The prevailing message that followed Bauhaus survivors into their diaspora after Hitler came to power was as clear, simple, and distilled as a tubular steel chair cantilevered into thin air: modernity meant industrialization, which demanded the simplification of form for easy industrial fabrication. The mass production of functional, inexpensive, “purified” objects would elevate the standard of living for the masses.
But the densely documented show “The Spirit of the Bauhaus,” which runs through Feb. 26 at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, located in a wing of the Louvre Palace, reveals a much more complex story behind the Bauhaus’ short but incandescent 14-year existence, from 1919 to 1933. Originally inspired by the medieval guild system and the integration of arts within construction, as in Gothic churches, the school drew from turn-of-the-century movements such as the Vienna Werkstätte and the British Arts & Crafts, with their emphasis on handmade objects and the absence of ornamentation. Another precedent was Germany’s own Deutscher Werkbund, which integrated art and industrial production.
The ideology of the school evolved through often messy, contested transitions involving the rise, fall, and absorption of different design movements and disciplines: Expressionism, mysticism, de Stijl, folklore, and Constructivism, plus, as Tom Wolfe wickedly pointed out in From Bauhaus to Our House (Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1981), garlic: the school promoted diet and exercise programs for healthy living.
Rather than reiterating the well-worn narrative of the Bauhaus as it was eventually exported, trotting out the warhorses already enshrined at, for example, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition takes a long historic view and reveals an evolution that was hardly simple and linear. Co-curated by Olivier Gabet and Anne Monier, both of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the show does not treat the Bauhaus as an artistic movement or even a style but as a working school, and its pedagogical history was diverse, dynamic, compressed, and accelerated. Though the utopian goal of revolutionizing the way people live remained consistent in all its phases, just how to get to utopia was not clear at the outset. The pedagogy of the school did not spring into existence monolithic and full blown. The Bauhaus was many things at different points in time, and only froze as an apparently unified vision when it went into exile. With more than 900 artifacts, the show builds its argument on both bottom-up and top-down evidence—not just the obvious Bauhaus icons but also the student work coming out of the studios in all phases of its history. The public image of the Bauhaus suddenly becomes more complex and even contradictory.
The antechamber to the show and the movement is an introductory vestibule with displays of handcrafted objects of preceding Arts & Crafts movements in England, Austria, and Germany, displays that set the stage for the early Bauhaus. Only several fundamentally Euclidean objects by Germany’s Werkbund intimate the potential of machine logic to reshape modern life (the catalog illustrates, for example, a geometrically Euclidean vase by Peter Behrens, its neck a cylinder growing up from a sphere).
The show quickly moves on to the student work, especially the color and form studies and textiles done in the introductory courses, which broached new ways of teaching art, profoundly different from the academic regimes of most art schools of the time. In the Bauhaus context, ceramics are particularly surprising: the early work out of the pottery studio, which was disbanded after several years, was heavily influenced by a craft-driven, folk aesthetic, exemplified in a series of earthy ceramic vases, each unique rather than serially produced.
Contrary to the image that architects brought to England, the U.S., South America, and even Asia after they immigrated, the early Bauhaus was an expression of its time, largely a refined craft movement based more on the hand than on the machine. The pedagogy, influenced by William Morris, grew from the British Arts & Crafts movement’s opposition to the machines that were churning out meaningless, inexpensive objects manufactured in dehumanizing factories.
Though all arts, applied and fine, mattered within the Bauhaus context of buildings conceived as total works of art, the two test houses produced in this period were surprisingly weak and underdeveloped conceptually. The 1920 Haus Sommerfeld in Berlin by Gropius and Adolf Meyer, was a friendly, woodsy house derived from the “Völkisch” movement, with loud echoes of vernacular chalets, log cabins, and even dachas: It is completely at odds with our image of the Bauhaus. The 1923 blocky Haus am Horn by Gropius and “form master” Georg Muche—a square, stripped-down, flat-roofed, cinder-block structure—was resolutely plain and simple, furnished with Bauhaus pieces as a gesamtkunstwerk showing a total Bauhaus environment. The effort is plain and stolid. These unconvincing attempts were being built long after Adolf Loos in Austria and Irving Gill in California had already designed their cubic white houses, and even after Gropius’ own glassy, skeletal, abstract, asymmetrical factory in the 1914 German Werkbund exhibition in Cologne.
Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus in Weimar, maintained a modernist practice there, but the Bauhaus itself did not find and develop its architectural voice early even though buildings were the organizing principle pulling together all the arts. The school, in fact, had an ambivalent relationship to architecture within its curriculum until fairly late in its history—a relationship that finally came into focus prior to the school's move to Dessau in 1925.
Despite the icons of geometric simplicity and industrial elegance that endure as symbols of the Bauhaus, the environment consisted of “permanent tensions between painters and architects, expressionists and constructivists, mystics and rationalists, social militants and proponents of political positions,” according to one exhibition text. Expressionists believed in handcrafts, individual expression, and the spirituality of matter; rationalists didn’t. Debates and arguments among teachers and masters were frequent, the rival groups trying to settle matters of theory and practice as they staked out their power positions within the school.
Points of view did not clearly coalesce around a single, unifying vision; the school was a microcosm of movements vying more generally in Europe. There were strong undercurrents and conflicting forces coursing through the early Bauhaus, especially as Russian Constructivism emerged as an ideology challenging the more spiritualist German Expressionism.
For a school that would emerge with a strong functionalist point of view, through what might be called a dialectic of industrial materialism, it is surprising to find strong and persistent voices of the spiritual and even occult in the Bauhaus camp. According to a catalog essay by Louise Curtis, the master of the theater workshop, Lothar Schreyer, staged esoteric plays based on spiritualist research into language and acting. Costumes treated the human figure abstractly.
The Expressionist mystic Johannes Itten was especially influential early on, running the famous introductory course devoted to the fundamentals of form, color, and material. After a long conflict with Gropius that divided the Bauhaus into two camps, Itten quit in 1922, protesting the school’s shift toward industrial design and Constructivism.
László Moholy-Nagy, a proponent of Constructivism, succeeded Itten as head of the preliminary course, starting the consolidation of the functionalist path. Russia before and after its Revolution was a cauldron of radical ideas, and the Bauhaus was a direct beneficiary of the Vkhutemas, a Soviet institution for training master artists for industry and a vocation geared to designing for the proletariat.
The Russian Avant-Garde, however, was itself divided between the Constructivistis and the more mystic Suprematists (though all were devotees of abstraction). El Lissitzky, a Suprematist, had a huge influence on the school, and Wassily Kandinsky, who spoke of the effect of color on the soul, arrived for a painting course in 1922, and stayed for a decade until the Bauhaus finally dissolved. On a temporary appointment, Theo Van Doesberg brought De Stijl to the Bauhaus from Holland, importing ideas about the abstraction and simplification of forms.
After the resignations and new faculty appointments of 1922, and then a comprehensive 1923 exhibition in Weimar featuring work by students and masters, the Bauhaus pivoted. Gropius abandoned his previous interest in medieval cathedrals and the craft-driven aesthetic based in folk cultures, and turned instead to the world of the machine and a more strictly defined functionalist agenda. World War I had displaced traditional culture irreversibly, and Gropius decided to forge an ethos in the school that regarded the machine as an engine of, and for, modernity. Art and craft would be fused to create well-designed, marketable, mass-produced consumer goods that would be cheap, functional, simple, and pure, without decoration. The driving principle was a new unity of art and technology.
There were adjustments large and small. The pottery shop, though it had produced income, was discontinued when the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau. It was in Dessau, nearly halfway through its brief existence, that the Bauhaus definitively consolidated the functionalist direction with which it later became so heavily identified.
In 1927, the school finally added an architecture program, run by Swiss architect Hannes Meyer. The next year, when Meyer became director, programs morphed. The architecture program expanded and was linked to urban planning classes. Meyer also created an independent painting course (“free painting”), and a year later, in 1929, a photography workshop, linked to the printing, typography, and advertising workshops.
The extroverted school proselytized, producing a magazine called Bauhaus and a publication program, Bauhaus Books: many of the issues and copies are displayed in the show. By choice and conviction, the hard-working Bauhaus was not an ivory tower but produced designs meant to be sold. Many of the intricately patterned and colored textiles and carpets displayed in the show, some by one of the masters, Gunta Stölzl, were marketed; the Bauhaus’ most profitable product was wallpaper. The productive, aesthetically inventive wall-painting workshop taught by Kandinsky—art on the wall—was dropped, as were the glass painting and sculpture workshops. Mysticism was a memory as the curriculum became increasingly more material and commercial.
When Gropius resigned in 1927 to pursue his interest in low-cost, prefab housing, Meyer brought a strong social mission and socialist agenda to a previously apolitical school, absorbing other departments within a robust architecture program focused on housing. He also brought in architecture commissions: the school turned a profit for the first time.
The presence of painting masters like Paul Klee and Kandinsky proved increasingly tenuous with the growing emphasis on functionalism. When Moholy-Nagy resigned in 1928, objecting to the declining prominence of artists in the school, he noted that Klee and Kandinsky were kept on and tolerated merely to provide “atmosphere”: artists played an increasingly marginal rather than systemic role in a school that was becoming less inclusive and interdisciplinary.
If the pedagogy evolved in multiple and even opposed directions, what remained consistent from its beginning was the spirit of exploration and debate that constantly refreshed the school and defined its character. Throughout “The Spirit of the Bauhaus,” photographs of students at wild, themed parties in pirates’ hats, playing jazz, dressed in otherworldly costumes, or just plain sunbathing on a balcony, document the spirit that reigned for most of its history. One student is photographed smoking a pipe through reeds of a waste paper basket dumped over his head; another photograph shows a boutonniere reinvented as an abstraction, and another, exhausted students crashed asleep atop drafting tables.
When National Socialists took over the local government in Dessau, the Bauhaus was forced to move to Berlin, its last stop, under the directorship of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. There, the Nazi shadow lengthened in 1932 and 1933, and the freedom and creative spirit that had characterized the school dimmed. The school focused mainly on architecture. The Gestapo raided the school and denounced it for communist sympathies. In 1933, the masters voted to shutter the Bauhaus. A newspaper clipping of the raid is one of the artifacts that closes the show.
The history of the Bauhaus, which is in some ways a ground zero of 20th century design, is hardly new material, but the Musée des Arts Décoratifs has produced a more complete and nuanced interpretation of the material, and it did so with serious gumshoe slogging. What is innovative about the exhibition’s interpretation emerges from artifacts that have never, or rarely, been exhibited, and which were tracked down by curators in provincial German towns who often found them in the possession of Bauhaus student descendants. This initiative into private households has had the effect of repositioning the historical emphasis, broadening it beyond the well-rehearsed history that has become the official museological view grounded in existing collections best known to the public. Borrowing even modest works from obscure sources permitted an expanded interpretation essentially based on course work and teaching. The approach provides a more distributed, highly textured overview rather than the familiar story of beautiful, clean-lined products designed by the masters.
The show is all the more effective since the photos, textiles, carpets, color studies,and brochures are displayed in the quintessentially academic halls of a vaulted, colonnaded, Second Empire wing of the Louvre that crosses the historic typologies of a church nave and an imperial palace. To see the show in a space so antithetical to the Bauhaus in all its phases is to palpably occupy the shear between classical tradition and modernity—and between the two schools of pedagogy. The visitor better understands the Bauhaus by its juxtaposition to the classical academic envelope.