The rediscovered oeuvre of first generation Bauhaus artist Xanti Schawinsky offers to the contemporary art world a genuine reservoir of aesthetic memory of the 20th century avant-garde. Schawinsky’s highly original oeuvre covers a whole domain of genres and media that is very characteristic for the interdisciplinary approach of the Bauhaus school: his prolific practice spans from paintings to drawings, from experimental photography to stage design, from jazz music and complex theater work to exhibition design, commercial graphic and product design.
Schawinsky was one of the most protean characters at the Bauhaus. He initiated and inspired many activities at the Bauhaus with a verve that revealed him as a true performer, a modernist dandy and a Bauhaus protagonist par excellence. Schawinsky’s work communicates today still across generations and his artistic vision opens up a direct dialogue with a contemporary aesthetic sensibility.
Due to limited accessibility to the oeuvre in the past two decades, the last retrospective of Xanti Schawinsky took place in 1986 at the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin. In 2010-11 a selection of his 1940s drawings and paintings were exhibited in New York and London.
Since 2012 a majority of the still existing ouevre returned to the family of the artist. The newly founded Estate of Xanti Schawinsky represents all phases of the artist‘s practice from the 1920s - 1970s as well as an extensive archive vividly documenting the Bauhaus years and beyond in the form of correspondence and manuscripts. The Estate and curator Anke Kempkes of BROADWAY 1602 aims to give a new focus on reintroducing Xanti Schawinsky’s work to an international contemporary audience in collaboration with upcoming institutional exhibitions.
Born in 1904 in Switzerland, to a Jewish family of Polish decent, Alexander “Xanti” Schawinsky worked for three years in Theodor Merrill’s Cologne architecture office before enrolling at the Bauhaus in 1924 where he studied with Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Oskar Schlemmer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Schawinsky had a significant presence at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. He was particularly active in the theater department and strongly inspired by Schlemmer, whose position as teacher he took on and developed further. Photos from the early years of the Bauhaus show Schawinsky as a dynamic personality in many of its experimental extra-curricular activities. Among them was the influential Bauhaus Jazz Band where Schawinsky introduced his Step Dance versus Step Machine style of mechanical music and dance to pounding rhythms coupled with dramatic lighting effects and performance elements.
Theater became the very core of Schawinsky’s aesthetic universe throughout his life. Schawinsky’s works of the early Bauhaus years are paintings, sketches and photographs illustrating his innovative theater plays, such as Circus, Olga Olga, Tiller Girls and Feminine Repetitionen. Some photographs show the artist as performer in fantastic costumes. In his independent paintings Fliessende Architekturen (Floating Architectures) aspects of his stage designs became independent agents of the composition.
At the Bauhaus Schawinsky began developing his ground-breaking concept of Spectodrama. Spectodrama represented an early idea of total theater where all aspects of the stage become independent agents. Schawinsky continued the work on Spectodrama at the Black Mountain College in the United States after his immigration, and he revisited this work in the 1960s and 70s in Europe. The original concepts and scripts are located in the archive of the Estate of Xanti Schawinsky in Zurich, as well as an extended body of work of stage photographs and sketches.
Schawinsky’s multifaceted role at the Bauhaus was documented in the original 1938 Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized with the help of Herbert Bayer, fellow Bauhaus student and teacher, and Walter Gropius, founder and director of the famed 20th century school. This pivotal show of MoMA’s early days included a prominent group of Schawinsky’s theater and architecture paintings, his experimental photography, innovative graphic designs, ultra modern costume, set and exhibition designs, and his avant-garde theater and music work.
During one‘s 20’s, most people build foundation skills, beliefs, and a firm positive sense of identity from their experience with teachers and mentors in a relatively secure environment. While having the privilege to learn many technical skills in an exceptional avant-garde environment, Schawinsky also observed and experienced anxiety and persecution. He saw his Bauhaus undergo political pressure and ouster from the very cities that hosted it, saw the leaders he admired forced to leave, and the school itself compelled to close. He had seen the school, in an effort to survive, shift emphasis from handicraft, Expressionism, and the “the spiritual in art” to partner with industry, design for mass production, and embrace the machine aesthetic. As a Swiss-Polish “foreigner” and a Jew, the rise of Fascism was a perilous time. What Schawinsky learned in the years between the two World Wars was that survival was an anxious process of constantly changing locations and shifting creative styles and identities.
When the Bauhaus closed in 1933 Schawinsky first went to Italy. In Milan he worked for the Studio Boggeri, the newly founded state-of-the art advertising studio. He designed outstanding poster and product designs for Motta, Illy coffee and Cinzano. He also co-designed for Olivetti the typewriter Studio 42. Schawinsky‘s posters and products were to become classics of commercial design of the 1930s. Philipp Johnson gave his collection of Schawinsky posters in later years as gift to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In Nothern Italy the artist met Marinetti and Giorgio de Chirico, whose work co-influenced the growing Surrealist tendency in Schawinsky‘s work of the 1940s. During this time Schawinsky remained in close exchange with Walter Gropius. He actively promoted the Bauhaus ideas and planned to bring out a book about the Bauhaus years, which remained unpublished. In 1935 the political situation in Italy forced him to leave once more. Schawinsky went to London where he married Irene von Debschitz, the daughter of the director of the Debschitz-School in Munich, an art school having anticipated some of the Bauhaus ideas.
In 1936, Hans Albers secured Schawinsky and his wife safe passage to the United States to teach at the later legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In charge of theater arts, Schawinsky expanded his ideas for experimental theater to a multi-media “total experience.” His production of Spectrodrama and Danse Macabre at the Black Mountain College demonstrated these ideas and importantly laid the foundations for the work of John Cage and others at the College in the post-war time. It can clearly be argued that Schawinsky brought the radical and avant-garde Bauhaus theater to the United States, a relation that has been receiving special attention recently. Irene Schawinsky also contributed to the College. She collaborated with Anni Albers on clothes designs and she create paper sculptures which became iconic props of Xanti’s Spectodrama plays (in the following years Irene used these paper sculptures for shop window designs in New York).
In 1938 political disagreements among the faculty led him to move once more; this time to New York City. Upon his arrival he collaborated on prize winning pavilion designs for the 1939 World’s Fair with colleagues Walter Gropius, Herbert Bayer, and Marcel Breuer.
In 1939 his first son Ben was born.
In New York among the tight-knit ex-patriot cultural community centered on the activities of gallerist Julien Levy, Schawinsky for the first time experienced again a sense of safety and integration. His status as a new-comer afforded him unique and new perspectives on his life and the arts. He had the freedom and burden of confronting his own identity and purpose in “life during wartime.” At the same historical moment that the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel was coining the term “existentialism,” and Jean-Paul Sartre began to lecture and write about it, Schawinsky began to compose his own existential works with images which speak as clearly as words.
From work Schawinsky did for the “Visual Problems Unit” of the Army Air Corps designing anti-aircraft targeting patterns for artillery manuals, he conceived his 1940 series The Faces of War. In these imaginative tempera and graphite drawings Schawinsky expressed a fundamental despair that the time of the utopian man-machine equations of the Bauhaus years had turned for the machines of mass destruction in the dystopian theaters of war. He made each drawing a camouflage-painted robotic „golem“ – a man-machine – that could be interpreted as both a threatening enemy or a powerful avenger.
In his series of photo collages, Theme and Variation on a Face: Walter Gropius, he reflected upon his creative father/mentor and friend, presenting the architect in both positive and negative versions integrated with linear forms. He would use architectural forms to evoke culture and images of trees to allude to nature and history. In the photo collages The Variations on a Face Series (Woman) he confronted the enigmatic disembodied face of a woman, floating in a variety of spaces – landscape, night sky and topographically diagrammed space. However, Schawinsky extended his meditations using the portrait head motif even further.
Kurt Schwitters said that during the war years artists had to rebuild themselves from scraps and Schawinsky, possibly inspired by Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poem The Man Who Composes His Own Portrait With Objects, did so in his 1940s character Head Series of graphite drawings of potential identities thematically pieced together from elements of nature, culture, and trade in the world around him. In a style related to the “paranoiac-critical” imaging methods of Salvador Dali, Schawinsky worked through his own need to make himself one with his environment by literally re-making himself from his environment.
In these vivid eerie scenes of the existential aftermath of the war, Schawinsky gives form to his anxiety and brings to bear his visionary experience as a synthesizer of the man/machine of the Bauhaus aesthetic into multi-media performance – an aesthetic picked up emblematically by Kraftwerk and other musician/artists in the 1970s as an expression of the climactic phase of the cold war.
Schawinsky’s powerful work from the 1940’s particularly draws attention to not yet explored dimensions of the afterlife of Bauhaus ideals subject to the pressures of war and forced immigration. It is an aesthetic with a more existentialist and dystopian face, distinct from the positivism and bravura of the Bauhaus architects’ further achievements in the U.S. after the decline of the influential school in Europe.
In the early 1940s Xanti Schawinsky developed close relations with American and emmigrated artists who had gained prominence in the pre-war milieu of modern art. The legend goes that Schawinsky met Marcel Duchamp in the mornings to play chess on Washington Square in direct proximity to Schawinsky‘s new New York City home. These meetings might have given the background for Schawinsky’s participation in Julian Levy’s show The Imaginary of Chess held in 1944-45. Levy invited artists from the Surrealist circles of his gallery to create chess related art work and to play chess throughout the show. Schawinsky contributed an impressive and fantastic plexi-glass sculpture based on the idea of a chess table exploding or going mad. This work was reconstructed for an exhibition at The Noguchi Museum in New York in 2005, curated by Larry List, revisiting Julien Levy‘s visionary chess show which had drawn heavily on wartime metaphors.
Schawinsky focused his practice in the following years on painting, drawing, experimental photography and commcercial graphic design. He experimented with glass negatives for a series of collaged photograms, the motifs often based on the ultra-urban skyline of Manhattan.
From 1943-46 he taught at the City College in New York. In 1946 he started working on a book on Walter Gropius. The manuscript of Schawinsky‘s writing survived, but the book was not published due to disagreements between Gropius and Schawinsky in the course of planning.
From 1950-54 Schawinsky taught at various departments at New York University. During the same years he focused more than ever before on his painting practice. He began to create a body of abstract paintings in which he revisited from experiments of the 1940s, the Eclipses. The abstraction of these works is intimate, dark and impenetrable. It resonates interestingly with a contemporary trend to idiosyncratic abstraction. The Estate of Xanti Schawinsky holds an expressive group of paintings of this series in various prominent dimensions, form experimentations and color shadings.
In 1953 Schawinsky received his first solo show featuring 35 paintings, graphic design and sculptural works at the Hugo Gallery in New York. In 1956 he created his first Dance-Painting, a large scale canvas on which he imprinted marks of his shoes from dancing on the surface forming chance operating patterns. We can assume today that this experiment reflected on the performance based painting interventions by Jackson Pollock.
Soon after Schawinsky revisited his theater work of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College time. In 1957 he writes a second Spectodrama Mondo Nova which thematises the conflict of the individuum with an all consuming environment. Yet, not a worded script but a dramatic staging of visual and acoustic effects make the composition of the play. Schawinsky‘s last big scale project in the United States are his Track Paintings. He prepared giant canvases with paint and drove with his sports car over the surfaces, creating another series of interventionist paintings.
While spending increasingly more time in Europe, particularly in Switzerland and Nothern Italy, Schawinsky gets commissioned by the Stadt Theater Basel, his former home town, to create the set and costum design for a Sergej Prokofjew ballet. The play was to become an exuberant spectacle, a synthesis of Schawinsky’s early theater ideas and creatures forming a fantastical chorus against the giant backdrop of his later astract painting surfaces. After the success of Schawinsky’s collaboration with the Basel theater, plans were made to bring hisSpectodrama Mondo Nova on stage, but the project was never realized.
In 1963 he married his second wife Gisela Hatzky in New York.
In 1964 a first part of his Bauhaus memoirs is published inmetamorphosis bauhaus.
In 1966 Schawinsky builds a studio house at Laggio Maggiore. He designs the architecture and interiors himself in the style of the Bauhaus. Marcel Breuer overlooked the blue prints and certified the building as a classic Bauhaus architecture.
In 1967 Schawinsky began his last significant abstract painting cycle of the Sphaeren. Overlapping compositions of circles and color fields are seen through several layers of gauze affixed to the front of the canvas, a technique which creates intriguing optical effects. As in his 1950s responses to Abstract Expressionism, Schawinsky reacts here in a highly innovative way to a new upcoming genre of Op Art.
In 1968 Schawinsky is represented with numerous works in various disciplines in the Stuttgart Bauhaus retrospective exhibition 50 Years of Bauhaus which tours world wide. In the following year he begins to write his autobiography which remained unfinished, but covers his youth, the Bauhaus years and the beginning 1930s. Writings about The Physical in Painting and Spectodrama follow.
In 1972 his second son Daniel was born.
In 1975 a comprehensive solo exhibition of Schawinsky’s work is held in the communal Galleria d’arte moderna in Bolgna, Italy. 150 works are exhibited from all of his work phases. In Bologna Schawinsky collaborates with a group of students on the reconstruction and re-enactment of his theater plays from the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College time.
Xanti Schawinsky died in 1979 in Locarno.