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.
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.
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.
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.
June 24, 2010
See John V. Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus: Architecture, Politics, and the German State, 1890–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2005). ↩
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). ↩
Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 111. ↩