Home and Away: The Bauhaus in Australia

How did the design school impact on the Antipodes?

The 1930s and ’40s marked a period of considerable change in Australia. Fear of attack from Asia during World War II led the government to pursue a ‘populate or perish’ policy that resulted in the assisted passage of large numbers of European displaced persons. The major contribution these immigrants made to bringing a modernist culture to Australia is currently receiving long-due scholarly attention. Of particular note during the centennial year of the founding of the Bauhaus art school by Walter Gropius are the only two former students, trained in Weimar during the 1920s, who settled in Australia. The first is Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893–1965), who found himself in Australia after being forcibly transported from Britain as an ‘enemy alien’ during the war. The second is Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann (1901–77), a graduate of the weaving and metalwork courses and a former employee of Gropius, who arrived with her daughter in 1937. As is the case with innumerable other women artists throughout history, her story is only just coming to light.

Among the very first Bauhaus students, Hirschfeld-Mack joined the school in 1919, qualified as a journeyman from the print workshop in 1922, and stayed on as a teacher for a further four years. His best-known Bauhaus work is Farbenlichtspiele (Colour-Light Play, 1923), a proto-kinetic mechanical device that combined moving projections of coloured light and music, which he demonstrated in performances during the 1920s in Berlin, Leipzig, Vienna and Weimar. A number of his paintings also featured in the ‘Bauhaus 1919–1928’ exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1938–39. After leaving the Bauhaus, Hirschfeld-Mack taught at a number of progressive schools in Europe before being forced to seek work in Britain in 1936, when the Nazi regime prohibited Jews from being employed in professional roles.

Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann, Carpet Design for Machine Weaving, 1937. Courtesy: Collection of Ann Kinsela, Sydney; photograph: David James

When war broke out two years later, Hirschfeld-Mack was swept up with thousands of other Germans and Austrians perceived to be ‘enemy aliens’ and, in 1940, transported to Australia as one of 2,500 men aboard the HMT Dunera, now infamous for the appalling conditions onboard and the exceptional talent of its passengers. After two years in internment camps, he was released to take up the position of art master at Geelong Grammar School. Despite a job offer from Gropius to teach in Chicago, Hirschfeld-Mack felt committed to adolescent education and stayed at Geelong Grammar until his retirement in 1957. His former students have glowing recollections of both the man and his lessons, which remained firmly rooted in the Bauhaus principles of experimentation, economy of materials and reform of society through art.

Following his retirement from teaching, Hirschfeld-Mack became a key player in the revival of Bauhaus ideas that began to gather momentum in Australia in the 1960s. His collection formed the basis of Australia’s first Bauhaus exhibition, held in 1961 at Gallery A, a small commercial space in Melbourne. In 1963, he published The Bauhaus: An Introductory Survey, one of the earliest English-language accounts of the school in the postwar period. In 1964, he was invited by the Bauhaus-Archiv in Darmstadt to reconstruct and demonstrate Farbenlichtspiele, a performance of which was filmed for the archive. Following Hirschfeld-Mack’s death in 1965, a significant number of his artworks were donated by his wife to a range of Australian collections. One of these, the Geelong Gallery, recently held an exhibition of his work to commemorate his influential legacy.

Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann, Adler Standard 8 Cabriolet Design, 1928. Courtesy: Collection of Ann Kinsela, Sydney.

Herzger-Seligmann is one of a number of female Bauhäuslers whose work is finally receiving belated attention. She enrolled at the school in 1922, taking the preliminary course under Johannes Itten and Paul Klee, before progressing to supervise the weaving workshop. While at the Bauhaus, she met and married Walter Herzger with whom, in 1927, she had a daughter, Ruth. By 1928, she was working in Gropius’s Berlin office; her rendering of his design for the Adler Standard 8 Cabriolet is testament to her time there. During the 1930s, she continued her weaving practice and remained active within a circle of ex-Bauhaus teachers. However, when she emigrated to Sydney in 1937, her access to this network was curtailed and there seems to have been little interest in her artwork in Australia. In the 1940s, she established a short-lived weaving business, after which she supported herself by doing factory work. She was only able to draw on her Bauhaus training for occasional jewellery designs and a few lectures given to design and architecture students.

The impact of exile was particularly marked for Herzger-Seligmann. Like many Germans in Australia, she was put under surveillance during World War II and, having been effectively separated from her networks, she subsequently found it difficult to re-establish her design practice. Learning that her mother had been deported from Frankfurt am Main and killed by the Nazis, coupled with the subsequent tragic death of her daughter in 1950, aged just 23, in a car accident, further increased her isolation. A series of official papers, recently digitized by the National Archives of Australia, record Herzger-Seligmann’s sad decline into agitated paranoia as she dealt with the bureaucratic and emotional consequences of these two events. In her later years, the reclusive designer remained known only to a small circle of supporters.

Herzger-Seligmann’s story is set out in the publication Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond: Transforming Education Through Art, Design and Architecture (2019), the main output of a five-year research project focused on the legacy of the Bauhaus in design education in Australia and New Zealand. Unearthing her career after all these years is one of the project’s great achievements. As well as detailing Hirschfeld- Mack’s biography, the book identifies a range of Australian designers who worked with former Bauhaus teachers following World War II or who studied at New World Bauhaus schools in the US. It also ascertains that the most significant influence in terms of reforming Australian design education stemmed from the large influx of European émigré designers arriving before and after World War II – not Bauhaus graduates themselves, but progressive modernists.

Gertrude Herzger-Seligmann, Southern Cross Brooch, c.1960. Courtesy: Collection of Ann Kinsela, Sydney; photograph: Bruce Eeles

By some miracle, Herzger-Seligmann’s friends held onto her Bauhaus portfolio as well as a few precious examples of her weaving and jewellery. These feature alongside works by Hirschfeld-Mack as the principal archival components of the current ‘Bauhaus Now!’ exhibition, curated by Dr Ann Stephen for Melbourne’s Buxton Contemporary. Exploring the Bauhaus legacy for both contemporary artists and art education in Australia, the show features a range of experimental works inspired by the Bauhaus diaspora. The central piece – a video/ performance/installation by Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams (Mondspiel, Moon Play, 2019) – and recent works by seven other artists, including Elizabeth Pulie’s and Rose Nolan’s woven wall hangings, all draw on Bauhaus ideas.

That none of Australia’s major state galleries are holding a Bauhaus blockbuster retrospective during the school’s centennial year seems appropriate. Australia was on the edge of Europe’s modernist diaspora and the Bauhäuslers who came here did not transition into the high-profile commercial modernism that those who emigrated to the US realized. Hirschfeld-Mack, undoubtedly an important figure in Bauhaus history, remained an experimental educator true to the school’s counterculture principles. It is fitting, then, that his educational experiments feature in ‘Bauhaus Now!’, with Michael Candy’s 2019 reconstruction of the Farbenlichtspiele as well as Christopher Handran’s kinetic Light Space Replicator (2018), which also references László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator (1922–30). Current art, design and architecture students from Melbourne have contributed prototypes for a series of abstract toys as well as lanterns and costumes inspired by the early Bauhaus midwinter festivals. There are plans for ‘Bauhaus Now!’ to tour to other Australian cities over the next two years, where the show will continue to incorporate local examples of the Bauhaus legacy in both contemporary design and design education.

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters issue 8 with the headline ‘Home and Away’.

‘Bauhaus Now!’ is on view at Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, Australia, until 20 October.

Main image: Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Farbenlichtspiele (Colour-Light Play), 1923, reconstruction 1999. Courtesy: © Estate of Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack and Museion Foundation, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano/Bozen

Rebecca Hawcroft lives in Sydney, Australia. In 2017, she curated ‘The Moderns: European Designers in Sydney’ at the Museum of Sydney and edited the collection The Other Moderns: Sydney’s Forgotten European Design Legacy.

Issue 8

First published in Issue 8

September 2019

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