Exhibitions and books discussed in this article
Museum of Modern Art, 344 pp., $75.00
Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model
Hatje Cantz, 373 pp., $60.00
Art to Hear: Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model
Catalog of the exhibition by Vivian Endicott Barnett, Tracey Bashkoff, Christian Derouet, and others.
Guggenheim Museum, 319 pp., $55.00; $45.00 (paper)
Prestel, 192 pp., $65.00
Moholy: An Education of the Senses
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:…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.