The creative power of exile

Emigration and artistic modernism

Migration is a destabilising and even traumatic experience, removing human beings from the security and connection of their families and homes to new and sometimes hostile places. At a time when waves of migration invoke stories of pity, despair or nativist rage, are we losing sight of some of the unexpected benefits this unsettling process can bring to creativity and ideas? Architectural historian Robin Schuldenfrei tells a more hopeful story of the unfamiliar and what we can learn from it. 


In our current era of displaced people and seismic events, revisiting a moment in the middle of the past century in which so much was at stake can be instructive. From the experience of defamiliarization and exile, a productive change emerged in the bringing together of artists and designers committed to providing for a new, modern way of living through modern means. The merging of this philosophy – namely a critical belief in the future with a forward-moving drive to productively shape it – allowed a group of artists and architects who had fled continental Europe to use estrangement itself as a tool. In leaving behind their places of origin, they also left the past behind, and looked to productive new relationships and means of communicating, in their new location, in their vision for a modern future.


Mobility and emigration, defamiliarization and assimilation provided then, as now, unique opportunities for growth and a productive means for a larger shared understanding.


Modernism was thus formed by diverse ideas and aesthetics, brought together by a cascading trajectory of world events that caused a mass migration of people generally, and the evacuation of key members of the avant-garde specifically (not only artists and designers who are the focus of this essay, but musicians, writers, philosophers, film-makers). The landing in a new country with only a smattering of the local language and a small amount of funds is as old as the ages. What is ever-relevant, and diverges greatly between individuals, is what one is able to make from the rubble of the past. Modernism as a collective movement espouses a belief in the new – that is: new materials, new forms, new ideas for society at large, and, perhaps most essential, forging new connections between one another. But it also depended on differentiating and distancing itself from what had come before. Mobility and emigration, defamiliarization and assimilation provided then, as now, unique opportunities for growth and a productive means for a larger shared understanding. Critically, the newness of modernism drove progress in public spaces and public life – from new town centres with open plazas, to new town halls with more egalitarian, less intimidating judicial interiors, to more transparent assembly halls. Out of the killing machines of World War II’s military hardware came modern goods affordable for the many – re-tooled war-time factories and technical know-how thereby democratized access to quality, well-designed wares (albeit with the result that capitalism today is reeling with the excess of the out-of-control mass-production of goods and their attendant devastating ecological consequences). This could not have been possible without immigrants who brought differing know-how and creative ideas that mixed with – and then germinated on – fertile, new soil. 

Modernism in art, design and architecture came into being after a period of international mobility – a process of exile, emigration, and resettlement from continental Europe to Great Britain and America in the interwar, World War II, and post-war period. An influx of refugees departed continental Europe, some hastily under the cover of darkness with only a suitcase following a raid by the Gestapo, others with full invitations including housing and employment and accompanied by a carefully crated shipment of their work. These émigrés would profoundly shape the direction of modernism.


Are there lessons we can take from this, a century later, on what dislocation can teach us about rebuilding our vision of the future?


Exile imposed radically different situations on practitioners such as former Bauhaus teachers and artists Anni and Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, and designers Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, resulting in striking new work in architecture, art, and design. The innovative visions and designs they produced was both informed by the places they had left behind and their interaction with their new places of exile. This process of exile and estrangement would change the course of modernism. Are there lessons we can take from this, a century later, on what dislocation can teach us about rebuilding our vision of the future?

Estrangement presented the opportunity for new criticism and objectivity. The process of crossing borders, immersing oneself in a new culture, trying to formulate basic sentences in a new tongue within academic and highly professional design environments, was profoundly disorientating. This literal and figurative distance from their ‘source’ of European avant-garde art and design allowed the displaced artists and designers the capacity to work in England and America with fresh eyes. The defamiliarization they experienced as exiles in strange new places led them to re-evaluate and reorient themselves towards hopeful and productive new ends.

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Their radical work was also encountered for the first time by new audiences – at best unfamiliar with modernism, and at worst alienated by its spare, pared down aesthetics such as modern interiors that appeared bare, and illegible abstract paintings. This resistance created the opportunity to bring forth clarifying moments of elucidation from the cloud of estrangement, often in partnership with local supporters. One such example is the Container Corporation of America, a cardboard packaging company, whose director supported waves of recent artistic émigrés by introducing their work and ideas to a new audience in the US through arresting and impactful modern advertising campaigns. Other émigrés overcame the challenge of scarcity or inaccessibility by bringing their ideas and forms into new settings and materials. For instance, owing to the conditions of exile, Marcel Breuer’s bent metal chairs became bent wooden chairs for the Isokon company in England and Josef Albers’s flat glass artworks, shattered in transit to the United States, re-emerged as commercial paint on smooth Masonite for his Homage to the Square paintings. The pressures and contingencies exile placed on its practitioners can be seen in their work. 


Estrangement is the lens that allows the architect to take a critical distance and leads to confrontations between self and place.


Architecture, in particular, is a very contextual discipline. It operates in its context, whether the context is in relationship to a place, to the materials chosen, to the economic context, or the fulfilment of a perceived program or social agenda. Estrangement is the lens that allows the architect to take a critical distance and leads to confrontations between self and place. Estrangement takes us out of the familiar, and that process of defamiliarization creates a new and open world in which we can shape and sharpen our ideas. That is why the possibility for architectural estrangement can be so potentially productive, for both the émigré and the receiving location, the encounter has the potential to grow something entirely new; for example, an austere glass house with a radical new mode of organizing the interior – the open plan – but set on a base in a native material, such as locally quarried stone.

The variety of needs produced by the war and the anxiety felt by artist-immigrants, who were positioned precariously in the society that had received them, compelled them to action. Émigrés sought to contribute the skills and pedagogical practices that they had brought with them in order to aid their new country of residence. The ground-breaking philosophy towards art creation at the Bauhaus in Germany taught the students to work through design problems, not adhere to a period style or form, in order to offer up new solutions appropriate to modern life. Estrangement, in which nearly all encounters were new (to one another, to place, to modes of dwelling and being and speaking), allowed for focus and greater articulation: putting into action the pliable Bauhaus problem-solving methods, designers such as Gropius, Josef and Anni Albers, and Hilberseimer, were able to effectively redirect efforts toward the kind of social transformation that the German-era Bauhaus had always advocated, but never fully delivered. Following World War II – a devastation of both the physical and philosophical realm (Adorno would ask if poetry could be written after Auschwitz) – a new, modern, way of re-making and of being with one another in the world, was essential. Overwhelmingly, modernism emerged from productive estrangement from the past as well as displacement leading to new encounters.

Although when they were in Germany, Bauhaus members often wondered why industry did not embrace their designs, in the United States they quickly and successfully cooperated with complex American bureaucracies, such as the Department of Defense and the WPA, and with private investors, to bring their ideas to fruition. Modernism truly took shape in public life after passing through exile.


Artistic emancipation occurs through displacement, through the unfamiliar.


The wartime situation in the United States presented problems that needed immediate attention. Noteworthy is the pragmatism of these émigrés in America, particularly the degree to which they were able to quickly adapt to the changed circumstances of a nation at war and to address wartime problems through the design of war-related objects and striking graphic design. The result was a successful melding of art and technology with science; they devised advanced solutions in support of the war effort, such as designs for camouflage and military equipment, rehabilitation therapy, and posters campaigns. This represents an assimilation that was arguably a realization of the Bauhaus’s originary ideals: to use art and design not only to provide society with practical, pragmatic solutions but offer a modern, new way of living. It was a philosophy that advocated taking inhabitants out of the world as it exists and allowing them to encounter – through defamiliarization – a new mode of being in a world made afresh. This is instructive: following any war or period of the destruction of society’s social fabric, hope can be designed, literally and figuratively, through engaged making.

Artistic emancipation occurs through displacement, through the unfamiliar. It allows for unique architecture, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York City: set back from the plaza, its facade of unrelenting liquor-coloured bronze elements confronted a sea of ornate stone buildings. But quickly estrangement, if successful, can assimilate and turn into the everyday – such as the subsequent buildings a couple of avenues over, on Sixth Avenue: multi-storey facsimiles came to dominate mid-town Manhattan. In this way modernism became a coherent object only after it passed through a period of estrangement, a process of acclimatization of both designer and local audience. Dislocation and change were embedded into the artistic process and its result – to the benefit of all.

Beyond their practical successes, the demands of the war and living in exile gave the émigrés the opportunity to attempt to make good on an expansive philosophy. ‘A creative person must be drawn into the problems of his time. Why,’ asked Herbert Bayer in 1949, ‘should an artist be spared and separated from realities and be made escapist?’

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Bayer reflected on the integration of art and life through design, of a ‘common citizenship’ a concern for the ‘total shape and content of the human scene’, while acknowledging the ‘individual fragments which add up to a totality’. He called for the artist to be firmly anchored in the organization of his society. In our equally fragmented, migratory present day, a charged moment illustrating the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man, we might look to the artists and designers who sought to shape modern life, aspiring to a better future for all.

Out of modernism in art and design of this period emerged modern classrooms with large windows letting in light and healthful air, open-planned homes connecting the family to one another and a more relaxed manner of living aimed to reduce [female] domestic labour, and tools for the future, such as ergonomic furniture and objects accessibly designed to benefit a range of users’ abilities. This fraught, earlier period illustrates how once a crisis has passed, and the project of rebuilding begins, intense periods of dislocation and estrangement might positively impact our longer-term societal vision, our visual and built environment, and the lives to be lived. We can learn from this moment: to move out of estrangement – artistically productive as it might be – and work collectively towards a shared hope for the future.

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