Last Saturday, I made a pilgrimage to New York to see “Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity” at the Museum of Modern Art. I had bought the $75 catalog thinking that I might not be able to go, but knew I would be kicking myself if I didn’t make the effort to see it in person. So glad I did.
The Bauhaus was an extremely influential, experimental art school in Germany, spanning the years 1919 to 1933, when it was shut down by the Nazis. Started by Walter Gropius, the school aimed to eliminate the hierarchy in art and design. Gropius brought in the best artists of the day, including Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers, to teach painting and other skills. The workshops included: architecture, bookbinding, graphic design, metal work, ceramics, weaving and textile design, wood working, and glassmaking. From the beginning, students were taught that their craft was part of the larger whole, that artistry could inform even the most mundane of objects, and that art, architecture and design carried equal weight. The students were pushed to the boundaries of their abilities – and often to the boundaries of existing technology.
The exhibition (which ends on Jan 31) is a trove of examples from all the disciplines and includes gorgeous paintings and drawings from the master teachers as well as small exercises by students. The key to the Bauhaus was the fundamentals courses, in which students were led through color theory and studies of texture and form. Training in these basic skills and in the exploration of materials were startlingly new concepts at the time; now we take them for granted as the building blocks of art coursework.
The Bauhaus was all about breaking with tradition, from the smallest to the largest scale. That meant rejecting the old, elaborate German-style script in books and advertisements and replacing it with bold, sanserif lettering. It meant eshewing all the frou-frou details of a beaux arts building in favor of a structure with clean lines and lots of glass.
MoMA has devoted a large amount of gallery space to the exhibition, and as I walked around, waiting my turn to get in closer, I felt very close to the birth of modern design. All the elements are there: the geometric shapes, the love of the grid, the playful but purposeful use of color, the experimentation. And a selection of photos of the Bauhauslers, as they informally called themselves, shows how much fun they must have had in their bohemian bonhomie. Clearly, everyone was there to push the envelope artistically. This adventuresome spirit persisted after hours, as the students and faculty participated in theater and musical events, and even puppet shows.
Because of my interest in textile design, I found the examples of weaving to be spectacular. The only female master, Gunta Stolzl, was represented by several pristine examples of her wall hangings. No photograph in a catalog could ever capture the subtle colors and changes of texture within her weavings.
The subject of women at the Bauhaus was not really touched upon at the MoMA exhibition. The Bauhaus leadership, despite its progressive approach to art, was far less progressive when it came to women students. Women found it difficult to get into workshops other than weaving, bookbinding, and ceramics, although Marianne Brandt made a name for herself in the metal workshop with her simple and elegant lighting fixtures (on display in the show).
Among the revelations, to me, were two drawings by Kandinsky that captured a dancer’s movement in economical, precise lines. It was as if I was looking at a transcription of a single moment in the dance. Kandinsky captured the exhuberance of the gesture with geometry. Pure poetry.
The show also gave me a refresher course in the art movements that influenced Bauhaus and were influential in shaping its aesthetic, including Russian Constructivism and the Dutch DeStijl movement.
I could spend a long time analyzing why emotionally I enjoy the precision, cleanness of line, and simplicity that mark Bauhaus products, from buildings and furniture to brochures and children’s playthings. Maybe it’s a control thing, but I really dislike clutter.
Another Bauhaus notion that has come down through mid-century modern architecture and is very much in play among forward-thinking architects, is letting the material speak for itself. In various metals, woods, and fibers, the inherent beauty is found in the material itself, not from what you place on top of it by way of ornament. By returning again and again to the nature of the material, its texture, how it wants to move, how it reacts against other materials, architects and designers have been able to infuse a sense of tactile delight in their buildings and work.
Bauhaus students were thoroughly steeped in this idea, which can be seen in exercises such as making a 3-D design out of a piece of wire mesh. You explore and come to understand the nature of a material, and then figure out how you can manipulate and exploit that in the design.
After two hours in the exhibition, I headed to a different part of the museum, and stumbled upon a classroom. About 15 people were grouped around a table, obviously critiquing the color exercises they had just constructed out of paper. I felt nostalgia for a class I had taken several years ago, that was taught by Walter Gropius’s daughter, Ati. Later, I looked at the printed schedule, and saw Ati’s name as the instructor of the MoMA class.
I felt things come full circle; the courses that defined the bold Bauhaus experiment continue to teach people to discover the art around and inside each of them.