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The Powerhouse of the New

The Bauhaus’s immediate precursor was the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts, established in Weimar by the state of Thuringia in 1905 under the direction of the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde. During World War I he had to resign as an enemy alien, but recommended as his successor Walter Gropius, who insisted on sweeping changes when he took over in 1919 and effectively created a new institution. The hallmark innovation of the Bauhaus was the Vorkurs (preliminary course), a required introductory class that provided intensive back-to-basics immersion in the fundamentals of color theory and composition, with an emphasis on the arrangement of tonalities to achieve specific optical effects, and on recombinations of pure geometric form as the elemental building blocks of design.

The Vorkurs was conceived and initially taught by Johannes Itten, the extravagantly eccentric, mystically inclined Swiss Expressionist painter whom Gropius hired as “form master” for the school’s metalwork, sculpture, wall-painting, weaving, and woodworking workshops. An oddball even for a radical art school, Itten sported medieval-style robes and sandals, shaved his head, and consumed copious quantities of garlic. That dietary habit was a precept of Mazdaznan, the esoteric philosophy Itten followed, a hodgepodge of Zoroastrian, Theosophical, and Christian beliefs, part New Age religion, part yogic health regimen.

Itten, by any measure a luftmensch, was the id to the superego of Gropius, whose skills as an administrator and persona of high-bourgeois propriety were the polar opposites of his otherworldly subordinate’s meditative nature and bohemian affectations. Together this ill-assorted couple expressed both sides of the Bauhaus’s bifurcated nature, at once utopian and pragmatic, intuitive and scientific, highly ordered and subversively anarchic.

Encapsulating that duality is Itten’s 1921 lithograph Color Sphere in 7 Light Values and 12 Tones (see illustration on page 24). The Bauhäusler (as the school’s faculty and students were called) adored charts and diagrams of all sorts, and Itten’s construct suggests both a Buddhist mandala and the Periodic Table of Elements. The upper three quarters of Color Sphere are dominated by a twelve-pointed, multicolored star inscribed within seven concentric circles, flattened like an orthographic projection of the globe; if cut out and assembled, the conjoined segments would form a sphere. The bottommost portion of this two-part composition is devoted to a grid of rectangles arranged in the color order of the light spectrum, from red at one end to violet at the other.

Several Bauhaus artists produced works based on grid themes that clearly originated with concepts embodied in this visual aid, including Josef Albers’s colored glass, metal-framed “lattice pictures” and Klee’s mosaic-like paintings. That congruence seems especially noteworthy since both men went on to teach the Vorkurs after Itten left the school in 1923 in protest over Gropius’s new determination to focus on the production of commercial prototypes rather than purely theoretical design.

Gropius had a knack for spotting talents superior to his own, and was a veritable weathervane of shifting trends. He abandoned the machine aesthetic of his and Adolf Meyer’s critically acclaimed demonstration factory and office building at the 1914 Deutscher Werkbund exhibition in Cologne to take up Expressionism when that became the dernier cri in the shell-shocked aftermath of the Great War. The Bauhaus was but three years old when Gropius sensed that Expressionism was in turn becoming démodé, and he was ready to change direction once again.

In 1922, Wassily Kandinsky arrived from Moscow at the Bauhaus, where a year later he was joined by Moholy-Nagy. Together they exerted such a tremendous impact on the Bauhaus that the recent coincidence of exhibitions on their work seemed particularly apt. No Bauhäusler has been more underestimated than Moholy, who, although hardly forgotten in art circles, has never received the wide recognition enjoyed by many of his lesser contemporaries. Today he is best remembered for his experimental photographs of the 1920s, subject of a much-needed and impeccably realized catalogue raisonné, Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms.

Since the inception of photography, artists had been attempting to use this archetypically modern medium to achieve effects that would validate it as the equal of painting, a quest epitomized by Edward Steichen’s heavily handworked Imagist landscape photos of the early 1900s. Conversely, Moholy rejected prevalent pictorial conventions in photography and began to use the as yet underexploited mechanical po- tential of the medium to “paint” abstractions directly on film, instead of trying to capture nature through a lens at a distance. In doing so he extended the nineteenth-century practice of photographing objects on flat surfaces, as William Henry Fox Talbot did with pieces of lace and Anna Atkins with botanical specimens, a cameraless method in which objects were placed on light-sensitive paper and exposed in silhouette.

Moholy’s innovative efforts, which he called photograms (a term he did not invent but gave currency to), were often printed in the white-on-black tones of a negative and thus evinced the ghostly aura and scientific exactitude of the X-ray, which had been perfected by the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 with his famous skeletal study of his wife’s hand. Along with a great many silhouetted everyday objects, both instantly recognizable and puzzlingly abstract, human hands figure in several of Moholy’s photograms. But rather than summoning up medical associations they strike an atavistic note not unlike handprints in prehistoric cave paintings.

Expressive manipulation of photo- graphic imagery—including the com- posite pictures called photomontages—entered a brave new world thanks to Moholy, who was also a provocateur in other mediums. A highpoint of “Bauhaus 1919–1933” was Moholy’s dazzling kinetic sculpture Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930), a perforated metal rotating device of ambiguous, almost Duchampian, symbolism, which the artist photographed in countless sequential variations. The kaleidoscopic array of illuminations and shadows that Light Prop splashed onto every surface of the gallery in which it was installed at MoMA demonstrated how Moholy extended the potential of sculpture in ways no less audacious than those he deployed in his deeply penetrating photograms.

3.

The Bauhaus was preternaturally modern in its grasp of the power of publicity, both visual and textual. Mies van der Rohe, last of the school’s three directors, took a competitive jab at the first when he asserted that “the best thing Gropius has done was to invent the name Bauhaus.” Mies was right about the extraordinary resonance of that inspired coinage, which conjoined the monosyllabic root of the German verb bauen (“to build”) with the noun Haus, homophone of cognates in both English and Dutch, which gave the neologism a snappy assonance as well as intimations of universality. It also harked back to Bauhütte (“building hut”), the mason’s lodge from which the raising of medieval cathedrals was supervised.

The very word “Bauhaus” became a red flag to the National Socialists, and within months of Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933 compliant local authorities shut the school as a suspected hotbed of Kulturbolschewismus (“cultural Bolshevism”). Mies, an expert of realpolitik, went as a supplicant to Alfred Rosenberg, the noxious Nazi ideologue, and begged that the Bauhaus be reopened. Rosenberg remonstrated, “Why didn’t you change the name, for heaven’s sake?”

The second-best thing Gropius did was to design the Bauhaus building of 1925–1926 in Dessau. Although not quite a great work of architecture, it nonetheless was a first-rate advertising tool. Following the lead of Le Corbusier’s Purist designs of the early 1920s, Gropius reverted to his former industrial aesthetic and gave the Bauhaus headquarters a sleek, stripped-for-action look that melded the efficiency of a factory with the cleanliness of a laboratory, neither quality associated with traditional art schools. Gropius’s scheme flaunted two bravura effects—the diaphanous glass curtain wall of the workshop block and the two-story, ribbon-windowed bridge that spanned a roadway to link two wings—but the design was nowhere nearly as striking as Corbusier’s alchemies of volume and space.

This pair of gestures aside, Gropius’s Dessau building seemed to anticipate the no-nonsense sobriety that would infuse the Bauhaus under his successor, the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, whom Gropius engaged to head the school’s architecture program in 1927, and who assumed the top job a year later. A committed Communist with close ties to architects in the Soviet Union—where the exuberant experimentation of the early Russian Constructivists was waning, soon to be superseded by the Classicizing conformity of ascendant Stalinist neoconservatives—Meyer faced growing opposition from the increasingly right-wing government of Dessau, which funded the Bauhaus, and he was forced to resign in 1930.

It is important to remember that it was only under Meyer’s two-year directorship that an extreme utilitarian functionalism—a concept he took from 1920s Soviet housing and planning—prevailed at the Bauhaus, a brief, joyless interlude that has incorrectly loomed larger in historical hindsight. The complex relationship between the institution’s first and second directors is the subject of “The Successor’s Disinheritance: The Conflict Between Hannes Meyer and Walter Gropius,” a revealing essay by the art historian Magdalena Droste in Bauhaus Conflicts, 1919–2009: Controversies and Counterparts, a fascinating anthology assembled by the Bauhaus Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art.

The Guggenheim’s Kandinsky retrospective overlapped with MoMA’s Bauhaus exhibition for nine weeks, a happy conjunction that allowed the New York public to see in great depth the work of a master who exerted a powerful influence on his fellow Bauhäusler, and who in turn absorbed the equally potent influence of other giants among them, most notably Klee. The Kandinsky survey offered the additional thrill of experiencing Frank Lloyd Wright’s last masterpiece abrim with precisely the kind of art for which this institution—originally named the Museum of Non-Objective Painting—was created. As one stood at the low parapet that edges the museum’s helical ramp and looked across Wright’s monumental rotunda, the pulsating colors and hyperactive forms of Kandinsky’s canvases seemed to ricochet across a void that has never seemed more alive.

The Guggenheim possesses one of the three greatest Kandinsky collections, rivaled only by those of the Lenbachhaus and the Pompidou Center. Possessing around 250 Kandinskys, the Guggenheim could have readily mounted a full-scale retrospective without borrowing a single item. One loan, from the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland, was unusually poignant: Kandinsky’s lyrical oil-on-canvas abstraction Fugue (1914), back in New York nineteen years after the Guggenheim sold it for $20.9 million, to help pay for its acquisition of the Panza di Biumo collection of Minimalist and Conceptual art, a trade-off that provoked howls of protest.

Kandinsky is often deemed the father of abstraction—art that is nonrepresentational and evokes a mood or state of mind rather than actual objects. This transformation was announced by his Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor) of 1910, owned by the Pompidou Center but not included in the New York exhibition. This pivotal watercolor—a buoyant overall pattern of multicolored splotches and calligraphic squiggles—was made three years after Picasso’s seminal Demoiselles d’Avignon. The basic difference between these respective breakthroughs was that Picasso’s work remained essentially representational no matter how stylized or distorted his means of depiction, whereas Kandinsky never returned to the overt folkloric subjects and landscapes that he had once favored—his alpine views, cavorting peasants, and riders on horseback deliquesced into the electrifying ether of his mature paintings (although the art historian Rose-Carol Washton Long has pointed out Kandinsky’s “veiling” of thematic subject matter that may seem abstract on the surface2).

The Guggenheim made a strong case for Kandinsky’s later work, which has not been as generally admired as the art he produced during the first half of his career. Around the time he began teaching in Weimar, his paintings became more geometrically precise and formally calculated in ways that often seem at odds with the breathtaking fluency of his early abstractions, a tightened organizational tendency that only increased during his Bauhaus years.

Several Kandinskys in the New York shows indicate the magnetic pull of Klee on Kandinsky, especially several works on paper in which the latter incorporated mosaic-like checkerboard patterns often employed in Klee’s work. Kandinsky’s 1929 oil-on-masonite Levels (Etagen) (in the Guggenheim collection) is likewise reminiscent of Klee in its juxtaposition of a white rectilinear armature that suggests the splayed arms of a high-tension power pole, interspersed with playful geometric pictograms against a solid Prussian-blue background.

One of the most insightful considerations of Kandinsky was presented by the art historian John Golding in a 1997 lecture, “Kandinsky and the Sound of Colour,” later collected in his magisterial Paths to the Absolute. As Golding writes:

Kandinsky had originally sensed the potential of a purely abstract art through his belief in the “musicalization” of painting, although he had insisted from the start that he had no desire to paint musical pictures. He had soon come to feel that the achievements of painting could surpass those of music…. In doing so he was bringing to fruition a long line of enquiry going back more than a century. 3

This conviction echoed the obsession of early Modernists in all fields who sought to break down the barriers between mediums through synesthesia—“hearing” color or “seeing” sound—in order to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. That endeavor was at the very heart of the Bauhaus project, which attempted to integrate the entire spectrum of arts into one life-enhancing whole.

It is generally held that Modernism celebrates fragmentation and opposes the continuity implicit in the Classical tradition. But despite their frequent antics—the costume parties, the cabaret evenings, the Charleston contests, the jazz sessions, the kite festivals—the Bauhaus’s youthful adherents were anything but lords (and ladies) of misrule. During the politically precarious but creatively fertile years of the Weimar Republic, the Bauhäusler gathered under one roof to learn, practice, and teach arts as ancient as weaving and as novel as photography, with utter seriousness and optimistic conviction. By viewing all mediums with fresh eyes, they made the old new again, and the new timeless as never before, proven by the myriad works that can still astound us after almost a century since the Bauhaus set the arts in perpetual motion.

  1. 2

    See Rose-Carol Washton Long, “Kandinsky’s Abstract Style: The Veiling of Apocalyptic Folk Imagery,” Art Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Spring 1975). See also her Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1980).

  2. 3

    Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 111.

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