Why the Bauhaus Still Matters in an Era of Neo-Nationalism

Luca Frei, “Model for a Pedagogical Vehicle” (2018); installation view at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019
(photo: Silke Briel; image courtesy Haus der Kulturen der Welt / Bauhaus Kooperation)

This September, the controversial Humboldt Forum will open in Berlin. Housed in a faux-reconstructed Baroque palace of the Prussian monarchy, the new complex will relocate Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art from the margins to its center in an effort, the city claims, to establish itself as a beacon of “world culture.” The hypocrisy of such a project — returning objects looted from abroad to the symbolic seat of power that originally expropriated them — has not escaped residents, who have criticized the motivations of rehabilitating the cultural institutions of a militarist state. And this occurs at a time when such efforts, in the guise of capital architectural projects that seem more geared toward inciting tourism and foreign investment rather than meeting the needs of local residents, are retooling other parts of the city — including the planned demolition and rebuilding of Karlstadt in Hermannplatz. These projects will essentially gentrify (read: Aryanize) historically immigrant neighborhoods that have been vibrant and close-knit communities for decades.

What does all this have to do with the Bauhaus? The forum’s opening comes on the heels of a year of Bauhaus-mania (also largely funded by the German Federal Cultural Ministry). For 2019, the German government dedicated more than €17 million to celebrate the school’s 100th anniversary. Art institutions in Germany and around the world, often facilitated by Goethe-Institut satellites, offered a range of programming on the topic, revealing many understudied aspects of what is arguably the most influential art school of the past century. The most ambitious of these was the exhibition bauhaus imaginista, which took place at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt from March 15 to June 10, 2019. Like the Humboldt Forum, it too argued for a “world culture” — one retroactively ascribed to the Bauhaus and its legacy abroad — while overlooking (or willfully ignoring) the colonial and neo-colonial forces that shaped (and continue to shape) such claims.

Revisiting bauhaus imaginista entails reflecting on the inescapable imbrication between art and politics in contemporary German culture, and the sometimes insidious ways in which the former is used for neo-liberal ends. What is one to make of an exhibition that argues for the Weimar Republic school as “an experiment in a dialogical, transdisciplinary, and transhistorical narrative”? Whose narrative is this? And what about the fact that this “transhistorical narrative” unfolded within institutions that represent the cultural arm of German foreign diplomacy? Do we celebrate or shudder at the description of the school, proposed recently by the Bundestag, as “Germany’s most successful cultural export of the 20th century”?

This is not the first time that a Bauhaus exhibition has privileged the school’s afterlife with results that invite questioning. Lucia Moholy mounted similar concerns in her review of the traveling exhibition that opened in 1968, Fifty Years of Bauhaus. She doubted “whether under the circumstances one can claim — as it happened at the opening in Stuttgart — that ‘the Bauhaus represents Germany’s contribution to the culture and civilization of the world in this century’.” But historical memory is not bauhaus imaginista’s strong suit, even though it emerged out of a multi-year research endeavor. Initiated in 2015 by the Goethe-Institut in collaboration with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and the Bauhaus Kooperation (a collaboration between the three main Bauhaus institutions in Germany: Dessau, Weimar, and Berlin), the “bauhaus imaginista project” was sprawling. The two appointed curators, Marion von Osten and Grant Watson, oversaw a team of researchers and institutional partners in ten countries, including Germany.

The project was introduced to the public in March 2018, with a two-day workshop and symposium in Rabat, Morocco. Further workshops and symposia took place in New York, Tokyo, and Lagos. Last year, four exhibitions — quite distinct from that on view in Berlin —could be seen in Hangzhou, China; Kyoto, Japan; Moscow, Russia; São Paulo, Brazil; and New Delhi, India. These exhibitions were accompanied by invite-only workshops but also public symposia, often at the city’s Goethe-Institut. The project concluded with three exhibitions that opened last fall and winter: at Nottingham Contemporary in the UK, the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, and SALT in Istanbul.

As an exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, bauhaus imaginista presented the Bauhaus as a supra-historical phenomenon, a set of “ideas,” as the curators put it, that “radiated out to many different nations and cultures.” (All quotations, unless otherwise cited, are from the HKW’s gallery guide or catalogue.) Spilling out of the already full galleries and into the large foyer on the ground floor, it was a sprawling show, even for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which has a record of ambitious, thematic-driven surveys. Visitors could see objects made at the school between its operating years of 1919 and 1933, but also many others produced outside Germany, by former students and teachers, by likeminded practitioners, and even by contemporary artists who had been commissioned by the curators to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the school for the present.

These objects offered an astonishing geographic and temporal range — in just one of the four galleries there was a new film by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, 1960s and ‘70s American fiber art, antifascist Mexican woodcuts, examples of Moroccan design curriculum, and black San Ildefonso pottery. Objects from the “historical Bauhaus” were in the minority, and that was precisely the point. Much more than a school or even a movement, the “Bauhaus,” the show proposed, can be seen as a “transmission of knowledge,” one that was carried by the migration of students and teachers, but also could be radically decoupled from these protagonists to signify “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.” As the curators proclaimed, bauhaus imaginista was “the first large-scale project of its kind — one that leaves Western historiography of the Bauhaus behind” in order to see it instead “as a point of departure” for “future study, reflection, and imagination.”

Kader Attia, “The Body’s Legacies: The Objects” (2019); installation view at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019
(photo by Silke Briel; image courtesy Haus der Kulturen der Welt / Bauhaus Kooperation)

Presumably, this is what is meant by the term “imaginista,” though, oddly, that concept itself is not historicized in the exhibition itself. For instance, we are not told in the catalogue or wall texts that Asger Jorn used the same language in his 1957 essay “Notes on the Formation of an Imaginist Bauhaus.” Nor do the curators point out that this very notion of the school as “an idea” is in fact one of the great mythologies concocted by generations of Bauhaus scholarship, one that can be traced back at least to the 1938 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was used extensively in the catalogue and press materials. What is emphasized is a vocabulary seemingly lifted from the Cliffs Notes to postcolonial theory, with language that mobilizes terms like “cultural appropriation,” draws attention to non-Western influences (“western” is consciously written in lower-case, the curators tell us, to undermine its dominance), privileges “the perspectives of Africa, Asia, and the Americas,” and argues for modernism’s “inherent cosmopolitanism.” If all of this seems to you depressingly limp and embarrassingly naïve in its generality, you are not alone.

This mix of old and new (old masquerading as new?) struck me as baffling. I bristled at tone deaf calls to “reimagine the relationship between the arts and society” and “invent the kinds of institutions and practices that we need today.” How are we meant to reconcile this ex nihilo rhetoric with what Frantz Fanon and Gayatri Spivak and others had taught us: that it is precisely this kind of omnipotent voice, which artificially levels codes of linguistic signification and drains them of their politics, that perpetuates geopolitical inequalities? Such calls seemed to me to parody the liberal jargon and self-aggrandizement of the Bauhaus’s own manifestos. Is that not exactly the kind of hubris that prompted the very same canon revision that the curators are now calling upon?

Displaced from the historical school onto its present “global circulation,” this perplexing account takes form not only in vague curatorial rhetoric, but also in the schizophrenic organization of the exhibition’s layout. The structure seems at first well-organized: the exhibition is divided into four chapters, each of which begins with a “focal object” made by a Bauhaus masters or student. These include: a copy of the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto, the drawing “Teppich” (1927) by Paul Klee, the collage “ein bauhaus-film” (1926) by Marcel Breuer, and the light projection “Reflektorische Farblichtspiele” (1922) by Kurt Schwerdtfeger. Although seemingly straight forward, these objects are made to bear a heavy burden, to uphold “a genealogy of forms, practices, and concepts,” that leaves little room for viewers to understand the objects on their own terms, much less formulate their own ideas about what they may or may not suggest.

The first chapter — the most coherent of all four — focuses on Bauhaus pedagogy, but again, not entirely, as the Dessau Bauhaus preliminary course comes to represent the school’s entire pedagogy, which was as diverse and multifaceted as the several dozen figures that taught there during its 14-year history. The chapter’s focus, though, is drawing parallels between that pedagogy and what we are to understand as “connected” endeavors in other countries, namely Kala Bhavan, the art school established in Calcutta in 1919 by Rabindranath Tagore, and Seikatsu Kōsei KenkyushōResearch Institute of Life Configurations) founded by the Japanese architect Renshichirō Kawakita in 1931. Although there was an exhibition of Bauhaus works on paper at Kala Bhavan in 1922 (a history that Partha Miller brought to our attention in 2007) Kawakita never studied at the Bauhaus, nor visited the German school, but rather, the curators argue, assimilated its pedagogy through publications. “This goes to show,” we are told in tepid generalities, “that Japanese modernism, like that of the Bauhaus, was open to different, international, and socialist ideas.”

If this is a relatively limited roster — a comparison of three different schools in the interwar period — the second chapter launches the visitor into sweeping claims for “the study and appropriation of cultural production from outside the modernist mainstream, principally from non-Western sources, but also European folk traditions, the work of outsider artists, and children.” In comparison to the first chapter, the roster of artists balloons. Framed work on paper by Lygia Clark hung next to pottery by Margurite Wildenhain (which was intermixed with ceramic objects that were apparently not made by Wildenhain but unlabeled), and notes penned by Sheila Hicks while she was in Chile sat in a Plexi case across from the projection of The Saga of Macramé Park (1974), a film documenting the challenge involved in constructing and maintaining an outdoor macramé climbing structure in Bolinas, California, by the textile artist Alexandra Jacopetti.

To an audience unfamiliar with this material, these presentations likely seemed joyously overwhelming, a sublime wash of one fascinating artwork after another (which they are); but for those like me with some radar for curatorial gobbledygook, the mix-and-match approach seems arbitrary, if not simply sloppy. The curators presented these as comparable examples of “craft,” with that term presumably coming from the Bauhaus’s use of handwerk (a German term with a very different meaning than the English “craft”). Page through either Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Fray or Jenny Sorkin’s Live Form, and you immediately encounter arguments that such works as The Saga of Macramé Park represent “starkly different approaches,” as Bryan-Wilson writes, in relation even to contemporary examples of craft traditions, much less to the heterogenous school that was a continent and generations away from these other examples. In its manic attempt to make the Bauhaus a history of everything, the exhibition robbed its objects of their cultural specificity, of their tensions and contradictions, of everything that makes them interesting.

The exhibition’s third chapter takes us further afield still, asking viewers not only to leap across geographic and temporal boundaries in the bric-a-brac installation, but also to conceptualize large-scale architectural projects with very little documentation. Here we learn of projects that Walter Gropius undertook in Asia with I.M. Pei, exchanges between the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, founded by former Bauhaus student Max Bill in 1953, and India’s National Institute of Design, established in 1961. We also encounter a film on the University of Ife (now known as the Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, which had been built by the Bauhaus-trained Israeli architect Arieh Sharon in the 1960s.

The last chapter transitions abruptly from examples of architecture and urban planning to photography, film, light installation, and experimental music. Here those terms are all traced back to the Bauhaus, which, when we look at what else was going on in Weimar Germany, was hardly the sole pioneer in any one of those fields. But never mind; here we are meant to understand the Bauhaus as prefiguring sound art and light installation by practitioners as diverse as Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, anticipating early designs for web-browser layouts by Muriel Cooper and the MIT Visible Language Workshop, foreshadowing music by Kraftwerk, and leading directly to Warhol’s film Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966–67). Even Nam June Paik’s work in video — a medium unavailable in the 1920s — finds a place in a show on the Bauhaus. Though parallels can be drawn between interwar Germany and postwar America, it all comes down to which ones, but we are given none. Instead, abrupt juxtaposition, nonsensical wall labels, and historical amnesia seem to be all that is on offer.

The layout of these four chapters made what was already an overwhelming display even harder to grasp: as one entered the building, the end of the last chapter was on the immediate right and I saw many a bewildered visitor begin there. The two middle chapters were directly behind the ticket desk, and one had to walk through chapter four before getting to chapter three. To find the first chapter, one had to go all the way to the back of the building and down a flight of stairs. In an effort to aid orientation, visitors received a gallery guide upon purchasing their ticket. Less a “guide,” than a slim book, it included a table of contents, a forward, introduction, and 104 pages of text explaining the concept behind each chapter. These were followed by pedantic paragraphs on loose groupings of works that left out any concrete specifics that would have grounded the viewer’s experience (date, artist, medium, dimensions were all missing), and instead, went directly to the intended “take-away.” One entry on photographs by Robin Beeche nonchalantly asserts: “echoes of [Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett] can be seen in Beeche’s photographs of the Alternative Miss World Contest and Leigh Bowery’s elaborate costumes …which reflect Schlemmer’s fascination with masks and puppets.”

Robyn Beeche, “7th Alternative Miss World 1986; Miss Fuck It — Leigh Bowery and assistant the late Jill Swimwear” (image courtesy of Robyn Beeche Foundation)

Verbs like “echo” and “reflect” do a lot of work here (and also not enough). As a visitor, there were moments where I felt jerked around, made to chase after a free-wheeling logic in which brute assertion trumped argumentation. Often, it seemed as if “Bauhaus” had been reduced to a few trigger words—“craft,” “design,” “industry,” “folk,” “pedagogy,” even “form” and “function,” — and anything that could also be made to invoke those terms was fair game for inclusion. A selection of ephemera from the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca drew attention to artists Farid Belkahia, Mohamed Chabâa, and Mohamed Melehi, Toni Maraini and Bert Flint. This is undoubtedly an interesting set of practitioners and one that I would have liked to know more about. But any such insights into their careers were sidelined in order to squeeze them into — we were told — “a new epistemology applied to the study of art from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan and West Africa, linking these to a notional modernism outside the discourses of colonial modernity.”

New epistemology, indeed. Standing in front of works like these, I had the sinking feeling that the curators had reinforced exactly what they had set out to undermine: Here, artists who already had been historically excluded from the dominant art historical canon, were now being included, but only to the extent that they point us to something else, the hegemonic integer BAUHAUS. The specificity of their contributions was simply missing, going untold, glossed over, simplified, and thrown into the meat-grinder of academic jargon in a supreme act of revisionist history.

One instance in which this was particularly overt was the frequent use in the publicity materials of a photograph portraying three Black male figures approaching Arieh Sharon’s building for the University of Ife, mentioned earlier. What makes the use of this image suspect for me is the tone set up in the central juxtaposition, the way it frames the encounter between Bauhaus architecture and the people of Nigerian as benign; the Black subject could simply stride, worry-free, into Sharon’s new campus. It ignores the crucial questions (questions that were nowhere posed, much less answered in the exhibition materials): Why was Israel, at this moment in the late 1960s and ‘70s, itself a rising colonial power, undertaking so-called “aid programs” with a fellow former colony of Britain? Whose agenda was this serving, and what degree of agency did the Nigerians have in that relationship? Why was Sharon being recruited for such a project? Is “international cosmopolitanism” here meant to dazzle and distract from the persistence of geopolitical power inequalities, a persistence that architecture was asked to solve?

University of Ife in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, by architects Arieh Sharon and Eldar Sharon (image courtesy Arieh Sharon digital archive)

With so many questions unanswered, it takes some effort just to grasp what bauhaus imaginista is — research project? Exhibition series? Public program? Curatorial experiment? Exercise in revisionist history? State-sponsored propaganda? All of the above? One lasting legacy will surely be the project’s online journal, edited by Anja Guttenberger and Michael Baers, which published texts that emerged out of the project’s workshops, symposia and exhibitions. It also offered translations of materials that previously were only available in Russian, Spanish, or German. Given the quality of much of this scholarship, one hoped it would have found printed form, lending it the longevity it deserves (a published anthology is not in the works). But even so, many of these contributions fail to orbit a recognizable object: What is the object of study here, if it is not the historical Bauhaus? Or has the historical Bauhaus, in existence a century ago, become indistinguishable from an “imagined,” proscriptive “Bauhaus” deposited somewhere in our present-future? But where then do the boundaries of that object lie and have we not led ourselves unwittingly into a funhouse mirror of presentism in which we can no longer see, much less learn from, the past, as Rainer Wick worried already in 1985 in an essay on the seemingly perennial “contemporaneity” of Bauhaus pedagogy?

The questions, contradictions, omissions, and elisions of this project put into question what we even mean with this term — especially given that what was the “Bauhaus” may have been in fact died in 1933, and afterwards we can only talk about the lives of individual actors. The bauhaus imaginista exhibition proposes the Bauhaus “as an idea,” uniting artists across time and place in its majestic magnitude. But that term, “idea,” emerged from specific historical conditions, namely Gropius’s effort to depoliticize the school at a moment when it badly needed shelter in a German-hostile America in the 1930s, as Karen Koehler argued in her account of the exhibition The Bauhaus 1919–1928 at the Museum of Modern Art. The strategic usefulness of that vague language again served a purpose in Max Bill’s writings, as the Bauhaus rose from the dead in the form of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm in the politically tumultuous context of a divided Germany. As an “idea” — essentially what bauhaus imaginista retools for the early 21st century — the Bauhaus acquires the ever-relevant character of an omni-powerful concept, prefiguring the globalized art world. The “Bauhaus” again proves expedient and we, in turn, are no closer, I think, to grasping the intractable contradictions of its history.

One of the exhibition’s strongest claims is to situate the Bauhaus as part of “a transnational history of modernist art and design.” That is commendable and sorely needed. I question, though, whether putting the Bauhaus front and center accomplishes that. This effectively re-centers the Bauhaus as the key source responsible for the artistic schools that followed. I often wondered what the exhibition could have done had it just focused on a few other institutions or movements and gave these their due by delving into the specific­, even (God forbid) non-Bauhaus-related contributions that they made. The example of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad was one of the more fascinating.

During the symposium “A New School” held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt on May 11, 2019, the design historian Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan, who had been educated at the NID, reflected on being a student there in the early 1980s. She said something very poignant, which was that the Bauhaus was not immediately present at the NID. Its impact on the NID’s curriculum was only something she later came to realize as she examined the roots of what she was learning. That examination led her discover “who her intellectual parents were,” a group of people at a different time, in another country very much unlike her own. This is a powerful statement, because it attests to an insight that is basically at odds with the Berlin exhibition, indeed with the entire premise of the bauhaus imaginista project. Even if Bauhaus pedagogy, transmitted to India through a colonial history that included the Westernization of educational institutions, may have been enabling for subsequent generations of design and architecture students, it presented many “limitations,” as Balasubrahmanyan put it. Those limitations begin to point to the richness of these other legacies, legacies that were often at odds with Bauhaus pedagogy. I do not need to hear an account of imported Bauhaus pedagogy at the NID to understand or appreciate the richness and complexity of its artistic legacy.

So it would seem that once we start examining the “international reception of the Bauhaus” we are actually far away from the German school and its members, and that to continue to speak about that school is, in fact, to do an injustice to the vitality and complexity of the endeavors that followed. In an effort to paper over that misguided curatorial logic, the exhibition found itself recasting the school (and modernism for that matter) as somehow inherently “global,” tolerant of cultural difference to an anachronistic degree. Nowhere, for instance, does the project dwell on how contradictory race and nation actually were at the historical Bauhaus — how it had sent works to Calcutta at the same time that Gropius was defending the “Germanness” of the school to a hysterical board of cultural preservationists in Weimar. To accusations that the school misused public monies to fund “foreign elements” at the expense of hardworking German boys (accusations that almost finished the Bauhaus before it had even begun) Gropius retorted meekly that the school housed only “German-speaking students of German heritage,” and proceeded to enumerate just how “German” these students were, “namely 208 imperial Germans, 14 German-Austrians, 2 Baltic-Germans, 2 Czech-Germans and 2 Hungarians with German names.” Signed by the entire faculty, the letter concluded that “the strong German sensibility has not been threatened by these few Germans of foreign citizenship.”

Without a doubt a strategic move on Gropius’s part to keep the school running, the letter tells us today how curatorial assertions like “from its inception, the Bauhaus was internationally oriented” are simply misleading, if not outright falsehoods. The Bauhaus may have been oriented towards an international (European) artistic avant-garde, hiring the Russian Kandinsky, the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy, and the Swiss Johannes Itten, but in the context of post-World-War-I Germany that internationalism was deeply embedded in a passionate, wide-reaching concern about just what “Germanness” was. That question only became more pressing with the November revolution, out of which the Bauhaus, importantly, was forged — a fact that many a visitor to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt may never have encountered.

The point is simply that if we want to argue for a transnational art history, one sensitive to histories of colonialism, oppression, racial and gendered violence, and the like, we must confront the historical complexities of modernism’s history. Artists made negotiations, played to expectations, manipulated opinion, led the opposition on, in order to do their work. This was as much the case at the beleaguered Bauhaus as it was at institutions coming from contexts historically marginalized from that history, like the NID, which also struggled to forge its own vernacular design tradition under complex conditions of enabling inheritance and necessary disavowal.

All this is to say that the Bauhaus is not the prophet of some sublimely globalized present; it deserves a historicization that is better than mere instrumentalization, as fodder for fantasies of German multiculturalism. Equally so, it deserves more than to be reduced to the political exigencies of its country of origin. That the €3.4-million-dollar budget for bauhaus imaginista was single handedly funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, with the German Foreign Office, via its cultural wing, the Goethe-Institut, should concern those who care about the legitimacy of such public cultural institutions. This is a show about contemporary Germany as a country as much as it is about whatever we are calling “the Bauhaus.” The contemporary dilemma in which Germany finds itself, holding together a fractured European Union in the midst of a refugee crisis while simultaneously battling an emerging alt-right that continues to make gains in national elections, has led those in power to jump on the coincidence of the school’s jubilee.

It is an instrumentalization of culture that we see even more clearly in the new Humboldt Forum. Whether militant Prussia or the Weimar Republic, contemporary Berlin seems to be grasping at whatever might signify as “not Nazi Germany” — even as the social and political landscape more and more resembles just that, big capital in the name of the “little man.” All this allows the Bauhaus to be trotted out as the enduring myth of fascism’s number-one enemy. Nicely packed and literally shipped out to the provinces, the “transnational” art venture is meant to rekindle the flame of democratic universalism, all while blind to the economic crisis that makes that an impossibility. A hundred years out, it seems that we are not far from 1919.

A look back at all the questions, contradictions, omissions, and elisions of last year’s bauhaus imaginista exhibition reveals that it was a show about contemporary Germany as a country as much as it is about whatever we are calling “the Bauhaus.”Read MoreArticles, berlin, Germany, Humboldt Forum, The Bauhaus, The Bauhaus ImaginistaHyperallergicRead More

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