A Virtual Cosmopolis

Bauhaus and Kala Bhavan

Rabindranath Tagore, Untitled, ca. 1928–35

The Bauhaus is renowned for its contribution to modernist architecture and design. Less known but equally significant is its pioneering role in opening up a transcultural network that created the conditions for global conversations on art and design as early as the 1920s.

Professor Monika Grütters makes a significant point in the centenary volume, bauhaus imaginista: “Bauhaus … drew its impulses … from transcultural exchanges and encounters … (It) does not portray the international impact of the Bauhaus … as a narrative of the transfer of ideas from Germany into the world.”1 My presentation will expand on this idea.

In the aftermath of the Great War of 1918, a revolutionary approach to teaching art came to fruition because of two remarkable personalities living in far-flung regions, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the first non-Western Nobel Laureate, and Walter Gropius (1883–1969), the pioneering master of modernist architecture. They belonged to two different cultures, Indian and Western respectively, and apparently never met in real life, yet they shared many of the same modernist ideas, and each was responsible for initiating two radical pedagogic institutions in the very same year—the Bauhaus school of design in Weimar, founded in 1919, and Kala Bhavan art school in Santiniketan, a small town in West Bengal. They were founded in the shadow of the crisis of capitalism, and capitalism’s handmaiden, global colonialism. Gropius and Tagore were both challenging an industrial modernity that had destroyed rural communities, the dignity of labor and general social cohesion.

In his journey through life, Gropius underwent several transformations. I am concerned here only with his first phase (from 1919 to roughly 1922), not his later incarnation as a champion of mass industrial design. Returning from the war in 1918, he found Germany in extreme disorder and pledged to repair a broken society by restoring social cohesion and elevating the status of manual labor.2 He turned to the Deutsche Werkbund, founded in 1907, in order to create a national style by synthesizing the organizational model of medieval craft guilds and the modern republic of intellectuals.3

In the text known as the Bauhaus Manifesto and Program (1919), which was his blueprint for a new radical school of art and design, Gropius complained that the arts existed in isolation, and could only be rescued by removing the distinction between fine and decorative arts through the cooperative effort of all craftsmen. For his inspiration, he turned to the German Romantic tradition and for the Manifesto’s cover chose Lyonel Feininger’s image of a Gothic cathedral—the cathedral of the future.4 The end of the war brought uncertainties as well as possibilities. The founding of the Bauhaus coincided with the inauguration of the Weimar Republic, which embarked on a series of radical social measures, with the openness of the early Bauhaus reflecting the short-lived optimism generated by the ill-fated republic.5

Gropius naturally looked toward Britain and to William Morris in particular, then the most influential of the pioneering nineteenth century modernist figures. In a Gesamtkunstwerk vein, Morris had declared architecture to be the mother of the arts, under which all the crafts flourished—an idea with obvious appeal to Gropius the architect. More important, Gropius was persuaded by William Morris’s utopian vision of a post-industrial society. A trenchant critic of the evils of industrial society, Morris, along with other British Medievalists such as John Ruskin, imagined a bridge between the Medieval past and a socialist future. Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere imagined a post-capitalist future in a harmonious community founded on the dignity of manual work, with the crafts playing a sustaining role. His objective was to rediscover spiritual qualities that had been lost in rampant materialism.6 Arguably, no other art institution came as close to Morris’s holistic concept of art and society as in the school of design under the German architect.

Gropius’ spiritual ideal of “the essential oneness of all things (that endowed) creative effort with a fundamental inner meaning,” propelled his early Bauhaus appointments, with a view to translating his concepts into reality. Paul Klee was the first to be invited. As Oliver Kase has pointed out, Klee represented the tensions between Western “rationalist” technology and higher spirituality, at the Bauhaus in the early period.7 Johannes Itten, who followed soon after, was known for his obsession with spirituality and Eastern mysticism. Finally, Wassily Kandinsky’s essay, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1910), issued a direct challenge to western materialism.8

To turn to Rabindranath Tagore: his pedagogic ideals, introduced at his experimental institution in Santiniketan, represented a form of anti-colonial resistance that drew upon radical environmentalism. However, as early as 1909, during the early phase of Indian nationalism, his influential essay, “The Hermitage,” rejected colonial urban civilization in favor of a rural India that had existed since time immemorial. Tagore’s holistic conception of a “hermitage” university, inspired by ancient Indian thought, nourished emotion and intellect in contrast to a sterile, vocation-centered colonial education. He spoke of the unity of life, emphasizing the inner life of an individual living in a harmonious community. Tagore described his schooldays as oppressive. Consequently, his radical educational ideals at Santiniketan centered on the importance of unfettered creativity and freedom of expression. On a journey to Europe in 1921, he paid a visit to the educational reformer Franz Cižek’s class for children in Vienna that focused on free creativity.9

Tagore chose the artist Nandalal Bose (1882–1966) to translate his radical art education program into actual practice. Unlike Tagore, Nandalal tempered creativity with discipline. In order to encourage student-teacher bonding, Nandalal arranged for them to work side by side in a studio, with students having the freedom to pursue their own particular interests. In 1928–9, he assigned a personal instructor to each student, aiming to revive traditional Indian apprenticeship under a master.10 One finds striking parallels of this practice in the ideas of Gropius, who insisted that art arose above all methods; it could not be taught. He too stressed creativity combined with discipline and friendly collaboration between students and masters. This was cemented at the Bauhaus by social events such as plays, lectures, poetry and music.11

These are some of the significant parallels between the two global figures. But how do we read them? The older art historical model, which was part of the global colonial order, interpreted cultural encounters as resting on influence, and the passive reception of Western ideas. Today, we need a new narrative that does not depend on an asymmetrical relationship between Center and Periphery.12 This brief text proposes a theoretical framework that I hope will enable one to see this global process in a fresh light. The communication revolution that followed colonial expansion in the nineteenth century led to the dominance of hegemonic languages—English, French and Spanish/Portuguese— disseminated worldwide through print capitalism (printed texts and images). For their own work, artists in the periphery were dependent on art reproductions available in books and as independent prints, which is an important aspect of colonial modernity. Surprisingly, Picasso also used to consult reproductions of artworks, thus suggesting the dissemination of printed matter was an integral aspect of modernity itself.

I describe the phenomenon as a “Virtual Cosmopolis”: a world of the imagination which brought Center and Periphery closer, offering the conditions for global conversations that were not dependent on colonial power relations. Many of the main actors in the first decades of the twentieth century modernist movement never met each other, but they exchanged ideas through printed texts and images, creating the essential conditions of modernity.13 The term “cosmopolitan” here is meant as a form of global circulation of information. Asymmetrical power relations did not prevent the free flow and cross-fertilization of ideas between the Center and the margins on the level of “virtuality.” Unlike Tagore, who belonged to a wealthy family, many of the “virtual cosmopolitans” in colonies such as India did not have the means to travel, but they were able to engage with printed texts and images emanating from the metropolitan Center.

The political theorist, Benedict Anderson described the nation as an “imagined community.” I would like to extend his idea, to propose an “imagined global community.” Virtual cosmopolitanism facilitated the reception of Western ideas in the periphery, and in the colonized nations. This was an active process that centered on the agency of the colonized. However, what has struck me most forcefully while working on this paper is that such global exchanges were by no means unidirectional. Ideas flowed towards both East and West. There are many examples of this, one such being the impact of Indian philosophy on the work of abstract artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich.14

What theoretical framework can we deploy to make sense of these cultural exchanges that are not prejudged by a dependency syndrome or derivativeness? The Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin coins the term “dialogic” to describe a continuous dialogue with other works of literature, in a process where the words of others are “appropriated” and transformed according to one’s creative intentions. This inter-textual process is dynamic, relational and integral to a particular writer’s endless re-descriptions of their own world vision. The concept that Bakhtin applies to literary texts could be a useful tool for cross-cultural analysis of visual art. The particular merit of the dialogic method is that it allows for the coexistence of different approaches in a relativist way; it does not set up an essentialist hierarchy of ideas, as in the case of colonial discourse.15

In short, “virtual cosmopolis” was an imagined community, built up through the print medium creating amongst strangers a sense of a common project, the project of modernity. It was an active process that enabled intellectuals in the East and the West to discover each other’s cultural products, giving rise to a new global community engaged in creating the hybrid multipolar universe of modernity. The Bauhaus school of art and design was one of striking outcome of this global conversation.

  • 1 Marion von Osten and Grant Watson: bauhaus imaginista; A School in the World, Thames & Hudson, London and New York 2019, p. 9.
  • 2 A new biography of Gropius based on much fresh material provides an interesting perspective on him. See Fiona MacCarthy: Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus, Faber, London 2019.
  • 3 Joan Campbell: The German Werkbund: The Politics of Reform in the Applid Arts, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1978.
  • 4 Magdalena Droste: Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus Manifesto, in: bauhaus imaginista, p. 28.
  • 5 Richard Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany, Penguin, London 2004.
  • 6 William Morris: News From Nowhere, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith 1890.
  • 7 Oliver Kase: “With Connections to up There Above – Paul Klee’s Defence of the Metaphysical,” in: Oliver Kase (ed.) Paul Klee: Construction of Mystery, Pinakothek der Moderne, Sammlung Moderne Kunst Munich, Munich 2018, pp. 38–53.
  • 8 Wassily Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual in Art, translated with an introduction, M. T. H. Sadler, MFA Publications, Boston 2006.
  • 9 On Rabindranath’s meeting with Cižek, see Wilhelm Viola: Child Art, University of London Press, London 1942.
  • 10 See Partha Mitter: The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, Reaktion Books, London 2007, pp. 78-81.
  • 11 Walter Gropius: The Bauhaus Manifesto and Program, 1919.
  • 12 Partha Mitter: “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery,” in: Art Bulletin, Vol. XC, No.1, December 2008, pp. 531-574 (page numbers encompass my lead essay, four responses and my concluding reply).
  • 13 Mitter: The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, pp. 11-12. For the impact of ancient Indian thought on the American philosphical and literary movement known as American Transcendentalism, see also Mitter: “Frameworks for Considering Cultural Exchange: The Case of India and America,” in: Cynthia Mills, Lee Glazer & Amelia A. Goerlitz (eds.): East-West Exchanges in Art: A long and Tumultuous Relationship, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington DC 2012.
  • 14 On the role of spiritulity in Kandinsky and abstract artists, see Mitter: The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, pp. 34-35.
  • 15 Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, University of Texas Press, Austin 1981; and Michael Holquist: Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, Routledge, London 2002.
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