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BAUHAUS OF IVANA TOMLJENOVIĆ MELLER
11. December 2012

Radnička Gallery 11.12.2012-18.1.2013, Zagreb

The Bauhaus School of Architecture and Crafts is now more popular than
ever in the last eight decades. A series of exhibitions organised in the recent
years have revalorised the status of the institution which in the period
between its establishment in 1919 and its closing in 1933 not only built the
foundations to modern, but also to sustainable design. The Bauhaus gave
a chance to put things into an aesthetic, economic, political and feminist
perspective. Around forty exhibits from Marinko Sudac Collection related to
the Bauhaus period of the artist, teacher and athlete Ivana Tomljenović Meller
are attention-worthy precisely because they summarise its most important
constituents.
The exhibition at Radnička Gallery will try to present the rarely mentioned
but still key formative element of the Bauhaus aesthetics: the ideological one.
In addition to the revolutionary shift on the visual level, a fact equally significant
for the Bauhaus was that its students left the institution as transformed people.
No other school in modern history shaped the world view of its students to that
extent, which is quite evident from Ivana Tomljenović Meller’s life.
Ivana Tomljenović Meller arrived at the Bauhaus in Dessau in October
1929, after she graduated in painting at the Royal Academy of Art in Zagreb
and completed two semesters at the famous Viennese arts and crafts school
Kunstgewerbeschule. Unlike the previous two, the Bauhaus was not only
an educational institution, but an idea reflecting itself in all the segments
of student life. Being a Bauhaus person meant having an enthusiastic and
idealistic attitude, quite often accompanied by a leftist political orientation. Its
founder, Walter Gropius, had a vision about a school in which all the arts and
crafts would unite in a “cathedral of socialism”. The practical aim was to create
standardised templates for industrial production which would enrich the lives
of masses. Gropius hoped that the people formed by his school would build
the modern world. Such an institution required teachers of strong, impressive
personalities and the school also hosted visiting lecturers who contributed to
the development of polemic spirit, such as writer and revolutionary Ernst Toller.
In 1928 the school management was taken over by Hannes Meyer, a man
overlooked and neglected by many historical overviews, even though he in
fact created the Bauhaus we recognise today. This architect nurtured socialist
views and fostered radical functionalism, considering the creation of conditions
for the production of a functional object, i.e. the tangible social purpose of
learning the most important aim of the Bauhaus. During their first year at
the institution, the students had to pass the Preparatory Course where they
rejected all their previous beliefs in order to awaken their natural talents and
spiritual readiness for the continuation of education. Studies were made in
classes to raise awareness and interpret the tactile effect of particular materials
and design objects which explored the connection between body and space.
Lectures about elements of art form were held by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul
Klee, who also built in their theosophical beliefs. After the Preparatory Course,
students continued their education at one of the departments, taking classes
and developing their skills in workshops where they got acquainted with the
production process. In the second semester Ivana Tomljenović Meller enrolled
in the Department of Photography, led by Walter Peterhans, photographer,
mathematician and philosopher. To a large number of Bauhaus students,
photography was only a means of recording everyday life. The absence of
directing, quick snaps, errors, i.e. detachment from conventions gave liveliness
to their photographs. Still, among the Bauhaus images, including Ivana
Tomljenović Meller’s photographs, a certain convention is evident: an accent on
the relationship between man and architecture, people in unusual situations,
unorthodox angles which create shortened perspectives, group scenes, optical
phenomena, double exposure, fabularity... A special chapter was dedicated to
experimental photography introduced by lecturer Lázslo Moholy-Nagy, who
had a particular interest in photogram, photomontage and photo-sculpture.
The Bauhaus motto was: “Play becomes celebration; celebration becomes
work; work becomes play”. The belief that play is indispensable to creativity is
also present in Gropius’s Bauhaus manifesto. The most evident example of the
said principle are photographs of students, spontaneous works made during
“leisure” moments. During her stay at the Bauhaus, Ivana Tomljenović Meller
made photographs, today also valuable due to the fact that they portray the
life that accompanied the complex educational project. Certain photographs
evoke theme parties, such as the Festival of Chin, Nose and Heart, or the
White Festival, attended by teachers in fancy dresses as well. On one occasion,
Gropius went to a party in disguise as his rival Le Corbusier. Other exhibits also
testify of the important phenomena shaped by the spirit of the Bauhaus. One
of them is Herbert Bayer’s universal typography, simpler than the prevalent
blackletter, which was supposed to promote literacy and enable better
understanding between different nations. The Bauhaus was one of the first
places that taught modern advertising and the master of the Workshop for Print
and Advertising, Herbert Bayer, at the same time taught graphic design and
courses such as Systematic Advertising and Effects on Conscience. Among the
preserved works from Bayer’s classes there are several typographic exercises
and a series of variations for “Meinl” coffee advertisements. Designing them,
Tomljenović used the bauhasian upper view.
Her choice of further professional orientation is quite telling; it does not
point only to aesthetic inclinations, but also to the world view. Ever since the
establishment of the Bauhaus, women comprised almost a half of the students.
Ivana Tomljenović Meller’s camera testified to their rejection of social norms.
However, many of them, quite often previously employed and seeing this
experimental school as a chance for a fresh start, were directed to “female”
workshops of textile, ceramics and typography. Unlike most of them, after
completing the Preparatory Course Tomljenović opted for politically involved
photography and design.
Inspired by new ideas, Ivana Tomljenović, daughter of a Croatian
industrial and banker, joined the German Communist Party. Her favourite
student model, a Pole Naftali Rubinstein, who attended the Department of
Advertising and Graphic Design and took her often reproduced portrait, was
also a Party member.
Ivana Tomljenović Meller tried to express her political beliefs through
design. When the 6 January Dictatorship was introduced by King Alexander
and its opponents Đuro Đaković and Nikola Hećimović were killed, she
designed the cover of the “Diktatur in Jugoslawien” brochure with a small
figure of the king stomping all over the tortured dead body of a revolutionary.
The work was probably inspired by John Heartfield’s politically involved
photomontages which used photography to expose the government’s
reactionary character. Somewhat later she designed a compositionally more
complex template for the poster of Deutscher Metallarbeiter Verband (“DMV”),
the association of German metal workers, the backbone of social ideas in the
country.
In May 1930, national socialist press launched a strong attack on the
Bauhaus; dean Meyer was banished from Dessau and ended in Russia
alongside twelve of his students. A large number of students left the school,
including Ivana Tomljenović Meller. The Bauhaus management was then trusted
to Mies van der Rohe, but the school was closed down three years later as an
embodiment of “perverted art” and a “nest of Bolshevism”. Many subjects of
Ivana Tomljenović Meller’s photographs were declared dangerous to society
and came to a tragic end in Hitler’s or Stalin’s camps. The survivors, like in
Gropius’s vision, tried to shape the modern world away from the Bauhaus.
The beliefs she acquired at the Bauhaus shaped Ivana Tomljenović Meller’s
nomadic and turbulent destiny. After leaving Dessau, she spent a year in Berlin
and then left for Paris, where she joined the Comintern as a radical leftist. She
left France almost as a fugitive, settled in Prague and began a career in design.
“Dictatorship” and later political activism cost her isolation from her family and
a ban to return to her homeland. Only thanks to the connections of her father
Tomislav Tomljenović, a former governor of Croatia and Slavonia, she managed
to come back home. She pursued design for some time, unlike her colleagues
Anni Albers, Alma Buscher, Charlotte Perriand or Lilly Reich without a male
mentor. This circumstance was undoubtedly an important reason why her life
ended in anonymity, with just a small body of work. Still, persistent liberal credo
and art legacy testify of perpetual return to the principles she acquired at the
Bauhaus.

Leila Mehulić