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The Powerhouse of the New

Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, November 8, 2009–January 25, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman
Museum of Modern Art, 344 pp., $75.00

Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model

an exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, July 22–October 4, 2009
Catalog of the exhibition edited by the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin/Museum für Gestaltung, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, and Klassik Stiftung Weimar, with an introduction by Annemarie Jaeggi
Hatje Cantz, 373 pp., $60.00

Art to Hear: Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model

audio CD guide to the exhibition and booklet produced by tonwelt professional media GmbH and directed by Klaus Kowatsch
Hatje Cantz, 48 pp., $30.00

Kandinsky

an exhibition at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau, Munich, October 25, 2008–March 8, 2009; the Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, April 8–August 10, 2009; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, September 18, 2009–
January 13, 2010.
Catalog of the exhibition by Vivian Endicott Barnett, Tracey Bashkoff, Christian Derouet, and others.
Guggenheim Museum, 319 pp., $55.00; $45.00 (paper)

László Moholy-Nagy: Retrospective

an exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, October 8, 2009–February 7, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Ingrid Pfeiffer and Max Hollein
Prestel, 192 pp., $65.00

Moholy: An Education of the Senses

an exhibition at the Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, February 11–May 9, 2010

1.

Few developments central to the history of art have been so misrepresented or misunderstood as the brief, brave, glorious, doomed life of the Bauhaus—the epochally influential German art, architecture, crafts, and design school that was founded in Goethe’s sleepy hometown of Weimar in 1919. It then flourished from 1925 to 1932 in Dessau, an industrial backwater where the school’s first director, Walter Gropius, built its image-making headquarters (see illustration on page 25); and it ultimately but vainly sought refuge in cosmopolitan Berlin, where it closed in 1933, when Hitler took power. Now, nine decades after its inception and three quarters of a century after its dissolution, the Bauhaus has finally been explained to the museum-going public in terms much closer to its actual intent and immense achievement than ever before.

During the past year in Europe and the United States, a remarkable concatenation of survey exhibitions, monographic retrospectives, and their accompanying publications marked the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus (with comprehensive overviews in Berlin and New York), as well as the work of two of its major protagonists, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (a traveling show seen at the Lenbachhaus in Munich and at the Pompidou Center in Paris before ending at New York’s Guggenheim Museum) and the Hungarian multimedia artist László Moholy-Nagy (with one show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and another at Chicago’s Loyola University Museum of Art). Even though it struck some as premature to hold full-scale Bauhaus shows ten years before the legendary institution’s centenary, it was certainly time for a long-overdue reassessment of this persistently stereotyped and often maligned powerhouse of modern culture.

For example, one lingering popular fixation is the very notion of “Bauhaus architecture,” which has become a misnomer for Modernist building design. Many of the leading figures of advanced twentieth-century architecture had nothing at all to do with the Bauhaus, including Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, Erich Mendelsohn, and Alvar Aalto, four of the school’s most conspicuous absentees. In fact, it was not until Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became the Bauhaus’s third and final director, in 1930, that the school’s curriculum tilted decisively toward architecture, at the expense of other disciplines.

Another entrenched fallacy about the Bauhaus is that it was somehow responsible for the lamentable global proliferation of boring corporate Modernist architecture after World War II. Actually, the blame lies with commercial property developers who exploited Mies’s minimalist “skin-and-bones” formula for steel-framed, glass-skinned high-rise buildings because they were cheaper and more profitable to erect than pre-war masonry-clad, decoratively embellished structures; but they aped his schemes without a trace of Mies’s proportional subtlety or technical finesse.

The timing of the recent inter-national Wunderjahr was prompted by Germany’s incomparable trio of Bauhaus repositories: the Classical Foundation in Weimar; the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau; and the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin. Their officials wanted to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a coordinated endeavor impossible before German reunification. They joined forces to present “Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model,” the biggest show on the subject ever, with a thousand objects that filled Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau kunsthalle (built as the Museum of Applied Arts from 1877 to 1881 to the designs of Heino Schmieden and Martin Gropius, great-uncle of the future Bauhaus head). Not to be outdone or deemed laggard a decade hence, New York’s Museum of Modern Art joined the party and mounted a comprehensive overview that drew on its own significant holdings as well as many pieces exhibited in the slightly earlier Berlin extravaganza.

Of these two blockbusters, the more echt Bauhaus reincarnation was MoMA’s. For the viewer, the overlarge and unfocused Berlin retrospective felt confined by the small, compartmentalized galleries of the Martin-Gropius- Bau, a cell-like lineup of rooms antithetical to the flowing Bauhaus-style layout of the New York show designed by MoMA’s longtime exhibition chief, Jerry Neuner, who used the museum’s familiar display vocabulary of open-plan circulation and freestanding partition walls to appropriate effect.

Indeed MoMA, the first museum of its kind, was patterned after the Bauhaus in its departmental organization, and likewise incorporated mediums overlooked by museums before its founding in 1929, especially photography and film (and, for a while, dance). From the outset, MoMA followed the Bauhaus’s strict prohibition against design that even hinted at the decorative, a prejudice that skewed the pioneering museum’s view of Modernism for decades.

Thus it was fortunate for MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity” that Barry Bergdoll, its open-minded and historically astute curator of architecture and design, organized it with Leah Dickerman, a curator of painting and sculpture. Their show was all the more piquant because many of the misapprehensions that still surround the Bauhaus are attributable to MoMA itself, in large part because of its 1938 retrospective “Bauhaus 1919–1928,” curated by Gropius in the same year he became chairman of Harvard’s architecture school, one of four crucial academic appointments that introduced Bauhaus concepts to the United States and institutionalized them in American higher education. (The others were Josef Albers being asked to lead the painting program at North Carolina’s newly established Black Mountain College in 1933; Moholy-Nagy as founding director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937; and Mies becoming head of the architecture department at Chicago’s Armour (later Illinois) Institute of Technology in 1938.)

As Bergdoll and Dickerman note in the preface to their superb exhibition catalog, that shamelessly Gropiocentric show “gave short shrift to the school’s first years and completely excised the period after Gropius’s departure” as Bauhaus director in 1928. Unlike the recent Berlin exhibition, which included both precursors of and heirs to the school’s legacy, “Bauhaus 1919–1933” concentrated on the fourteen years of the school’s existence.

The corrective, indeed penitent, nature of this latest MoMA recapitulation was made manifest in its first gallery, an almost chapel-like setting dedicated to the Expressionist output of the Bauhaus in the years immediately following its founding. This introductory space offered an eye-opening experience for those familiar only with the cliché of the Bauhaus as a soulless assembly line of mechanistic design.

The spiritual origins and transcendental aspirations of the Bauhaus were a direct outgrowth of the universal craving for regeneration that arose after the Great War, an apocalypse of unmitigated horror. The opening gallery contained several artifacts of surpassing weirdness, none more bizarre than Lothar Schreyer’s Death House for a Woman (circa 1920), a life-sized, vividly colored tempera of a stylized female figure intended for a coffin lid, here laid out horizontally like a medieval tomb relief. It was easy to see why Kandinsky, no stranger to the outlandish, termed this unsettling image “the strangest work that I have seen in years.”
Another arresting oddity displayed nearby was Untitled (Pillar with Cosmic Visions) (1919–1920), a wooden sculpture carved by Theobald Emil Müller-Hummel from a World War I fighter plane propeller. Closely resembling an oceanic tribal totem, this objet trouvé—taken from an engine of mass destruction and metamorphosed into a talisman of social transformation—movingly summarizes the Expressionist search for spiritual treasure amid the wreckage of industrialized warfare.

The primal image of the Bauhaus, which appeared on the front of Gropius’s four-page prospectus of 1919—commonly called the Bauhaus Manifesto—was Lyonel Feininger’s angular black-and-white woodcut of a crystalline church, its three spires topped not with crosses but with five-pointed stars radiating beams of light in all directions. This imaginary structure, as much lighthouse as sanctuary, was intended to evoke not specifically religious sentiments, but rather the uplifting and unifying spirit of the great cathedral-building enterprises of the Middle Ages, which lasted decades, sometimes centuries, and brought a town’s entire citizenry, of all ranks and occupations, together in one high communal cause. Hopes for an analogous modern community were a crucial part of the early Bauhaus ethos.

Emblematic of the Weimar school’s Expressionist phase is the “African” (or “Romantic”) chair of 1921, a much- published but only recently rediscovered collaboration between Marcel Breuer, who was both an architect and a furniture designer, and the weaver Gunta Stölzl. Breuer and Stölzl’s vigorously neoprimitive scheme—a framework of carved wood painted in striped earth tones and upholstered with boldly patterned brocade—rises to a pointed arch behind the head of the sitter. It brings to mind a Benin royal throne, even though such high-backed forms are uncharacteristic of sub- Saharan ritual furniture.

This imposingly hieratic piece appears all the more surprising when one considers that Breuer is best known for that ubiquitous standard of twentieth-century seating, the Cesca chair of 1928, with its continuous S-curve of bent metal tubing and contrasting seat and back of natural-colored caning. There could be no more telling embodiment of the fundamental stylistic transformation of the Bauhaus than Breuer and Stölzl’s wildly irrational African chair set alongside his coolly industrial Cecsa model.

Stölzl, the sole woman to be named master of a Bauhaus workshop but today far less well remembered than her younger weaving colleague Anni Albers, is the subject of a welcome new monograph issued by MoMA. Stölzl and Albers also figure prominently in Ulrike Müller’s recently published Bauhaus Women, which addresses the constraints imposed on the school’s supposedly liberated female faculty and students. The Bauhaus at first was intended to be gender-blind. But Gropius became alarmed by what he saw as the disproportionate number of women in a student body that never numbered more than 150 matriculants at any given moment, which prompted him to steer women away from the supposedly “masculine” architecture curriculum and toward the traditionally “feminine” crafts workshops.

Personal relationships of all degrees of intimacy blossomed in the hothouse atmosphere of a school that self-consciously stood apart from its provincial and conservative social surroundings in both Weimar and Dessau. Anni Albers (née Annelise Fleischmann) and her decade-older husband, Josef—a student-turned- instructor who was associated with the Bauhaus longer than any of his contemporaries—met and married while at the school. They are among the artists described in the arts biographer Nicholas Fox Weber’s engrossing collection The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, which also includes Gropius, Kandinsky, Klee, and Mies, the most celebrated half-dozen among the school’s galaxy of luminaries.

2.

What made the Bauhaus such a truly revolutionary undertaking was not so much its departure from prevailing aesthetic norms—specifically its rejection of historical styles—but rather its systematic recasting of the way in which the fine and applied arts were taught. During the nineteenth century, the rapid emergence and proliferation of new manufacturing methods and building technologies led to the establishment of polytechnic schools that concentrated on the practicalities of engineering and construction rather than the niceties of stylistic correctness or adherence to established precedent. In the decades just before the Bauhaus was founded, there were a few piecemeal attempts to reform some of the German and Austrian crafts schools established during the age of industrialization.1 Typical of these breakaway groups was the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshop), founded in 1903, which emphasized the fabrication of decorative objects to be sold through its own retail outlets.

  1. 1

    See John V. Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus: Architecture, Politics, and the German State, 1890–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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