Back to the Bauhaus

June 8, 2010

Martin Filler has added another gem to his recent essays in the New York Review of Books. Absorbing a huge array of books, exhibitions and films on the Bauhaus, including MOMA’s recent exhibition, the intrepid critic provides a lucid and very timely appraisal of the German school’s history in the June 24, 2010 issue.

Filler reminds not only the public but younger architects that the Bauhaus was not the Modern Movement. It deserves neither the uncritical worship nor the unbridled condemnation that often follows a citation in design literature or criticism. Recent scholarship, mostly in Europe, has helped to uncover a broader and more complicated history of the little Weimar academy that had such a profound influence on 20th century art, architecture and urbanism.

Among the giants who taught at the school, Wassily Kandinsky, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and Gunta Stolzl have recently been re-appraised in books and exhibitions. I was unaware of the latter, the only woman to be named “master” at the Bauhaus and a textile designer of profound gifts. Moreover, her 1921 collaboration with Marcel Breuer, a “primitive” chair, looks far more revolutionary than anything produced by Breuer alone. Filler astutely points out that these little-known examples of arts and crafts experimentation were as important to the Bauhaus aesthetic as the better known architectural drawings and models we see in most histories of the school. There are some wild and irrational pieces in these publications, nothing like the cool compositions of Gropius or Hannes Meyer.

He also underlines the essential pedagogical contributions of Bauhaus artists and architects, particularly Johannes Itten’s famous Vorkurs or first year curriculum. Every artist, graphic designer, planner or architect trained in the later 20th century was exposed to this system; we are all the better for it. If only architectural programs would re-study the essential aims of “basic design” in light of the Itten system,  students might come away with more discipline and judgment than they get from the watered down versions taught today.

Most important, from my point of view, Filler understands that Bauhaus art theory was not so fundamentally different from its Beaux Arts antithesis as we sometimes believe. “It is generally held that Modernism celebrates fragmentation and opposes the continuity implicit in the Classical tradition,” he writes. Not so, according to these new studies–“during the politically precarious but creatively fertile years of the Weimar Republic, the Bauhauasler 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 bringing old crafts and theories together with new ones, these designers forged a method appropriate to the new century while acknowledging the myriad contributions of past masters. There was less distance between the workshops of Morris & Company in London, the Weiner Werkstatte, Chicago’s Steinway Hall studios and the Bauhaus than we have been lead to believe.

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