Chairs and Empty Huts
Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond: transforming education through art, design and architecture
by Philip Goad, Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara, Harriet Edquist, Isabel Wünsche
The Miegunyah Press/Power Publications
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.
It is in such comically strident terms that the architecture commentator Florence Taylor characterised the innovations of the Bauhaus, one of the twentieth century’s most important centres of innovation in art, design, and architecture, in her article ‘Freak House Design: Futurism in Germany’ for the Sydney magazine Building in 1928. Her conflation of Futurism, Art Nouveau, and Bauhaus modernism is bizarre. Yet there is something of this resistance to the foreign, the European, and the Modern that forms the background of the intellectual environment of this wide-ranging survey – in its exhibitions and this book – of the influence of the Bauhaus in Australia and New Zealand.
Part of the world-wide celebration of the Bauhaus for the centenary of its foundation in 1919, Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond is connected to exhibitions held last year at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the Museum of Brisbane, and, in Victoria, at Buxton Contemporary and the Ballarat International Foto Biennale. The book also follows on from several other important projects initiated by several of its key collaborators: the volumes Modern Times: The Untold Story of Modern Art in Australia and Modernism and Australia: Documents in Art Design and Architecture 1917-1967, both edited by Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara. Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond. It is a diversification of those previous projects, engaging with the traces of Bauhaus influence in Australia and New Zealand as well as with a larger set of over-lapping concerns including the dynamics between modernism, education, and the innovations of modernity. Throughout the book there is also the question of the ways and means by which immigrants are allowed to contribute to their adopted nation.
While this book is about the presence of Bauhaus thinking in Australia and New Zealand, only three of the figures discussed were Bauhäuslers proper, that is, students or teachers at the Bauhaus – Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann, and Georg Teltscher. The vast array of other figures considered were either in some way influenced by the Bauhaus and its ideas, or were part of the post-war European diaspora who brought to Australia working knowledge of the arguments and innovations of modernism, or, better said, the various modernisms.
The book’s subtitle, ‘transforming education through art, design and architecture’, indicates that the subject of study might be an almost report-like investigation of the new-arrivals’ influence on those educational institutions concerned with art, design, and architecture, but that doesn’t give a good indication of the depth and breadth of the research.
There are chapters on the following subjects: the history of the Bauhaus in Germany; those architects who had their formative training in Vienna; the experiences these ‘New Australians’ had in internment camps; several Australian designers’ initial encounter with Bauhaus ideas in London; the arrival of Art History as a discipline in Australia; Harry Seidler at Harvard and the Black Mountain School; the development of Australian art education as influenced by Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack; Sydney modernism; the dissemination of Bauhaus ideas through the Gallery A exhibition in Melbourne; the influence of those ideas on the public sculpture of The Centre Five group, among them Inge King; a chapter on experimental colour and light art; and, last, a glimpse of the influence of the European diaspora in New Zealand.
To accommodate this diversity, while still retaining a sense of the concerns and artworks under consideration, each chapter contains one to three inset sub-chapters, all two pages in length, that function as case-studies, providing either: a focus on a brief biography, as in ‘George Teltscher’ and ‘Gertrude Herzger-Segmann’; a close-reading of a work, in ‘Ernst Fooks and Das Wachsende Haus, Vienna, 1932’; or a succinct discussion of a topic touched on in the more sweeping, historical chapters, in ‘The Quakers and the Bauhaus Diaspora’ and ‘Experiments in Fibre Art: Indigenous Communities and the Émigrés’.
Structuring the book in this way has enabled the drawing together of the obvious subjects, design, architecture and art, with a sense of the broader Australia circumstance and the immigrants’ own histories within it. The book is edited by Philip Goad, Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara, Harriet Edquist, and Isabel Wunsche, with contributions also from Wiebke Gronemeyer, Veronica Bremer, Jane Ekett, Julian Goddard, and Linda Tyler. Several of the authors also collaborated on chapters.
As someone working in the visual arts, I was interested to follow those trajectories of argument that pertain to visual art practice and its educational methods and institutions. These include chapters on: the pedagogy of the Bauhaus and the Australian school systems; detailed readings of works, such as Stephen’s analysis of Distel-bild (Thistle Picture) (1924), the only work by Paul Klee held in an Australia collection; and compact biographies of artists not as well-known as they should be, such as Frank Hinder, Udo Sellbach, Eleonore Lange, and Gertrude Herzger-Seligman.
Perhaps most engaging to someone interested in art education today are the two chapters on the teaching of art history in Australia, ‘Art Historiography in Exile: Joseph Burke, Ursula Hoff, Franz Philipp and Gertrude Langer’, and on education policy, ‘UNESCO and the Struggle for Modern Art Education in the Mid-Twentieth Century’. Both provide insights, if different, into the evolution of the current system of Australian art education.
Readers might be surprised, to learn that there was little formal teaching of art history in Australia until the middle of the twentieth century. The first Chair of Art History was taken up by the scholar Joseph Burke in 1946 at the University of Melbourne. He is one of a small number of exceptions in this book, in that he was British, so not strictly part of the European diaspora. Burke was present at the historic Potsdam Conference in 1945, shortly before his departure for Australia. It is strange that the authors of this chapter don’t describe his role in the delegation to what was one of the major conferences of the time: Churchill, Stalin and Truman met there to discuss the control of post-war Germany, the redrawing of borders and punishment of war criminals, as well as possible demands for a Japanese surrender. Yet they recount his impressions of the ruins in Germany, suggesting that he left Europe to find a new, hopeful future in Australia. Burke appears elsewhere in the book, too, often as a supporter of the activities of Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. The issue of the British and Anglo-Australian role in the shaping of teaching institutions and courses is not foregrounded, but it is a subtext worth reflection in the book..
The ‘other’, properly European art historians Ursula Hoff, Franz Philipp, and Gertrude Langer – each had their own trajectory and travails to their respective destinations in Australia: Hoff would teach art history at Melbourne University, but later become an important figure in various administrative roles at the National Gallery of Victoria. Philipp, although trained as an art historian in northern Italy and Vienna, would be drawn to teaching, not the Renaissance art he studied, but the history of that period, also at Melbourne University. Living in Brisbane, Langer would help develop the Queensland Art Gallery Society and the local branch of the International Association of Art Critics. As a consequence of her engagement with the historiography of Josef Strzygowski in Vienna, she would also write criticism on Asian, Melanesian and Indigenous Australian art.
The chapter on Burke and Hirschfeld-Mack at the UNESCO art education conferences of the fifties and sixties reads as startlingly contemporary, revealing the extent to which many of today’s problems in art educational institutions are conceptual and perennial. At the conference Burke explained that the current system in secondary schools was inadequate, and that there should be a plan to make education more focused on design. There was a broadly shared concern, too, with research into the nature of childhood learning so as to understand how art and play might encourage learning. Childhood itself was seen, in the European tradition of Goethe and Steiner, with more than a touch of utopianism, a necessary attitude in those years after the war.
Hirschfeld-Mack was a powerful presence at those conferences. Both as one of the few people there with actual experience of the Bauhaus model and as an active and influential teacher in the Australian system, Hirschfeld-Mack emphasised his concern that rote-learning and competitiveness were terrible hindrances to the process, and pleasure, of learning. Stephen ominously concludes this chapter by reflecting on the Bauhaus legacy, with a view to the current problems in today’s art schools, writing,
A new generation of students [in the sixties and seventies] whose expectations has been raised by reforms in high school curricula, now entered arts, design and architecture schools that were under pressure to both professionalize their methods in line with government policy and to expand and democratize education. It would be a volatile mix.
The chapters dealing with architecture education illustrate that the Bauhaus influence in Australia was just one part of the arrival of European ideas during the post-war period. In ‘Education for Architecture, Vienna and Beyond’, Goad and Edquist give an account of the education systems beyond the Bauhaus at that time in Central Europe, describing a cross-pollination of modernisms taking place between the various institutions across Germany, in Vienna and in other, if smaller, centres like Linz, Prague, and Budapest.
But it was Vienna that had the greatest influence on the architects who would be active in post-war Australia: Ernest Fooks, Fritz Janeba, Karl Langer, and Frederick Sterne. The authors trace overlapping institutional influences, in which engagement with Central and Southern European non-European, non-modern architectures can be seen as ‘informing’ the logic of modern European conceptions of internationalism. Langer’s doctoral dissertation finds analogies between Peter Behren’s Ring of Woman pavilion at the German Building exhibition of 1931 and African vernacular architecture; and Janeba, after his graduation, researched the traditional architecture of Albania and Macedonia. As with aspects of the work of the art historian Josef Strzygowski, these analogies can seem questionable in light of today’s critiques of cultural appropriation.
Goad’s later chapter, ‘Architecture Transformed: Emigré Educators, Brian Lewis and Fritz Janeba’ shifts the focus to Australia. Implicit is the theme of the way in which migrant knowledge and influence was channelled by others, in this case by Brian Lewis, the open-minded British academic who inherited a course at the Melbourne University Architectural Atelier (MUAA), a department which complemented the teaching at Melbourne University’s school of engineering and at the Working Men’s College (later RMIT). The MUAA had a close association with the Architectural Association in London. As indicated by Burke’s appointment at Melbourne University, too, the British influence on the Australia context remained pervasive. Goad describes Lewis’ thoughtful incorporation of a number of the migrant architects into his program, Fritz Janeba, Federick Romberg, Zdenko Strizic, and Gerd and Renate Block among them. The effect was, as Goad notes, ‘an influx, not of a unitary idea but of multiple understandings of modernism in architecture, derived from a diverse set of architecture cultures and educational backgrounds’.
The second half of this chapter, and the following the inset chapter ‘“Austria in Australia”: Fritz and Kathe Janeba in Warrandyte’, are dedicated to the interesting, cosmopolitan figure of Fritz Janeba, and, to an extent, his wife, a ceramicist and textile artist. Not only was Janeba the first to write a Masters thesis at Melbourne University’s newly formed School of Architecture, he would become an important teacher there until his departure to take up the UNESCO chair in architecture at Middle East Technical College in Ankara, Turkey, in 1964. By the time he left, Lewis had retired, and the school became a beneficiary of the Colombo Plan, and incorporated the knowledge of another diaspora, with the appointment of Balwant Saini, Tah Wen Chu and Shigero Hara.
Of all the figures who appear in this book it is the architect Harry Seidler, someone synonymous with Sydney, who seems to not only have had incredible luck, but who also appears to have known how to move skilfully onward through the world, constantly drawing on personal connections and professional influences. As a busy architect and a patron and promoter of international architecture and art, he was for decades a highly visible presence in the city. Seidler, unlike many in this book, did have direct contact with several key figures from the Bauhaus.
Seidler fled Nazi persecution in Austria, escaping first to England, then to Canada, where he studied in Winnipeg. He registered as an architect in Toronto at the age of twenty-two. He then won a scholarship to study with Walter Gropius at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Following his graduation, and at the suggestion of Gropius, he went on to study at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Josef Albers was teaching, much in the original Bauhaus tradition. In New York he worked for another Bauhäusler, Marcel Breuer, before leaving for Australia via Brazil. Even in Brazil, Seidler managed to work for several months for another of the twentieth century’s most significant architects, Oscar Niemeyer, the Tropical Modernist, and designer of many important buildings throughout the country and of much of his nation’s new capital, Brasilia.
By the time Harry Seidler arrived in Australia in 1948 to build his first project, a house for his parents at Wahroonga on the outskirts of Sydney, he’d had experience of European as well as North and South American modernisms, and was one of the very few in the country who could claim to have studied at the Bauhaus without having actually been there. Reading of his work and activities, it is easy to feel that he brought something of the exuberance of the Americas to his new, southern homeland.
Seidler also had a good sense of the broader design goals of the Bauhaus. He commissioned and collected works by the international artists Alexander Calder, Victor Vasarely, Frank Stella, and Sol Lewitt, as well as by Australians John Coburn, Clement Meadmore, and John Olson. On display in his home was furniture by Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Marcel Breuer. In the book there is a remarkable 1954 photograph of Seidler and Walter and Ise Gropius visiting the site of the nearly completed house at Wahroonga. The two men are dressed identically, in suits and bow-ties. Seidler had invited Gropius to Australia for a conference. He knew the power of homage.
Despite Seidler’s prominence, it is the artist and educator Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack who is the most intriguing individual in the book. Although they both had a close connection to the Bauhaus, the two men never met. Perhaps it was a consequence of status. Hirschfeld-Mack’s connections to the Bauhaus were in the past. He was a teacher at Geelong Grammar, while Seidler was an ambitious young architect, with growing aspirations.
As the authors explain in the introduction, Hirshfeld-Mack’s decision to focus on education after 1925 meant that in the post-war period he would have a lower profile than many other Bauhäuslers. As no book-length study on him and his work exists in English, they decided to have his contributions form ‘the spine’ of their research. Although Gertrude Herzgler-Seligmann and Georg Teltscher had also trained at the Weimar Bauhaus and migrated to Australia, it was Hirschfeld-Mack who, in the new country, most kept alive the memory of the Bauhaus through his writing (both public and private), this involvement in exhibitions in Australia and elsewhere, and through his work as a teacher and agent for change within the Victorian education system.
Hirschfeld-Mack appears in various chapters, his activities forming a background against which the other immigrant artists, architects, and scholars may be seen and evaluated. Perhaps this is due to the extensive archive of the Hirschfeld-Mack Collection at the University of Melbourne. Hirschfeld-Mack’s presence in this the book allows for an appreciation of the personal circumstances facing European migrants in the midst of the flux of all the changes that their intellectual activities and works punctuate: the pre-war Weimar period, the rise of fascism, the out-break of war, and their repeated institutional and geographic displacements. McNamarra and Stephen dedicate a chapter to Hirschfeld-Mack’s departure for England and his subsequent arrival and internment in Australia. It is disquieting to see illustrated in the book those paintings and drawings by Hirschfeld-Mack, Edwin Fabian and Leonard Abraham that seem at a first, erroneous, glance to be of somewhere that could be a concentration camp, images of watchtowers, compounds, barbed-wire fences. It is almost as if there were a conflation of the interment and concentration camps, just as, today, there could be between refugee detention centres and prisons.
Hirschfeld-Mack had been interned in England, too, and while there had heard of the suicide of Ursel, his seventeen-year-old daughter, who had remained in Germany. In the book there is a photograph of Hirschfeld-Mack taken in Germany in 1927, with Ursel standing on his shoulders, their arms are outstretched as if they were pretending to fly while in front, close to his legs, is his oldest daughter holding the youngest one, just a baby, to her own chest. It is impossible not to be moved. His youngest daughter would also die young, but in Australia and at the age of eighteen.
It might not be unfair to surmise that when Walter Gropius wrote to him in 1947 to offer him a position at Harvard with a salary of $3600 per annum, when he was earning only ₤450 at Geelong Grammar, in what would surely have been a life-changing opportunity, his decline of the offer was an admission of emotional exhaustion. His despair at the loss of his country and of his daughters may have served to affirm his belief in art education and the positive model of the Bauhaus system in a country that by comparison with most of Europe would have seemed to the immigrants to have escaped the worst ravages of the war.
While his name might be not as well known in Australian cultural circles as it ought to be, there should be no doubting Hirshfeld-Mack’s importance. As the authors summarise in their introduction:
The first ever Bauhaus exhibition in Australia was mainly attributable to the presence of Hirshfeld-Mack. It was held in 1961 at Gallery A, a new commercial gallery, with the exhibits primarily coming from Hirschfeld-Mack’s private collection. The works and objects displayed emphasised his avant-garde experiments in colour and light. From his period in exile in the mid-1920s until he retired from teaching in 1957, Hirshfeld-Mack sought to extend his colour experiments into lighting design, workers’ education, and primary school instruction, first in Germany, then in England and later in Australia, at Geelong Grammar School and into Victorian hospitals as part of mental health rehabilitation programs. After the war, Walter Gropius declared that the transformation of art education was central to the aspirations of the Bauhaus and that Hirschfeld-Mack, along with Josef Albers, was one of the few people who could successfully carry out the task.
There remains much to discover about this man who chose to stay in Australia instead of accepting an invitation to join the New Bauhaus in Chicago or Gropius at Harvard. It is difficult to not be impressed by Hirschfeld-Mack as a person. After fighting in the First World War and receiving an Iron Cross, he would become a pacifist – one of the reasons, aside from being Jewish and a progressive thinker, that would make him an enemy of the Nazis. He would then go on to be an important contributor to various aspects of the Bauhaus. Following Johannes Itten’s departure he taught unofficial colour seminars, and at least one of his innovations in printmaking, the Durchdruckzeichnung or ‘press through drawing’, was made in collaboration with Paul Klee. As McNamara notes, ‘conventional wisdom attributed precedence to Klee in all matters’.
While in exile in the UK, Hirschfeld-Mack was included in the 1938 Bauhaus exhibition at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and in 1958 had his own exhibition at Zimmergalerie in Frankfurt-am-Main. That such a figure is so little known only reveals the paucity of our knowledge of the international dimensions of Australian modernism. The authors use personal images and images of his works thorughout the book as a thread, or, in their metaphor, a spine. The importance of Hirschfeld-Mack’s work as teacher and artist is thereby emphasized and, to some degree, centralised.
Hirschfeld-Mack survived the displacement and chaos of the post-war period better than Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann and Georg Teltscher, his fellow first-generation Bauhäuslers.
Herzger-Seligmann worked for many decades as a designer of textiles and jewellery in Sydney She was under-appreciated until the early seventies when she was invited to give lectures on the Bauhaus at the universities of New South Wales, Newcastle and Sydney. After the death of her daughter in a traffic accident, in a state of disorientation and distress, she wrote in her diary: ‘wandered around so lonely! Passed jewellers shops, no love for jewellery whatsoever!’ That utterance seems emblematic of her life, of searching out beauty after experiencing trauma. In 1960 she herself designed a brooch which took its form from the Southern Cross. She would end her days in a housing commission flat in Redfern, living among Bauhaus-style furniture of her own design.
Georg Teltscher would be even less of a presence in Australia. McNamara’s inset chapter on him is both biographical and focused on a single work, the faux-banknote that Teltscher designed for a competition in the internment camp at Hay in rural New South Wales. The ‘twelve pence note’ is an ironic artefact, not least for its now being in the collection of the Jewish Museum, Melbourne. With its central crest of a kangaroo and an emu holding a shield depicting a sheep, its decorative border of barbed wire surrounding a camp scene, it is a skilled parody of the Australia he experienced. Teltscher was someone who, like Hirschfeld-Mack, had been included in the Bauhaus exhibition in New York. He had fought with an Austrian militia unit in the Spanish Civil War, escaped to London to escape fascism in Austria, and then was interned as an enemy alien in Britain. On the voyage to Australia, on the transport ship the Dunera, he would be heavily beaten by the crew for being German, which resulted in the loss of some teeth. Upon arrival in the ‘peaceful’ south land, he found himself in a camp once again.
It is not surprising, then, that he was one of the first internees to leave Australia in 1946. McNamara, with his own irony, recounts: ‘Many years later his wife Sarah would ask him what he most remembered about internment in Australia. After giving it some thought, he declared: ‘chairs’. They were always in the wrong place…. There were never enough chairs, he recalled, they were constantly moving chairs from one place to another and, after a break, the chairs would inevitably end up in an empty hut.’ Chairs and empty huts. That could almost be a parody of modern design itself.
It is in the worlds of design and architecture that the word Bauhaus is most familiar today. Bauhaus is sometimes taken as a synonym for ‘Modern’. The contribution of the Bauhäuslers and their lesser known colleagues in Australia – Elenore Lange, Dahl Collings and David Foulkes Taylor – and in New Zealand – Ernst Plischke, Heinrich Kulka and Vladimir Čačala – stands as testament to a not yet sufficiently well-known dimension of the art and design histories of those two countries. For too long those histories have been introverted and, in aspiration, excessively nationalistic.
Without a doubt this book is an important contribution to scholarship on the international impact of Bauhaus modernism. But it may also be read as a consideration of notions that continue to beset the world at large: war, immigration, and the many possibilities of modernity.