Object Lessons From the Bauhaus

New York City

Josef Albers: Glass Fragments in Grid Picture, ca. 1921, glass, wire and metal in metal frame, 153⁄8 by 131⁄8 inches. © Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy Art Resource, New York.


Bauhaus is the name of an artistic inspiration.
Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, January 1954

Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the meaning of a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.
Max Bill, letter to Asger Jorn, January 1954

If Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, it is the name of a doctrine without inspiration—that is to say, dead.
Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, February 1954

What was the Bauhaus really? The question has been raised repeatedly ever since Nazi agents raided the school in April 1933, precipitating its closure by the faculty a few months later. On the 90th anniversary of its founding, and the 20th of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a major exhibition organized by three institutions in Germany,1 and now another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have relaunched the debate. The answer proffered in MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” assembled by Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design, and Leah Dickerman, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, is that the Bauhaus was, above all, a new form of art education: a radically innovative and progressive school for artists and designers in the modern epoch. This is hardly revelatory, but it’s a valuable frame for rethinking the Bauhaus’s lessons for today. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue advance the argument that under each of its successive architect-directors—Walter Gropius (1919-28), Hannes Meyer (1928-30) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1930-33)—and in three locations—Weimar (1919-25), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33)—the Bauhaus brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers and architects in “a kind of cultural think tank for the times.”2

But if the Bauhaus may be said to have been the ultimate decantation chamber for early 20th-century modernity, it didn’t just emerge from Gropius’s head after World War I as a full-fledged idea. Nor did its afterlife in the various institutions and schools that carried forward its legacy over the remainder of the century play out neatly. The curators have made the decision not only to leave out its often messy pre- and post-history, but also to circumscribe most of the surrounding context, focusing narrowly on the school’s 14-year existence and its leading pedagogical figures and students. (The catalogue does a better job of situating the school’s development as well as some of its exemplary objects in relation to the cultural background, with many fine essays.)

As Bauhaus scholars have amply documented, the roots of the school’s design reformism lay in the British Arts and Crafts Movement (especially as filtered into Germany in the first decade of the century by the architect, author and cultural ambassador Hermann Muthesius), the European Werkstätten and Werkbund movements, and the school’s immediate predecessor in Weimar, Henry van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbeschule, whose building also housed the Bauhaus during its initial phase. Pedagogically, the school’s anti-academic, experiential philosophy of learning, variously imparted by its different masters, also had well-established antecedents in 19th-century and early 20th-century progressive education movements, including those of Europeans Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori and Georg Kerchensteiner, as well as John Dewey in the United States. Arguably, what was unprecedented at the Bauhaus was neither the effort to forge a new unity between the fine and applied arts, nor even, subsequently, between esthetic practice and commercial production, but rather the school’s extraordinary gathering of creative talents in the service of these objectives. That it sustained this project for nearly a decade and a half with a total of 33 faculty and 1,250 students over the course of its life, all the while being threatened by reactionary political forces and destabilizing economic ones, is all the more remarkable. Even if the school’s efforts to bring its designs to the marketplace had checkered success, the widespread diffusion of its intellectual and pedagogical program remains a phenomenon.

Apropos of the show’s title, it is worth emphasizing that the workshop per se is hardly a modern form of organization. It harks back to the medieval craft guilds or Bauhütten—brotherhoods of masons and other tradesmen that existed all over Europe from Gothic times, typically bound together by arcane social rituals and unified spiritually around architecture, or more precisely Baukunst, a monumental synthesis of the building arts. The instructors in the Bauhaus workshops, initially split up into formal and practical training, were known as masters rather than professors; students progressed from Lehrlinge (apprentices or trainees) to Gesellen (journeymen) to Jungmeister (young masters).

The transmission of knowledge on the model of the guild workshop also parallels the hieratic relationship between master and acolyte in a religious sect. That the Bauhaus was steeped in both these atmospheres—of craft and cult—in the immediate aftermath of World War I is richly conveyed in the exhibition, which opens with Lyonel Feininger’s famous woodcut made to accompany the school’s founding program. The crystalline image of a Gothic cathedral is charged with the same romantic-utopian afflatus that inspired the revolutionary socialism of several other cultural-political groups formed in the early months of the Weimar Republic, including the Workers Council for Art, the November Group and the circle of architectural fantasists brought together by Bruno Taut and known as the Glass Chain. Handcrafted products by the school’s bookbinding and pottery workshops, including a series of superb vessels by the future monk Theodor Bogler, as well as curious totems like a coffin designed by Lothar Schreyer and Marcel Breuer’s long-lost “African” Chair—a student project created in collaboration with Gunta Stölzl in the weaving workshop—likewise reflect an early Bauhaus whose metaphysical-material concerns were remote from the machine.

Similarly, the Sommerfeld House, a log dwelling for a rich timber merchant and Bauhaus patron, realized in 1920-21 by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, belongs to this late Expressionist mood. Represented in the exhibition by a series of original photographs and a colored drawing, the house was based on a system of wood prefabrication, and its construction was solemnized by a ritualistic topping-out ceremony (regrettably documented only by the invitation produced in the Bauhaus printing workshop). Inside, it was fitted with elaborately carved wall decorations, stained-glass windows and furnishings crafted by Joost Schmidt, Josef Albers, Breuer and other Bauhaus students in a Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration among all the workshops. The first of a series of “worksites,” the house inaugurated the on-site approach to teaching architecture that prevailed until the subject was finally integrated into the curriculum under department head Hannes Meyer in 1927. Along with his Märzgefallenen-Denkmal (Monument to the March Dead), 1921-22—a cantilevered concrete “thunderbolt,” displayed in an early plaster model—the Sommerfeld House reveals a wholly different Gropius from the one associated with both the sachlich Fagus Factory of 1914, which made his early reputation as a functionalist architect, and the Bauhaus building to come in 1925-26 in Dessau.

The most visually arresting image from this period is an abstract painting by Johannes Itten titled Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascent and Resting Point), 1919. The canvas unexpectedly evokes the Parisian Orphism of the Delaunays or František Kupka, attesting to more complex cross-pollination across the modernist map than conventional narratives (and this show) suggest. The charismatic Itten, whose sacerdotal persona and haptic teaching methods made him the school’s most distinctive figure in these years, also inaugurated the famous Vorkurs in 1919. Subsequently modified under his successors, the half-year-long preliminary course was the portal to the workshops and would serve for most of the next decade as a fundamental initiation rite for every student entering the school.

By 1923, with Germany’s economic stabilization and a more general return to order after WWI, the medievalizing mysticism at the Bauhaus dissipated (a shift also credited to the proximity of Theo van Doesburg, who had installed himself not far from the gates the year before and given popular lectures to Bauhaus students). With Itten’s ousting and replacement by the Hungarian Constructivist László Moholy-Nagy, the school evolved into the more objective-rationalist phase that has always been taken as its seminal contribution to the modern movement. Yet despite Gropius’s subsequent efforts to downplay the romanticism of the early years, the workshop model would prevail as the primary organizational structure through most of the school’s existence.

In the final phase under Mies van der Rohe, when architecture and interior design became the focus of the curriculum, the Vorkurs became optional and the school more “conventionally academic,” according to Bergdoll’s catalogue essay, instituting written examinations for the first time, for example. From the evidence on the walls at MoMA, however, it is clear that imitation of the master—anathema to modernist paradigms of originality—was more than ever the order of the day. The drawings by Mies’s students look as if they could have come directly from his hand (or unapologetically aspired to do so). The self-taught son of a master mason from Aachen, Mies would continue to inculcate the same approach to architectural education after he came to Chicago in 1938 to direct the school at Armour (later Illinois) Institute of Technology, where students spent countless hours making drawings of bricks and perspectives of courtyard houses.

At the same time, the workshop metaphor increasingly merged with that of the laboratory. The latter, of course, evokes scientific problem-solving and experimentation rather than hand labor. Yet what it shares with the workshop is an emphasis on technical processes and a certain exclusivity. (These metaphors have regained currency in many architecture schools today; indeed, as both studios and other parts of the curriculum are being refashioned for an age of digital design and fabrication, “labs” are becoming a new cliché.) Given that Itten and Moholy-Nagy were both fundamentally interested in instilling a systematic and holistic design methodology in their students, the replacement of a monk’s cowl by a machinist’s suit was as much a matter of style as substance.

This line of reflection leads to a problematic consequence of the primacy accorded to formal rigor and technical competence at the Bauhaus, and what is still the most unresolvable aspect of its legacy.The prodigious evidence of creativity on the part of the school’s faculty and students cannot fail to expose the slipperiness of a fundamentally methodological approach to cultural production and the ease with which “Bauhaus modern” could become available for multiple purposes. Undoubtedly, in the ’20s, the urgent necessity to dispel a growing perception of the school as a hotbed of left-wing radicals militated in favor of its increasingly estheticized and depoliticized positioning, culminating in Mies’s directorship. The abortive tenure of Hannes Meyer, a committed Marxist who polemically attempted to link the school’s production to a vision of social and political transformation—and who from the distance of the Soviet Union in 1931 would denounce the “irreconcilable opposition” between working-class art and the reigning bourgeois ideology in Germany—was exceptional, and it is no surprise that it aroused so much hostility both outside and inside the Bauhaus, including on the part of Gropius, who, having initially recommended Meyer, subsequently withdrew his support.

The talented Herbert Bayer, on the other hand, who came as a student to Weimar and ended up a master of the visual communication and typography workshops in Dessau, and whose work remains one of the school’s most paradigmatic products, created designs following the Bauhaus period that fit as seamlessly into Nazi publicity campaigns as into those of the Container Corporation of America and other commercial and institutional clients in the United States, where he emigrated in 1938.

Bayer’s pragmatic complicity with the Nazis in the ’30s, like the dalliances of both Mies and Gropius with the regime before each decided to move permanently to the U.S., has perhaps been sufficiently aired in recent literature (design historian Rolf Sachsse has called Bayer’s sea change from Nazi propagandist to American marketeer an extraordinary “mutation trick”). But it is a little shocking to come across a wall and a half in the last gallery at MoMA given over to projects by the lesser-known but also multitalented Kurt Kranz. A Bauhaus student from 1930-33, Kranz would not only be a close collaborator with Bayer and continuer of his graphics in die neue Linie and other publications, but would go on to work for Nazi engineer Fritz Todt’s organization during the war. Later based in Hamburg, Kranz, like Bayer, would have a successful postwar career as a designer, artist and educator. The unsavory background is worth mentioning not so much to impugn a reputation at this late date (although one might have expected a curatorial allusion or two) as to underscore the contradictions implicit in a form of practice automatically deemed “progressive” by virtue of its experimentalism and avant-gardism.

The issue can be particularly explosive in a medium whose primary function is to communicate and persuade. With respect to pure technique, there is little distinction between an anodyne commercial advertisement and a more virulent and propagandistic work. The contradiction between a form of rationality that is based on enlightened social-ethical values and one that is purely instrumental—famously characterized by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment but already anticipated by Walter Benjamin a decade earlier in his warning against the estheticization of politics by fascist artists using modernist techniques—is latent in a form of design practice (or a model of esthetic education) predicated exclusively on technical competence and professionalism. It is worth noting that the emergence of the Frankfurt School for Social Research, where these theorists initially formulated their critique, was exactly contemporary with the “objective” phase of the Bauhaus, 1923-33; the ideas and evolution of both the Bauhaus and the Frankfurt School should be understood as symptomatic responses to this fundamental dilemma posed by the “rationalism” of technological modernity.

Finally, it seems to me a genuinely missed opportunity that MoMA did not use the occasion of this exhibition to reexamine its own history, which is so deeply bound up with the Bauhaus and its diaspora in this country. Alfred Barr’s 1927 visit to the school in advance of the museum’s opening two years later, and its 1938 exhibition “Bauhaus 1919-1928,” the first major presentation of the Bauhaus in the United States, were central to the formation of MoMA’s early identity. The current show is the museum’s first revisiting of this piece of its past in 70 years. While the curators’ stated intent is to counter the mythos cultivated by Gropius after he came to the U.S. and to dispel the stereotype of a monolithic “Bauhaus style,” these battles have already been waged and won, especially with the deaths of most of the main protagonists. Several decades of careful scholarship as well as periodic anniversary exhibitions around the world have offered a much more complex portrait of the Bauhaus and its internal conflicts, and Tom Wolfe’s generation-old screed, From Bauhaus to Our House, has receded into the used bookstore.

MoMA’s 1938 exhibition, about which the current show remains nearly silent, was presented in the museum’s temporary quarters in the concourse of Rockefeller Center one year after the “Degenerate Art” show opened in Munich and nine months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The installation was designed by Bayer, who was still in the process of clearing his emigration status but nonetheless managed to spirit many artworks out of Germany for the exhibition. As already suggested, the show and catalogue (edited by Bayer with Ise and Walter Gropius) downplayed the school’s Expressionist beginnings and excluded the periods under Meyer and Mies; Mies reportedly was asked to take part but demurred. The names of Bauhaus artists still living in Germany were suppressed in the show for fear of reprisals against them, and Barr stops well short in his preface to the catalogue of condemning Hitler: equally concerned that the show would be viewed as anti-German and that the Bauhaus would be seen as a “Jewish-Communist cabal,” he proposed to include a statement specifying the small number of faculty who were Jewish. Gropius apparently dissuaded him from doing this but had to be prevailed on in turn to omit an assertion that the school under the directorships of himself and Mies “had always been deliberately non-political in character.” Bayer’s installation, a demonstration of his “field of vision” concept—a strategy aimed at engaging the spectator as actively as possible—featured objects and photographs pitched off the walls at aggressive angles, directional shapes and footprints inscribed on the gallery floors, and innovative materials like corrugated cardboard as space dividers. It elicited a spate of negative reviews from the critics, who found it manipulative, chaotic, and gadgety. (Lewis Mumford’s positive column in the New Yorker was a rare exception.)

The handsome, scrupulously curated exhibition of 2009-10 is obviously a far cry from its unruly and conflicted predecessor, and largely reads today as a “classic” MoMA show. Yet it is not altogether without revisionist thrust. One welcome accomplishment is to show the pervasive presence of women in the creative life and output of the school, and not just in the expected context of the weaving and interiors workshops—although there are many beautiful textiles by Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and others. One gets the impression that women were at least as important at the Bauhaus as they were within the other modernist movement with which they tend to be most closely associated, Russian Constructivism. It is especially satisfying to see so many works by the enormously gifted Marianne Brandt, some of whose elegant and ergonomic designs for table objects look like they could have been created as recently as the 1960s. Brandt is also represented by a series of witty and feminist collages that recall the work of Hannah Höch.

On the other hand, one may be churlish enough to complain that there are too many objects by Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy and, perhaps, Schlemmer in the show (appealing as this work is), given their familiarity and the fact that they don’t all advance the main theme of the exhibition. Nor would Breuer have a lesser claim as the most important furniture designer of the 20th century had a few of his pieces been edited out. The complete absence from the show of Max Bill, a student at the Bauhaus from 1927 to 1929 and one of its most important future evangelists, should also be registered. Most of all, though, the exhibition lacks any significant representation of the performances and carnivalesque celebrations that were so integral to the school’s communal life. This exuberant, emancipatory, post-Dada streak running throughout the Bauhaus’s lifetime was more than just an escape valve for hothouse energies; it represents the dialectical other of the school’s emphasis on rigor and productivity, and a major esthetic contribution in its own right, as borne out by subsequent developments in the art world.

MoMA’s one autobiographical gesture is the featuring of Schlemmer’s Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairway). This painting, which for so many years hung in the stairwell of the original 53rd Street building, was completed in 1932 and bought by Philip Johnson for MoMA at Barr’s request the following year, after Barr saw it in a show in Stuttgart, where it was the subject of right-wing attacks. It hangs in the current exhibition in the middle of the long wall of the last gallery, yet its placement somehow lacks the pungency that one might wish, given both its thematic value for the exhibition and its iconicity with respect to MoMA’s past. It receives a somewhat more privileged treatment in the catalogue, where it is the final object presented and the subject of an elegiac essay by Andreas Huyssen. Huyssen reads the painting as an image of the Bauhaus’s enlightened educational ideals at a moment when the dangerous forces of incivility were literally at the gates. Rather than ciphers of a dehumanizing modernity, he argues, Schlemmer’s semi-abstracted figures are positive emblems of universalism and post-gender egalitarianism avant le déluge.

On studying the painting closely again (something always difficult to do while climbing a stair!), I find myself struck, like Huyssen, by its spatial ambiguities, distortions and transparencies. The flattening of the geometry of the actual Bauhaus staircase causes the figural forms to become interwoven with the compositional grid, as in a Bauhaus tapestry. The solidity of the figures seems to be dissolving into the matrix of diffuse primary colors, especially in the upper half of the canvas. In the painting’s metaphysicalized ambience, the slow, purposeful ascent of the students reads as an allegory of history. The apparitional figure who has turned around to look down recalls Benjamin’s angel propelled backward into the cataclysm of “progress.”

Currently On View “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through Jan. 25. (Click here for Official site)

1 “Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model,” organized by the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau and Klassik Stiftung Weimar, appeared at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, July 22-Oct. 4, 2009. 

2 Leah Dickerman, “Bauhaus Fundaments,” in Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, eds., Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2009, p. 15.

Joan Ockman is an architectural historian and critic based in Philadelphia and New York.