Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series
The surprising article that follows speaks directly to my 45-year fascination with this question: where in Asia has the early European
avant-garde impulse ever emerged? And related: how has Asia changed it?
Periodically, I’ve come across references that add significant pieces to my puzzle. A few examples: in Calcutta, there was a Bauhaus exhibition in December 1922, which was considered “an entry point for modernism in India.” The
show featured paintings by Kandinsky—who was especially praised—as well as by Klee and Feininger, alongside uniquely Indian painters. Japan’s radical, interdisciplinary arts movement, MAVO, was led by Tomoyoshi Murayama, after he returned from Berlin in 1923 having seen Kandinsky’s abstractions, Georg Grosz’s satires, and more. Korea’s best-known avant-garde poet, Yi Sang, wrote during Japan’s 35-year colonial occupation, mostly in the 1930s,
influenced by his architecture training and Western Dada and Surrealism.
This is a red letter year for provocative new answers to my question: it is the 100th anniversary of the 1919 founding of the Bauhaus, Germany’s deeply experimental school of arts and architecture. The Nazis closed the school in 1933, but
it had already irreversibly changed our ideas about buildings and the things in them, about arts as well as crafts, about how a revolutionary arts school could engage with new technology. Germany’s “Bauhaus100” birthday celebration has been having programs, lectures, activities and exhibitions in at least Argentina, Australia, England, India, Iraq, Israel, Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, and the U.S. And, as we learn here: in China.
All in all, the multi-national, “transcultural” celebration makes an energetic claim for the Bauhaus aesthetic as a lingua franca of the world. China, as it turns out, had the beginnings of connections to the Bauhaus as early as 1922. What a pleasure to get a glimpse, through a Chinese lens, of Kandinsky, Gropius, and painter-choreographer
Schlemmer, whose famous Bauhaus Theatre allowed the school’s student artists to explore space and form by performing. In a 1929 letter, Schlemmer wrote: “Kandinsky certainly saw many of his own ideas realized on my stage.”
In the article that follows, China-based arts writer Kiril Bolotnikov gives
us a complex, insider account—and critique!—of the Bauhaus as it has emerged in China today. And with this, Bolotnikov has given me one more big piece for my puzzle.
The Bauhaus as Inspiration for Chinese Innovation
Report from Hangzhou
by Kiril Bolotnikov
Lobby of the China Design Museum in Hangzhou.
The China Design Museum, which opened its doors in the spring of 2018 on a campus of the China Academy of Art (CAA) in Hangzhou, began its acquisition of some 7000 design artifacts earlier this decade. Several hundred were original Bauhaus pieces, and indeed, the China Daily reports that the “Bauhaus is the reason the China Design Museum was created in the first place.”
Some have expressed uncertainty about a Chinese museum setting itself up as a go-to destination for Bauhaus scholars. But let there be no mistake: the CAA is not so much attempting to give the average museum-goer a comprehensive understanding of the Bauhaus. Instead,
it is using the Bauhaus as a starting point for the CAA’s attempt to inspire innovation in a nation known for so long for its barely disguised copies and fake replicas of name-brand goods, for factories pumping out foreign designs rather than their own.
The most prominent exhibition, that of Bauhaus and closely related artifacts, is there to show how design innovation came in the most seemingly ordinary forms. That is, designs we don’t look twice at today, the curators tell us, were in fact innovations when they were created 100 years ago, and have forever changed the way we interact with the objects around us. Accordingly, the glass cases are full of chairs, lamps, plates, kettles, doorknobs, wardrobes, and more, all designed by
predecessors and contemporaries of the Bauhaus, its teachers, or its students. Even a small model of the faculty house shared by Kandinsky and Klee, as designed by Gropius, made the cut. As exciting as it was to reconsider the revolutionary aspects of these now-standard designs, I derived as much pleasure from seeing genuinely fascinated groups of Chinese tourists trailing knowledgeable docents from object to object.
The Gropius-designed faculty house shared by Kandinsky and Klee.
It is conceivable that those who planned the museum and its acquisitions had painter and prominent Bauhaus teacher Kandinsky in mind when they set about this enormous project. His landmark treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art was translated and published in China in the 1980s, less than a decade after the Reform and Opening Up in the late 1970s. In its introduction, Kandinsky wrote, “…[E]ach period of
culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born.” Though the museum is also funding research about the Bauhaus to strengthen its credentials, it has made no secret of the fact that its eye is ultimately focused on the coming period of Chinese art and design, not solely on the art principles of the Bauhaus past.
The first Chinese edition of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
To the same extent that it does focus on the Bauhaus past, it focuses on the Chinese past: Shanghai Daily reported in May 2018 that the Academy was in the process of collecting Chinese designs of the past hundred years, presumably to be shown in another permanent exhibition. The museum’s opening ceremony included a performance,
in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, of Oskar Schlemmer’s “Figural Cabinet”—as a student research piece exploring the potential for dialogue with Song dynasty zaju (poetic dramas). And a timeline on a long wall just off the main exhibit placed both Western and Chinese cultural events. For instance, we see that the Bauhaus was founded in 1919, but just to the left of that particular marker, under “1917,” the
timeline notes that Cai Yuanpei, father of the modern Chinese education system, gave a speech entitled “Substituting Aesthetic Education for Religion.” The intent is surely to draw attention to the nature of the adjacent trajectories of China and the West, in order to combat notions that Chinese thought is purely received wisdom devoid of innovation.
The performance of Schlemmer’s “Figural Cabinet” at the opening ceremony.
At the time of my visit in July 2018, not long after the Museum’s opening, the existence of a temporary show entitled “Bauhaus Imaginista” told a further story in regards to the museum’s refocusing the Bauhaus legacy with Chinese goals in mind. Curated in collaboration with Goethe-Instituts around the world to celebrate the centenary that
was about to occur in 2019, it explored how the Bauhaus influenced local art and design respectively in each country, and how local art and design had in turn influenced local Bauhaus strains. The exhibit was composed of blocks of text, prints of grainy old black-and-white photos, tables of old publications, and occasional screens with informative videos, all emphasizing the ways in which Chinese artists, architects, and designers have collaborated with and built on Bauhaus design
principles. It referred, for instance, to Chinese scholars who had studied outside the country in the 1930s and 1940s with this or that former Bauhaus teacher (Gropius, Mies van der Rohe), as well as to Gropius’s commission to work with Chinese architects on Hua Tung University (a project abandoned when the Communists took over).
However, as ought to be expected, the museum’s collection of artifacts, as well as its presentation of both the permanent and temporary exhibitions, is decidedly apolitical. China was never going to be quite the place for an in-depth understanding of the Bauhaus, at least not in the current political environment. The Bauhaus, its principles, its faculty, all of these were inherently socially revolutionary in a way that curators
seem loath to address, hewing instead to a watered-down understanding of the Bauhaus as the instigators of a design revolution. Even entering the exhibit, the introduction reads, “…[T]he school developed an international modernist style and permeated various aspects of the daily lives of ordinary people,” conveniently echoing Chinese Communist Party rhetoric about “the people” in a way that
makes the exhibit socially relevant but leaves it politically correct.
It is important, accordingly, to understand that classifying the exhibition as a comprehensive retrospective would be a fallacy: if they are looking to the past innovations of the West, it is simply as
encouragement for China’s presumably surpassingly innovative future. It is worth noting that funding for the museum came at least in part from the Zhejiang provincial government. The emphasis on the Bauhaus and its innovations of a century ago seems to be a concerted effort by the province to push its numerous factories in the direction of innovation rather than imitation – Zhejiang factories tend to be smaller, family-owned, and to produce for a domestic consumer base, working
therefore with more autonomy than the large factories down south used by international companies looking for cheap labor. Far from trying to create the next Bauhaus, the CAA in founding this museum wants to encourage something far more homegrown.
The front entrance of the China Design Museum.
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Kiril Bolotnikov writes broadly about China’s fast-paced arts scene for publications
including Neocha, Radii, and SupChina, and has worked on the editorial team of The Shanghai Literary Review. Majoring in Global China Studies, he graduated cum laude from New York University’s campus in Shanghai, where he still lives and works.
Note: This article originally appeared in Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives,
ed. Lissa Tyler Renaud, for a special 2018 issue on Kandinsky, Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.