In contrast to some of my academic colleagues, I never tired of teaching the Bauhaus in my art history classes, and I was especially delighted when I was able to introduce it to students studying the applied arts, such as industrial design, interior design, and graphics. It is strange that I speak of the Bauhaus in such an intimate way given that many regard this highly esteemed school of art, design, and architecture as a somewhat distant, even rigid venture removed from all traces of inward human expression. I should like to argue in opposition to this point of view. In 1919, the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, was less in search of an authoritarian model for educating artists than in a relaxed manner of discourse. Gropius sought an environment where students might discover their own aesthetic style through the design of models, objects, fixtures, murals, and furniture—industrial forms that would engender delight and add a pleasurable dimension to living spaces. To discover warmth and interaction within his “total architecture” was one of Gropius’s primary concerns.
Upon seeing the comprehensive and ambitious exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, titled “Bauhaus, 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” I realized how inextricably bound my worldview has been to the various points of view offered by such remarkable intellects as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Josef and Anni Albers, Mies van der Rohe, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Joost Schmidt, Lionel Feininger, Gunta Stolzl, Marianne Brandt, Oskar Schlemmer, Lucia Moholy, Johannes Itten, Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Ludwig Hirschfield-Mack, and the list goes on. This exhibition reveals a continuing sequence of visual dialogues among artists, architects, theorists, and designers who inspired one another as they developed new concepts of space based on the inventive use of geometric forms, the modularity of time, subtle accents of color, and the potentiality of new materials. They were looking for innovative ways in which to apply form to function and thereby enhance the quality of living in both private and public spaces. In some cases, such as the architectural designs of Gropius, Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, and Hannes Meyer, private space functions with subtle proximity to the building’s exterior, while the exterior is given a new form of intimacy, thus increasing a sense of comfort in moving between them. The most prescient example would be Gropius’ design for a new Bauhaus building in Dessau in 1925, where the dormitories were situated in direct relation to studios and lecture halls.
One cannot ignore the tenuous political circumstances, including the ideological shift of the National Socialists from being a moderate to a right-wing party, as having a major effect on the operations of the school. Founded in 1919 in Weimar, the same year as the new Republic, the liberal educational agenda of the Bauhaus was at constant odds with the municipality, which was responsible for its funding. By 1925, Gropius decided to move the Bauhaus from its rented facility in Weimar to Dessau, thus facilitating the construction of a new building designed to enhance the educational mission of the school. While the Dessau complex housed the Bauhaus during its greatest and most productive period (1925–1932), Germany’s reactionary politics encroached upon the institution by withdrawing financial support, thus forcing the Bauhaus to uproot itself and resettle in Berlin. Although external political pressures attempting to thwart the continuation of the Bauhaus were omnipresent, the faculty persisted in guiding students to become highly trained and insightful artists, designers, and architects through experimental exercises involving various media and materials. This is the wonderful, understated message of this extraordinary exhibition.
Despite the popular assumption that teachers in the Bauhaus were imposing a “style” that forced students to conform, nothing could be further from the truth. It soon becomes clear, as one ambulates through the exhibition space at MoMA, that each of the artists (called “Masters”) taught not what they were told to teach but what they believed in relation to how they thought. On the other hand, the students—of whose work there are numerous examples—were focused less on style than on learning the structural aspects of form that could be applied to either a living or working environment. Divergent examples of student work might include Werner Graeff's abstract black-and-white gouache made for a course taught by Johannes Itten (1921-22), Monica Bella Ullmann's patterned wallpaper made in a Foundations course taught by Josef Albers, and Pius Pahl's courthouse architectural project made for a course taught by Mies van der Rohe (1932-33).
While the highly successful German version of the exhibition, shown in early 2009 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, focused on the conceptual aspects of the Bauhaus curriculum, the intention of the MoMA exhibition—organized by Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman—aspires to reveal the diversity and impact of the Bauhaus workshops as a model of interaction between the master teachers and the students. Within this context, the tremendous influence of such figures as Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, Kandinsky, Itten, Bayer, Stolzl, Schmidt, and Schlemmer on the future of art, graphics, and industrial design is unmistakable. Students such as Josef Albers and Marianne Brandt—not to mention the design collaborative of Wagenfeld and Junkers—were not only indebted to their teacher, but their teachers responded auspiciously to their innovations. Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian refugee, was one of the truly great artists, theorists, and design innovators of the Bauhaus who would later carry the tradition to Chicago, where the new Bauhaus was established, albeit short-lived, in 1939. In spite of its premature closing (largely through inadequate endowments), Moholy-Nagy’s vision went to establish the Institute of Design that would finally culminate in the founding of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Despite its existence in Germany of a mere 14 years, the vision of the Bauhaus would ultimately become the foundation for a whole new generation of artists in search of a method to apply the visual arts to the betterment of society. Such idealism during one of the darkest periods of the twentieth century is less likely to be found in the globalized environment of multi-corporatism today. The fact is that cynicism was exempt from the Bauhaus. To pursue art and design in a direction that might lead to an improved quality of life was at the forefront of what these teachers and students were seeking to achieve. It was less a matter of competition than a testament of dignity—that to become human, one needed to live in a visual world where the excellence of design mattered and where its application to the public and private sphere was fully maintained and accessible.