Violence and the New Bauhaus’ Cross-Media Pedagogy: the Constructed Bodily Fragment in James Hamilton Brown’s Untitled Photographs

ESSAY by Emma Stein

[B]ut why, I ask you, has the specialist always to think down his channel?  Age of conveyor belt, of disintegrated part, of screw driven into machine of which purpose and function he doesn’t know…We don’t want to add to the art-proletariat that already exists.  We don’t teach what is called ‘pure-art’, but we train what you might call the art engineer.  It is a remodeling of art-meaning we are undertaking.[1]

It is striking that in 1937, after coming to the United States at the request of former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian artist and former Bauhaus instructor, used the metaphor of the alienated factory worker to stress the importance of interdisciplinarity to his New Bauhaus pedagogy. Not only does this hint that his constructivist background might not have been quite entirely “pared of its residual socialism,” as Hal Foster stresses, but it speaks to common concerns at the time about the treatment of industrial laborers.[2] Moholy’s chosen metaphor is particularly apt considering the meeting of his constructivist background with Chicago’s conflicted industrial tradition, which only continued to evolve as the country became involved in the war. The contradiction implicit in Moholy’s acceptance of funding from Chicago capitalists aside, in this passage, he compares the alienation of laborers from the commodities they produce to the separation of art forms. His “remodeling” of art practice was intended to counteract the problem of the narrow-minded specialist by implementing a distinctly cross-media pedagogy.

One way the photography department at the New Bauhaus practiced this pedagogy was through their reliance on the photogram as a teaching tool. In a photogram, objects are arranged into a composition on light sensitive paper, then exposed to the light, leaving abstract forms where the contours of the objects block the light exposure. The horizontal orientation of the photographic paper, the unique images that are created in contrast to the multiples that can result from a traditional negative, and the compositional emphasis required by the organization of elements on the page all speak to a creative process that resembles the practices of drawing and painting. The photogram allowed for a blending of the visual syntax of photography, painting and drawing, providing the students with the opportunity to think outside of traditional “channels.” The department at the New Bauhaus was so confident in the photogram as a teaching method that when the work of the students was shown at MOMA in 1942, the exhibition was curated around the idea of the photogram as an educational tool.

In addition to its exhibition at MOMA, the New Bauhaus pedagogy also reached beyond the constraints of the art world, coming directly into contact with the wartime environment of Chicago. In scholarship the School of Design years tend to be eclipsed on either end by the interest in Moholy’s years in Europe working at the original Bauhaus as a constructivist and the later Institute of Design’s prodigal children of American formalism. Scholars such as Hal Foster and Abigail Solomon-Godeau find these earlier years of the school less interesting, mostly due to the supposed dilution of socialist commitment within formalism in the context of American capitalism. However, while the specific political commitment changed with the school’s relocation, the main project of the school that developed during the wartime period was not so unlike the constructivist context which Foster and Solomon-Godeau hold dear. In the end, the artist teachers and students alike struggled to make their artistic missions relevant in the context of war, when their usefulness as professionals and citizens was being questioned because of the supposedly disposable status of art within a society in crisis. In this period of the school’s history, the curriculum completely transformed from the Bauhaus ideal of combining art with industry to creating a place for art within war industry. And the setting—America’s industrial capital—could not be more fitting.

In response to both his own experience during World War I and the critics that spoke of the supposed “luxury” of studying art during the war, Moholy implemented creative programs specifically designed for World War II veterans in order to show how the Bauhaus pedagogy could be put to use for a multiplicity of purposes.[3] “Rehabilitation” was the term he used to describe what he believed the distinctly cross-media pedagogy of his creative programs could provide for the disabled and their caregivers. The programs defined creativity as something that “can be applied to all types of work in the artistic scientific and technological sphere. It means inventiveness, resourcefulness, the ability to establish new relationships between given elements.”[4]

* * *

By the time James Hamilton Brown arrived at the School of Design, the realities of war were inescapable. A native Chicagoan, Brown was a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and spent the early part of his career as a commercial photographer before going abroad to fight in World War I.[5] In his resume from the early 1940s, Brown mentions his veteran status in what he refers to as the “Mexican Border War” as well as the First World War, his work in “Photo. semsitometry in connection with Radar and Radio homing Signal work for the Special Devices section of Navy Aviation” and finally, with a firm sense of pride at the end of the document, his membership in the 33rd Division American Legion of the War Veterans Association.  By the time he began teaching in 1940, the Association of Arts and Industries had notified the school that they would no longer be providing funding.  When new funding was secured from one of Chicago’s most wealthy capitalists, the school reopened, no longer referencing its German origins but instead neutrally named the School of Design.

Yet if the pedagogy based on the integration of artistic media was meant to function as a unifying force against the alienation of industrial life and the violent disjunction caused to society by war in principle, the work produced did not always evoke this utopian message. Brown’s untitled series of photographs from the early 1940s implements this cross-media pedagogy, with images incorporating elements of sculpture, painting and photography. These works were completed as the school was transforming its curriculum to suit wartime conditions. In the early 1940s the curriculum announcements show the creation of new classes on wartime design, camouflage, and a constant stream of visiting lectures from military personnel. The interdisciplinary pedagogy of the Bauhaus was put to use in a new direction as students studied the camouflaging tactics of animals in nature, created exhibitions of “War Art,” and learned the significance of the medium of photography to gathering valuable information. In fact, the description of tactics used for camouflage is directly related to the experiments using the photogram, specifically with the importance of shadow. George F. Kock instructed his students on December 2, 1942, “Vertical aerial survey pictures show a shadow pattern which reveals the relief of the object. This shadow pattern is always changing and if the day and hour of the exposure and the latitude of the place is known, the height of any structure can be computed.”[6] The former Bauhaus’ utopian dream of merging art and industry became the necessity of integrating art and war-industry.

It is during this wartime translation of the former Bauhaus’ pedagogy that Brown created his Untitled photographs. Brown’s series depicts the decapitated body of the female sculpture repeated at a variety of angles and reflected in multiple convex and straight mirrors.[7] It is likely that the various sculptures pictured in the photographs were in fact produced as part of the sculpture department at the school, in line with their valuation of unifying practices across disciplines. He clearly positions the full length of the body so as to construct the effect of decapitation, and in all but two of the photographs cuts off the figure at the knees and shoulders. The bodily fragment is a common visual trope mobilized in diverse contexts throughout the history of modern European art to evoke the horrors of war. Dada and Surrealism, two influential movements for the artists working at the New Bauhaus, produced work in direct response to the artists’ experiences during World War I in Europe, experiences which Brown shared as a veteran of the war;[8] however, what is uniquely perplexing about Brown’s photographic series is how the artist uses the unifying cross-media aesthetic promoted by the school’s pedagogy to construct a fragment of the female form. In purposefully constructing the bodily fragment, the artist presents what would be understood as a series of parts instead as multiple whole objects. Though paradoxical, the idea of the whole fragment, as a repeated motif, allows the female body to take on an allegorical meaning of violence against the body. Moreover, as the following examples will show, it is precisely the utopian cross-media pedagogy of the Bauhaus, its “crossing of channels,” or melding of media practices, that is consistently necessary for the representation of this violence against the body. The complexity of Brown’s untitled series of photographs lies in the simultaneous depiction of the violence of the constructed bodily fragment and of wartime anxiety, within a distinctly New Bauhaus, utopian cross-media pedagogy.

The most repeated motif in Brown’s series of photographs is the fragmented female torso.  The most strikingly violent of the bodily fragments depicted, the seemingly decapitated sculpture of the female figure, is not uncommon within the historical visual rhetoric of the female nude. In Sculpture in America, Wayne Craven describes a sculpture by Arthur Lee entitled Volumpté that purposefully conforms to this iconography (see Figure 1).

(Figure 1) Arthur Lee, Volumpté, 1915

(Figure 1) Arthur Lee, Volumpté, 1915

As the name implies, “Volumpté” represents the full bloom of womanhood, softly sensuous with graceful contours.  Head, arms, and lower legs were omitted as unnecessary to the expression of the loveliness of the womanly form, for Lee was seeking to reproduce its natural beauty in three-dimensional form rather than any of the academic ‘isms,’ which too often had become ends to themselves .[9]

Craven justifies Lee’s purposeful decapitation of this sculpture with an essentialist claim about beauty and the female form. Oddly, according to Craven, “natural” beauty is an artificially stunted female body, while the choice of depicting the full figure of a woman would be “academic.” This purposeful construction of the bodily fragment seems to present the decapitated female body as a unified whole, despite its missing pieces. It is perhaps this essentializing mentality surrounding the female nude as a subject matter that makes it so susceptible to constant allegorization, whether the fragmentation itself comes to stand for an ideal beauty or the violence of war.

George Kepes, the head of the photography department, also produced a photograph depicting an armless, legless, headless female torso, aptly entitled Broken Venus (see Figure 2). This title references the classical female torso as a subject for sculpture as well as its specific associations with ruination and iconoclasm. Kepes’ Venus is painted with photochemicals and rendered in chiaroscuro in order to model a sculptural form, yet maintains a gestural, painterly outline. Streaming from the stump of the decapitated neck flow strings that allude to a tangled mess of veins or nerves. Finally, the destructive context of the Venus is reiterated in the violently smashed spider-web formation of the shattered glass.

(Figure 2) Gyorgy Kepes, Broken Venus, 1938

(Figure 2) Gyorgy Kepes, Broken Venus, 1938

Just as Kepes constructs the bodily fragment with gesture and tonality, Brown purposefully fragments his female sculpture by consistently positioning the figure so that the head disappears into a barely noticeable, foreshortened smudge, leaving the stump of a decapitated torso. In Untitled Photograph 1 (Figure 3), a torso appears twice, as it is reflected in the spherical reflective surface. On the right side of the photograph, the sculpture is turned in such as way as to obscure the head, while also coming close to being cut-off by the edge of the photograph. As it appears in the reflection, the head is entirely indistinguishable, as the distortion from the convex surface renders the figure elongated to the point of complete obscurity. In the foreground of the image on the left side, a disembodied head faces the viewer in a three-quarter position. The reflection of the head therefore faces away, looking off towards the reflection of the headless torso. Both fragments seem paradoxically autonomous, yet it is natural to wonder if the head at one time belonged to the body.  In purposefully constructing the fragment, the artists present the decapitated body as a separate unified whole; just as Lee’s sculpture presents the torso as an allegory for beauty, Kepes and Brown allegorize the violently fragmented female body as wartime destruction within a distinctly utopian, cross-media pedagogical method.

(Figure 3) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 1, c. 1940

(Figure 3) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 1, c. 1940

In Untitled Photographs 2 and 3 (Figures 4 and 5), the female torso is doubly fragmented.  She is fragmented by the removal of her arms and legs, and the obscuring of her head. In addition, the structure of body is even more worn away by the effect of solarization. The solarization technique was primarily employed by the surrealists, and consists of re-exposing the positive of a photographic print during the printing process. The effect results in the lightening of the darkest areas of the image, producing a silver color. Since the darkest areas usually define the outline of objects, solarization can often give the appearance that boundaries of objects are being dissolved.[10] In her discussion of surrealist photography, Rosalind Krauss describes this effect as a “representation of a violent deliquescence of matter.”[11] Brown’s photographs create a raw, rough, messy texture along the contour of the body that alludes to the destruction of flesh. This is especially true for Untitled Photograph 3, where the dark background of the image defines the edge of the form, giving it the appearance of a torn edge. Additionally, the abstraction of the smaller torso and outline in white suggests there is a distinct gap in place of the woman’s head. The head is pushed back so severely that is barely noticeable, and instead there is only a “v” shape where the head and neck should be. The outline also rounds the edges emphasizing that the body is a whole and is not fragmented due to foreshortening or other plausible photographic effects, but actually appears to be broken, with stumps where the legs and arms should be visible.

(Figure 4) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 2, c. 1940

(Figure 4) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 2, c. 1940

In a course description, Kepes writes of, “a genuine ‘language of the eye’ whose ‘sentences’ are the created images and whose elements are the basic plastic signs, line, plane, halftone gradation, color, etc.”[12] Understanding the formal elements of pictorial composition as a kind of visual syntax made of up signs points to yet another way violence is introduced into these photographs. Krauss describes the violence and duality of the mark as sign in her account of Derrida. The temporal fissuring of the mark from its moment of making results in a splitting of the subject that is inherently violent. Krauss describes the action,

The graffitist goes up to a wall.  He makes a mark.  We could say that he makes it to register his presence, to intervene in the space of another in order to strike against it with his declaration “I am here.”  But…insofar as his declaration is a mark, it is inevitably structured by the moment after its making that even now infects the time of its making, the future moment that makes of its making nothing else than a past, a past that reads “I was here”…He delivers his mark over to a future that will be carried on without his presence and in so doing his mark cuts his presence away from himself, dividing it from within into a before and an after. [13]

(Figure 5) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 3 c. 1940

(Figure 5) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 3 c. 1940

As Krauss explains, the mark is an index, and the “index’s violence is…a condition of the structure of the marker’s having been cut away from himself.[14] Derrida describes “the gesture of arche-writing” or marking as

arche-violence, loss of the proper, of absolute proximity, of self-presence, in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, repeated, incapable of appearing to itself except in its own disappearance.[15]

The violence pictured in Untitled Photographs 2 and 3 is uncannily similar to Derrida’s description of the process of arche-writing. On the one hand, these images seem to explicitly visually represent the Derridian temporally split subject. This female figure is already split in her clear decapitation, just as the disjointed parts are doubled. As her vacant eyes stare into her reflection, the solarization allows her to witness her own disappearance, the disintegration of her own body. The mirroring of the self speaks to self-presence, yet through her disappearance and blank stare, it is a presence that seems dream-like and unattainable, just as in Derrida’s description. In addition, within Kepes’ conception of photographic components as signs, the solarization can be understood as a violent mark-making in this Derridian context. Viewing the photographic effect as a sign, the solarization is a process of indexical marking, and the act itself, the making of Kepes’ “language of the eye,” can thus be characterized as violent.

Brown’s Untitled Photograph 4 (see Figure 6) is the only image in the series that features an actual female body as opposed to a sculpture. However, the body has been solarized, giving it a sculptural appearance from the resulting tonality. While the body is not fragmented, it is similar in position to the female torso represented in many of the other previously discussed photographs. The woman turns her body with her arms slightly raised, tilting her head upwards and away from the viewer. She twists in a network of black and white splatters that create a web of pigment around her. Closer inspection reveals that the splatter is not paint but photochemicals. The splatter is both positive and negative, the violent dissolution of pigment and the positive accumulation of tone. The figure seems to interact with it, as if it were a mist in the air, at the same time as it dissolves the contour of her body. The actual dissolution of the image is visible in the areas of white splatter, where tonality reveals the breakdown of the pigment, whereas the black resembles a dark ink or paint. There is a duality in the mark, as it acts as violence against the image of the body in its chemical dissolution and simultaneously adds layers of painterly gesture.

(Figure 6) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 4, c. 1940

(Figure 6) James Hamilton Brown, Untitled Photograph 4, c. 1940

The mark in Brown’s photograph is visibly violent, as the marks of the photochemicals dissolve the body’s presence at the same time as they claim their own. As in Derrida’s model, the mark in the photograph separates the temporality of the final image from the solarized photograph. First the photograph is solarized, and then the surface is marked with chemicals. There is a temporal disjunction between the original photograph and the artist’s mark after the fact. The mark is thus doubly violent, separating its marker from his presence in the Derridan sense, and at the same time destroying the image that came before it through dissolution. If we understand the mark to be violent, in Brown’s photograph it is depicted as such in its violence against the body. The body is presented as whole in its solarized form, and fragmented in its violent marking.

Looking at this photograph, knowing it was produced in an American context in the 1940s, there is a clear parallel to the splatter paintings of Jackson Pollock. According to Krauss, Pollock’s mark-making process of splattering paint onto the canvas below him results in finished paintings inhabiting the realm of the horizontal. Like Pollock’s splatter, the chemical splatter on Brown’s photograph is an index of the position of the artist above the surface.[16] The chemicals pool on the surface of the photo-paper, allowing the image to be dissolved. However, whereas for Krauss’ implementation of Gestalt psychology, the horizontal realm symbolizes the process of bassesse, of lowering, for Brown’s work the realm of the horizontal was tied to the production of the photogram. As opposed to the vertical orientation of the photograph, which is an index of the stance of the photographer’s perspectival relationship to the subject, the photogramic process more closely resembles the acts of drawing and painting. For Brown, the lowering of the photograph from its vertical orientation to the realm of the horizontal symbolized a unifying of media, a distinctly cross-media representation of the mark as violence against the body. It is the melding of media practices, of painting and photography that mobilizes the violence in Brown’s image.

* * *

The establishment of the Chicago Bauhaus is inseparable from the context of violence and ambivalence that characterized the climate of Chicago in the early 1940s. Therefore, it is the context of Moholy’s programs for disabled veterans, of thousands of soldiers passing through the streets of Chicago each day, and of Brown’s haunted memories of serving in World War I that must be taken into account in order to understand the violence that characterizes Brown’s series.  The same cross-media pedagogy that Moholy believed could be put to use for “the restoration or reconditioning of disabled persons,”[17] many of whom were likely to have been missing limbs themselves, Brown used to create photographs in dialogue with both sculpture and painting, in order to construct bodily fragments that could speak to wartime violence through a diverse set of destructive connotations. Each time the utopian unification of media practices allows violence to be depicted against the paradoxically whole, yet fragmented female body. Yet it is this same pedagogy that is meant to counteract the alienating effects of industrial society, to embrace what Moholy called the “disintegrated part.” This double paradox could perhaps be indicative of the fact that despite their intentions to make positive changes within their pedagogy, the Bauhaus’ “remodeling of art-meaning” could not remain untouched by the realities of war. Despite the utopianism of the pedagogy under which these artworks were created, what is revealed in an analysis of the violence that characterizes Brown’s untitled photographs is an unresolved tension between the artistic creation and wartime destruction of the human body.



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Krauss, Rosalind E. 1986. L’amour fou: photography & surrealism. London: Arts Council.

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[1] Moholy-Nagy, “Better Than Before” 1943, in Hahn, Peter, and Lloyd C. Engelbrecht. 1987. 50 Jahre New Bauhaus: Bauhausnachfolge in Chicago. Berlin: Bauhaus-Archiv, 206-7.

[2] For example, in the constitution of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society.

[3] Engelbrecht, 2009, 531.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Travis, David, Elizabeth Siegel, and Keith F. Davis. 2002. Taken by design: photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937-1971. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago in association with the University of Chicago Press, 238.

[6] Summer of Lecture on Sun Orientation by George F. Kock, School of Design in Chicago, December 2, 1942.

[7] The photographs come from two different exhibition catalogs.  Seven were shown as part of the exhibition “The New Bauhaus: School of Design in Chicago, Photographs 1937-1944,” curated by Adam J. Boxer, currently the owner of the Ubu Gallery in New York, while the other two are found in the Chicago-based, Stephen Daiter Gallery’s catalog “Light and Vision: Photography at the School of Design in Chicago, 1937-1952.”

[8] Adam J. Boxer  writes, “While the photographic work of the masters of the New Bauhaus/School of Design in Chicago had its roots firmly in Constructivist principles with its rigorous and formalist compositional structure based on grids and oblique focal points, what makes the work so tantalizing and engaging, from my point of view, is its appropriation and integration of Dada and Surrealist vocabulary.  The artists…were consistently successful in blending the rigorous structuring of Constructivism with the unconscious fantasy of Surrealism.”

[9] Craven, Wayne. 1968. Sculpture in America. New York: Crowell, 563.

[10] Krauss, Rosalind E. 1986. L’amour fou: photography & surrealism. London: Arts Council, 70.

[11] Informe translates literally to “unformed,” and describes a condition of formlessness and a dissolution of boundaries, but, more importantly, an undoing of categories, particularly of binaries.  See Krauss, 70.

[12] Kepes, Gyorgy, in Hahn, Peter, and Lloyd C. Engelbrecht, 203.

[13] Krauss, Rosalind E. 1993. The optical unconscious. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 260.

[14] Ibid, 260.

[15] Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 112.

[16] Krauss, 276.

[17] Moholy-Nagy, “Better Than Before” 1943, in Hahn, Peter, and Lloyd C. Engelbrecht, 206-7.


Emma Stein is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of New Mexico, where she teaches undergraduate level survey courses in western art from the Renaissance to present. She completed her Bachelor of Arts at the University of California, Berkeley and her Masters of the Humanities at the University of Chicago. She is currently in the beginning phases of a dissertation that addresses diverse historical contexts for reemergences of documentary photography including the state-sponsored FSA era in the 1930’s, New Journalism in photography during the 1960’s, and contemporary photographers Boris Mikhailov and Valerio Spada. In addition to academia, she has occupied other positions in the art world, as the Gallery Director at Robert Bills Contemporary in Chicago and as curator of a multi-sensory, contemporary art exhibition that makes art accessible to the visually impaired.