Inside the NOMA Exhibition, “An Ideal Unity: The Bauhaus and Beyond”

12:50 February 10, 2020
By: Alena Cover

The Bauhaus only existed for fourteen years, but even with such a short life-span, it changed the way the world looks. The influence of the design school is everywhere, and because of that, it can be hard to see. When the second Bauhaus campus was built in Dessau, Germany, many people had never seen a building like it , but to modern eyes the building looks ordinary--like a mall, or an airport--because of the impact that Dessau's Bauhaus campus had on the buildings that came after it. The clean lines, white plastered facade, and entire walls of glass windows were traits of a style that the designer and his contemporaries were developing that would become identified with modern architecture.

At the exhibition currently on view at the NOMA, an aerial-view photograph of the Bauhaus Dessau campus hangs on the wall near the entrance. The exhibition curator, Anne C. B. Roberts, gestures towards it and explains, "Walter Gropius designed this. You see an asymmetrical pinwheel: they have the classrooms, the workshops, and then the dormitory where the students and junior masters lived. And then the roof became a meeting space, and the connecting 'arms' included administrative offices, a canteen, and an auditorium. In designing the Dessau Building, Gropius and the team he worked with were thinking about the students moving from the dormitory into the classrooms and into the workshops. They were thinking about daily practices, the processes that we go through, how people live their lives."

Architect Walter Gropius founded the design school in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and worker-led movements like the 1917 revolution in Russia, he wanted to bring art and design and industry together in one place. His students would make traditional art alongside beautiful and functional objects that could be produced using modern manufacturing techniques, and which would be inexpensive and accessible in addition to improving quality of life. At the Bauhaus, Gropius wanted design to be unified across disciplines and across class lines.

Traditionally, Anne said, "there was this separation between the artist and the craftsperson. The artist was seen as a more elite figure and the craftsperson was seen as more of a laborer, and so [Gropius] wanted to bring those two roles back together and have them on equal footing."

The Bauhaus was born during a complicated moment in European history. "Grounding this moment in history is really important--coming out of the Russian Revolution in 1917, that led to a number of political movements in Germany that ultimately led to the German Revolution in 1918, which in turn led to the Armistice in November of 1918 and the cessation of fighting in World War I. The school was founded in Weimar in April of 1919, and beginning in February of that same year, there was also a constitutional convention that was meeting in Weimar. So as the school was coming into being, so was this new German republic. A number of the students and masters had been affected by the war, many had fought in the war," Anne said.

The school received state funding, and the students printed publications and exhibited showcases to demonstrate the worth of the work that they were producing to the government. In their workshops, they made products for sale to support the school. Their publications and exhibitions generated interest and drew students from across Europe as well as from as far away as India and Japan.

Gropius recruited masters in each discipline to join the school. "They worked on an apprenticeship model: every student first took part in a six month mandatory foundations course, and so they were learning about materials, form, and color theory. And so no matter what a student's ultimate goal was, they all had that grounding. And then they broke out into different workshops, and the names and disciplines of those workshops changed over the years but they included mural painting, fixtures and interior design, stagecraft and theater, and metalworking, among many others. And through those workshops the students worked as apprentices to the school's masters to earn a certificate in a particular field," Anne said.

Most of the works on display at the NOMA exhibition are photographs done by Bauhaus students and masters: pictures of daily life at the school, and pictures intended as art in their own right.

A gleaming stack of glass boxes stands on display in one corner of the room. They were designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld, a student at the Bauhaus from 1923 to 1925.

"These used an industrial heat-resistant glass that was new at the time. These were designed to move seamlessly from the icebox to the dining table. Because you can see into the containers, you save time by being able to see which one you need. They are also efficient in the space that they take up--they all stack together and the lids are interchangeable. I have containers from Costco in my home right now that are direct descendents of these," Anne said.

"I've talked about how it was multidisciplinary and there were all these types of workshops, but we're standing in a space that's mostly photographs-- It was through photography that the school was able to shape its visual identity," Anne said.

On one wall, a print by László Moholy-Nagy that incorporates photography, text, and graphic design exemplifies the styles that were developing at the school within each of those disciplines.

The poster uses the kind of simple, sans-serif typeface that would become closely associated with Modernism. "A lot of German print at the time was still using this heavy Gothic font, and then Herbert Bayer developed what was called the universal typeface, and it was all lowercase, because in typesetting it's more efficient to use all lowercase lettering. In German, every proper noun is capitalized, so it turned the typography-world on its head," Anne said.

"László Moholy-Nagy was a master there, and director of the metal workshop, and taught the foundations course, but even before he began teaching at the Bauhaus, he was a photographer and he was already writing about an approach to photography he called The New Vision and he saw the camera as a tool and photography as a means of not just reproducing what existed in reality but a means of producing something new, whether that was using dynamic viewpoints or cropping dramatically or using double exposures or layering. As the teacher of the foundations course, he was influencing a number of the students who were coming into the school," Anne said.

Women were welcome at the school, which was unusual at the time. Once women arrived, there was still a gender bias-- many of the women students were pressured into joining the weaving workshop, but there were several exceptions. "It started as this kind envisaged utopian society, they had these ideals that they were trying to reach, where everyone would be welcome. And no utopia reaches the goals they set out for, but it was multicultural, and had people from around the world, and from different educational backgrounds, and different philosophical and political backgrounds," said Anne.

The Bauhaus stayed open until 1933. The school shut down under pressure from the Nazi party. Many artists fled the country, but in doing so, they brought ideas that were developed at the Bauhaus to other parts of Europe and the world. Many came to the United States. At the suggestion of Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy started "The New Bauhaus" in Chicago that became the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which made its mark on the architecture of the city; in turn influencing modern architecture as a whole.

The exhibition displays photographs and decorative art from the NOMA's permanent collection to celebrate the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus. An Ideal Unity: The Bauhaus and Beyond will be on view until March 15th, 2020.

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