A School in the World

bauhaus imaginista moves to the Zentrum Paul Klee

Mohamed Melehi, Untitled, n.d.
Courtesy of the artist, colletion of l’Atelier Pauline de Mazières
© 2019, ProLitteris, Zurich

One hundred years after its founding, the research and exhibition project bauhaus imaginista takes the cosmopolitan Bauhaus and its international reception as the starting point for a new approach to thinking through its multiple global entanglements. The exhibition reports on the contacts, encounters and correspondences that arose between the Bauhaus, its teachers and students and the many institutions it inspired around the world, even after the school’s closure in 1933. In this way, bauhaus imaginista conveys a picture of a world society already engaged in a lively process of correspondence and exchange during the early part of the twentieth century.

Globalization theories as we know them today had not yet come into existence at the time of the Bauhaus’s founding. Only after 1989 did it become possible to fully explore the relationships the Bauhaus, its teachers, students, and the example of its pedagogical models forged with other modernities, some as far away as China. Concepts such as internationalism and cosmopolitanism were already relevant in 1919, and artists and intellectuals had used them in trying to overcome the toxic nationalisms of the early twentieth century which could be assigned much of the blame for the disaster of the First World War. One such meeting occurred in Ascona at Monte Verità—an international congress where participants gathered to think about new forms of community beyond the people’s nation. A network of committed internationalists, some of whose members had attended this congress, stretched as far as the poet Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal, India. Like the Bauhaus, his reform art school Khala Bhavana was founded in 1919 and also pursued a synthesis of art and craftsmanship: life reform, radical education, and social-utopian ideas were all of central importance to the founding of both Schools.

Bauhaus teachers also cultivated relationships with Russian Constructivism, the Dutch De Stijl movement, and socialist-internationalist thinkers. These networks were also reflected in the school’s publication series, which was distributed worldwide. Throughout its existence, this openness to new ideas reflected in the School’s innovative curriculum—which was far more expansive than that of elitist art academies or national arts and crafts school—made the Bauhaus an attractive option for international students from across Europe, as well as the United States and Asia.

The Japanese artist Takehiko Mizutani, whose preliminary course work was featured in a chapter of Corresponding With exhibited in Kyoto in 2018 and as promotional material for the exhibition at the Zentrum Paul Klee, was a student at the Dessau Bauhaus from 1926 to 1929. Other representatives of the Japanese avant-garde had visited the Bauhaus before him. Such trips from Japan to Weimar and Dessau are, in fact, remarkable in themselves: in the early 1930s, after their time at the Bauhaus, Michiko and Iwao Yamawaki had to travel clear across the Soviet Union and sail the Sea of Okhotsk to return to Japan. What lured Michiko and Iwao and many of their generation to journey across the world was not only the novel Bauhaus curriculum. The couple came from a Tokyo where the Moga and Mobo (modern girls and modern boys) movement had taken root. Their travels to Berlin, which had become notorious for its nightlife and transgender scene, were motivated by a desire to experience this new way of life. They had first heard of the Bauhaus from Sadanosuke Nakada, a fellow artist of the radical avant-garde artists’ group to which they belonged in Tokyo, who visited the Weimar Bauhaus in 1922. They also learned about the group of Japanese artists then residing in Berlin, some of whom taught calligraphy with Johannes Itten at his school there. A desire to move to Germany and study at the Bauhaus thus grew out of their exposure to the influences of these various avant-garde movements. Upon arriving in Berlin they founded the design studio Tomoe with Koreya Senda, a politically active socialist involved in Berlin’s underground theatre and transgender scene, spending their nights with friends in the gay and lesbian bar El Dorado. The aesthetic movement of modernism had created a place for an entire generation to question how life might be lived.

Understanding modernity as a multifaceted transnational movement—as the above example illustrates—also means recognizing the creative surplus produced by such artistic journeys, relationships, local translations, and the migration of people and design concepts across national borders. The Japanese architect and journalist Renshichirō Kawakita never visited the Bauhaus, but was in close contact with Japanese artists who visited or were themselves students at the Bauhaus. His understanding of the new school was also shaped by the numerous German-to-Japanese translations he undertook as a publisher. Kawakita founded his own design school in 1931, mixing Bauhaus teaching methods with a distinctly Japanese conception of art and life. He understood the Bauhaus as an experiment in mutually contradictory educational approaches, a description that came very close to the reality of the school as a process of west/east cultural transfer. By developing new teaching methods based on Bauhaus precepts Kawakita aimed for a total renewal of Japanese culture. To do so, he drew on Johannes Itten’s teaching philosophy (which corresponded with Franz Čižek’s ideas on the liberation of the child) and engagement with Eastern thought, and also appropriated elements of Bauhaus master Gertrud Grunow’s synesthetic teaching method. The Tokyo-area workshops he held in the craft disciplines provided new methods for materials-based design and learning, primarily in the spirit of Constructivism. In 1934 he documented these pedagogical approaches in the publication Kōsei Kyōiku Taikei (Handbook for Design Education). In retrospect, it is widely considered a manifesto for the renewal of art education in Japan. However, while the term “Kōsei” is a cognate of the English term “design,” it refers more to a Japanese philosophy of lifestyle design than to the design of objects.

Within a scant few years Kawakita was no longer able to withstand the rising climate of nationalism and militarism and was forced to close his school after the Japanese Ministry of Education refused to renew its license. Although only in existence for a brief period, the school influenced numerous Japanese designers, such as graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura and fashion designer Yōko Kuwasawa, who founded their own design school after the Second World War, which was to have a decisive influence on the future development of Japanese design.

Takehiko Mizutani, Studie zum Simultankontrast (Unterricht Josef Albers) (Study on simultaneous contrast (class of Josef Albers)), 1927
Gouache on cardboard, 80,4 x 55 cm
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, photo: Markus Hawlik

In 2016, curator Grant Watson and I began developing bauhaus imaginista’s four exhibition chapters, in a dialogical process with a team of international researchers. This process also finds its equivalent in the catalogue and the project’s online journal ( These chapters (and their associated journal articles) examine local forms of appropriation, as well as the further development and even rejection of Bauhaus-style modernism. Developed over a period of three years, beginning in 2018 the team’s research was translated into a number of exhibitions and event formats staged worldwide—always against the backdrop of local contingencies. Each chapter departs from a focal object produced by masters and/or students of the historical Bauhaus. These four objects pose questions that are still valid today.

The “focal object” around which the exhibition chapter Corresponding With was organized is the Bauhaus Manifesto (1919). By doing so we were able to present the Bauhaus and contemporaneous avant-garde art schools in India and Japan as a prime example of the parallel unfolding of early twentieth century modern educational reform. I have already outlined some of these correspondences in the first paragraphs of this text. Paul Klee’s drawing Teppich (Carpet) (1927) is the Bauhaus “focal object” for the chapter Learning From. This chapter compares the interest in pre-modern craftsmanship evident at the historical Bauhaus and among exiled Bäuhauslers in North, Central, and South America with the postcolonial art movements influenced by the Bauhaus that developed in Brazil, Mexico, and Morocco in the decades after World War Two. Learning From presents various forms of artistic avant-garde research, framing them within the still-enduring questions these raise. Often, the appropriation of North African or Mezo- and South American cultural forms by modernist artists obscured the political and social imbalances European colonialism/neocolonialism had created. This topic is pursued by the Algerian-French artist Kader Attia in a new work produced for bauhaus imaginista, and is made clearer through his broader project of decolonizing culture. A corresponding project can be identified in the syncretistic working processes explored by the Casablanca Group, a group of Moroccan artists who in the 1960s and 1970s drew both on both Bauhaus references and traditional North African handicraft, calligraphy, architecture and interior design.

Paul Klee, Teppich (Carpet), 1927
Hans-Willem Snoeck, Brooklyn, New York, photo: © Edward Watkins

Moving Away takes Marcel Breuer’s collage ein bauhaus-film (a Bauhaus-movie) (1925) as the starting point for investigating design debates at the historical Bauhaus and how they were subsequently translated into other cultural and political contexts—in China, Nigeria, India, the Soviet Union and the GDR. In Moving Away visitors encounter films, documents and newly produced artworks by Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Alice Creischer, and Doreen Mende. These touch upon the diverse forms of interweaving connecting Bauhaus modernism to the geopolitical upheavals and private tragedies of the mid-twentieth century. Another film project, developed in collaboration with the Tel Aviv-based architect Zvi Efrat, presents the campus of the University of Ife (today Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria. Designed by Bauhaus graduate Arieh Sharon together with a team of Nigerian architects (including Lagos-based architect A.A. Egbor), work began on the campus in 1961 and continued over a period of 20 years. Sharon’s participation in the University of Ife campus project grew out of an initiative by West Nigerian independence government officials, who made contact with representatives of Israeli development aid projects in sub-Saharan Africa. To this day, the campus is a lively place of learning and, thanks to the intelligence of its climate-sensitive design, remains a model of energy efficient passive architecture.

Ife Campus, Nigeria, film still of Zvi Efrats film for ​bauhaus imaginista
photo: © Keren Kuenberg

The last chapter of bauhaus imaginista, Still Undead, is based on Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Farblichtspiele (Reflecting color-light plays) (1921). It deals with the enduring after-effects of Bauhaus-era experimentation in light, sound, film, and live performance, which had a profound influence on the post-war development of experimental film, fine art, art in public space, popular culture, and electronic music. With Still Undead, the Bauhaus lives on as undead, and this chapter is dedicated in particular to practices developed outside the formal Bauhaus curriculum; that is, the many festivals and celebrations Bauhaus students and teachers became famous for staging and which to this day exert an influence contemporary art and digital culture. Being that the geographical focus of this chapter is on West Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, one central question Still Undead asks is whether the experiments this chapter surveys have been fully absorbed by the new technological forms of communication characterizing immersive neoliberal capitalism, or do they continue to possess resistant potential in so-called countercultural formations.

Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Reflektorische Farblichtspiele, 1922
Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate
photo: Silke Briel

+ Add this text to your collection!