Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bauhaus at MOMA

Reminder: The Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity exhibition closed on Jan. 25 at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. I've been there twice--my later comments were written after my second visit. I would have gone a third time if had had the opportunity--I loved the exhibition so much--it hit me on a very visceral level.

← table lamp by Wilhelm Wagenfeld


mac said...

Ulrich, once again we are in NY and want to go to MOMA, and it is Tuesday and it's closed..... If I get up early enough tomorrow, I will go before a meeting.

Haven't seen you name on the blog lately, hope you are ok.

Ulrich said...

@mac: I'm sure you'll like it. Particularly interesting for me, a former design teacher, were the many student works shown--along with some of the modern classics produced by the Bauhaus faculty, of course. But even there the exhibition holds surprises, like an abstract "light" film made by Moholy-Nagy, possibly my favorite among the Bauhaus instructors. And De Stijl does get the recognition it deserves...

Re. blog: I'm fine--have I been absent that long? I was either in NYC or came in late and had nothing to add to the discussion--couldn't come up last night with a joke about germy/German desserts!

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, Well I went to the Bauhaus exhibit too and I really liked it. I was especially taken by the wonderful toys they created and I'm quite enamored of the objects that highlighted, in interesting and unique ways, the combining of overt shapes.

I am currently in a debate with a friend of mine who says she read an article about how traditional the Bauhaus school was toward women and her point of view seems supported by the exhibit film showing women being the only ones who use the household objects designed by the Bauhaus. I guess the film was a PR attempt but the presence of women and absence of men was striking.

But some of the posters in the exhibit make it a point of saying how the Bauhaus encouraged and celebrated unconventional notions of femininity. Do you know anything about this? I know applicants for the school itself numbered more women among them than men, which is very interesting. Any thoughts?

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: I have no hard data (will buy the catalogue at my next visit)--only impressions from the exhibit. So, for what it's worth:

The degree to which women are featured as students and instructors, later successful designers, is remarkable, given what I know of the times. The absence of men in a promotional film for household items should not come as a surprise--have you seen men wielding a vacuum cleaner lately on American TV? But there also seemed to be a glass ceiling--I can't assume a woman was ever considered for leading the Bauhaus--even if the ceiling was a little higher than in the surrounding world.

Esther said...

Ulrich, I'm interested to hear that your favorite among the Bauhaus instructors is Moholy-Nagy. I thought that his paintings were the most striking in
the show.

This is from Jonathan Glancy's review (The Guardian, Sat 7 Nov 2009) of a new book, "Bauhaus Women," by Ulrike Muller: "More women than men applied to the school in 1919, and Gropius insisted that there would be 'no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex' — those very words betraying his real views. Those of the 'strong sex' were, in fact, marked out for painting, carving and, from 1927, the school's new architecture department. The 'beautiful sex' had to be content, mostly, with weaving. . . . By the time Mies van der Rohe was appointed direcror in 1930, the Bauhaus had essentially become an architecture school and, increasingly, there was little place for women to shine. Those who did, like Anni Albers, did so only after they abandoned the Bauhaus."

Ulrich said...

@Esther: True. On the other hand, one has to see the larger picture: Only in the present generation has a woman succeeded in becoming an architectural star, Zaha Hadid.

Esther said...

Yes, I thought of Zaha Hadid, who, with her scarlet coat and insolent gaze (in the "New Yorker" picture), could be the spirit (avatar?) of The Revenge of the Bauhaus Women.

Ulrich said...

Remember: There were Bauhaus women--there were no Harvard or Yale women in their resp. schools of arch. at the time (there were at MIT, though!). And I also believe that the Gropius quote was meant as gallantry at the time, unsufferable as it appears today. I'm not trying to defend gender policies at the Bauhaus--when it came to those, its attempts to be leading edge left much to be desired.

Still, one of my lasting impressions from the exhibition is how large the contributions of women were, and they are not restricted to weaving and knitting. One of the stars of the exhibition, to me, is Marianne Brandt, who became head of the metal shop. Her designs for objects of daily use have become classics and easily hold their own next to those of male designers, like those of Wilhelm Wagenfeld (see the lamp depicted in my post, which is still produced today and which we bought during a visit to Weimar).

Ulrich said...

I'm back from a second visit and will record some of my reactions in the next few days. Since all reviews that I have seen give summaries of the Bauhaus history, I will not delve into it at any length--just one remark: Too much may be made of the manifestos Gropius wrote to set the Bauhaus course--grandiose statements and muddled thinking go hand-in-hand in them, and I can't see how anything resembling what the Bauhaus accomplished could derive from them.

No, Gropius' genius was in assembling a faculty whose combined brilliance has never been matched again in any design school that I know of, a faculty that could deliver on the vision (inadequately) spelled out in his writings: Itten, Klee, Kandinsky, Schlemmer, Muche, Feininger, Moholy-Nagy (Swiss, Swiss, Russian, German, German, American, Hungarian, respectively)--it boggles the mind. Through their work and that of their students--especially the gifted first generation with Stölzl, Breuer, A. and J. Albers, Bayer etc--Gropius' vision was made concrete. The miracle is that, in fact, it happened.

Ulrich said...

One sentence from the explanatory stickers in the exhibition specifically hit a chord with me: “Klee’s teaching experience had a noticeable effect on his own work“.

Gropius’ charge to his faculty and students was to rethink the foundations of architecture and design. The old world had perished in the inferno of WWI, and it was obvious to the early modernists that they could not go back to the old models associated with that world. But where do you start when imitating historical precedents is no longer an option? The Bauhaus’ answer was, go back to basics, to color and shape and how to arrange them in 2- or 3-dimensional space. De Stijl and the Constructivists had shown possible directions into which this impetus could lead--it fell to the Bauhaus teachers to turn all of this into a pedagogical program. And people like Klee or Kandinsky took their mission seriously—it gave them the opportunity to clarify for themselves the foundation of their art in a way that made it teachable. One result is Klee’s “Pedagogical Sketchbook”, which remains a delight to the present day—here’s his instruction on how to draw a line: “take a point on a walk” (einen Punkt spazieren führen).

To have teachers who take teaching assignments as the opportunity to figure out things they do not know themselves at the beginning and have to learn together with their students is a thrill that I have experienced in my own education (although, of course, in a historically far less significant context) at the Technical University of Berlin in the mid 1960’s, where O. M. Ungers, the recently appointed Professor from my hometown, Cologne, used his teaching duties to rethink architectural design in order to liberate it from the anemic modernism prevalent in German post-WWII architecture. I tell you, it was exciting, and I think I have such a visceral reaction to the Bauhaus exhibit because it reminds me so much of what I experienced myself (albeit, I have to stress again, on a much less exalted level).

Hiring “star” teachers does not always work—some love to act as gurus, perplexing everybody with cryptic pronouncements that leave students unenlightened; some take the easy way out by showing up only infrequently and leaving the real work to underlings (Assistenten at German Universities)—not so the Bauhaus teachers. I presume the school’s mission aligned with the core of their own interests to such a degree that teaching ceased to be a distraction; rather, it became an integral part of their own work.

What emerged form the—I must presume, intense-- interaction between teachers and teachers (Klee and Kandinsky shared a house for 10 years) and teachers and students was something like the “Bauhaus style”—not beholden to historical models; abstract—but not always so; colorful; and, very importantly, non-doctrinaire and therefore enormously flexible—it allowed for nothing less than the “reimaging [of] the objects of daily life” (from another explanatory sticker). The most amazing thing: It remains fresh to the present day—there is not a single object in the exhibition I wouldn’t love to have in my own house (well, I have to exclude some textiles, but that’s just my taste).