Art

An education in modernist art teaching

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

The Bauhaus art school was established in 1919 in the Weimar Republic (1919-33) as a pedagogical experiment fusing theory and practice. It had a broad impact in Germany and abroad in the transcultural movement of ideas, people and art works. “Bauhaus Imaginista: Corresponding With” at The Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (MoMAK), surveys German, Japanese and Indian developments in the style of Bauhaus as part of a wider collation of international exhibitions and research in preparation for next year’s centenary anniversary in Berlin.

The first Bauhaus director, Walter Gropius (1883-1969), sought to foment broad social and cultural change. Originally conceived as a student recruitment tool, his “Bauhaus Manifesto” — printed on the verso of a title page featuring the “Cathedral” woodcut by Lyonel Feininger) — is on display. It called for synthesizing crafts with fine arts while recognizing the symbolic and material relevance of handmade objects to redress their public alienation engendered by capitalism’s industrialized mass produced goods.

The Bauhaus curriculum included the usual disciplines considered as “fine art” — architecture, painting and sculpture — but also woodcarving, cabinetry, ceramics, weaving and metalwork. More importantly, however, provision was made for technological advancement in handicraft and industrial design. The approach was buoyed by esotericism: the inclusion of 12-tone music, synesthesia, occultism, yoga and Indian philosophy.

In Japan, the development of Bauhaus was being closely followed by the critic Sadanosuke Nakada and Takehiko Mizutani, an architect and Bauhaus graduate. Mizutani and Renshichiro Kawakita, another architect, organized the “Exhibition of Life Construction” in Tokyo in 1931, foregrounding the ideal Bauhaus aesthetic of a synthesis of the arts. This became the launch pad of Kawakita’s Tokyo-based Research Institute of Life Construction (1931-36), later renamed the School of New Architecture and Design, which aimed to combine traditional Japanese design concepts, European modernism, and industrial production. To spread its educational approach to regional centers in Japan, Kawakita and Katsuo Takei, a teacher, published the “Manual for Teaching Thinking Through Construction” in1934. The book introduced methodologies and education materials to grade school teachers and became influential in postwar Japanese design school curricula.

Meanwhile, in West Bengal, the art institute Kala Bhavana — another focus of the MoMAK exhibition — was contributing to an already existing utopian religious community in Santiniketan. Established in 1919 by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Kala Bhavana sought to rehabilitate traditional Indian culture, taking its cues from rural crafts, cave paintings, Javanese batik, far-Eastern brushwork and the British arts and crafts movement.

There was no formal curriculum at Kala Bhavana, just the school principal Nandalal Bose’s instructional postcards, Tagore’s writings on education and artists’ works, including those by Benode Behari Mukherjee and K.G. Subramanyan. The Bauhaus connection began in 1922 when the Austrian art historian Stella Kramrisch, a teacher at Kala Bhavana, contacted Bauhaus instructor Johannes Itten in Germany. The correspondence between the two eventually led to the first international Bauhaus show, which was held in Calcutta (now Kolkata) the same year.

As an interim presentation of fact-finding, the MoMAK exhibition comprises mostly reference materials, documents and student works, and so it is largely engaging for its concepts over visual tokens. It is somewhat enlivened, however, by two new commissioned works: Luca Frei’s installation “Model for a Pedagogical Vehicle” (2018), and The Otolith Group’s “O Horizon” (2018) filmic portraits and mood studies relating to the Indian modernist legacy of the Kala Bhavana campus.

“Bauhaus Imaginista: Corresponding With” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until Oct. 8; ¥430. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp/English.