Formal remnants of Bauhaus school are very much everywhere, from architecture to typography, from product design to fashion. The ideas established by the Bauhaus do still live with us today: the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) as the plurality of crafts for the better social-being, or the reform of artistic teaching in art academia which gave birth to the design schools. Besides the so-called post-modern overload, good taste in design is most of the times ruled by “form follow function” and “less is more”, the old big principles of Bauhaus design.
The views from the bauhaus imaginista exhibition, rigorous yet porous in the many aspects, facilitate the connections between design, crafts, and pedagogy as ‘global’ rather than a local reading of Bauhaus history. Within the framework of the celebrations for the centenary of the founding of the school, the show bauhaus imaginista is hosted by Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and can be visited till the 10th of June.
100 years of bauhaus (1919 – 2019)
The Bauhaus was founded in 1919, the year after WWI ended. It was one manifestation of a wider ambition shared by artists and intellectuals throughout Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the United States to transform society. Its radical premise: to understand design as a social project, and to undertake a reform of art and design education as a step towards imagining this new society.
From 1919 till 1933 it was home of the avant-garde of modernism until the institution was finally forced to close through reprisals by Hitler’s regime. With its manifestos, revolutionary ideas, and iconic designs, it is still often quoted the authority for German design and modernism worldwide.
How can one understand its impact today? Given that in the course of the 20th century, Bauhaus ideas have spread internationally, how does it reflect on the diverse legacy in the light of changing geopolitics? How can one, in the spirit of the Bauhaus, re-imagine culture as a social project? How do one shift from “thinking globally” to being relevant in a particular setting? What is gained by working between art and design or between culture and society? How does one use insights gained to change our current institutions, or imagine new ones?
All previous questions are on the basis of the bauhaus imaginista project, as this exhibition is only a part of the investigation project carried out during several years. bauhaus imaginista invites to reflect on questions for cultural production today and contemporary problems through the ideal and material legacies of the Bauhaus: the attempt to bring the arts together, the shaping of coexistence and the improvement of everyday life, design processes, cultural appropriation, or the impulse for emancipatory pop and subcultures. The exhibition interprets the Bauhaus legacy by looking at it as a global resonance space and putting it into the contemporary context.
bauhaus imaginista narrates the international histories of the Bauhaus. Since its foundation in 1919, the school was in contact with other avant-garde movements worldwide cosmopolitan project with global resonances: transnational relations, correspondences, and narratives of migration beyond the years the Bauhaus was active as a school (until 1933) and the project tracks the translation of Bauhaus concepts into different political and geographical contexts. bauhaus imaginista presumes modernism to be inherently cosmopolitan, as something that emerged from a transcultural exchange and it tracks the way Bauhaus ideas were transformed by local struggles, independence movements, as well as by rural development projects and urbanization. It explores correspondences between various reform movements worldwide that believed in art as an agent of social change. It traces how each of these movements redefined art and design education through the eclectic study of sources from the avant-garde to the pre-modern. It also examines how, in the post-war West, the Bauhaus legacy echoed and resonated far beyond its given canon—to influence popular culture, digital media, and art & technology in many ways.
The exhibition is structured in four chapters and includes newly commissioned works by contemporary artists and researchers such as Kader Attia, Luca Frei, Wendelien van Oldenborgh, the Otolith Group, Alice Creischer, Doreen Mende, Adrian Rifkin, and Zvi Efrat. But also works from Bauhaus protagonists as Anni Albers, Gertrud Arndt, Lena Bergner, Walter Gropius, Doreen Mende, Hannes Meyer or László Moholy-Nagy. The subsequently expanded ideas are present through personalities like Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, Lina Bo Bardi, Paulo Tavares, Iwao Yamawaki, Takehiko Mizutani, Nandalal Bose or Ahmed Cherkaoui.
Chapter 1, Corresponding With
This first chapter departs from also the first steps in Bauhaus history, the 1919 Manifesto with the aim to explore early 20th 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 Kawakitain Japan in 1931, from which later emerged the School of New Architecture and Design. These three avant-garde institutions participated in cosmopolitan networks and variously navigated the tensions between internationalism, nationalism, colonial rule, and the rise of fascism.
This section points out the possibility of radicalization in art, design, and pedagogy to shape the semiotic values embedded in material cultures and eliminate this from a reactionary spirit. 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
The second part takes Klee’s drawing of a NorthAfrican 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 USA, and figures such as architect Lina Bo Bardi, who embraced the Bauhaus as well as popular culture to redefine the modernism in Brazil.
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
This section 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, Ulm, Germany and at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India both take up and leave behind certain Bauhaus ideas.
In this chapter, we see how, during the 20th 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 domain, 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
The last chapter 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) in Chicago and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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, the section shows how countercultural productions can emerge from institutional structures and transgress only to be re-assimilated.
This section 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 and questions whether the creative energy exemplified by art schools, and its surplus beyond the curriculum, can be oriented towards political ends, including anti-fascism and the queering of norms, to avoid being subsumed by commodity culture and the entertainment industry.
A Large Scale Project
Finally, as this is the first large-scale project of its kind—one that leaves Western historiography of the Bauhaus behind, this exhibition is a point of departure: as an experiment in a dialogical, transdisciplinary, and transhistorical narrative comprising the potential to germinate future study, reflection, and imagination.
bauhaus imaginista is on display until the 10th of June at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.
bauhaus-imaginista.org is the online journal of the project.
Text: María Muñoz
Photos exhibition views: © Ruben González Escudero and © Silke Briel / HKW