Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory

COMPARING MODERNISM AND POSTMODERNISM

The comparison of these two time periods was an inevitable result of the desire of Postmodern theorists to critique Modernist theory. But comparison was an early impulse trapped in the very polarities of Modernism that Postmodernism rejected. Nevertheless, establishing pairs of opposites allowed Postmodern thought to distinguish itself from its the ancestor before the new generation could go forward on its own terms. Regardless of the simplistic Oedipal origins, Ihab Hassen’s 1987 essay “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” provided a neat model of comparison that was highly influential:

Modernism

Romanticism/Symbolism Form (conjunctive, closed)/ Purpose/ Design/ Hierarchy Mastery/Logos Art Object/Finished Work/ Distance/ Creation/Totalization/ Synthesis Presence/ Centering Genre/Boundary/ Semantics/ Paradigm/ Hypotaxis/ Metaphor/ Selection Root/Depth/ Interpretation/Reading/ Signified/ Lisible (Readerly)/ Narrative/Grande Histoire/Master Code /Symptom/ Type/ Genital-Phallic Paranoia/ Origin/Cause God the Father Metaphysics/ Determinancy/ Transcendence

Postmodernism

Pataphysics/Dadaism/ Antiform (disjunctive, open) Play/ Chance/ Anarchy Exhaustion/Silence Process/Performance/Happening Participation Decreation/Deconstruction/ Antithesis Absence/ Dispersal/ Text/Intertext Rhetoric Syntagm Parataxis /Metonymy/ Combination/ Rhizome/Surface/ Against Interpretation/Misreading Signifier/ Scriptible (Writerly)/ Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire/ Idiolect/Desire /Mutant Polymorphous/Androgynous/Schizophrenia/ Difference-Differance/Trace/ The Holy Ghost Irony/ Indeterminancy/ Immanence

The destruction of Modernism was a slow moving chain reaction, like the 1987 video, The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss–element was pushed and toppled into another element which fell into the the third piece until a major explosion took place at 3.32pm in St Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972 when a sprawling housing complex named Pruitt Igoe was dynamited. Destroyed by its inhabitants who pulverized it from within before it was exploded from without, the highly decorated, prize winning celebration of Modernism utopianism imploded under the weight of Modernist entropy. The occasion, an ordinary one in the larger scheme of things was elevated into a historic landmark by Charles Jencks in his 1977 book The Language of Postmodern Architecture and set to music in the brilliant documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1975-1982).

pruitt-igoedemolish

The Demolition of the Pruitt Igoe Complex 1972

One could quibble that the example chosen by Jencks was a convenient but arbitrary one, but history has a grim way of making a prophet even of a mere historian. The architect of Pruitt Igoe was none other than Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), who was also the architect for the Twin Towers. When the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on September 11th 2001, it was widely announced that Postmodernism was over. So a somewhat obscure Asian American architect had the honor of being the omega and the omega of Modernism and Postmodernism.

Las Vegas as a Sign System

Wherever Postmodernism ended, it began where all things begin, in Las Vegas. It is perhaps no accident that iconoclasts Tom Wolfe (1930-) and Robert Venturi (1925-) both had Yale connections: Wolfe as a graduate and Venturi as a member of the architecture faculty. Wolfe made his literary mark wrote two seminal essays that defined the growing “counter-culture:” “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the famous 1963 article on the Kar Kulture of Los Angeles and “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” of 1964, both for Esquire magazine. As a contemporary of the Pop artists, Wolfe was not only rattling the cages of the ossified Modernist establishment, he was also pointing the way a new appreciation of one of the major taboos of Modernism, the vernacular. Indeed one could argue that Las Vegas, with its ambivalent status as a proper “city,” is a work of folk art, an unconscious counterpart to the less-is-more austerity of Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In 1968 the Strip with its riot of lights and pleasure became the destination for Robert Venturi and his new wife and fellow architect, Denise Scott Brown (1931-), their colleague Steven Izenour (1940-2001), with Yale students in two to see Wolfe’s “incredible electric sign gauntlet” for themselves.

In seeking an architectural site where contemporary “life” was organically creating architecture, the architects rejected other “new cities,” such as Los Angeles in favor of Las Vegas, which was “more concentrated and easier to study.” In the late sixties, the famed Strip, lined with casinos and hotels displaying brightly lit signs, was less a place where people lived and more an isolated site servicing improbable fantasies. Four years later, the trio published Learning from Las Vegas and by championing the vital and the vernacular, the book upended the purity of Modernist theory. In advocating for the intersection of art and life, Robert Venturi could be thought of as the architectural equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg as he and his partners called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. The preference for the ordinary and this attention to the unartistic world surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style, which had come to a sterile and corporate dead end. Not only did Venturi and Scott Brown not turn their backs on architectural history, they used the past to explain and validate their analysis of Vegas. The parking lot the the A & P grocery store is compared to the parterre of the gardens of Versailles: this is contemporary space where the architecture is taken over by the signs that are the façade of the buildings.

The architects have the Baroque tradition in architecture in mind: the long vistas of power are now long vistas of Route 66 which promise pleasure. Las Vegas is the new Rome, centrally planned and precisely laid out for a specific purpose. Like a Roman military camp, Las Vegas is laid out in an orderly grid which keeps in check the blazing lights constantly jumping and jiving to their own internal rhythms. What Venturi and Scott Brown pointed out that Las Vegas is more symbolism than architecture, meaning that meaning had become detached from the form and its function. The result was a landscape of free-floating signifiers. As they write, “Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned toward the front and no one sees the back..the artistic influence has spread and Las Vegas motels have signs like no others..” The visual contrast between the Weissenhof housing estate built by canonical Modernist architects in Stuttgart in 1927, and the brightly lit and colored pleasure palaces of Las Vegas is striking. The white box absolutism of Walter Gropius and his colleagues favored the general over the specific and the absolute over the particular. Las Vegas is all incoherence and is fixated on detail of the signage. “Detail”, that is, a reference, which would locate the work and place it beyond the realm of transcendence, was to be banished.

As the late Naomi Schor pointed out in her 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, the “detail” had long been relegated to the feminine as being opposed to the General or the Universal. The Detail was the unassailable Other and had to be banished. Detail like decoration is unnecessary within the totality. At the beginning of the 20th century, Viennese architect and theorist Aldof Loos declaring “ornament” to be “crime” in architecture. The stripping of “white architecture”, as architecture critic Mark Wigley termed it in his 1995 book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, coincides with the development of abstract art. Abstract art, stripped of representation, needed to ally itself with humanism, spiritualization, and self-actualization—all while excluding the other half of the human race: women. Wigley goes on to point out that Modernist architecture, in its turn, was only fashion, the “structure” of its “erections” betrayed by the white (dress) covering. It would take twenty years for a new generation of architects to develop a Postmodern approach to architecture.

Taking a cue from Las Vegas, Postmodern buildings emphasized detail and façade and referential signage over purity. Architects followed the “linguistic turn” of literary theory and were aware of the latest in philosophical trends. One of the most interesting theories that was manifested in art and architecture was that of allegory. Because Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism, which broke firmly with the past, Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins. Each element re-found by the architect retained its historical meaning even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure. A building by Michael Graves or Charles Moore would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to consistency of period or meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text.

vegas1960s

Allegory as Text

The theories that would support Postmodern art preceded the art and were then applied to the works of art in a mix and match fashion. Unlike Modernist theory, Postmodernist theory came from numerous sources, from linguistics to post-Marxism to the critique of Enlightenment philosophy. Because all of the texts upon which Postmodernism would be based were either in French or German, the translators and explicators became significant players in disseminating the unfamiliar theories to the academic and artistic audiences. Borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which in 1980 was still unfamiliar to American readers, the late art historian Craig Owens (1950-1980) wrote “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” The significance of this two part article is its early publication date, meaning that Owens introduced many readers to one of the important aspects of Postmodern theory. Owens begins by locating allegory in its site of origin, which is literature. As the prefiguration for the New Testament, the Old Testament, allegory was the origin of critique because of its role as commentary. Owens explained,

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos =other + agoreuei =to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather,he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however,he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance

Because Owens was writing his essay before art became “Postmodern,” his choices of art and artists to explain allegory are forced. When he stated that “Allegory concerns itself,then,with the projection-either spatial or temporal or both-of structure as sequence; the result,however,is not dynamic, but It is thus the of for it static, ritualistic,repetitive. epitome counter-narrative, arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events,”it is hard to understand how Minimal artists Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt–as we analyze them today–could possible have any relationship to allegory. Owens continued by linked appropriation and hybridity to allegory: “Appropriation,site specificity, impermanence,accumulation, discursivity, hybridization these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.” Owens identifies allegory with a kind of writing in the visual arts. Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1925-1993) was completed in 1978 and provides an excellent example of allegory. First, it is a witty reference to Robert Venturi’s comparison of Las Vegas to the piazzas of Rome and second, it is an ode to Las Vegas in its fictionality and in its assertion of the façade, which, indecently, is lit like a sign on the Strip. The Piazza is an assemblage of architectural elements and is a dizzy discourse on the history of the built environment. Therefore, “reading” the Piazza involves Robert Venturi, the Las Vegas strip, and a heavy dose of architectural historian Vincent Scully. In a nod to New Orleans, the façade rises like a fake Hollywood set from its shallow bed of water, the worst enemy of the low lying city.

In explaining how allegory is writing which is a text that must be read, Owens wrote,

If allegory is identified as a supplement, then it is also aligned with writing, insofar as writing is conceived as supplementary to speech.It is of course within the same philosophic tradition which subordinates writing to speech that allegory is subordinated to the symbol. It might demonstrated, perspective, that the suppression of allegory is identical with the suppression of writing. For allegory, whether visual or verbal,is essentially a form of script-this is the basis for Walter Benjamin’s treatment of it in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “At one stroke the profound vision of allegory transforms things and works into stirring writing.”

In the second part of his essay Owens discussed the art of Édouard Manet as a form of allegory. In his early career Manet made a number of what Michel Foucault would term “museum paintings,” or art that referred to other works of art. As hybrids these early paintings appropriated motifs from other famous works of art which could be recognized, even in their buried state, by viewers familiar with art history. In acting as though he was leafing through the pages of an art history text, Manet performed as a bricoleur that cultural producer highlighted by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Writing in The Savage Mind in 1966, Lévi-Strauss stated,

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’ – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

A comment that Lévi-Strauss made was particularly interesting for Postmodern theory: “It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the ‘bricoleur’ addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture.”In other words, the bricoleur works with”sub-sets” and does not, like the engineer, “question the universe.” Rather than attempt to remake subject matter for painting, Manet played with sub-sets of the already existing elements of culture. Compared to the awkward contemporary examples put forward by Craig Owens in 1980, the paintings of Mark Tansey who was actively involved in creating works of art that one had to “read thorough” to decode are a far superior example of allegory. Like Manet who dueled with the classical Renaissance tradition, Tansey rifled through the history of Modernist painting and piled on references to both Modernist and Postmodernist theories. Painting backwards by lifting paint off the canvas, illustrating in the discarded style of Norman Rockwell, Tansey paid homage to Lévi-Strauss in his 1987 painting, The Bricoleur’s Daughter, in which a young girl stands on a step stool and rifles through a set of cabinets. The cabinets, which are both above and below the counter are stuffed with art supplies and items gone astray from Dutch still life paintings, are a reference to the origin of museums as wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity. The role of the allegorist is that of a gatherer who piles on references through a collection of emblems found in the ruins of a past culture.

Allegory is always specific to the needs of a culture, meaning that there are periods when the intelligentsia drives “impure” forms of expression,such as allegory, from its boundaries. The intent of Walter Benjamin was to revive the reputation of Baroque allegory. Although he did not state his intention as directly, Robert Venturi’s frequent appeal to Baroque architecture in Learning from Las Vegas suggests a swerve away from the classicism of Modernism. And, in his turn, Craig Owens noted that Modernist literary theory had also rejected allegory. Allegory then is a commentary on a recent past and it is also a rejection of its predecessors, suggesting that allegory should be viewed as symptom of a cultural need to “take stock,” like The Bricoleur’s Daughter of the leftovers of the past.

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

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Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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

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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

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

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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: 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]