‘Xanti’ Schawinsky in his play Olga, Olga, 1926. © xanti schawinsky estate
Alexander ‘Xanti’ Schawinsky is one of the neglected heroes of the Bauhaus. Swiss-born Schawinsky first studied architecture and later enrolled at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920’s, studying under mentors whose names have since become far more familiar – Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Oskar Schlemmer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Schawinsky was seemingly a dynamic, playful character whose practice bordered on ADHD, spanning everything from painting and drawing to experimental photography and theatre, which remained a lifelong preoccupation. You could even say that he’s the unsung granddaddy of German techno: his contribution to the influential Bauhaus Jazz Band was to introduce his Step Dance Vs Step Machine, a style of mechanical music and dance to pounding rhythms accompanied dramatic lighting effects and performance elements. Just in case anyone at Berghain thought they were the first to go there…
Of Polish Jewish extraction, Schawinsky fled Germany in 1936, initially to Milan, then joining Josef Albers’s émigré cohort at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. Schawinsky later moved to New York. Unlike some of the college’s other famed immigrant intellectuals, who went on to carry the torch for European modernism in the USA, he subsequently fell into relative obscurity.
Although Schawinsky’s work has occasionally been reconsidered and given the attention it warrants – such as in the Bauhaus Archiv retrospective of 1986 – he has largely remained a neglected figure, save for the passionate commitment of some curators such as Anke Kempkes (of BROADWAY 1602, inter alia) and the family estate.
Now, Norway’s vaunted Bergen Kunsthall is exhibiting an important reconsideration of Schawinsky’s work in the exhibition Head Drawings and Faces of War that focuses on his works offering up a vision of a hybrid of man and machine, and generally not with a heart-warming outcome.
Mixed technique, aqueous and pen, Framed, 1942. © xanti schawinsky estate
Schawinsky is certainly not the only Bauhaus artist to consider the dichotomy of humanity in the machine age – especially at a time when it was mostly focussed on industrialisation’s efficacy at killing people – but it seems only fair that this seminal figure of the Bauhaus should receive some retrospective attention.
A big cheer for Anke Kempkes, The Drawing Center, NYC (where it was first exhibited) and Bergen Kunsthall, even if the building’s own occupation, Nazi-era connections make it all a little creepy…