Walter Gropius: The Masters’ Houses of the Bauhaus

MASTERS’ HOUSES

Walter Gropius, Junkerswerke, and Modern Architecture

Today the architecture of Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his series of Bauhaus designed domestic dwellings for the Masters, the “Meisterhäuser,” at the art school are considered jewels in the crown of the modern built environment. But for the majority of their lives, these homes and the Bauhaus building itself existed in hostile territory. Less than ten years after the distinctive houses were completed in 1926, the Nazis closed the Dessau Bauhaus in 1932. The Nazis disapproved of modernism in the arts and favored a heavy-handed faux Neoclassicism in architecture, thus the white cubes of the seven pioneering buildings did not please the sensibilities of the followers of Hitler. The city of Dessau, now the owner of the famous Bauhaus building and the cluster of faculty housing, all designed by Gropius, rented the homes until 1939 when the Second World War began. But turning the masters’ unique modern white cubes over to unsympathetic tenants was not the end of the travails suffered by the concrete structures. The city subsequently sold the houses to the Junkers Works, a more careful and concerned owner, which had had a long and mutually satisfying union with the school. It was a former student, Marcel Breuer, who probably sought out Junkerswerke, which crafted metal shapes in steel. Inspired by curved bicycle handlebars, Breuer wanted to bend the base of his new chair from metal, foregoing straight wooden legs. If the proper industrial process could be created, his chair could cantilever and balance itself. In 1925 Breuer worked in the factory, tutored by Karl Körner, a locksmith, who taught him the craft of metalworking. His tubular steel chair, the Cassily, could be produced only by special bending machines, available at Junkers, and was the first of his many furniture designs utilizing curved metal.

By 1926, as a result of the partnership forged between Junkers and the Bauhaus, the school and the industrial manufacturer began a number of projects together, including a set of homes for the Bauhaus Masters. As part of his goal of fusing art with industry through modern design, Gropius arranged for the factory to install a series of what were termed new “thermotechnical” units in the new homes in order to model modern housing and modern living in an “organic” symbiosis. According to the Junkers factory website, the internal luxury items included wall ventilators, “gas appliances such as hot water flow-type calorifiers, gas stoves and gas ovens.” Such experimental conveniences, after the years of deprivation during the Great War, were from the future. The Bauhaus Masters’ Houses were, therefore, test houses, maintained by Junkers technicians, who not only made sure the modern equipment was functioning properly but also tested for technological performance. The association between Junkers and the Bauhaus extended to a rather odd building called the Pump Room or “house.” In Germany, a “pump house” or Trinkhalle is a refreshment stand, and as part of the general modernization of Dessau, a number of these stands were planned and constructed throughout the city. The Pump House with a Bauhaus connection was a modification of the wall built by Walter Gropius around his own residence. Although the austere white wall afforded the Gropius couple privacy, it also had the effect of blocking the view to an eighteenth-century estate built by the princes of Saxony with a Georgium, an English-style landscape garden, complete with fake Roman ruins. This cluster of elegant buildings, a guest house (Fremdenhaus), an Iconic temple (Monopteros) and the Flower House (Blumengartenhaus), all set in the lovely garden, were a strong contrast the white blocks designed by Gropius. His successor at the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe solved the problem of the blank white wall by inserting a window into the side on the corner of Ziebigker Strasse and Ebertallee, floating a roof over the opening for shading. By the simple means of breaking through the wall, a conceptual line of sight to the historical gartenriech was restored. Shortly after the Pump House was completed, the Nazis took over and the Bauhaus houses were sold to the Junkerswerke. Sadly, the only building in Dessau designed by Mies was demolished in 1970.

Mies van der Rohe. The Pump House (1932)

Junkers, headed by Dr. Hugo Junkers (1859-1935), was an aircraft and engineering works, specializing in the manufacture of steel and airplanes, thus immediately came under the control of the Nazis, who considered the staff to be full of communists and Jews. Junkers himself was arrested was exiled. He died in 1935, never knowing that his aircraft, bearing his name, would bomb Guernica two years later. According to the article, “Bauhaus, Brown Coal and Iron Giants,” Peter Marcuse, by 1932, the faculty and students had been driven from the Bauhaus in Dessau and retreated to their last stand in Berlin. Meanwhile, the Bauhaus building was turned into a girls’ school, where young women could study Kinder, Kirche und Küche, and then men moved in and the facility was transformed into a training center for Nazi officials. The school also provided offices and work space for Junkers personnel and their drafting operations. Even Albert Speer had a construction office on the premises. During the Second World War, Dessau lost three-fifths of its buildings to allied bombing and the masterwork of Gropius himself, the Bauhaus building, was badly damaged on March 7, 1945, right at the end of the War. As the headquarters for an important aircraft manufacturer, Junkers, the town was naturally targeted and almost was almost completely destroyed. In its ruined state, the site and what was left of the building was used as a camp, first for prisoners of war and then for refugees. After the War, ownership of eastern Germany and the town of Dessau was transferred to the Soviets, another regime that disliked anything European and avant-garde.

The Original Bauhaus on its opening day, December 4, 1926

But the communist regime showed more respect for the idea of the Bauhaus than the Nazis who had their own artistic agenda. Immediately after the War, the Bauhaus archives were transferred to Berlin and a new building was commissioned to house the materials. The architect was none other than Walter Gropius. During 1946 to 1948, there were attempts to restore the building. However, unlike West Germany, East Germany did not have the resources to rebuild and it was not until 1961 that another restoration took place, followed by another phase in 1965. In 1974 the building became an official cultural monument, inspiring a yet another restoration in 1976. After the Wall came down, Germany was reunited, and the Bauhaus underwent its final and definitive restoration, a ten-year project, completed in 2002. The Masters’ Houses, being ancillary to the main building, did not have the iconic status of the school, but these houses, in their own way, were unique experiments in living. Collaborating with Junkers, Gropius was re-thinking what the modern home should be like and how modern people should inhabit it. He mused that “the organism of a house evolves from the course of events that have predated it. in a house it is the functions of living, sleeping, bathing, cooking, eating that inevitably give the whole design of the house its form… the design is not there for its own sake, it arises alone from the nature of the building, from the function it should fulfill.”

The forest-like environment for the Masters’ Houses

When the mayor of Dessau, Fritz Hesse, asked the Bauhaus to take residence in his industrial city, part of his promise was not only land for the school but also a site for faculty housing. The city provided Burgkühnauer Allee, quite close to the school itself, in a wooded and quiet area. In this tiny forest, Gropius designed a large free-standing home for himself and three double houses, paired and attached, for the Masters. The group of homes was built in a year, using mass produced materials, such as concrete blocks. Gropius was experimenting with the idea of prefabricated construction–not yet possible–with the post-war housing shortage in mind. The concept of the “large scale building set” can be best viewed in the masters’ homes, which were equal in size, but each structure was a variation on the basic cube, giving the cluster of modern architecture variation and rhythm, ruled by simplicity. As Gilbert Lupfer and Paul Sigel noted in their 2004 book, Gropius. 1883-1969. The Promoter of New Form, “Thus the Houses for the Bauhaus Masters served as a practical experiment with Gropius’s building block principle (Baukasten im Großen)..The building block principle was meant to allow, depending on the number and the needs of the inhabitants, for the assembly of different ‘machines for living.'” Gropius explained, “All six of these houses are the same but different in the impression they make. Simplification through multiplication means quicker, cheaper building.”

The Director’s Home of Walter Gropius

In the end, there were seven homes in all, but the home of the director had a few added features. As the home of the Director, the Gropius building was large, had a garage and rooms for servants’ quarters, all surrounded by a tall white wall. In the kitchen, there was, compliment of Junkerswerkes, a hot water pressure spray. Such a spray would be a standard feature in any home today, but in 1926, such an item would have been a novelty. The Bauhaus-designed furniture in this home included a sofa that opened up and converted to a bed. Next door to Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, his right-hand man, lived with his wife, the Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy. Lyonel Feininger and his wife and two children occupied the other half of the joined homes. The next duo was occupied by Georg Muche and Oskar Schlemmer and their families. Completing the triumvirate of Masters’ Houses, long time friends and close collaborators, Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee abutted one another. The Gropius designed buildings, based upon cubes, were simple, flat-roofed, white faced and marked only by the large black framed windows, touched with markings of bright primary colors. The equality of each duplex was guaranteed by simply rotating the design for the first segment and then building the second half at a ninety-degree angle.

Muche-Schlemmer House with an external restoration that retained internal changes done to the homes by subsequent owners

In northern Europe, large expanses of glass, which, at that time, could not be double-paned, would be quite cold. In the winter, these beautiful homes were uncomfortable and the open rooms needed to be warmed by some form of space heaters. Feininger used a coal stove, while Klee and Kandinsky demanded a refund for their heating bills from the city of Dessau. In the summer, the temperatures swung in the other direction and the sun streamed in through the glazed walls, baking the unfortunate inhabitants. These open spaces were the studios where the artists worked, with all the other rooms arranged around the central ateliers. There were even rooftop terraces where the artist could sunbathe in warm weather. The interiors of each home were different. Only Gropius and Moholy-Nagy used Bauhaus designed exclusively, and other Masters brought their own furniture with them. As lovely and as advanced in avant-garde modernist design, the Masters’ Houses were hard to maintain and, in their own way, were fragile, requiring constant upkeep. Although the homes were demanding of their residents, the artists, in turn, attempted to impose their will upon these experiments in modern living.

Interior colors

Klee and Kandinsky used their white-walled homes as blank canvases for the color experiments, painting their interior spaces in almost two hundred colors, an abandonment of the austerity preferred by Gropius that came to light only upon restoration. All of the homes used built-in closets, wardrobes, and cabinets, eliminating the need for all but the most basic furniture. Nevertheless, the Kandinsky home mixed the famous “Vassily chairs” with their own old-fashioned Russian furnishings. For all their exterior simplicity, the luxury of these houses was quite at odds with the Marxist sympathies of the inhabitants. Nevertheless, the original faculty and those who followed them, enjoyed living in these novel experiments in domestic living, but the coming of the Nazis and then the Second World War scattered the Masters, who would never return.

A photograph of the modified Masters’ Houses before restoration

The now hostile city of Dessau, hewing the Nazi line, instructed the new owner, Junkerswerke, to eradicate the “alien” architectural style from the structures, stating that “the outer form of these houses should now be changed so that the alien building forms are removed from the town’s appearance.” There is little indication that the leaders of the industry were interested in altering the homes, after all, Junkers himself was banished by the Nazis and the corporation had better things to concern themselves with. However, the occupants themselves organically altered the houses to suit their more middle class needs and bourgeois expectations. They bricked up the huge and drafty windows, threw up partition walls to enclose the open spaces, added chimneys, and, over time, the original cubes were swallowed up by modifications. And then came the bombings. The Gropius home was completely destroyed down to its foundation and the Moholy-Nagy section of the duplex next door was severely damaged and torn down. For years, no one was concerned about the lost work of a distinguished architect, and what was left of the complex was rented out and allowed to deteriorate. The Feininger home became a doctor’s office. Finally, after the Fall of the Wall, the architectural importance of the Masters’ Houses was recognized and restoration began in the early 1990s.

The Klee-Kandinsky Houses

As indicated by the cautious restorations of the Masters’ Houses, recovering the iconic exteriors while retaining interior modifications, the role of history and the meaning of the lost “original” becomes an exchange. The Bauhaus building and the homes of the Masters, as we see them now, are not the original buildings; they are replicas. Philosophical questions arise when considering how to respect the entire history of a building: does one restore/rebuild a replica or does one respect a past, no matter how checkered, and allow historical alterations to remain? The questions are really ones of authenticity versus honoring the original intent of the architect, which are actually, in this case, at odds with one another. To solve these genuinely unsolvable problems, the final restorations of the destroyed home for Gropius and the Moholy-Nagy section of the duplex were reconciled as “ghost houses” in 2014. As Connor Walker explains in Arch Daily, “Rather than restore the buildings to their original appearance, the renovation architects reconstructed the meisterhäuser to re-emphasize the spartan qualities that were championed by Bauhaus Modernists. In addition, the windows of both houses were covered in an opaque wash, giving them an ethereal appearance.” Described as “minimalist arrangement of geometric shapes” by Alyn Griffiths in Dezeen, the “ghosts” of the destroyed homes were reinterpreted by Bruno Fioretti Marquez. The result is a novel solution, resulting in a new building that is both material and immaterial, a memory and a reality, an homage and reconstruction, and, above all, a healing of architectural wounds.

Bruno Fioretti Marquez. Ghost of the Walter Gropius House (2914)

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Podcast 67: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Skyscrapers

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part Two

Refusing to be trapped by demeaning art writing that discussed her flower paintings as inherently female, Georgia O’Keeffe defied gender expectations by taking up that most masculine of subjects—the new towering skyscrapers. This podcast discusses the practicalities of actually building and living with the skyscraper and the challenges faced by O’Keeffe in depicting this new subject matter. The skyscraper became the gateway to the artist’s getaway out of New York and into the West.

 

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 53: Nazi Art, Part One

THE OXYMORON OF NAZI “ART”

Long sequestered and rarely viewed, recent art historical writings have begun to examine the art of Fascism. This series of podcasts, in four parts, attempts to answer a series of questions: what were the goals of Nazi art, who were the Nazi artists—the painters and sculptors—and what was the impact of Nazi art? The first segment will examine the aesthetic ideology of the Nazis and how they attacked avant-garde Modernist art in a series of exhibition of “degenerate” art.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Bauhaus: The Fate of the Bauhaus

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

The Fate of the Bauhaus Buildings

The decline of the school probably began in 1928 when the founding Director, Walter Gropius departed but the last two directors were under pressures that Gropius escaped. Mies was able to do little more to save the Bauhaus than to turn it into a vocational school, training people for trades. Clearly he was trying to be as circumspect as possible in an increasingly hostile political climate. The Nazis won a political majority in Dessau and immediately took aim at the Bauhaus and its “cosmopolitan rubbish” and withdrew all public funding. Architect Paul Schultze-Naumberg took over at the school to restore pure German art and architecture and purge the Kisten or the boxes of Bauhaus furniture. The Nazis were unique among the fascists in their hatred of modern architecture, for, in Italy, the government appropriated modernism for its own purposes. However, the Nazis reverted to imperial architecture inspired by Rome and it is fortunate that Schultze-Naumberg limited his destruction to the curriculum of the school.

Perhaps the most malicious act of vandalism befell the Master’s Houses, built for Gropius, Kandinsky, Klee, Schlemmer, Feininger, Miuche and Moholy-Nagy. Gropius had designed a group of modernist semi-detached and single-family homes, the famous houses for the Bauhaus faculty. Built according the to the designs of Gropius, these houses included a revolutionary modern concept for the kitchen, replacing traditional kitchen furniture with hanging cabinets and counters. The homes were furnished with Bauhaus furniture, lamps, fabrics, weavings, and other accessories. Kandinsky and his wife, Nina, were photographed sitting in a pair of “Wassily” chairs, designed by Marcel Breuer.

When the Bauhaus moved to Berlin, the city of Dessau, which owned the property, sold the houses to the Junker factory and ordered that the “the outer form of these houses should now be changed so that the alien building forms are removed from the town’s appearance.” The houses were greatly altered with the wide window walls closed in for conventional openings and chimneys sprouted from the flat roofs. During an air raid, the houses for Gropius and for Moholy-Nagy were destroyed. The other homes are still standing and have been lovingly restored to their original condition. The mark of the influence of De Stijl architecture is strongly felt with the crisp white exteriors, trimmed in black with an occasional jolt of a red line. The interiors were colorful in the Bauhaus fashion of using color to demarcate space. Starting in 2000, these houses were restored by the city of Dessau and today they on the list of UNESCO’s historic buildings. The question of whether or not to rebuilt the remaining two houses is still under discussion.

The Bauhaus building itself was damaged by bombing in 1945 and was partially restored in 1976. The building was located in East Germany and the reconstruction was not precise or historically accurate, perhaps due to lack of funds. For example, the curtain wall of the workshop wing was destroyed and the original steel window frames were replaced with aluminum. It was thought that the frames were lost but they were relocated as part of a greenhouse and placed back where they belonged. Extensive restoration of the original restoration began in the early years of the twenty-first century. Few documents exist about the original building and the restorers took every effort to preserve the original elements of the building, from the innovative plastic floors to the brightly colored walls, painted in accordance to the plan of the wall-painting department, headed by Hinnerk Scheper. In 1996, the building was registered as a World Heritage site and today it receives two hundred visitors a day.

When Adolf Hitler became dictator in Germany, any intellectuals and artists who remained left the nation…if they could. It has been said, “Hitler shook the tree and America got the apples.” The diaspora of the Bauhaus architects were but a fraction of Germany’s creative capital that was drained out of the country’s system. Albert Speer replaced Walter Gropius as Germany’s most celebrated architect. Gropius, Breuer, Mies, Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers all came to America with enormous impact upon art and architecture in New York and Chicago.

In a free and prosperous society, they were able to build significant modernist buildings and the Bauhaus lived on in buildings and in countless copies of Bauhaus objects for modern life. Sadly, Walter Gropius did not live to see the restoration of his Gesamtkunstwerk and he died in 1969. His American home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, built in 1938, was very similar to his home within walking distance of the Bauhaus.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

Bauhaus: The End

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

The Decline of the Bauhaus

The town fathers of Weimar disliked the high number of Jewish faculty, the surprising presence of too many women as students, and the supposedly left-wing politics of the school and its insistent modernity. In a move that was prophetic of the regression shown in the Nazi movement a decade later, it was made clear to the Director, Walter Gropius that the Bauhaus was no longer welcomed in Weimar. The school moved away from the capital of the Republic and to an industrial town, Dessau. It was here that Gropius built one of the quintessential expressions of modern architecture, the Bauhaus building of 1925-6. All glass wall and strict rectangles, the new building was a huge step into the modern world when compared the arts and crafts style of the now-destroyed home for Adolf Sommerfeld just a few years earlier in 1921.

When the architect Mies van der Rohe invited him to participate in the now famous Werkbund project of modern building in Stuttgart, the Weissenhof, conceived to integrate art and craft with industry. Gropius was able to pursue the idea of prefabricated architecture. Joining with other important architects, such as Le Corbusier, who was given the most land and the most money, Gropius built two single-family homes with flat roofs and a roof terraces in this 1927 housing estate. Compared to the works of other architects, such as J. J. P. Oud and Peter Behrens, the houses built by Gropius were stark, simple and pared down, largely due to the use of prefabricated parts that did not allow for embellishment. The German critics who favored tradition level harsh charges against the development, seeing it as “foreign” and not “German” and did not reflect the national “identity.” The complaints of these buildings as being too “utilitarian” and severed of Germanic roots were harbingers of things to come from the Nazis.

A year after the famous Weissenhof project, Gropius resigned from the Bauhaus, taking many famous faculty and important students with him. The successor of Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, a Swiss architect wanted to take the Bauhaus further down the road of industrial design, meaning a final break from the lingering taste for craft and any remaining fine art-ness. When Meyer, who had been the head of the architecture program, took over as director, he narrowed the focus of the school to architecture and industrial design and more students departed. The school had changed considerably since the departure of Gropius and his vision. As the old idea of respect for craft eroded, so too had the respect for the Handwerkmeisters and by 1926 “workshop” terminology faded and “masters” became professors.

“As a ‘university of design,’ Meyer stated, “The Bauhaus is not an artistic but a social phenomenon.” Indeed, Meyer had something new and interesting to say about building, which he saw as a social act. The built environment should be functionalist in terms of the occupants and the psychological needs and reactions of those who used the structure. Meyer, a dedicated and articulate Communist, put the needs of the society in the foreground and reduced the role of the architect’s ego as a creator. This was the Bauhaus dream…supposedly, to create an anonymous object for the modern world.

Under Meyer the Bauhaus actually began to find a way to bring modern designs produced by the school to the industrial market place and the school made a profit. Regardless of the capitalist profits of the Bauhaus, the presence of a Communist head of the school could not be supported in such a politically turbulent world. Meyer stepped down and Mies van der Rohe took his place as director in 1930. Under Mies, the school became very conventional. The priority was still that of architecture and a new emphasis was placed on interior design. Space, rather than structure, became the major focus. The Preliminary Course was eliminated and the Bauhaus became downright academic with written exams appearing for the first time.

These changes could be seen as an attempt to make the Bauhaus seem more conventional to satisfy the authorities. Originally, the Bauhaus had been dedicated to collective housing for workers and favored flat roofs, use modern building materials, steel, glass, stucco, with sheer walls painted white or gray or beige, trimmed in black. As the critics of the Weissenhof made clear, this styeless style was un-German. Pinned down by such regressive attitudes, Mies had no choice but to retreat to interior design. But the days of such a progressive school were numbered. In a last ditch attempt to save the school, Mies privatized the Bauhaus and moved it to Berlin in 1932 where it fought against its fate. But nothing could save the Bauhaus from a regime that hated all things “modern,” except, of course for weapons of war. In April 1933, the Nazis closed the Bauhaus.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

Bauhaus: Internal Tensions

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Contradictions within the Bauhaus

In the most recent scholarly work on the Bauhaus, Bauhaus. Workshops for Modernity. 1919-1933, Museum of Modern Art, 2009, for the Museum of Modern Art, Barry Bergdoll wrote about the contradictions that existed within the Bauhaus. In my view, these contradictions were deeply and unavoidably embedded in the school’s heritage and its intentions. The cultural inheritance that the Bauhaus was working with came from an old way of thinking that may or may not have been capable of being modified for the modern world. Take the grid, for example. The grid became the basic ruling concept of the Bauhaus. Obviously, despite the impact of De Stijl, the grid is far older than the paintings of Piet Mondrian and had long been the underlying structure of any composition. But with the Bauhaus the grid comes to the foreground and determines the module that was mobilized for advertising and for furniture and for architecture. Gropius proposed the Baukasten as a cubic element that could be deployed for pre-fab architecture. However, the architect was a visionary but Germany itself was still in the process of standardizing systems of measurement and it would take years for modular units in building to become an international norm.

Another case in point is the Bauhaus interest in redefining the “book,” a very old object that needed to be updated. For the Bauhaus, the urgency of this self-assigned task could not be clearer. The urban dweller of the twentieth century was inundated with visual images through film, illustrated magazines and newspapers, and advertising. One saw in a flash and read quickly in small graphic units. People were seeing and thinking in visuals as in no other time in history. The development of a “new vision” in typography and advertising was perhaps the most impactful contribution of the Bauhaus. László Moholy-Nagy took up the task of redesigning the format of books and the traditional gray page of blocks of print, breaking up the monotony of lines with graphic insertions.

In order to design the forms appropriate for mass communication and mass advertising everything had to be rethought. Herbert Bayer attempted to drag Germany into the twentieth century by bypassing the traditional Germanic medieval script in favor of a simplified and updated Roman font. In eliminating frakur, Bayer sought to eradicate culture and nationality for a more rational system. The German language is characterized by the capitalization of nouns, which, as with all capital letters, violated the basic tenets of language—to simply translate a sound into letters. Bayer proposed an all lower case form of print, imposing universal regularity with modern ruler and the French curve. This “universal script” became the familiar architects’ writing, still prevalent today.

However beautiful the productions of the Bauhausbücher, publishers who used mass production faced demands inherent in the proposals of Moholy-Nagy and Bayer, which depended upon handwork. For a conventional publisher, the old fashioned book was efficient and cost effective. Stopping the presses to insert some sort of graphically attractive addition or hand-setting hand-made lettering, no matter how “universal,” was simply not conducive to modern methods of manufacture. Despite the fact that it is clear to us today that the artists and architects of the Bauhaus could see into the future and guessed correctly the needs of future industry and accurately predicted the desires of future consumers, the Bauhaus was caught in a time lag. Much of the work done by the faculty and students were very dependent upon handwork and upon old-fashioned craft. Only in advertising did the technology exist to adapt itself to Herbert Bayer’s ideas, simply because there was a profit motive for the profession. Otherwise, it would take decades for technology to catch up with the Bauhaus vision.

The mission of the Bauhaus of a New Vision and a Standard Grammar collided directly with an old idea that simply refused to die: the role of the artist as creator. Faceless murals of Oskar Schlemmer and his mute and masked theatrical production, The Triadic Ballet, all insist upon the anonymity of “The Bauhaus.” But, for some, the nameless modernity of the Bauhaus was simply too challenging, as was the notion that the school “owned” anything the student designed. Inspired by the construction of a bicycle frame, Marcel Breuer invented the cantilevered chair, now known as the “Breuer chair” and introduced a new controversy over who “owned” “Bauhaus designs,” the Bauhaus, the home base of the students, or the students who came up with the design? Although Breuer fought to retain his rights to the famous chair, the art designed by the Bauhaus students was always labeled “The Bauhaus.” Regardless of who owned the lamps, ashtrays, teapots of Marianne Brandt or not, her work still stands for The Bauhaus.”

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Bauhaus: Modern Design

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Bauhaus and the Modern World

In the beginning, the Bauhaus was founded upon the precedents of arts and crafts, deeply rooted in a Romantic and Germanic notion of a return to a medieval way of life. The founding image of the Bauhaus was the Cubist-like cathedral designed by Lyonel Feininger for the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto. Indeed it was the intention of the newly appointed director, Walter Gropius to end the academic distinction between the fine arts and crafts by reestablishing the culture of the workshop. There would be a master of craft, the Handwerkmeister, and the master of form, the Formmeister, who, between them, would join handwork and aesthetics. Indeed the idea of making things, of getting back to the direct experience with materials which were manipulated with the hands was the basic idea of the early Bauhaus. The ideal sought by Gropius was the mythic and spiritual collective memory of the Bauhüten or the masons’ lodges. The idea of the cathedral and the Bauhaus was the Einheitskunstwerk or the total work of art translated into the collective needs of a modern society. But this idea of collectivity was easier stated than achieved.

The Bauhaus student body was definitely a mixed bag, unemployed men looking for something to do, old and difficult veterans, and students who were unprepared for the lofty goals of the Bauhaus. Gropius brought in a sterling faculty with pre-war credentials, starting with Lyonel Feininger and continuing with Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Johannes Itten from Vienna. Itten quickly remedied the problem of the lack of student readiness for an art school by creating a “foundation” course that would teach the basics to all students to create a foundation for the more advanced courses. Classes taught by Kandinsky and Klee complemented this “preliminary course”. Although Itten would be forced out along with the lingering sentiments for Expressionism in 1922, the idea of providing a year of basics in the arts still lingers in art schools a hundred years later. After Itten’s departure, László Moholy-Nagy took over the Preliminary Course, which would later be taught, most famously, by Josef Albers.

Despite their philosophical differences, Itten and Gropius established significant ideas that would leave their mark on twentieth century design and architecture. Itten, who was a hippie before his time, taught his students the fundamentals of the body through yogi or stretching exercises that would get them in touch with their own physicality. This emphasis on the senses was part of the need to give primacy to experience and an awareness of life through exercises in quick sketches in drawing class. Gropius did not consider that the Bauhaus was engaged in “making art” but in conducting “experiments” in a “laboratory.” At the Bauhaus, “abstraction” took on a different meaning as a search for fundamentalism. Abstraction did not stand in for “something else,” but was the process of distilling art making down to the essentials.

This basic core that the post-war artists were seeking initiated a search for artistic forms stripped of any cultural “baggage.” The idea of a tabula rasa was not just a quest for the visual arts; philosophers also turned their attention to the epistemology or the grounds of perceptual knowledge and linguistic understanding. Edmund Husserl wrote extensively of “bracketing” reality and attempting to discern the essentials of perception. Fernand de Saussure proposed a system where in the structure of language could be determined, breaking down linguistics into the “sign,” the “signifier,” and the “signified.” Certainly the thinking of De Stijl was crucial in the Bauhaus’ process of stripping down to a basic code of line and color. As Yves-Alain Bois pointed out in his 1985 book on De Stijl the “elementarization” which narrowed composition to the primary colors, white and gray, and the ruled line at right angle, and “integration,” which binds the resulting forms into a unified whole were the basis of De Stijl philosophy.

What had to be unlearned were outmoded and outdated aesthetic conventions and received ideas of beauty as taught by the academy. The artist of the twentieth century needed to have a mind cleansed of received wisdom and to return to a tabula rasa from which new and clarified forms would emerge. Gropius sought basic modules as elemental building units. Having achieved that level of creative clarity, the artist could be redefined as “a builder of systems.” The emphasis on experience over knowledge meant that communication between viewer and maker should be pre-linguistic and immediate due to the eloquence of “fundamental forms.” In his influential book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911, Vasily Kandinsky asserted that a form of “psychic shock” would result when the viewer encountered these strong forms. Key to the idea of gaining experience, which would replace conventions was the idea of “play.” The importance of play at the Bauhaus was inspired by the foundational work of Friedrich Froebel who invented the “kindergarten” or the “children’s garden” where children played and learned from their play.

By 1923, Gropius was ready to announce the new philosophy for the Bauhaus. This “reversal of values” moved the school away from the reform of arts and crafts to an engagement with the industrial world. Clearly, the Bauhaus had been profoundly impacted by the art and design done by the De Stijl movement in Holland and by the example of “laboratory work” done in the new Soviet Union. De Stijl founder, Theo van Doesburg, moved to Weimar and gave individual lessons to Bauhaus students but was never a professor there. In Berlin, German art audiences go their first look at the new art of the Soviets at the Galerie van Diemen in Berlin in 1922. The world had changed and the Bauhaus reacted with alacrity. Gropius, speaking at a 1923 exhibition of faculty and student work, announced that the Bauhaus had moved into the present and had a new slogan, “Art and Technology: A New Unity.”

Thus the philosophy of the Bauhaus passed beyond the Werkbund spirit that the artist should be a craftsperson first and any aesthetic must be based upon sound craft. The whole notion of “craft” and making had to get beyond the medieval mystique and into mass manufacture. 1923 was the year that Walter Gropius invited the Hungarian artist, László Moholy-Nagy to join the faculty. Moholy-Nagy embodied the new industrial spirit of the new Bauhaus. A photographer, painter and typographer, Molholy-Nagy pioneered in what his called “New Vision,” his version of “the grammar of modern design” sought by Gropius. Like many designers, Moholy-Nagy knew that the visual forms of the nineteenth century had to be updated for the new century. Most importantly, he understood that the modern mind perceived the world in a fundamentally different fashion.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Bauhaus: The Founding

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Founding the Bauhaus, 1919-1923

Historically as an art school and as a design movement, the Bauhaus stands as a counterweight to the solipsism and Surrealism in Paris and the anger and turmoil in Berlin. To a certain extent, the Bauhaus can be linked to New Objectivity in its rejection of Expressionism, but the school set itself apart from the mainstream art world in Germany by redesigning the world for the twentieth century. The goal of the Bauhaus was to create the kinds of design that would lend itself to mass production and that would be accessible to the masses. To a certain extent, the Bauhaus also shared the post-war utopianism that clean modern design would have a beneficial impact on society, but the goals were more practical than dreamy. From the beginning the school was split among factions—art versus craft—and individual creation and corporate ownership—hand work verses factory production. The school also reflected the tensions in early twentieth century society, controversies over the Jewish members of the faculty and the dis-ease over having so many female students. Divided at its heart, the Bauhaus nevertheless created the “modern.”

As an art school, the Bauhaus was the continuation of a long-held dream of reforming the bad design and bad taste unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Its precedents were the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements in England and the Art nouveau styles in Europe and America and, more locally, the Deutscher Werkbund, founded in Munich in 1907. In their desire to return to the integrity of medieval craft, these predecessor movements were flawed in their core, for the products, hand-crafted by artists, were far too expensive and rarified for the ordinary person to afford. Only the Werkbund, fully engaged in the twentieth century, was positioned to join art and craft and industry. In contrast, the nineteenth century reform movements, for all their good intentions, were expressions of luxury, and the Werkbund established the most immediate precedent for the Bauhaus.

In fact, it was one of the founders of the Werkbund, Henry van der Velde, who was head of the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, and it was his post that Walter Gropius took over. Van der Velde was forced to leave Germany and return to this homeland of Belgium, but, after the war, it seemed clear that his medieval sensibilities had become obsolete. By the time the Bauhaus was formed by Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimer it was clear that it was impossible to return to an imagined medieval paradise and that design needed to express the modern industrial world that had come so horribly into fruition during the Great War. Gropius combined arts and crafts into one school, under one roof, combining all the arts under one roof in the name of architecture: Bauhaus or “house of building.” Gropius stated,

“Let us collectively desire, conceive and create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one structure: architecture and sculpture and painting, which, from the million hands of craftsmen, will one day rise towards heaven as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”

Although we tend to think of “the Bauhaus” as an organic unity that created a “look” that is read as “modern,” the school actually went through numerous stages. Existing during the span of the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, the Bauhaus lived a precarious existence, and, like the wider German art world, evolved out of Romanticism and Expressionism into the modern era. Far more than any other movement in the period between the two wars, the Bauhaus was actively engaged in an attempt to redefine “art” and “artist” for the modern period of mass production and mass communication for mass audiences.

The school went through its founding phase from 1919 to 1922, shifting to a more rational and less medieval approach to design, only to be disrupted by the move to Dessau in 1925, where Gropius brought in László Moholy-Nagy, who had a profound impact on the philosophy of the Bauhaus. Gropius was succeeded by Hannes Meyer in 1928, but he was considered politically unsuitable and was removed in favor of Mies van Der Rohe in 1930. After that final transition, the Bauhaus went into survival mode and Mies presided over its final demise in Berlin in 1933.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

De Stijl

DE STIJL 1917-1931

Between 1914 and 1918 it became clear to any thinking person that an old world had died in an agonizing spasm and that a new world was desperately needed to take the place of a graveyard of discredited ideals. De Stijl or “The Style” was founded in Holland during the Great War, and the desire for harmony and balance expressed by the artists in this group certainly reflected their abhorrence of the chaos and conflict raging around them. De Stilj emerged at the same time as Dada and the Russian Avant-Garde movement—all dedicated to the rebuilding of a Brave New World out of the ruins of the old. Whether it was the nihilism of Dada or the missionary spirit of the Russians or the Utopian dreams of De Stijl, these groups were forged from the urgency of the time. Although the roots of the style of De Stijl can be traced back to Cubism from which it is derived, the dates of the movement itself are linked to the magazine, De Stijl. De Stijl the group and the journal, was founded in Leiden in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg, the organizer of the diverse group of artists and architects. Carrying on throughout philosophical disagreements and defections over doctrine, van Doesburg personified the group, carrying its ideas throughout Europe until he died in 1931. The journal ceased publication in 1932 with a commemorative issue edited by his wife. By then, the original artists had long since gone their separate ways.

It is useful to distinguish between the origins of De Stijl as a style, based on an abstraction of Cubism, and the impetus of the movement, which was founded in the consciousness of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. De Stijl evolved, as did many of the avant-garde movements during the early decades of the twentieth century, out of a realization that a new kind of society was coming into being and that this modern culture must be expressed by an entirely new art form. As van Doesburg stated in his Manifesto in 1918,

“1. There is an old and a new consciousness of time. The old is connected with the individual. The new is connected with the universal. The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world of was as well as in the art of the present day. 2. The war is destroying the old world and its contents: individual domination in every state. 3. The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual. 4. The new consciousness is prepared to realize the internal life as well as the external life. 5. Traditions, dogmas, and the domination of the individual are opposed to this realization. 6. The founders of the new plastic art, therefore, call upon all who believe in the reformation of art and culture to eradicate these obstacles to development, as in the new plastic art (by excluding natural form) they have eradicated that which blocks pure artistic expression, the ultimate consequence of all concepts of art. “

The Manifesto needs to be read as a refutation of Expressionism and its emphasis on the individual, upon emotions, and upon spontaneity. The rejection of pre-War Expressionism was common after the Great War. Romantic notions of glory in war and of individual heroic actions led to the first mechanized war and the post-war world sought refuge in the universal laws. Van Doesburg concluded,

“7. The artists of today have been driven the whole world over by the same consciousness, and therefore have taken part from an intellectual point of view in this war against domination of individual despotism. They therefore sympathize with all who work to establish international unity in life, art, culture, either intellectually or materially.”

This first manifesto was signed by the principle artists associated with the group at that time, including Robert van‘t Hoff and Jan Wills, architects, George Vantongerloo, sculptor, and Vilmos Huzar, Hungarian refugee, and Piet Mondrian, both painters. Notably absent was Bart Van Der Leek, a close associate to Mondrian, attesting to the conflicting ideas among this loose group of artists, scattered among Dutch cities. Van Der Leek and Mondrian were from Laren, a rural town and a popular artists’ colony, while van Doesburg and the others, including J. J. P. Oud, were from the Leiden-Hague area. Eventually, Van’t Hoff and Oud, left the group, attesting to the difficulty of trying to get individual artists with clashing perspectives to work within an artists’ collective. Van Der Leek disagreed strongly with van Doesburg, who liked to blur the distinction between painting and architecture, and broke contact with the rest of the artists by 1920. Although he and Mondrian both contributed to the journal, they did not want to be associated with De Stijl, except as contributors. Mondrian, himself, left Laren for Paris after the War ended in 1919, and his contacts with van Doesburg were limited until he formally dissociated himself with the group in 1925. Despite the strong differences and divergences among the artists, certain key concepts emerged from De Stijl.

First, the group wanted to join art and life, to make art reflect modern life. There was a “new sense of beauty” that coincided with the new age. “The Brown world had to be replaced by a White one.” “The Brown” referred to the Baroque era of seventeenth century Holland, the Holland of Rembrandt, and, most importantly, to the reliance of previous art upon nature. “The White” was a world derived, not from nature, but from the elementary construction of Cézanne and Cubism, which would replace the vagueness of the Baroque with the logic and rigor of geometry. Second, the idea of “the style” is an absolute concept, meaning that De Stijl is the best and most appropriate to modern culture. Art can never return to representation. Art must eliminate the “profanity” of the illusion in its search for the absolute truth. The “absolute” is the cornerstone of De Stijl, for the absolute can be expressed only through abstraction. Therefore, De Stijl art is always abstract. This third idea united the artists who rejected the curves of Art nouveau and its sensual connections to reality. They also eliminated mixed colors in favor of the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. Straight lines and right angles ruled and eliminated all traces of the artist’s personality. “I abhor all which is temperamental, inspiration, sacred fire and all the attributes of genius that conceal the untidiness of the mind,” van Doesburg said. And finally, De Stijl sought the precision and exactness of the machine and its clean and efficient forms.

Because De Stilj was exclusively a Dutch movement, there has been speculation that the art and architecture is uniquely Dutch. However, any resemblance between the flat, human-produced landscapes of Holland and the flat paintings of the artists is purely coincidental. A better connection would be to the philosophical tendency towards abstraction through mathematics that is part of the Dutch tradition. Mathematics is a way of expressing the realities of the world in numerical terms. Numbers immediately abstract and universalize the particular and subject the local to the universal logic of abstract though. Equally Dutch was the tendency to eliminate the incidental in favor of abstraction, as exhibited in the iconoclasm of the Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One can better understand De Stijl from viewing a painting of the bare and stripped interior of a Protestant church by Emmanuel De Witte. De Stijl removed iconoclasm from its religious origins, eliminated nature, and substituted a more universal and absolute quest for a utopian harmony. “The art of painting,” van Doesburg said, “can be explained only by the art of painting.”

Cubism suggested to the De Stijl painters that it was possible to move into abstraction. Bart van der Leek stated, “Modern painting transmutes physicality into flatness by reducing the natural to the terms and proportions of the flat plane; and through the understanding of space, painting achieves relationships.” The Dutch artists seemed to understand that Cubism, particularly that of Braque and Picasso, suggested that line and color and form could be used as signifiers instead of as describers. If that was the case, then Cubism had created a new visual language that substituted ideas or concepts for resemblances. The Cubist artists themselves were unwilling to take the final step into total abstraction and to relinquish their hold on reality, but the De Stijl artists were concerned with concepts that were abstract compared to the more mundane sources of Cubism. In addition, Cubism was a pre-War movement and De Stilj was a post-War movement with the goal of rethinking the world. But the impact of Cubism upon De Stijl would be a strong one, particularly the author of the 1920 series of articles on “Neo-Plasticsm,” Piet Mondrian, who used cubist ideas as a vehicle through which he made concepts concrete through painting.

Van Doesburg brought the Section d’Or exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants to Holland in 1920: the Section d’Or-Paris: Works by Cubists and Neo-Cubists. The “neo-Cubists” were the Dutch painters who were compared to the French Cubists by van Doesburg as those who realized the abstractions of the Cubists. It is apparent two years later in the anthology issue of De Stijl published in the journal in 1922 that Mondrian emerged as the leading painter in the movement…in the eyes of van Doesburg. He gave the artist credit for inspiring new artists “with the possibility of a new creative image” through his series of essays on Neoplasticism in De Stijl. However the year to come would lead to a rupture between the two artists over van Doesburg’s “Elementalism,” a form of painting which would allow the dynamism of the diagonal, borrowed from the Russian Avant-Garde painting of Malevich. Mondrian, whose belief system was wrapped up in the idea of balancing opposites into a harmony of equilibrium, broke from the leader on the issue of the dynamic line in 1925.

From 1922 on, van Doesburg understood architecture as the primary means of expressing the Neoplasticism or new forms of De Stijl. His third Manifesto was devoted entirely to architecture. By this time, he was without his primary painters and even his architects are breaking away to attain their own goals. The leader becomes a traveler and promoted his movement, which became more and more of a dream than an actuality, throughout Europe. Increasingly, his travels brought him under the influences of other movements, which fit uneasily with the De Stijl precepts. Dada was of great interest to Rosenberg and is linked to De Stijl in its insistence that art and life should be merged. Equally compelling was the Russian Avant-garde artists who shared to dreams of a new world and a new utopia. However, both movements, like the educational ideas of the Bauhaus, were firmly rooted in real world situations. De Stijl always sought universality and absoluteness. The aim of the movement was to make the abstract concrete and, through this materialization, it would change the world.

Under the influence of new acquaintances, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius from Germany, van Doesburg began to think of architecture as the overarching and all-inclusive. The Bauhaus was founded on the principle of the medieval cathedral where all the arts were combined under the auspices of architecture. During the 1920s, De Stijl, outside of the Parisian studio of Piet Mondrian, was exemplified as architecture. In the exhibition of De Stijl art in Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie l’Effort Moderne, the movement was introduced primarily through a series of architectural models, based upon the De Stijl designs for Rosenberg’s proposed home. Unfortunately, only two examples of De Stijl architecture remain today, one of them being the famous Schröder House of 1924, built in Utrecht by Gerritt Rietveld, a cabinetmaker turned architect, who transformed a Mondrian painting into a building.

From the beginnings of De Stijl there had been a clash between painters and architects. While both agreed that it was important for both art forms to move forward and to manifest the modernity of the actual world and above all to merge art and life, the collaborations between the artists were difficult. Who should control the space? What should determine the space, the structure of the architect or the paintings of the artist within the structure? The painter did not want his/her paintings to be subordinated to the will of the architect any more did the architect want to allow the painter to undermine his/her vision. Mondrian approved of the idea of his theories of Neoplasticism being manifested in architecture and used his studio as a site where he manipulated space through the dispersal and arrangement of cardboard planes of primary colors. For a brief moment there appeared to be the possibility of the merger of painting and architecture dreamed of by van Doesburg in the Schröder House, where Rietveld dematerialized the exterior walls of the home by painting the Mondrian white against which the red balcony railings drew sharp lines in the air. In the end, De Stijl dissolved on its own and died with Theo van Doesburg in 1931. None too soon, the age of utopia was about to come to an end.

The next posts will focus on Piet Mondrian and on De Stijl Architecture.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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