The Bauhaus, a German design school founded in 1919, was both short-lived and highly influential. In the year of its centenary, Philip Goad, Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara, Harriet Edquist, and Isabel Wünsche trace the legacy of the Bauhaus in their book, Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond: Transforming Education through Art, Design and Architecture. In the extract from the Introduction, reproduced with permission below, Goad, McNamara and Stephen examine the impact of Bauhaus ideas and ideals in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s.
Introduction: Australian Reception
by Philip Goad, Andrew McNamara, Ann Stephen
Before the arrival of German and Central European refugees and émigrés, an Australian reception of Bauhaus ideas was already underway. In 1926 the Australian expatriate artist JW Power wrote of his interest in the Bauhaus to the English art critic Anthony Bertram:
I have not been in Germany since 1910 & then only in the south, but of recent years I have endeavoured to keep up with their newer developments by means of books, magazines & photographs. I know Eric Mendelsohn’s work by pictures fairly well & also Walter Gropius who built the marvellous new Art school or ‘Bauhaus’ at Dessau & I have Einstein’s book on their modern painting & one or two others. I should love to see the interiors you speak of … I see that both of them [Klee and Kandinsky] have been appointed art masters at the Dessau Bauhaus & if the r.sum. of their course of teaching in the last number of Cahiers d’art is true, it must all be very wonderful. I should like very much to exhibit in Berlin.(1).
Power kept abreast of developments in contemporary German art and architecture and was clearly excited about the Bauhaus, its teaching and the new buildings at Dessau. Just seven years after its founding in Weimar in 1919, the reputation of the new institution was growing rapidly. But if this private reception of the Bauhaus was positive, earned admittedly through reading rather than through Power’s direct experience, there were also Australian nay-sayers.(2). In 1928, in typically combative style, Florence Taylor, editor of the Sydney-based journal Building, viewed the Bauhaus in far more negative terms. For Taylor, the Bauhaus was symptomatic of a broader, global attack on tradition by German artistic culture. Her article ‘Freak House Design: Futurism in Germany’ was strident in apportioning blame: ‘Germans were sowing the seeds of revolution in building long before the war, even as they were preparing for a world upheaval. A spirit that is strange, distorted, and stern has left its impress on modern German house-building, as evidence of the upheaval in German domestic arts.’(3)
For Taylor, this ‘upheaval’ had its root cause in dangerous experiments in education:
Art nouveau at its worst is to be seen in Germany, because it was there that the supposed oracles of education, the professors, preached their insidious doctrines in technical and art schools, and established their principles in building research schools. The Bauhaus Dessau, for instance, is a laboratory for research in the fine arts, building and allied crafts, working on the assumption that all the arts and crafts centre round the house, and that scientific methods should be applied to get form down to its basic principles.(4)
Ironically, in the next few paragraphs, Taylor would describe in careful detail the houses at Dessau designed by ‘Dr Mucha’ (Georg Muche) and ‘Dr Gropius, another official’. Taylor’s attack on modernism, and hence on the Bauhaus, was political. Her knowledge of the institution had also been gained through reading and was part of her much broader campaign to discredit modernism: ‘The doctrine of the Socialist is observed clearly through the economic veneer of modernist design, which claims to ignore art as a luxury, and beauty as an accessory of the old regime.’(5) Unlike Taylor, it is almost certain that Australian architect Henry Pynor had been to the Dessau Bauhaus—its first Australian visitor. Reporting back to The Homethree months after Taylor’s attack, Pynor proudly stated the German position on the ‘new art’:
The Bauhaus in Dessau is the centre of the movement in this country, a laboratory for research in all crafts and architecture—an organized attempt to reduce all these to basic principles, to dissociate the building arts from privilege and luxury, and to solve practically and economically the new building problems.(6)
Pynor went on to describe in detail the educational buildings and houses of the Bauhaus masters at Dessau and included within his article a page of ‘Specimen Designs from the Bauhaus’—images of an easy chair, coffee set, kitchen canisters, woven rug, a light fixture and chess-pieces.(7) Over the next decade, there would be many references to the Bauhaus in the Australian design press and popular media, including reviews of Walter Gropius’s 1935 book, The New Architecture of the Bauhaus, and those with firsthand experience of the Bauhaus proved remarkably sympathetic.(8) While the return of Australian artists, designers and architects who had been touched, however fleetingly, by the reformist methods and principles of Bauhaus teaching had an impact on education, it was the arrival of émigrés and refugees fleeing Europe in the late 1930s that had the most significant and enduring influence. Where they could and where institutional settings were supportive, these émigrés sought to transform the direct experience and influence of Bauhaus ideas and principles into new pedagogies that linked art and design education to social reform. It is this combination of the migrant and refugee experience, modern practice and reform education that is central to this new history of Australian modernism.
Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond can be purchased online and at good bookstores.
1. JW Power letter to Anthony Bertram, 16 June 1926, University of Sydney, Fisher Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, Ms 120. Power was referring to the article by the editor Christian Zervos on ‘Le “Bauhaus” de Dessau’, Cahiers d’art, no. 9, 1926. Power so
admired Paul Klee that he translated Leopold Zahn’s German monograph, Paul Klee: Leben, Werk, Geist, G Kiepenheuer, Potsdam, 1920. Power’s copy, with annotated translation, is held in the National Library of Australia, Manuscripts, Ms 5761.
2. For example, the reviewer of Cicely Hamilton’s Modern Germanies as Seen by an Englishwoman( 1931) described the new building of the Dessau Bauhaus as ‘the hideous abortion of architecture which has spawned forth in the new Bauhaus of the city—a monstrous edifice that resembles nothing quite so much as a colossal meat safe’. See ‘Book Reviews: Germany Today’, West Australian, 9 May 1931, p. 4.
3. Florence Taylor (ed.), ‘Freak House Design: Futurism in Germany’, Building, 12 July 1928, p. 55.
4. Ibid., p. 53.
5. Ibid., p. 54. Not only did Taylor get Muche’s name wrong, but also the location of his building: perhaps the most famous house he designed, Haus am Horn, is located in Weimar, not Dessau.
6. Henry Pynor, ‘Visit Old Countries for New Ideas for Your Home’, The Home, 1 October 1928, p. 48.
7. Ibid., p. 49.
8. Other references in the Australian press to the Bauhaus include: Norman Cowper, ‘This Mess! Modernists’ Rooms Fail Odd Styles’, Sun (Sydney), 27 October 1929, p. 3—a largely negative review of the Burdekin House exhibition; ‘Genius in Exile: Germany’s Best People Driven Abroad’, Daily Standard (Brisbane), 17 July 1933, p. 5, a reprint from the Daily Herald( London), which under the subheading ‘Death to Thinkers’, reads ‘The Bauhaus … largely responsible for the new birth of German art, and taste during the Republic, and whose work was fostered by the Socialist municipalities, is closed and its artist craftsmen scattered to look for work outside.’ Earlier, the Brisbane Courier of 1930 reported that RP (Robert) Cummings had just returned from Europe and was most impressed by developments in German architecture, which he felt ‘was far more abreast of the times than [in] any other European country’. Cummings felt it was time for Australia to develop its own distinctive architecture and added that ‘one style which could be easily adapted to suit Australian conditions was that of the modern style of German horizontal architecture’. He felt that the skyscraper had ‘no big future’ in Australia, ‘Australian Style: Future of Architecture’, Brisbane Courier, 11 December 1930, p. 21. Earlier that same year ‘E.D.’ also explained Bauhaus principles and suggested that due to the demand for low-cost housing, ‘it is to this great modern movement that we must turn now if we want to gain full advantage of our own methods of construction’. ED, ‘The New Architecture: Forestalled by Queensland Custom’, Sunday Mail, 25 May 1930, p. 24.