Specialties of the Haus

Untitled (Bauhaus building, Dessau), 1931, Iwao Yamawaki

Untitled (Ellen Frank), c. 1929, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Color sphere in 7 light values and 12 tones, 1921, Johannes itten

Chair without Arms (LR 120), c. 1931, Lily Reich

 Design for a fabric print made from typewriter type, 1932, Hans-Joachim Rose

 Zirchow VII, 1918, Lyonel Feininger

  Banknotes for the State Bank of Thuringia, 1923, Herbert Beyer

 African or "Romantic" chair, 1921, Marcel Breuer with textile by Gunta Stolzl

Hurry, Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity 1919-1933 at MoMA is up for only a few more days. It was far more extensive than I expected and the breadth of work was fairly amazing. Surprisingly, it is the first exhibit of Bauhaus work at the museum since 1938. 
The first image, at top, of the iconic school building in Dessau is what most immediately comes to mind on hearing the word Bauhaus: rectilinear black and white buildings furnished with tubular steel— "machines for living." I was excited and fascinated to see (to be reminded?) that the Bauhaus encompassed much more. On display are 450 specimens of painting, sculpture, color studies, theatrical design, ceramics, textiles, and photography, in addition to the more familiar architecture, graphic and industrial design. (They created the practical and the fantastical: costumes and table lamps, currency, reconceived a baby's cradle, proposed "multimedia" outdoor kiosks and created fabric patterns with typewriters.) As I made my way through the first gallery I wondered why was this such a surprise to me? Maybe I had simply forgotten what I'd learned in art history at college?

One of the show's curators has said of the show, "We're focusing on the idea that Bauhaus is not a style." I think this is a key summation. Combining trades and crafts instruction with fine arts and an avant garde experimental ethos the Bauhaus started as a petri dish of ideological and creative mixing. In its early phase (there were three phases, in three different cities, under different administrations) the school embraced expressionist, crafts-oriented experimentation-- perhaps a result of the influential faculty member and quasi-medieval shamanic figure Johannes Itten. The idea of bringing together different media in order to conceive what modern life should be in a new age of technology remains very relevant today, even if their optimism/utopianism seems dated. (What must it have been like to believe you had the key to the future and it was design. Was it like the Apple campus in the 1990s?)

Getting back to my question as to why Bauhaus, over the years, seemed to be reduced to a (single) style: the idea of the Bauhaus that became known in this country was that of the faculty who emigrated here—significantly, Gropius, Breuer, Albers, Mies van der Rohe. It was Gropius who organized the first exhibit of Bauhaus at the Modern in 1938, and it emphasized his administration. These faculty went on to teach in– or start– prominent design schools. The esoteric, craftsmen-like experimentalism of the early years was diminished in stature and memory. It seems that while the coolly mechanistic, utopian Bauhaus has become a style– a gorgeous, if naive and nostalgia-tinged yesterday's tomorrow—that interdisciplinary, expressionistic, inclusive and slightly kooky Bauhaus could live on.

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