Many of us are at least vaguely familiar with the clean, industrial look of the Bauhaus - the boxy white buildings, the tubular steel chairs, the geometric printed graphics. But not many Americans are aware of the history of this avant garde movement or of the profound influence it had on art and design as we know it today.
For the first time since 1938, New York's Museum of Modern Art is mounting a major retrospective of the Bauhaus School - its incarnation, theories, products, importance and ultimate demise. "Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity" presents over 400 objects tracing the development of the movement and its acolytes from its inception in Weimar in 1919, through the move to Dessau to its final home in Berlin before being shut down by the Nazis as "un-German".
The Bauhaus School was founded by the architect Walter Gropius who proposed a new look at the concept of applied arts as opposed to fine art. His belief, based on the principles of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, bestowed no special status on painting, drawing or sculpture. Rather he suggested that the same aesthetics be applied to more practical crafts and items that served everyday uses. To this end, he and his followers designed buildings, furniture, decorations, household objects, textiles and books that held their own among works of "fine" art. Carpets, chairs, tea sets, lamps and baby cribs were as much a part of the interior décor as the paintings, photographs and prints that adorned the walls. Practical designs by Marianne Brandt, Anni Albers, Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stöltzl existed side by side with works by Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Vassily Kandinski and Oskar Schlemmer (see "Bauhaus Stairway", 1932, oil on canvas, left). It was a true collaborative effort - a lifestyle project - that thrived on the inter-pollination of ideas.
Unfortunately the fate of the Bauhaus School was very closely tied to the changes in government in Germany during the Post World War I Weimar years. When the Liberal powers in Thuringia were voted out in 1925, so went the funding for the school and it was forced to relocate to Dessau, a city that was eager to develop a cultural identity of its own. When the same fate befell these city leaders in 1930, the school once again lost its support and attempted to re-establish itself with a new director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in Berlin. As Germany became less tolerant of new ideas and more suspicious of "nonconformist" activities, the school was officially sealed off by the National Socialist Party and the Berlin Police and was closed by its directors shortly afterward.
But the seeds of Modernism had been firmly planted and even though the school was officially shut down the ideas continued to propagate. The Bauhaus aesthetic continues to inspire architects, designers, decorators and artists in a way that would make Walter Gropius and his colleagues proud!
"Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity" continues at MoMA until January 25, 2010.