Josef Albers, Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow (c. 1929) © 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York    

 

The Bauhaus lasted exactly as long as Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and is its principal cultural achievement. But the revolutionary school of art and design is also an achievement of modernism itself, for it answered a most vexing question: Was it possible to make a viable institution out of a movement that had arisen out of conflict with institutional authority, and which drew its focus, vitality, and sense of purpose from that conflict? Merely to demolish one bastion of academic authority, such as the imperious École des Beaux Arts, and to replace it with another would hardly have been worth the struggle.

One forgets that modernism before the Bauhaus was a volatile, many-sided, centrifugal affair and that there was little reason to believe that its various factions and groupings—whether Cubist, Futurist, or Constructivist—could ever make common cause. At times, their insistence on stylistic orthodoxy could rival that of the École (one thinks of El Lissitzky and Malevich purging Chagall from the Vitebsk School of Art). Yet the Bauhaus, by enforcing no aesthetic conformity and by promulgating no official style, proved to all that a modernist institution need not repeat the failings of its academic predecessors. Such an omnivorous and receptive stance was perhaps only possible in Germany, which, historically, had been accustomed to draw on the lessons of France, Italy, and elsewhere and to mix the results freely.

Whatever the reasons, the Bauhaus demonstrated that modernism could function as a collective enterprise in an institutional setting, and still give the student the widest scope for individual expression. It is this extraordinary achievement that has created the mythic Bauhaus of the imagination, a shrine where artists toiled away in happy accord, savoring the idyllic fellowship of the guild—much as the eighteenth century had imagined Periclean Athens, or the nineteenth the great cathedral-building lodges of the Middles Ages.

Of course it was nothing of the sort. During its brief existence, the Bauhaus was in a state of ceaseless, tumultuous change. It had three homes—Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin—and three directors, each of whom experimented restlessly with the curriculum as faculty came and went. Over time, its ethos shifted dramatically from a singular blend of Expressionist sentiment and Arts and Crafts practice to an emphasis on machine production and standardization. As the school matured, it quickly grew in self-confidence and sense of institutional mission, especially among the faculty, which took on a double-distilled intensity when former students such as Marcel Breuer, Joseph Albers, and Herbert Bayer were added to the roster. Now came the most sweeping and radical proposals, as the Bauhaus raised its sights from the transformation of the young art student to the comprehensive transformation of the world itself, from its cities and houses to the typography of books and advertisements. For the historian, then, the Bauhaus is a moving target, and there is no point in its fourteen-year life when it existed in anything like a definitive form.

This is one of the insights of “Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity,” the spellbinding exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art.[1] Although it topples a good many cherished myths, and does so with patent glee, it cannot properly be called revisionist for there has never been a lucid and comprehensive presentation of the Bauhaus to revise. Every previous exhibition, including with MOMA’s own path-breaking 1938 show, has been able to present only a selected aspect, the inevitable consequence of the dispersal of the Bauhaus collections following Hitler’s rise to power, world war, and the subsequent division between East and West Germany.

Last summer, these collections were reunited in an important installation at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus (and the twentieth of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which made the exhibition possible). But even this mammoth show, with over one thousand choice objects, offered a skewed picture, for it lacked the all-important paintings that, for the most part, had made their way out of Germany just ahead of Hitler’s grasp. The lion’s share is at MOMA, which did not permit them to travel. As a result, the current show, though smaller than that in Berlin (about 420 objects), enjoys the odd distinction of being both a boldly revisionist look at the Bauhaus as well as its first truly comprehensive presentation.

“Bauhaus 1919–1933” is dominated by its superb trove of paintings, which do much to correct the popular misunderstanding that the Bauhaus was a school of architecture. The mistake is pardonable: its first and third directors were Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, two of the most influential modern architects. But architecture did not become a formal part of the curriculum until 1927, quite late in the game. The bulk of teaching at the Bauhaus was done by its painters—and painters of the first water, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.

The Bauhaus did not use its painters in the customary manner, i.e., to teach in painting studios. Bauhaus pedagogy was centered on the workshop where students were instructed in specific crafts, such as ceramics, weaving, or furniture making, by an artisan (Handwerkmeister) who taught materials and technique and an artist (Formmeister) who taught design. Emphasis was placed on hands-on learning, along the lines laid out a century earlier by the German educator Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of the Kindergarten who also created its famous “gifts,” a sequence of increasingly complex blocks that acquainted children with tools for perceiving the world, and in which intellectual and tactile learning were simultaneous and inseparable. Transferred to adult students, the principle was the same, with the idea that the abstract lessons learned in one craft might be transferred readily to another, abolishing traditional divisions between artistic media. The assignments that the Bauhaus thrust upon its painters still beggar belief—Klee taught bookbinding and Albers cabinetry; only in the Italian Renaissance, with its belief in disegno, do we find anything like this will to overthrow the guild-enforced walls that divide artistic media and segregate fine art from the applied arts.

One of the most distressing aspects of modern museology is the tendency to treat exhibitions as books on walls (and verbose ones at that). But the curators here are pleasingly laconic with their labels. The objects are generally permitted to speak for themselves, or more precisely, among themselves, for there is an uncanny degree of felicitous juxtaposition. The exhibition moves through the Bauhaus’s three homes, Weimar (1919–1925), Dessau (1925–1932), and Berlin (1932–1933), each of which had its own distinctive visual sensibility so that the architectural projects of 1920, for example, share a much more palpable sense of kinship with the furniture and painting of the era than they do with the architecture five years later. This gives the show a fine sense of propulsion, an elusive quality in exhibition design.

Although founded by Gropius, the Bauhaus was shaped in its formative years by Johannes Itten, a painter of mystic propensities who shaved his head and regularly began his classes by directing his students in yoga exercises. Itten’s curriculum not only eliminated such academic conventions as drawing from antique casts but even life drawing (presumably this veered perilously close to the history of art, Michelangelo and Phidias lurking somewhere behind). In place of the other disciplines, he established the revolutionary Vorkurs, the preliminary course in which color, line, and form were taught in the abstract and without any reference to existing art, or to anything else for that matter. This remains a staple of art education throughout the world and is easily the Bauhaus’s most enduring innovation.

The opening room of the exhibition captures the Bauhaus in its Expressionist infancy and is pervaded by Itten’s inspirational personality. Painted a subdued gold (its colors are derived, like all of the rooms here, from the masters’ houses at the Bauhaus compound in Dessau), it has the chromatic splendor one normally associates with Byzantine art. Its objects are bewilderingly eclectic: a student project by Breuer for a so-called “African chair” (1921) upholstered in an luxuriant brocade of gold, silk, and hemp; a design for a coffin lid painting with a stylized figure of a woman, composed entirely of blue and gold circles; a wooden airplane propeller, carved into a cubist sculpture of facets and curves and looking bafflingly like an early study for the Chrysler Building. Any one of them could have been placed on a pedestal, turned face-front, and made to serve as an icon. Even an architectural drawing of a proposed Bauhaus compound (1920) is rendered as a luridly colored tribal shield, its buildings positioned so as to suggest an abstract eagle. In this room one confronts a little-known incarnation of the Bauhaus, that of a shattered civilization with an acute hunger for spiritual solace, and seeking it in effigies, idols, and hieratic totems.

Four years later, not a speck of this remained. By 1923, Expressionist experimentation was jettisoned in favor of geometric rigor as László Moholy-Nagy joined the faculty, bringing a predilection for the strenuous geometry of Constructivism. At the same moment, Gropius directed the Bauhaus to begin manufacturing products for sale to the public—a necessity for an institution entirely dependent on government subventions, but one that inevitably sacrificed the school’s experimental orientation to commercial considerations. Itten resigned in disgust. Here the familiar Bauhaus comes into focus, with its program of subjecting every aspect of modern life to sober and rational analysis, from chairs and table lamps to book design and even typography, wherein letter forms were characteristically generated by a controlling grid (serifs were a vestige of handwriting and deemed too Expressionist). Currency itself was made rational and purged of its iconography and cartouches: one of the most revealing objects in the show is a sober one-hundred-million mark bill, designed by Bayer and issued during the hyperinflation of 1923.

Even this Bauhaus did not stand still: its final years were different yet again, as Mies took over the directorship in 1930. For the first time, the school had examinations and a formalized six-semester curriculum. It was under his perfectionist administration that the most terrifying images in the entire exhibition were made, although they are so quiet and innocuous and bland as to be overlooked at first. These are the projects by Ludwig Hilberseimer and his students for an infinitely “extendable house,” in which a modular housing unit was replicated until it spread out to the edges of the horizon, in an inflexible and pitiless grid. Here is the source of much of the utopian urban planning that, carried by Bauhaus refugees, came to remake America’s cities after the war. But the same Cartesian coordinates that are so stimulating when applied to textiles or chess sets take on a rather different aspect when the grid grows larger than the individual, who shrinks into a speck.

Bauhaus left its mark on German cities as well, and not only after the war. The breathtaking absolutism of Hilberseimer’s proposals was not irreconcilable with National Socialism, and a good many Bauhaus pupils made their way into Nazi service. One of the surprises of the exhibition (to me at least) is that the familiar story that the Nazis closed the Bauhaus is not entirely true. As it happened, the Gestapo actually authorized its continuation, just so long as certain conditions were met (in particular, no more Kandinsky). In the end, it was economic hardship rather than outright prohibition that closed the Bauhaus.

Like one of those Sicilian wines that one is able to drink only in Sicily, the Bauhaus could not travel. Its dispersed faculty took leading positions at such American schools as Harvard (Gropius), Yale (Albers), and the Illinois Institute of Technology (Mies van der Rohe), and continue to enjoy unparalleled prestige there. In short order, much of American architectural and artistic education was reorganized along Bauhaus lines. Even the publications that acquainted Americans with the Bauhaus implicitly instructed them in its rhythms and visual imperatives. (Bayer designed both the 1938 MOMA exhibition and its catalogue as well as Siegfried Giedion’s widely influential Space, Time and Architecture of 1941.)

While its refugees instituted as much of what they could of Bauhaus methodology and practice, they were unable to recreate it as it was. For one thing, the humor did not survive the Atlantic crossing, nor did the palpable joy in handcraftsmanship. The sheer tactile delight in the technical mastery of a trade remains a staple of the cultural life of Germany, where one still sees journeymen on their Wanderjahren, wearing their traditional bellbottoms and earrings. It is, however, not a conspicuous element in American culture or industry. Moreover, American students are more professionally oriented and expected to be prepared for a specific career, such as architecture or painting.

And so it came to pass that the Bauhaus, which through its life had been a fluid and changing thing, hardened first into a style and then into a symbol. Of course, this has always been broadly characteristic in the American reception of European artistic impulses, which are typically detached from the cultural conditions that produced them and arrive merely as fashionable visual systems. Neither American Impressionism nor American modernism in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show had any connection to the powerful social and political currents that originally brought them forth.

But perhaps more importantly, the Bauhaus came in America at a quite different cultural moment than in Germany. It had originally emerged at a time of cultural release, in the euphoria following the First World War, and it flourished in the widening scope of life that opened up during the course of the 1920s. It settled in America after 1933 at a rather opposite time, marked by economic crisis and cultural uncertainty. Rather than a footloose laboratory of possibilities in a modern world, it came instead as an urgent remedy to a patient in dire need. Hence its aura of intent purposefulness, and somewhat parched and humorless quality. (According to the late historian William Jordy, the only American trace of the anarchic and open-ended Bauhaus in its early years may have been that product of Albers’s short-lived Black Mountain College, the freewheeling Robert Rauschenberg.)

Such are the thoughts raised by this lovely and unusually provocative exhibition. Of special note is the handsome catalogue, with essays by the curators Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, that performs heroically in conveying the show’s visual sumptuousness. It is rounded out by thirty-one catalogue entries, all consistently fresh and rewarding (without the duds that frequently sneak their way into these group projects). The last of the entries is of special value, a semester-by-semester chronicle of the Bauhaus throughout its existence, recording every change in faculty, curriculum, and administration, giving the number of female and male students enrolled for each semester (fifty-eight and one hundred forty-three, respectively, at the time of the 1929 Crash), and relating these changes to events in Germany and the wider world.

The exhibition is a well-deserved triumph for Bergdoll, who, in 2006, was appointed MOMA’s chief curator of architecture and design. Although a gifted historian of architecture (his monograph on Karl Friedrich Schinkel is the best work on its subject), Bergdoll has a conspicuous gift for the imaginative display of objects, without the historian’s weakness for using them as il- lusrations in a history lecture. All this is abundantly in evidence in “Bauhaus: 1919–1933.”

At the same time, the exhibition is a landmark for MOMA itself, which was founded in 1929 at least in part on the cooperative model of the Bauhaus. Over the decades MOMA’s various departments have tended to retreat into their institutional fastnesses, preferring exhibitions of a monographic nature and working within those categories of genre that the Bauhaus had once sought to abolish. But with its broadly synthetic approach and high degree of interdepartmental collaboration, “Bauhaus 1919–1933” reverts to the institution’s original cooperative model. It is an unusual example of an exhibition that works at two levels: the physical contents of the show demonstrate the extraordinary aesthetic achievement of the Bauhaus and the cooperative enterprise that went into making the show is a living example of Bauhaus principles in action. One should plan two visits, spaced somewhat apart, to do justice to this exceptionally gratifying offering.

 

Notes
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  1. “Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, opened on November 8, 2009 and remains on view through January 25, 2010. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 4 , on page 4
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