From the start, the Bauhaus story is one of survival. Its visionary beginnings in Weimar a hundred years ago were soon followed by a forced retreat to the industrial city of Dessau in 1925, then by a short life in Berlin before closing down under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. After a mere fourteen years, this tiny art school with minimal funding, facing the political headwinds of Hitler’s Germany, was determined to live on. And so it did, and so it does—to the extent that it is impossible to imagine modern design without its widespread and enduring influence.
Many students and faculty of the Bauhaus emigrated to America and continued to practice and teach, while some of those who stayed behind eventually formed its later incarnation in Ulm, Germany, in the 1950s. The Bauhaus lived on in another way as well—as a historic collection. The Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard became one of its safe havens, and today it houses the largest collection of Bauhaus-related material outside of Germany. On the centennial of the art school’s founding, exhibitions have been or will be held at museums in Frankfurt, Berlin, São Paulo, and other cities across the globe. Now, Harvard joins the tribute with an exhibition culled from some thirty-two thousand objects, most of which are not regularly on view.
The Busch collection is the result of a lucky coincidence. In 1937, the founding Bauhaus director, Walter Gropius, arrived at Harvard to lead the university’s Graduate School of Design—around the same time that the Busch-Reisinger began looking to augment its collection of original art. After the war, the museum’s forward-looking director, Charles Kuhn, devised a plan with Gropius to gather and preserve materials from the Bauhaus before they were irredeemably scattered or lost. Gropius’s extensive contacts with former students and colleagues who had resettled in the United States made this a promising project. They made a list, and on that foundation a collection grew.
From the variety of these acquisitions, the curator Laura Muir has unpacked two hundred objects by seventy-four artists for “The Bauhaus and Harvard,” an exhibition that has several tales to tell. Appropriately enough for a teaching museum, the show opens with the school’s pedagogical legacy. A selection of student work from the Vorkurs, or foundation course (in form and color theory, the nature of materials, and economy of means), illustrates the core values of Bauhaus design in the various teachings of Johannes Itten, Vasily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and László Moholy-Nagy.
Special focus is also given to one of the apprentice workshops that followed the foundation year—the weavers’ studio. At the Bauhaus, weaving was the only advanced course open to women, who for some time worked with minimal formal instruction besides a special course taught by Paul Klee. It makes sense that Klee was fascinated by the warp and weft principles of the weaver’s art in light of his extensive studies of the interaction of color in a grid. An engaging teacher, Klee’s influence on the weavers seems to have been as great as theirs on him. Gunta Stölzl’s giant free-form woven tapestry clearly reveals her debt to Klee, while Anni Albers synthesized his use of layered transparent color into her own signature style. As this show amply demonstrates in the work of Anni Albers and others, a key to the success of the school’s best-known artists was their ability to move fluently between the fine and commercial arts, the handcrafted and the machine-made, and between two and three dimensions.
Among the prized possessions of the Busch-Reisinger is Moholy-Nagy’s iconic Light Prop for an Electric Stage, which is shown here in the context of its debut at the Paris exhibition of the Society of Decorative Arts in 1930. A few years later the Light Prop arrived on these shores in 1937 to be safely stored away in Chicago, where Moholy-Nagy directed the New Bauhaus (which became the iit Institute of Design). Not long after Moholy-Nagy died in 1946, his widow, Sibyl, donated the Light Prop, with its rusted parts and missing pieces, to the Busch. It was not until the 1960s that the considerable effort was made to restore it, inspired by the revival of interest in kinetic art and light art, a future that Moholy-Nagy had predicted many years before.
Another aspect of Bauhaus endurance, and the most particular to Harvard, was Gropius’s presence at the Graduate School of Design, where he continued to teach rigorous design philosophy and founded his own firm in Cambridge, The Architects Collaborative. In 1950, tac designed the first modernist building on the Harvard campus, Harkness Commons—a graduate student center for which they commissioned the Bauhaus artists Josef Albers, Anni Albers, and Herbert Bayer, along with Hans Arp and Joan Miró, to produce site-specific art work. In subsequent renovations of the building (which now belongs to the Harvard Law School), most of these works suffered damage or were removed, replaced, or covered up. It is among the revelations of this show to allow us to understand the architects’ original intentions. Herbert Bayer’s recently restored twenty-foot-long painting, Verdure (1950), which once spanned a wall in the Harkness Commons dining room, is the centerpiece of the exhibition.
In his time, Gropius’s influence on the local community was subtle but profound, as the Bauhaus aesthetic quietly infiltrated the kitchens and living rooms of Cambridge homes large and small, old and new—houses which some years later gave way to extreme makeovers and postmodern excess. That Bayer’s Verdure looks so fresh today, while just a few years ago it might have looked dusty and dated, speaks to the current revival of enthusiasm for mid-century modern design, with its bright palette and supple lines. The Bauhaus at one hundred has lessons for both the aging downsizers and their children—a younger generation of urban dwellers through whom its ethic of restraint, simplicity, truth to materials, and economy of means might be offered a whole new life.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 9, on page 41
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