Bauhaus in Calcutta

An exhibition currently on display at the Bauhaus in Dessau presents one of the lesser-known chapters of the institution’s history, in which it functioned as “the meeting point of the cosmopolitan avant-gardes”. As early as 1922, not so long after Bauhaus’ founding, Johannes Itten was asked to send some of his own work and that of other Bauhaus masters and students to Calcutta, the location of an exhibition planned by the “Indian Society of Oriental Art”. Austrian art historian Stella Kramrisch had brokered the contact between India and Germany, having previously met Itten in Vienna. Bauhaus was still in its infancy at the time, still finding its feet, and thus open to spiritual and esoteric influences. As such, Indian architecture, craftsmanship and philosophy were all valid sources of inspiration for the Bauhaus masters and served as key role models. Even Gropius was inspired by Gothic and Indian architecture during this particular period. He didn’t view them as buildings designed by individual specialists but as a paragon for the future communal projects to be undertaken at Bauhaus.

The most important intermediary between India and Europe at the time was the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature travelled the world, held an extensive series of talks, and sold more than a million copies of his books in Germany alone, making him a catalyst for the new wave of enthusiasm for his home country. The people looked upon Tagore – or at least his ascetic stance – as having a prophetic significance, as shown by a number of caricatures on display in the exhibition. But his political and indeed artistic influence in India – or to be more precise in his home region of Bengal – is not to be underestimated. Back in 1901 he founded a school in a rural area 150 kilometers from Calcutta. The metropolis itself was far too international for the poet, dominated as it was by the culture of its colonial masters. In building the Srinitekan School his aim was to revive local art and above all traditional craftsmanship and thus give an economic boost to the rural community there. Akin to the arts and crafts movement in England, the approach included a revival that hinged on focusing on the country’s own history for once.

In 1919, Tagore established nothing less than a global university: Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, West Bengal. In contrast to the British education system, the curriculum included dance, theatre and playful learning, often out in the open. A picturesque scene – school in the shadow of the mango trees. But the school was also open to influences from the outside world: The Far East and specifically Japan were to serve as major role models, as did the West with its continental avant-garde. It was this keen interest that opened up a position for Stella Kramrisch there teaching Indian and European Art History. In 1922 she had a series of works by the Bauhaus artists (predominantly prints) brought to Calcutta for exhibition. Other European artists were also represented in the form of reproductions displayed in a separate section, while Indian artists were exhibited in an entirely different department altogether. This was conceived as sales exhibition, where one could still buy a Kandinsky watercolor for just ten or 15 pounds, although no one took up the opportunity. Aside from one piece by a female artist, all other works were subsequently shipped back to Dessau.

During their research for the Dessau show, Regina Bittner and Kathrin Rhomberg, curators of “Bauhaus in Calcutta”, were able to find a printed catalog from the original exhibition, alnbeit not a single photograph. In Dessau, they are now exhibiting a mixture of German and Indian works, which were formerly presented in separate departments, as well as a selection that takes its cue from the range shown in the original exhibition. The duo also uncovered similarities in the formal vocabulary in the works, for example between Lyonel Feininger and Abanindranath Tagore, who was one of the famous writer’s nephews and made his own name for himself not only thanks to his artistic oeuvre but also as the founder of the “Indian Society of Oriental Art”. Here his works and those by painters Sunayani Devi and Nandalal Bose appear rather unconventional upon first glance, emphatic in their two-dimensionality and rather simple, almost naïve in their choice of historical imagery. However, before the backdrop of the emancipation movement, they prove to be recourses to historical Indian paragons. They consciously reject the academic “British” realism and instead actively seek out their own roots and tried to lock into a form of Modernism that they construed as being universal. As such, when it comes to our existing understanding of Bauhaus there aren’t all that many new insights to be seen in Dessau. But what one can discover here is another international school bent on reforming the arts, along with the various artists who went made it.

Bauhaus in Calcutta

March 27 until June 30, 2013

Bauhaus Dessau

The catalog published by Hatje Cantz costs EUR 35.