Today, in the twenty-first century, the question remains of how to reimagine the relationship between the arts and society. The need to radicalize art education as part of this question ran through the twentieth century, and when thinking about the historical Bauhaus an example of radical pedagogy immediately appears. Established in 1919 in Weimar as a new model of a design school in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the German Revolution, the Bauhaus brought together a younger generation of artists and architects who rejected the nationalistic, militaristic, and authoritarian past and insisted on the social relevance of the arts in an emerging democratic society. Helping to shape this radical imagination for new practices, new forms of learning, and new lifestyles was the idea that the individual and the material environment should be freed from all that was unnecessary and that the relationship between the arts, craft, design, and the building should be rethought. In the light of the Bauhaus school’s centenary, from a contemporary perspective, how can we reimagine the production of design and culture as a social project, and invent the kinds of institutions and practices that we need today?
From its inception, the Bauhaus was internationally oriented; students and teachers travelled from different parts of Europe and Asia to become part of the school. As curators of the bauhaus imaginista project we understand the global circulation of Bauhaus ideas not in terms of impact, but rather through its participation in international networks prior to 1933 and how this was mirrored in the school’s afterlife. The school itself was heterogeneous, and at different times took ideas from the British Arts and Crafts movement, socialism and communism, as well as spiritualist and esoteric concepts. It had links both to revolutionary Soviet constructivism and the Netherlands-based De Stijl, and its members participated in movements such as the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Heterogeneity contributed to the success of the Bauhaus, but this diversity also produced contradictions and conflict. There were discrepancies in its utopianism; for example, despite steps toward women’s emancipation, gender hierarchies and stereotypes persisted at the Bauhaus, and tensions between art and design education, between learning and commercial production, between egalitarian aspirations and a largely up- per middle-class clientele for its products went unresolved. Ultimately, this complexity mitigates against any canonical reading of the Bauhaus or attempt to reduce it to a single style, something that has been reflected in our approach.
The vision of the Bauhaus according to Walter Gropius— the school’s first director from 1919 to 1928—constituted a break with classical and academic training, including its separation between the fine and applied arts. This revision was equally important in other parts of the world where decolonizing education meant doing away with the arts/crafts hierarchies often imposed through European colonization. Gropius believed that experimental and artistic research could intervene in the conditions of mass production. Hence, the Vorkurs (preliminary course) introduced formal and mate- rial studies, which fed into the workshops and eventually through to collaborations with industry. Under its second director, Hannes Meyer (1928–30), a more collectivist and egalitarian, but also more polytechnic-style approach to teaching took hold. This included research on the exploration of the spatial, topographical, and societal underpinning of architectural projects, which were also infused by international ideas of new cooperative housing developments and urban planning. In its final phase, the Bauhaus took the form of an architecture school under the directorship of the architect Mies van der Rohe (1930–33). The Bauhaus, in all its different phases from 1919 to 1933, consistently remained a school for practitioners led by practitioners based in material experimentation, in contrast to the privileging of the cognitive over practical and manual skills today.
The rise of the right wing forced the Bauhaus to move from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 and to Berlin in 1932, be- fore the National Socialists seized control and perpetrated their violence through the state apparatus. The Bauhaus disbanded autonomously in 1933 rather than provide the Nazis the opportunity to close the school down. Consequently, as many international students and masters fled Germany to settle in different parts of the world, the ideas of the Bauhaus radiated out to many different nations and cultures. It is this transmission of knowledge that bauhaus imaginista follows: a transfer via migration of students and teachers, but also via the interpretation, appropriation, and imagination of diverse Bauhaus ideas, in China, North Korea, India, the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Nigeria, Morocco, and Brazil.
The multiyear research (2016–19), which bauhaus imaginista was able to gather in collaboration with international researchers and cultural producers from Brazil, China, India, Japan, Morocco, Nigeria, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, shows to what extent and under which local conditions new design ideas and Bauhaus pedagogy were taken up and developed further. In this way, the project opens up a perspective on a transnational history of modernist art and design, marked by wars and dictatorships, non-aligned movements, the Cold War, and the processes of decolonization. bauhaus imaginista traces the history of a twentieth-century transcultural exchange from the perspective of international correspondence, relationships, encounters, and resonances. Putting this approach into practice in 2018, over the course of a year, bauhaus imaginista has realized a series of transnational exhibitions and events with international partners: Le Cube—Independent Art Room, Rabat; the China Design Museum, Hangzhou; the Goethe-Institut and partners in New York, the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow; the SESC Pompéia, São Paulo; the University of Ife, Ile-Ife, and University of Lagos; and the Kiran Nadar Museum, New Delhi, as well as the Goethe-Instituts in each location. Important elements of the results will be on show in Berlin and Bern in 2019.
The anniversary exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) is divided into four chapters. Each chapter departs from a focal object selected from Bauhaus masters and students. What these four objects have in common is their propositional character and their material ephemerality. They include a copy of the Bauhaus Manifesto and first curriculum by Walter Gropius of 1919, the drawing Teppich (Carpet) by Paul Klee of 1927, the collage ein bauhaus-film by Marcel Breuer of 1926, and the “Reflecting color-light plays” by Kurt Schwerdtfeger of 1922.
These four objects pose questions that are still vital today. Yet, while our curatorial approach has been to decipher these objects in relation to their own historical specificity, we have also sought to make sense of what they suggest going for- ward as a genealogy of forms, practices, and concepts. Each chapter in the exhibition features historical and archival mate- rial, but through our research we have tried not only to explore the international reception of the Bauhaus in the twentieth century, but also to understand the stakes of each chapter, its themes and ideas, in terms of a contemporary politics. The question of the contemporary emerges in particular through the artist commissions, through discursive events, but also, we hope, in the reflections and responses of the audience.
Chapter 1, Corresponding With, departs from the Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919 to explore early twentieth-century art and design pedagogy at the Bauhaus and at two other connected schools: Kala Bhavan, established in 1919 by Rabindranath Tagore in India, and Seikatsu Kōsei Kenkyūsho (Research Institute for Life Design), established by Renshichirō Kawakita in Japan in 1931, from which later emerged the Shin Kenchiku Kōgei Gakuin (School of New Architecture and Design). These three avantgarde institutions participated in cosmopolitan networks and variously navigated the tensions between inter- nationalism, nationalism, colonial rule, and the rise of fascism.
This chapter points toward the possibility of a radicalization in art, design, and pedagogy to shape the semiotic values embedded in material cultures and to remove this from a reactionary ethos. By looking to historical examples, it becomes possible to consider how institutions today, including schools of art and design, can imagine new ways of living that respond to patriarchal, xenophobic, and nationalist pressures.
Chapter 2, Learning From, takes Klee’s drawing of a North African carpet to reflect on the modernist appropriation of art outside the European mainstream. It includes the revival of local knowledge of crafts in post-independence Morocco at the École des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Casablanca, the influence of pre-Columbian textiles on Bauhaus émigrés to the Unites States, and figures such as architect Lina Bo Bardi, who embraced the Bauhaus as well as popular culture to redefine Brazilian modernism.
This chapter encourages audiences to consider the value of “learning from” alongside questions concerning the asymmetrical power relations present in cultural appropriation, the blind spots in histories of collecting, as well as arguments for reparation. It explores the powerful dislocation of meaning which occurs when materials are decontextualized and how, simultaneously, indigenous groups experience the destruction of their culture and environment.
Chapter 3, Moving Away, takes the evolution of the chair in Breuer’s collage to trace the transformation of Bauhaus design and architecture in response to societal and geopolitical change. From the modernization of the USSR, to post-independence India, to campus projects in Nigeria, there is pressure for architecture and design to adapt. Former Bauhaus directors Hannes Meyer and Walter Gropius had to update their own concepts, while courses at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG, School of Design), Ulm, and at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad both take up and leave behind certain Bauhaus ideas.
This chapter looks at how, during the twentieth century, the modernist plan conceived between architects, designers, and the state served both progressive and repressive ends. The subsequent critique of planning and state intervention, along with privatization and deregulation of the public do- main, has weakened our collective response to the present crisis of social and economic inequality and the growing threat of climate change. This suggests the urgent need to regain the power to plan collectively in the interests of the common good.
Chapter 4, Still Undead, was realized together with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. It tells the story of light- and sound experiments; starting with Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Farblichtspiele (Reflecting color-light plays) at a Bauhaus party in 1922. These kinds of experiments were developed further subsequently by László Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus (later named the Institute of Design, IIT) in Chicago and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by his colleague György Kepes. Such experiments transgressed the boundaries of academia, entering the world of pop culture via electronic music and strobe lighting. Through works from the United States, Great Britain, and postwar West Germany up to the present, Still Undead shows how countercultural productions can emerge from and transgress institutional structures only to be re-assimilated.
This chapter addresses the overlapping territories of artistic surplus, hedonism, micropolitics, self-fashioning, and commerce. It questions how in a neoliberal economy a re-politicization of art, technology, and popular culture can be conceived. Can the creative energy exemplified by art schools, and its surplus beyond the curriculum, be oriented towards political ends, including anti-fascism and the queering of norms, to avoid being subsumed by commodity culture and the entertainment industry?
This international research project could be realized only by working intensively for a number of years with academics and art practitioners from Brazil, Chile, China, Germany, France, India, Israel, Japan, Morocco, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We are extremely grateful to these researchers, designers, and artists for their generosity and for sharing their ideas with us. We would also like to acknowledge the support received from the committed project teams in Berlin and international partner institutions, as well as the initiators of this project: the Bauhaus Kooperation Berlin Dessau Weimar, the Goethe- Institute, and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Finally, as this is the first large-scale project of its kind—one that leaves Western historiography of the Bauhaus behind—we propose this exhibition as a point of departure: as an experiment in a dialogical, transdisciplinary, and transhistorical narrative comprising the potential to germinate future study, reflection, and imagination.
Marion von Osten & Grant Watson