Herbert Bayer, Design for a cinema. 1924-25, Gouache, cut-and-pasted photomechanical and print elements, ink, and pencil on paper. 18 x 24”, Harvard Art Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum. Gift of the artist, Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College, © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Walter Gropius, Törten housing estate, Dessau. 1926-28, Row houses, isometric. 1926-28, Ink, spatter paint, and gouache, on paperboard. 34 15/16 x 42 1/4”, Harvard Art Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum. Gift of Walter Gropius, Photo: Katya Kallsen © President and Fellows of Harvard College, © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Marcel Breuer, Wassily Chair, 1927 28, 28-1/4 x 30-3/4 x 28", The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Herbert Bayer.
Paul Klee, Fire in the Evening, 1929, 13-3/8 x 13-1/4", The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Joachim Jean Aberbach Fund, © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Eberhard Schrammen, Maskottchen (Mascot). c. 1924, Oak and miscellaneous exotic woods, turned, coated in places with colored and gold lacquer, Height: 14-9/16”, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Photo: Gunter Lepkowski, © Estate Eberhard Schrammen.
Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932, 63-7/8 x 45", The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson.
Anni Albers, Wall hanging. 1926, Silk (three-ply weave). 70-3/8 x 46-3/8", Harvard Art Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum. Association Fund, Photo: Katya Kallsen © President and Fellows of Harvard College, © 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
The Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Gallery, sixth floor
Workshops for Modernity
November 8, 2009-
January 25, 2010
By STEVE SHAPIRO
The first half of the 21st century has a lot of catching up to do with. Judging by the accomplishments and the creative breakthroughs of the first 50 years of the last century, that triumph of modernism in the arts and technology, this century — even this past decade — seems already behind. The iPhone versus Cubism? High Definition large-screen TV versus the movie camera? Perhaps 3-D cinema will be redefined as the Cubism of the 21st century; but James Cameron does not strike me as a larger-than-life character like Picasso. Great art usually comes by way of great — rebellious, curious, unself-conscious — artists. The early 20th-century teemed with such individuals, from Picasso and Braque in their studio laboratories a few neighborhoods apart in Paris to the formal movements of the Constructivists in Russia, the Futurists in Italy, and the Surrealists everywhere they could make trouble. Art, especially up through the Second World War, was — and still is — revolutionary in ways we have yet to fully absorb.
If most of these extraordinary assemblies, both small and large, dissipated on their own (like Cubism as Picasso moved onto other things) or were shut down by outside forces (Constructivism melted away in the wake of Stalin’s declaration that social realism would henceforth be the new art form), their influences have steadfastly remained. Today’s artists, architects, designers, photographers and filmmakers have the luxury of picking and choosing from the hard-fought ideas of the past century. “Style,” as Robert Hughes presciently wrote 25 years ago, “has become styling.”
Yet to simply say that Mies van der Rohe’s concrete and glass constructions or Josef Albers’s abstract geometric designs are the equivalent of, say, Coco Chanel’s little black dress would be to collapse multifarious ideas of style into fashion as seen in the pages of mid-century Vogue. The paintings, sculptures, films, textiles, buildings — in truth, the theories — summoned up from personal agendas across disparate cultures, backgrounds and educations remain avant-garde by virtue of their intent. One rarely hears about someone wishing to change the world anymore, unless it involves terrorism or vegetarianism; once upon a time, the artists in their studios hoped to turn the entire world into a living experiment.
The Bauhaus — the German experiment in education founded by Walter Gropius, in 1919, which lasted until 1933, when the situation proved untenable in the face of Nazi interference — may be the one true organized convergence of artists that has endured despite its successes and failures. A new group biography, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, by Nicholas Fox Weber has been published to coincide with the Museum of Modern Art’s monumental show •Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity• (running through January 25). With some four hundred pieces, including the iconic Oskar Schlemmer painting Bauhaus Stairway (1932) donated to the museum by Philip Johnson, a Mies van der Rohe protégé-turned-backstabber, MoMA’s exhibition is a celebration of both the incandescence and the utilitarianism of the Bauhaus model.
Like other utopianisms of the time, the Bauhaus was intended first as a mind-set. If Constructivism and Futurism ideally envisioned Constructivist clothing and Futurist dinnerware as much as Futurist poetry, the abstract theories proffered by Gropius’s all-star faculty — Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, and upon Gropius’s resignation, Mies Van der Rohe — were all rooted in reality. From Breuer’s sling-back chair now so ubiquitous (the 1925 original is in MoMA’s collection) to a thousand variations on Albers’s geometric blocks in coats and rugs to Herbert Bayer’s equally ubiquitous lowercase typeface, as well as lamps and wall fixtures, the Bauhausian objet d’art was equally an object that could be broken down to simple colors and shapes. It was a school of block, of line, and of color.
And as with all such historical aesthetic experiments, the ending seems built into the beginning, though no one could have predicted Hitler’s rise. The Bauhaus came into being at a suggestible time: politically, Germany was recovering from one world war and open to ideas from other countries (Klee and Kandinsky came from Russia, Moholy-Nagy from Hungary), while aesthetically, the world was coming closer together rather than drawing apart. In New York, the Armory Show of 1913 had shaped a sense of overlapping styles. Alfred Stieglitz’s influential 291 Gallery had been promoting a shared unified modernism as early as 1908. Paris, Berlin, Zurich were each epicenters of artistic license, as artists peregrinated between nations and notions.
Gropius’s idea of a physical school, though, distinguishes the Bauhaus from such looser-knit movements as Impressionism before it, or Surrealism during the same period, or Abstract Expressionism afterward. (No one can seriously envision Jackson Pollock living next door to Willem de Kooning, unlike the logical way Gropius planned for his professors to be neighbors; Nicholas Fox Weber writes about how the various “masters’ wives had very specific requests”: Lily Klee wanted a coal stove and Nina Kandinsky wanted a Kamin, a wood-burning black iron stove from her native Russia.)
Most of the early 20th-century –isms swayed and stood or fell on the backs of their leaders; Gropius proved to be superhuman in his attempts to reconcile the various artists and critics both in and out of the Bauhaus. Weber is particularly good at revealing the egos at work between Gropius, well-mannered, well-bred, well-spoken in public (yet frenzied in private during his years tangling with Alma Mahler, throughout their affair and tumultuous marriage) and Johannes Itten, the Swiss designer and painter, whose discipleship in the cult religion Mazdaznan called for fasting and a painful skin-pricking. His wary relationship with Mies van der Rohe, who came on as director only after Gropius was forced to resign by conservative-turning Weimar city authorities, made for a change in personalities and leadership. Weber quotes the artful architect (who added the middle “van der” to his name to spruce it up) as saying, “The best thing Gropius has done was to invent the name Bauhaus.”
As teachers, the various Bauhauslers had their own methods — several were mystified by Kandinsky’s spiritual immersion, while Albers disliked what he perceived as Moholy-Nagy’s unprofessional style — but they were linked by a belief in Gropius and the driving force of modernism. Because each master saw modernism differently, the students were exposed to a new vocabulary: from Albers, color theory; from Kandinsky, the circle, square and triangle; from Klee, the act of creativity: “We are the bow,” he said on one occasion to explain creativity’s mysteries. His use of organic metaphor (he drew beetles, told stories about plants growing, decried “infertility, barrenness, pseudo existence, casual false-fronts, belonging to nothing”), while different from the logical geometric rules meted out by Gropius and Albers, tapped into the burgeoning modernist view of life itself as an art form to be changed and charged. The artist’s life became the modern life.
Gropius had come up with the memorable name Bauhaus (literally “House of Building”) by inverting the German word “Hausbau” (or “building of house”). The school was located in Dessau for most of its time, then in Berlin during Mies’s brief tenure before it was shut down for good in Germany. The so-called New Bauhaus, represented by Mies and Moholy-Nagy, relocated in Chicago a few years later. (Albers and his wife, Anni, immigrated to New Haven; Gropius and Marcel Breuer ended up in Cambridge, teaching at Harvard.) Mies’s second career here no doubt explains why his contribution and myth have outweighed the other Bauhauslers. Yet his teaching style — putting himself before the students — only reinforces the view of the Bauhaus as a school of styles and experimentation. If design in technology has overtaken design in art, the Bauhaus mission of integrating man and nature remains on course, with the future still the focus.
László Moholy Nagy, Nickel Construction, 1921, 14-1/8 x 6-7/8 x 9-3/8", The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Oskar Schlemmer, Study for The Triadic Ballet (Das Triadische Ballett), c. 1924, 22-5/8 x 14-5/8", The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Lily Auchincloss.
Herbert Bayer, Wall-painting design for the stairwell of the Weimar Bauhaus building on the occasion of the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition. 1923, Gouache, pencil, and cut paper on paper. 22-7/8 x 10-3/8", Collection Merrill C. Berman. Photo: Jim Frank, © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.