The exhibition ‘Das Bauhaus in Kalkutta’ (The Bauhaus in Kolk­ata), presently showing in the east German city of Dessau, brings back the remarkable beginnings of two avant-garde movements: one based in India and the other in Germany.
The Bengal School of Art around EB Havell and Gaganendranath Tagore returned to traditional forms of Indian paintings as a protest against colonial rule. Founded in 1919 in Weimar, the Bauh­aus movement aimed at joining architecture and modern art to a new holistic lifestyle.
This was an attempt to overcome the spiritual and cultural crisis caused by World War I. In 1925, the Bauhaus established itself in Dessau and Berlin.
It needed an energetic visionary such as Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993) to bring these two divergent art movements together. The Austrian art historian had been in contact with Rabindranath Tagore and his friends in London and followed his invitation to join the newly-founded Visva-Bharati.
She taught Indian and European Art at Santiniketan from 1921 to 1923 and thereafter at Calcutta University until 1950. She enjoyed a close association with Gaganendranath and the Tagore family. She later shifted to the United States as professor and curator of Indian Art.
Kramrisch requested the Bauhaus to send some representative paintings and graphics to Kolkata for a joint exhibition with leading Indian artists. The Indian Society of Oriental Art in Kolkata opened the exhibition in December 1922.
Some of the greatest Bauhaus masters had sent their pictures, among which were Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten and Wassily Kandinsky. They were exhibited with works of Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy.
This was 1922 when cultural colonialism held sway and the term ‘dialogue of cultures’ had not yet been created. Exhibiting modern Indian artists side by side with contemporary European art valorised Indian art and proved the affinity between two modern art movements across continents.
Over the years, this exhibition had become iconic for exemplifying the mutuality of Indian and European art. But it had also become notorious because the rumour persisted that the exhibits had been lost or were stolen in Kolkata and were never returned.
In the 1980s, I was still approached by Johannes Itten’s wife enquiring about her husband’s pictures. The Dessau exhibition explodes this myth.
Some pictures were sold and the rest are probably back in galleries and museums in Europe. The exhibition, set within the historic architecture of the Bauh­aus, reconstructs the exhibition of 1922.
In a Herculean endeavour, Bauhaus deputy director Regina Bittner and her team collected almost a hundred paintings and graphics from European and Indian sources. The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi was instrumental in sending the Indian art works.
In a separate hall, the genesis of the 1922 exhibition and the synergy created by this venture is meticulously documented with historical photos, letters, texts and video installations.
The catalogue, soon to come out in English as well, explodes one other myth — that Rabindranath Tagore visited the Bauhaus in Weimar and gave a lecture there. Hard as the team tried, this could not be verified.
In Germany, the Dessau exhibition is being celebrated as an example of early globalisation on the level of art. This celebration must now continue in Delhi and Kolkata where we hope the exhibition will also be shown.
Martin Kämpchen is a German writer and translator based in Santiniketan. His last book is Simply Do It, Do It Simply (Niyogi Books)