikely places) hinting at something about the city perhaps previously unimagined. Revealing, its cosmopolitanism, its cultural milieu linked up to the international avant-garde and the intense discussions that circulated around the question of modernity in lndia at that time, which, the critical reception of this exhibition attest to. While the paintings hung on two separate walls representing two apparently incompatible genres, their proximity in that context constituted an important curatorial juxtaposition—a moment in the history of exhibitions, which if it were to be repeated today would still seem audacious.

This essay is a semi fictional account of the Fourteenth Annual Exhibtion of the lndian Society of Oriental Art that took place in Calcutta in December1922. It has been put together using a mixture of contemporaneous reviews and the exhibition catalogue text.

The essay Bauhaus Calcutta was first published in ‘Curating Subjects’, edited by Paul O’Neill, published by de Appel & Open Editions (2007, reprint 2011).

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