Book review - Bauhaus Imaginista

Art historian and Museum Bookstore friend, Jean Marie Carey offers a comprehensive and nuanced review of the publication, Bauhaus Imaginista - the companion book to an ambitious international exhibition project about the global influence of Bauhaus.

Written and edited by Marion von Osten and Grant Watson, who were the central curators for the project, with contributed essays and images from many of the participating satellite artists, teachers, and curators. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2019). 312 pages, with numerous colour and black and white photos and illustrations.

bauhaus imaginista is an international exhibition project examining the global influence of the Bauhaus on the centennial of the founding of the school in Weimar, Germany. The series of symposiums, classes, performances, and exhibits began in March 2018 with an academic conference at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and will conclude at Nottingham Contemporary in England with the show Still Undead: Pop Culture in Britain Beyond the Bauhaus, opening 21 September 2019 and running until 5 January 2020; bauhaus-imaginista.org is the online journal of the project. bauhaus imaginista’s sister project, Bauhaus Week Berlin, runs 30 August through 8 September 2019. Headquartered at the Festival Center at Ernst-Reuter-Platz (Mittelinsel) in Berlin-Charlottenburg, the art festival includes tours of the Mies van der Rohe Haus, demonstrations of Josef Albers’ glassworks techniques, exhibits of Bauhaus printing and typography, weaving and ceramics workshops, tours of Bauhaus architecture, and re-created shop windows. For a complete schedule of events, see https://www.bauhaus100.berlin/

On the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus school in Weimar, an ambitious exhibition project, touring 11 countries, is revisiting – and in some cases challenging and sideswiping – the pervasive influence of the academy. Though planned well in advance, this intercontinental experiment, with its focus upon dissecting the structure of academic art and architecture pedagogy and its realization in form and function, coincides with the rise of New York City’s museum upheaval movement Decolonize This Place, anime-referencing London curatorial team Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente who write scathing art reviews from their bedrooms in the homes of their parents under The White Pube rubric, and the shake-up and re-evaluation of collections everywhere from MoMA to Australia’s National Gallery, oftentimes involving the repatriation or reattribution of items of questionable provenance.

Curated and art directed by Marion von Osten of Berlin and London-based Grant Watson, the individual parcels of the bauhaus imaginista are complemented by a program of cross-hemispheric satellite events, workshops, and panels. The confluence with the current critique-of-Modernism zeitgeist is fortuitous for the project, because otherwise I am not sure that bauhaus imaginista poses a provocative question that requires a jusqu'au bout du monde-style breakneck global investigation to answer: The existence of the Nike Air Max 270 React 'Bauhaus' trainer seems substantive proof that the Bauhaus is both certifiably reify-able and has a broad popular influence. Notably, with all of its German-side events taking place in Berlin, Weimar’s present-day incarnation as small, rather depressing and out-of-the way village with only one coffee shop to greet disappointed architecture students making the pilgrimage. However, 15 years after the dueling canonical polemics of Okwui Enwezor’s "Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form" and George Baker’s "The Globalization of the False: A Response to Okwui Enwezor" appeared in The Biennial Reader (Berlin: Hatje-Cantz, 2004) the sprawling exhibition does provide evidence of an interesting art world mutation. While Enwezor was cautiously optimistic that the global art fair phenomenon would open a cultural sphere for the inclusion of artistic practices beyond the West, Baker argued that such festivals were no more than a consolidation of hegemonic bourgeois culture, and thus by definition Eurocentric and nationalistic.

What has happened in the intervening years has been both predictable, as in the rise of the value and popularity of contemporary Chinese art, and surprising. Despite its widespread panning and numerous financial peccadilloes, Kassel’s 2017 Documenta 14 did have some startling entries, from the breakout durational performance of the women of iQhiya, a collective of University of Cape Town alumnae, to the seemingly incontrovertible solution of the 2006 murder of Halit Yozgat in the installation by The Society of Friends of Halit. The cheekily named Oslo “Biennial” began this summer and runs through 2024…to be followed by the next Oslo Biennial in 2025.

bauhaus imaginista’s distinction is that it is likely that not one single person has seen every instantiation of the concept show. Thus a catalogue for the project is valuable as an artefact for the curious and as an interesting volume in its own right. The four thematic movements of the project correspond with the four sections of the catalogue, each based upon one specific Bauhaus object: The Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919; a collage by Marcel Breuer; a drawing of a patterned carpet by Paul Klee; and a light game by Kurt Schwerdtfeger. Theoretically these form the framework for bauhaus imaginista, within which specific themes, historical genealogies, and contemporary debates were to be developed. Fortunately, the catalogue content itself is rich in images of concurrent and archival works, and the individual essays are relatively short and didactic.

In the chapter “Corresponding With” (pages 16-80, which covers exhibitions in Kyoto, Tokyo and New Delhi), the broad focus is an exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto held in the summer of 2018 which examined the educational approaches of the Bauhaus and compared them with two avant-garde art schools that were working simultaneously in Japan and India, as parallel histories of modern educational reforms of the 20th Century. Somewhat frustratingly, the film by The Otolith Group, O Horizon, (2018), is commemorated only by a poster for the movie (pgs. 54-56). I would like to have known more about the film and the school, which represents the early 20th Century research interests of Rabindranath Tagore and his founding of Visva-Bharati, a school in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India, which was meant to be a living laboratory and an experiment in art, life, and craft, thus mirroring the Bauhaus. Fortunately Partha Mitter expands on this history in the accompanying “Teaching Art at Santiniketan and Weimar: Some Unexpected Meeting Points,” (pgs. 36-52) which is beautifully illustrated with photos, student artworks, and pages from Tagore’s texts from the 1930s.

Departing from Paul Klee’s drawing Teppich from 1927, Chapter 2 (pgs. 80-159) “Learning From,” addresses 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. Engagement with premodern artefacts and practices was a constant feature of the work of teachers and students at the Bauhaus and continued to inform their approach after the school’s closure in 1933. The exploration of local craft practices and pre-Columbian cultures in North, Central, and South America helped to develop the formal language of abstraction as well as new procedures in weaving and the fiber arts based on precolonial forms and techniques. In questioning the division between the high and low arts, the Bauhaus had contested the classicism of the European art academies.

Susan Leeb’s “Books on World Art from the 1920s: On the Ambivalence of a Discursive Awakening” (pgs. 106-111) is exemplary of this line of inquiry, taking into consideration that the currently popular postcolonial counter-model to European modernism and the Bauhaus, while informed by the continued impact of colonial violence on indigenous populations, occurred simultaneously and as an unintentional blind spot in the historiographies of scholars such as Carl Einstein.

Part Three, “Moving Away” (pgs. 160-235) corresponds to exhibitions in Hangzhou, Moscow and Lagos and focuses on debates around design theory from the Bauhaus and their translation into other cultural and political contexts such as in the former Soviet Union, India, and China. 

This phenomenon is demonstrated by Zvi Efrat’s “Arieh Sharon’s Nigerian Campus Project: Ife University 1960-85,” (pgs. 228-234). The subchapter itself refers to an external project which requires substantial backgrounding not found here, but rather is the subject of “Omenka: The Impact of Colonial Architecture” by Cordelia O. Osasona, a professor of history of architecture at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and head of architecture at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan. An offshoot of the symposium, “Decolonizing the Campus” held at the University of Lagos in 2018, Osasona discusses colonial architecture in Ile-Ife, Nigeria in an interview from the Afro-Modernist journal Omenka. Osasona’s conversation partner is Hannah le Roux, also an architect, curator and professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. This catalogue entry tackles an immense topic that demands of the reader more than a little pre-existing knowledge of a large number of topics that seem, frankly, a real stretch to connect to the Bauhaus, including the design of Portuguese parochial schools from the 16th Century to Yoruba communal housing building materials. Meant to be an overview, the article makes what is often pointed out to students, artist and architects, and would-be campus decolonizers of talking about a singular “Africa” as a catalyst and conceptual model for contemporary design rather than a collection of nations and geographies of myriad histories.

Still including such challenging material in compressed format is perhaps a sign not of hubris but of humility on von Osten’s and Watson’s part, acknowledging the unlikelihood – more like impossibility – of any one person on the planet visiting all of the bauhaus imaginista outposts, let alone possessing the background to assess them aesthetically or historically.

The catalogue concludes with “Still Undead” (pgs. 244-283), a subject upon which some theoretical reflection would have been useful. “Still Undead” examines experimental work with light and sound, film and photography and their repercussions in expanded cinema, visual and popular culture and in electronic music. Gavin Butt (“Polytechnics and Punks: The 1970s After-life of the Bauhaus, “pgs. 278-283) gives some insight into the connection between the academy and Fluxus. But the concept that is missing here and throughout the book is Hal Foster’s idea of “The Return” from his 1996 The Return of the Real, which itself is based upon the very German notion of Nachträglichkeit, in art historical terms, the reappearance of the historical avant-garde in new forms of artwork.

Still, for a compendium of an impossible-to-attend conceptual exhibition, the catalogue of bauhaus imaginista captures its own moment, the time of art history we are in now, and provides an enriching trove of images that may be enjoyed out-of-time, as self-contained works.


– Jean Marie Carey is an art historian who writes about modern and contemporary art, and also animals, provenance research, and Franz Marc, at GermanModernism.org.

 


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