top of page
  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY ONE Kahlo and Creativity

I'm pedalling to Stuttgart this morning and have paused in Pforzheim for a slice of Black Forest gateau. The Race Marshal has roared off to see the chapel at Ronchamps, and is intending to stop in the Forest at Triberg, where Josef Keller created the confection in 1915. The inspiration for a cake topped by cherries is said to have come from the Bollenhut traditionally worn in this area; the chocolate shavings represent the dark shadows of trees in the Black Forest.

Bollenhuette (c)

Josef Keller's cake is copied, more or less, all over the world; it is well-travelled. And this made me think of Frida Kahlo's father, Karl Wilhelm – or Guillermo as he later called himself - who was brought up here in Pforzheim. His childhood seems to have been blighted by his father's remarriage: Guillermo clearly developed a particularly difficult relationship with his stepmother because in 1891, when he was twenty, his father paid him to move to Mexico.

By the turn of the century, Guillermo had established himself as a leading architectural photographer. He took a famous series of Mexico City's most important buildings, using large glass plates which he had to coat with photographic emulsion, unhandy technology which had been in use during the American Civil War.

Guillermo's wife died giving birth to their third child and when he married for a second time, the idea of easing one's life by banishment must have reoccurred because he cleared the decks by sending the children of his first marriage to a convent.

So it was into an emptied household that Frida was born. She became his favourite child and he took many portraits of her. These images became central to her art and she copied her father's compositions for her self-portraits.

Guillermo's portrait of Frida (c)wikicommons

As a photographer, I have always been interested in how artists have used this new medium. Even before light could be captured by chemical means, Vermeer famously used a camera obscura as an aid. Franz van Lenbach had scores of photographs of Bismarck taken because the Chancellor could not spend time sitting for his portrait. Courbet admitted to using a photograph of a nude for The Artist’s Studio in 1855. And in more modern times, there has been a procession of painters basing compositions on photographs - Matisse, Duchamp, Picasso, Degas and Derain all used Eugène Atget's photographs of Parisian street scenes, for example.

Eugene Atget's wonderful image of street musicians (c)wikicommons

Successful scientists are reputed to have stood on the shoulders of giants, and art evolves from art. When Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, he did so on the basis of a manifesto that drew on a range of influences, not least William Morris.

His school in Weimar was staffed by the very best artists that he could gather – Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy. Gropius left in 1928, and so it fell to Mies van der Rohe to oversee the death of the school at the hands of the Nazis in April 1933. Apparently on the last afternoon, Mies van der Rohe assembled the teaching staff in the common room, poured each a thimble of champagne, proposed a toast to the school - and they all dispersed, Mies to head the architectural school at the Armour Institute in Chicago.

The Bauhaus style, of course, lived on, influencing architecture and design across the years and across the world. Avowedly standing full square on its shoulders is Karlsruhe's University of Arts and Design which “ties directly into the ideas and concepts of the Bauhaus tradition - a tradition in which the design of the future is seen as a central social task.”

The University is “a unique space for learning, research and experimental development”. Students “learn how to deal with a complex and diverse reality” by combining theory with practice, as they did in the original Bauhaus (though Gropius would recognise few of the courses on offer - communication design, media art, exhibition design and scenography, art research and media philosophy).

Gropius would, however, admire the deliberate connectivity between the university and one of the most innovative museums in the world, Karlsruhe's Centre for Art and Media (Zentrum Kunst Medien - ZKM) - “a house of all media and genres, a house of both spatial arts such as painting, photography and sculpture and time-based arts such as film, video, media art, music, dance, theater and performance.”

Infinity Room by Refik Anadol [2015] (c)newyorktimes

The ZKM was founded in 1989 “with the mission of continuing the classical arts into the digital age.” Known in Germany as the “digital Bauhaus”, it - like the original Bauhaus - was the vision of one man, the founding director, Heinrich Klotz, former Professor of Art at Marburg University.

Heinrich Klotz (c)ZKM

Klotz was a phenomenon: in 1984 he founded the Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt; two years later he founded the ZKM; and in 1992, the Karlsruhe University for Arts and Design. He had Gropius's gift for attracting the best talent as tutors - including, at the University, Daniel Libeskind, architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the new World Trade Centre.

Klotz died quite young, in 1999. His eulogy reads: “As historian, author, teacher, theorist, museum and university founder, no German intellectual after 1945 has shaped the German art and cultural scene as greatly as Heinrich Klotz. His theories on the revision of architectural modernity, on the second modernity, and on the expansion of the concept of art in terms of media are irreversible theoretical foundations on the basis of which the future is created.”

But why did this ferment happen in Karlsruhe, in the peaceful south-west of Germany? The answer seems to be that when the Federal Republic chose to locate the highest courts in the land here, the city's self-image became that of the defender of democracy. The consequence was liberty of expression and the evolution of a creative culture. Certainly UNESCO noticed: in 2019, Karlsruhe was admitted to the “global network of cities working towards the joint mission of placing creativity and cultural industries at the core of their urban development.”

The UNESCO Global Creative Cities Network comprises 180 cities divided into seven fields of recognised creativity: crafts & folk art, design, film, literature, music, media arts and, I'm pleased to say, cities of gastronomy (of which Macau and Hyderabad are two examples - none from England or Germany).

Karlsruhe was admitted to the Global Network in 2019 as a city of media arts. But it was not the first – that was York in 2014.

A short film showing Guillermo Kahlo's images (commentary in Spanish) -

Erik Takes You On A Tour Of Frida Kahlo's House -

Eugéne Atget's images -

ZKM - Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media -

Kraftwerk The Robots (1978) -

An hour and seventeen minutes of German techno -

And thank you to Fred Sansom for recommending The Train with Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield - a better film about stolen art than The Monuments Men - this is the trailer -

37 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Jul 08, 2020

Very much enjoyed seeing Guillermo's photos an interesting time in Mexico.


Jun 30, 2020

Please enlarge upon your statement that Guillermo “cleared the decks by sending the children of his first marriage to a convent.” Was this legal in the 19th century? Did he send them to a convent for education or to become lifetime “brides of the Church”?

bottom of page