A new exhibition in Melbourne and a book on the Bauhaus – the German art school of the 1920s – offer a new history of the avant-garde and art education in Australia, writes Darren Jorgensen.
The influence of the Bauhaus is a diffuse one as emigres fled the Second World War to find their place slowly in the classrooms of Australia.
The story of Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack exemplary here, arriving in Australia on the prison ship Dunera and into an internment camp for enemy aliens. He went on to work in schools, teach at training institutes, kindergartens and mental health facilities, illustrating something of the fate of a German diaspora that found itself practicing Bauhaus ideas far from home.
In the Bauhaus Now! exhibition at Buxton Contemporary, Set of colour chords (1950s) is a neat row of hollow wooden tubes designed to give children with no training the experience of playing music. It appears as innovative today as it must have been for the children who used it. Artist Janet Dawson remembers visiting Hirschfeld-Mack and playing his instruments:
“He had remade the colour bar paddle machine, and the xylophone you play with three-pronged drum sticks. We all had a go with that. He would play the accordion and then he would put up blue bars and you would play the strings. A whole room full of people who knew nothing about music could play in tune”.*
From refugee to artist to radical educator, Hirschfeld-Mack illuminates not only the interest of Bauhaus practitioners in the possibilities of colour, form and space, but the significance of arts education for Bauhaus graduates. The exhibition features his Klee-like drawings and colour charts from Germany in the 1930s to his work in Australia of the 1980s.
The International Style of architecture remains the most successful Bauhaus legacy, even in Australia, where its clean concrete and brick lines shape negative space of suburbia.
Bauhaus Now! follows other exhibitions and books on the influence of European modernism in Australia, such as the Heide shows on constructivism and cubism, and symbolism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
There have been performative revivals too— Justene Williams’s futurist opera A Metal Cry (2017) and Sally Smart’s The Violet Ballet (2019), based on The Ballet Russes (1909-1929). The National Gallery of Victoria’s The Field Revisited (2018) might be put in the same bag, its hard-edge abstraction representing a last stand for modernist painting before the explosion of post-medium and postmodern art in the 1970s.
One lesson from all of these returns is that the avant-gardes themselves were barely coherent as a program for art and socical change. The Field Revisited showed us that The Field (1968) was not only about hard-edged abstraction, but a mix of all kinds of unclassifiable styles being made in Australia of the 1960s.
Here, the standard line on Australian art is to say that the differences between one art movement and another, between colour field and minimalism, or constructivism and cubism, dissolve in the harsh light of the isolated colony. However, as any art history undergraduate will tell you, there was not a lot of consistency to the avant-garde programs in Europe either, as the rigidity of one manifesto was overturned by another, and artists shifted from one experiment to the next.
The avant-garde exchange of ideas took place in a Europe devouring itself in a frenzy of decadence and war. In Australia, the avant-garde influence played itself out instead like a slow motion film, as artists adapted its influences in paintings, sculptures and in drawn out debates in art societies and galleries.
This slow diffusion of ideas is captured by the book Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond (MUP), that illuminates the lives of emigre educators who transformed studio teaching in Australia away from the rote English model, and toward experimentation and play.
What made Bauhaus so crucial, and so different from many other avant-gardes, was its engagement with architecture and design, its reimagining of contemporary life.
This takes place across art, architecture and design, and the book includes essays on artists, architects, furniture designers and art historians, shifting from Europe to Australia and sometimes to the United States.
Edited and written by a team including Bauhaus Now! curator Ann Stephen, the book tells a history from below, its encyclopedic series of essays and archival images showing the slow changes at work across schools and workplaces.
Stephen and co-editors Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara were also responsible for the anthology Modernism & Australia (2006) and the history Modern Times (2008), also ambitious historical projects, if a little tight with their definition of modernism, that remains centred in Europe. What distinguishes Bauhaus Diaspora from its predecessors is its focus on education.
The exhibition too is pedagogically focused, featuring costumes and video of a parade by art students through Melbourne, and Bauhaus inspired toys made by current architecture students. There are also commisions by contemporary artists, with some wonderfully humble cardboard towers by Rose Nolan and bold weavings by Elizabeth Pulie. These works have the spirit of learning by doing built into them, with Nolan scavenging tea boxes and Ikea packaging and Pulie learning to weave with recyled clothing.
Downstairs is a more spectacular collaboration between Justene Williams and Mikala Dwyer, featuring video projections and a living garden, robot dogs and obscure devices loaded with crystal rocks. The installation is a conversation with the cultush Johannes Itten, whose spiritualist courses in the first years of the Bauhaus have largely been forgotten, as the more pragmatic architecture and furniture of the later years have come to dominate the design schools of the twentieth century.
Williams and Dwyer are the right choice of artist here, with Williams’s opera A Metal Cry behind her, and Dwyer’s previous work including big, evocative fabrics that recall esoteric artists like Hilma of Klimt and Emma Kunz.
Yet, as with these earlier appropriations, the question remains as to what is being lost and what gained in the anachronistic spectacularisation of the avant-garde. Here Itten’s spiritualism becomes carnivalesque, a playground of psychedelic colour and dance. While Bauhaus methods might have been radical in Australia of the 1950s and 1960s, as they were in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, today they are on show in the middle of Melbourne, and threaten to become another prop in the city’s cultural zeitgeist.
The contradiction here lies in a scholarship that is rightly focused on the educational legacy of the Bauhaus, and an exhibition that caters to an already educated audience. The European avant-garde did not, after all, achieve its aim of unifying art with architecture, design and life more generally, but instead became part of a history in which the disciplines incorporated its playfulness into methods of professionalisation.
Art education has largely been oriented to making exhibitions, rather than contributing to modernism’s larger visions of urban life. The aspirations for Bauhaus style education are represented in the book by its account of a UNESCO symposium in 1954, featuring Hirschfeld-Mack and with proceedings edited by art historian Bernard Smith.
(Post-1970s Australian) art schools did not adopt the skills based, interdisciplinary model of the Bauhaus. They effectively de-skilled artists and made them useless to society at large.
The optimistic view here was that art could change Australia, but as soon as the 1970s Smith, at least, was pessimistic about the direction of art schools in Australia.*** While Bauhaus Diaspora does not follow the story into the 1970s, it was during this decade that Gough Whitlam’s government funded the arts so that it could come of age.
Art schools did not, however, adopt the skills based, interdisciplinary model of the Bauhaus. Instead, they trained conceptual artists to pursue careers enabled by the new funding system. Art schools effectively de-skilled artists and made them useless to society at large, recreating the art for art’s sake mentality of the 19th century. The sheer range of transferable skills held by artists like Hirschfeld-Mack were no longer a priority for contemporary pedagogy. Artists can be incredibly resilient, however, and today often work hard to acquire those skills, but do so largely outside institutions.
This focus on the Bauhaus, then, could not be more timely, and offers some kind of ground for rethinking the ways in which art schools have become institutionalised in universities today as they struggle to demonstrate their relevance to students, parents and university hierarchies.
It may be that a return to the Bauhaus offers a way forward, but this would need to take Hirschfeld-Mack as its hero, rather than Itten, to change the way people live, to shift from problem solving in the studio to reshape the materials from which cities and homes are made.
This is why the International Style of architecture remains the most successful Bauhaus legacy, even in Australia, where its clean concrete and brick lines shape negative space of suburbia. It is possible to turn, then, to the contradictions raised by this important exhibition and book for arguments in defence of the experimental nature of Australia’s art education, but to also identify where its pedagogies betray the idealism of their origins.
What made Bauhaus so crucial, and so different from many other avant-gardes, was its engagement with architecture and design, its reimagining of contemporary life. In this way, Bauhaus offers a more radical lesson than such movements as symbolism and constructivism, whose legacies in Australia amount to paintings of nude bathing and a new style of commercial photography.
Bauhaus Diaspora illustrates instead that avant-garde changes can take place incrementally, as as the infiltration of educational institutions by European emigres transformed Australian arts education, and briefly at least, society’s attitudes to architecture, design and living more broadly.
*Janet Dawson cited in Ann Stephen, “The Bauhaus: Aspects and Influence,” Stephen, Isabel Wunsche, Harriet Edquist, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara (eds), Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond: Transforming Education through Art, Design and Architecture, Melbourne, Miegunyah Press and Power Publications, 2019, p. 161.
**Ann Stephen, “UNESCO and the Struggle for Modern Art Education in the Mid-Twentieth Century,” Bauhaus Diaspora, pp. 131-140.
***Bernard Smith, “The Whitlam Government and the Visual Arts,” (1975) The Antipodean Manifesto: Essays in Art and Cultural History, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 95-104.