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Putting Modernism All Over the Map

It’s been 100 years since the Bauhaus school of art and design opened in the German city of Weimar. Today it’s best remembered for its clean-line, modernist designs — but behind this banal reputation lies a political project that sought to reimagine the relationship between art and the people after World War I. 

Iwao Yamawaki, "The Attack on the Bauhaus," 1932

Today, the word Bauhaus evokes clearheaded, functional design with a vague whiff of revolutionary modernism. In countless ways, the relatively short-lived school gave form to the modern experience — from the shapes of the letters we read to the arrangement of the cities we inhabit.

A straight line of influence, as the architect and critic Mark Wigley has argued, connects the Bauhaus to the smartphones that now mediate and organize many of our lives. Wigley did not mean this as a compliment. While an iPhone’s minimalist, intuitive form gives an impression of deadpan honesty, that same form can help obscure social realities: mining, sweatshops, limitless surveillance. Such contradictions were just as characteristic of the Bauhaus as its clean lines and primary colors.

The Bauhaus had three periods: first, it was a multidisciplinary school of art and craft in Weimar (1919–25), then a production-oriented “Institute of Design” in Dessau (1925–32); finally it was a private architecture school in Berlin (1932–33). During the Bauhaus’s brief and turbulent lifespan, interpretations of the institution’s politics varied widely. The eclectically progressive directorship of Walter Gropius in Weimar gave way to a more politically neutral Dessau period.

During the final, crisis-wracked years in Dessau and then Berlin, the Bauhaus swung from an overt engagement with Marxism under Hannes Meyer to a coexistence with National Socialism, under the direction of Mies van der Rohe. But even when the Bauhaus was most compliant to right-wing pressure, its approach to design met passionate resistance. Flat roofs, bare industrial materials, and sans-serif typography were read by nationalist commentators as irredeemably internationalist and un-German — or, in the more extreme version of the critique, inherently “Jewish” and “cultural-Bolshevist.”

The Bauhaus was chased across three cities by a metastasizing fascist movement, and the last options for negotiation evaporated in spring 1933 when the Gestapo occupied the Berlin campus and shut down the school. On the centenary of its founding, the legend of the Bauhaus remains overshadowed by the circumstances of its closure. Due to its long struggle with threats from the Right, the school is often remembered as a left-leaning and utopian project which was snuffed out by an enemy that was always external. But a closer look at the political alignments of Bauhaus professors and students reveals a much messier picture — itself characteristic of the ideological chaos that reigned during Germany’s interwar period.

 

Weimar (1919–1925)

In the fragile early years of the Weimar Republic, nationalist and proto-fascist sentiment was on the rise. Rightists blamed the Social Democrats for Germany’s humiliation in World War I. This resentment blended into paranoid fantasies about communists, Jews, and foreigners conspiring to stab the nation in the back.

Although the Bauhaus would ultimately become synonymous with rootless internationalism in Germany, the dominant atmosphere of nationalism played an important role in the school’s founding. When the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde, director of the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts, was forced to resign amid mounting anti-foreigner sentiment in 1914, he named the young architect Walter Gropius as a potential successor. Weimar’s Academy of Fine Art also had their eye on Gropius, who had recently distinguished himself with the Fagus shoe-last factory in Alfeld — the first building with a multi-story “curtain wall” of glass supported by a subtle grid of steel.

While a soldier at the front, Gropius drew up plans for a new type of school, and he received approval for a merger of the two institutions in 1919. Typical of the Bauhaus’s vaunted minimalism, its name was whittled out of the much more cumbersome “State School of Building [Staatliches Bauhaus] in Weimar, United former Grand-Ducal Saxon Academy of Fine Art and former Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts.”

The orientation of the Weimar Bauhaus was initially more artisanal than futurist. Gropius was heavily influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement, an early confrontation with industrial capitalism that called for the reform of everyday objects and spaces. The cover of the Bauhaus’s founding manifesto carried Lyonel Feininger’s woodcut of a cathedral rising into a turbulent sky, beset by shafts of light.

In the writings of Arts and Crafts theorists like John Ruskin and William Morris, the Gothic cathedral had represented the integration of art, labor, and life in the pre-capitalist world. Bauhaus pedagogy reimagined the structure of the medieval guilds: “apprentices” worked under a “master of form” (normally a painter) and a “master of craft” (a skilled artisan). Students who passed the initial coursework became “journeymen” eligible for waged work in the workshops. Many later became “young masters” — junior teachers — themselves.

The Bauhaus Manifesto promised to “raze the arrogant wall between artist and artisan” through a dual education that would form a new type of producer. This mission was undoubtedly successful. Bauhaus students would go on to transform the profession of architecture and to occupy wholly new job descriptions in the furniture, textile, and printing industries.

“It is our duty,” Gropius wrote, “to enlist powerful, famous personalities wherever possible, even if we do not yet fully understand them.”

The first masters of form were drawn from an international cohort of expressionist painters. The US-born Feininger was hired in 1919 and Paul Klee, from Switzerland, followed in 1920. Wassily Kandinsky joined the following year. Already a renowned painter and theorist, Kandinsky had recently left the USSR after his idiosyncratic, spiritual approach came into conflict with the materialist emphases of post-revolutionary art.

But it was the Swiss artist Johannes Itten who provided the strongest initial influence on Bauhaus pedagogy.

Among a cast of characters that all upheld eccentric theories on the magic of form, Itten gives the strongest impression of the Weimar Bauhaus as a kind of avant-garde Hogwarts. His classes opened with movement and breathing exercises, and his teaching ranged across color theory, art history, and mysticism — all aimed at developing an individualized sensitivity to materials.

He kept his head shaved and wore a monk-like outfit; his most devoted students wore matching robes. At Itten’s request, the Bauhaus canteen expressly served what one visitor described as “uncooked mush in garlic.” A disciple of the Mazdaznan sect, Itten practiced strict sexual and dietary discipline, and he was nearly successful in making his spiritual practice an official component of the school’s pedagogy.

According to former Bauhaus Archive curator Magdalena Droste, Itten was not the only master in whom a nostalgia for individual artistic production blended with ideas of natural racial hierarchy: in one essay, he depicted “the white race” as the pinnacle of human civilization. The Bauhaus, argues Droste, was constituted in a volatile matrix of conflicting ideas.

At the beginning, German nationalists and anti-Jewish students tried to gain the upper hand. Messianic visionaries…were allowed to speak and Itten and Muche to canvass for their vegetarian Mazdaznan beliefs. Anarchist, socialist, conservationist, life-reformist, and esoteric schools of thought all found support at the Bauhaus.

 

Gender Trouble

Admission to the Bauhaus reflected the Weimar government’s progress on equality of access to education and training. But while the first class of students boasted an unprecedented gender parity, all of the women were shunted into a weaving workshop — later the home of the Bauhaus’s only female master, Gunta Stölzl.

As Droste points out, this gendered division of labor proved to be one of the Bauhaus’s deepest ironies. Textile production integrated long traditions of craft knowledge with a rigorously mechanized work process. Far from a marginal adjunct to the “real,” male world of architecture, the activity of the weaving workshop would establish a clear model for the industrial focus of the Dessau period.

Anni Albers’s striking textile designs, for example, were also technically innovative: one fabric, utilizing unfamiliar materials that included cellophane, was engineered to reflect light on one side while absorbing sound on the other.

Gropius publicly affirmed gender equality, but privately commented that the masters should not undertake unnecessary “experiments” with “the fairer sex.” The Bauhaus would never produce a woman architect. In the broader area of student life, however, access was more even. Dance, theater, and sports were co-ed. Sexual morality was generally relaxed and bohemian.

As Elizabeth Otto documents in her recent book Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, feminist critique and queer expression were also common, though these currents mostly flew under the radar of official production. Right-wing pressure on the school’s existence was fueled, in part, by provincial shock at the non-traditional lifestyles of the students. Fittingly, many of these objections would crystallize around a single piece of furniture.

In 1922, apprentice Peter Keler designed a baby cradle using the elementary forms that had become de rigueur in Kandinsky’s course. A suspended platform on rockers was formed from three interlocking shapes: a yellow triangle, a red rectangle, and a blue circle. When the crib appeared in the Bauhaus’s inaugural exhibition of 1923, a story began to spread that it had been produced as a gift to a pregnant student.

A contemporaneous newspaper editorial seized upon this apparent celebration of a “fallen girl” as “evidence for the destructive methods of teaching and education practiced at the Bauhaus.” Others contended that the cradle’s heavy-handed geometry constituted child abuse in and of itself.

Aside from their origins in Bauhaus coursework, the basic shapes of Keler’s cradle also reflected a turn toward design for mass production. The 1923 exhibition opened at the height of Germany’s postwar inflation, and many of its displays were explicitly framed as solutions to housing and materials shortages.

The school’s own finances, meanwhile, were in dire shape: the exhibition itself had been the stipulation of a loan agreement. Bauhaus theatre director Oskar Schlemmer remarked in 1921 that the school’s dominant spirit was split between “Indian cult” and “Americanism” — the latter a shorthand for a fascination with assembly lines and automation.

As the school’s focus moved away from the individual artwork and toward partnerships with industry, Itten prepared to resign. His courses were divided between the young master Josef Albers and the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy, newly hired to run the metals workshop. Gropius had, in the meantime, revised the school’s motto: “A Unity of Art and Handicraft” became “Art and Technology — a New Unity.”

The Dessau Years

With a rightist electoral victory in 1924, the Bauhaus’s funding was immediately slashed in half. In response, the masters preemptively closed the school and weighed their options.

Among many offers for a new location, Gropius chose the manufacturing center of Dessau, home to large factories for IG Farben and the engineering firm Junkers. Just as importantly, Social Democrats were in power in Dessau, and they were receptive to Gropius’s plans for standardized developments of workers’ housing.

The Dessau campus itself would become a proving ground for the Bauhaus approach to space. Discrete structures for workshops, studios, apartments, and offices were linked by a floor that gathered collective activities: meals, performances, and intricately-conceptualized parties. The structures literalized pedagogical ideals of transparency, openness, and collaboration.

Observing the enormous curtain wall that ran the length of the workshop wing, the art theorist Rudolf Arnheim marveled that “every object displays its construction, no screw is concealed, no decorative chasing hides the material being worked. It is very tempting to see this architectural honesty as moral, too.”

Bauhaus pedagogy and production underwent several important transformations in Dessau. Bauhaus GmbH was founded as a limited company to market the products of the workshops, which were increasingly pitched as industrial prototypes: Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chairs, for example, were adapted for airplane seating at the Junkers aviation factory.

Under young master Herbert Bayer’s leadership, the printing workshop increasingly left behind the art print and embraced typesetting and advertising design; it soon became a kind of public relations office for the school and its wares. The guild-era categories were mostly dropped: masters and apprentices were now referred to as professors and students. Finally, though the Bauhaus was planned with building — Bau — at its center, Gropius was only able to start an architecture department in 1927.

Years of political wrangling had delayed many of Gropius’s plans, but the institution seemed to be on secure footing when he abruptly announced his departure in 1928. Gropius offered the directorship to Hannes Meyer, hired the previous year to head the architecture department. While still a professor, Meyer had lampooned the school’s “bogus-advertising-theatricalness”; after assuming the directorship, he announced a new “functional-collectivist-constructive” direction. The Bauhaus would now be oriented toward “necessities” rather than “luxuries,” centering the needs of the proletariat. Design problems would take their cues less from formal exercises directed by painters, and more from current research in the natural and social sciences.

Departing from the official position that the Bauhaus was engaged in “objective, entirely non-political cultural work,” Meyer was open in his communist sympathies. He rearranged the class schedule to more closely approximate an industrial workday and happily reported that increased cohesion and cooperation during his directorship signaled “an undeniable degree of proletarianization.” Under Meyer, a growing body of communist students came to understand the Marxist worldview as the only consistent outcome of a Bauhaus education.

Trade union facilities and workers’ housing completed under Meyer, after all, had clear precedents in projects initiated by Gropius — who once defended his own generous master’s quarters by saying, “what we today consider luxury will tomorrow be the norm!” In the background, however, Gropius, Kandinsky, and Josef Albers were already plotting Meyer’s dismissal.

Meyer’s political sympathies naturally attracted controversy. Bauhaus students were overheard singing communist songs at a 1930 party, which produced a feeding frenzy in the right-wing press. Later, it came to light that Meyer and a Bauhaus student group had each donated money to a Communist-led miner’s strike.

Attempting to stem the formation of a fully-fledged “communist cell” at the Bauhaus, the masters dismissed twenty students in a move that made Meyer himself a target of student anger. Nonetheless, the liberal mayor of Dessau — encouraged by Gropius and the old masters (with the exception of Klee) — demanded his resignation.

A few months later, Meyer boarded a train to Moscow with several of his closest students. Stalinist policy on design and architecture, however, would prove hostile to Meyer, who rounded out the rest of his career as a city planner in Mexico. Over the next decades, Gropius and the remaining masters would construct a canonical version of the Bauhaus that erased Meyer’s contributions altogether.

Gropius had meanwhile contacted the talented and rigorously apolitical architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Though Mies’s Bauhaus directorship is mostly remembered for his series of increasingly desperate efforts to keep the school open, his first order of business was in fact to shut it down. Bauhaus students had called a strike in response to the lack of transparency in Meyer’s ousting, and a Communist student paper ran a searing indictment of Gropius and Kandinsky’s roles in particular.

When the masters demanded the names of its authors, they were met with silence. Backed by the mayor, van der Rohe responded with police raids that ejected a total of twenty students.

The first to go were five of Meyer’s remaining foreign students, who were accompanied to the train station in a procession of red banners. The next month, students were ordered to apply for “readmission.” This involved signing a new constitution that affirmed a more purely aesthetic program of study, ended shared governance by students and professors, and even banned smoking. In an attempt to reduce expenditures, Mies increased tuition even as he slashed support for the workshops that provided advanced students with a wage.

 

Berlin: The Coming End

The onset of a global depression in 1929, followed by a substantial electoral breakthrough for the Nazis in 1930, signaled the beginning of the end for the Dessau Bauhaus. Local National Socialists circulated a flyer ahead of the 1931 elections demanding an immediate cessation of its funding; the cover of a protest against frivolous spending was belied by an accompanying demand to immediately destroy Gropius’s campus. (The Nazis would later convert it into a home economics school for women.)

During the last days in Weimar, Social-Democratic and Communist politicians had been united in attempts to defend the school. But this time, the Social Democrats abstained in the final vote. Mies rented a telephone factory in Berlin, and the Bauhaus began its final incarnation as a small private school.

On his arrival in 1931, one Bauhaus student noted that only a handful of his classmates did not identify as communists; a year later in Berlin, he wrote that the balance had completely flipped. By 1933, the anticommunist contingent included a number of Nazi Party members, including the professor Friedrich Engemann. None of this stopped the Gestapo from locking the school down for three months.

Students pleaded to Joseph Goebbels in personal letters; among Mies’s many entreaties, he argued that the Bauhaus’s closure would affect “people with almost exclusively nationalist beliefs.” In the end, the state canceled its obligations to pay professor salaries and presented a list of demands — including the dismissal of Kandinsky — that van der Rohe found unworkable. With an informal vote and a champagne toast, the Bauhaus closed for good on July 19, 1933.

 

Afterlives

The Bauhaus inspires enduring interest due in part to the unbelievable personal trajectories of many of its alumni. Bauhaus professors and students with Jewish heritage or leftist affiliations had begun to emigrate even before the school’s closure, but its final end accelerated the globalization of modernist forms and concepts.

In the US, Anni and Josef Albers found a home at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where they taught alongside John Cage and Willem de Kooning. Moholy-Nagy continued his work at Chicago’s “New Bauhaus” — later the IIT Institute of Design — with support of the industrialist (and ardent Bauhaus fan) Walter Paepke.

In Ulm, West Germany, Bauhaus alumnus Max Bill helped to establish another successor institution in 1953. Co-founder Inge Aicher-Scholl dedicated the Ulm School of Design to the memory of her siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl, executed ten years earlier for their work with the resistance group White Rose.

There were many who never got out of Germany. Textile workshop alumni Otti Berger and Hedwig Dûlberg-Arnheim, metalworker Lotte Mentzel, and book artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis all died at Auschwitz — where crematoriums and gas chambers had been designed by their classmate, Waffen-SS officer Fritz Ertl.

In a perverse betrayal of his education at Dessau, Ertl pleaded ignorance of the buildings’ precise function in a 1972 trial — and was acquitted. Outside of Germany, graphic designer Moses Bahelfer forged identification papers for the French Resistance, while photographer Irena Blühová published underground newspapers from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. These extremes paint a picture of the late Bauhaus as a microcosm of broader social forces that were then tearing the world order to shreds.

The careers of three prominent Bauhaus masters awkwardly straddled these extremes.

One of the most controversial projects of the Weimar period was the Monument to the March Dead — a memorial to workers killed in the 1920 Kapp Putsch, an attempted right-wing coup. Commissioned by the local trade union syndicate, the jagged concrete bolt was a project of Gropius’s architecture studio, built with the assistance of the Bauhaus workshops.

By 1933, Gropius was compiling an exhaustive proposal for the German Reichsbank, which married the open geometry of the Dessau complex to the monumental style increasingly favored by the Nazis. Though he was a finalist for the project, Gropius could see the writing on the wall; it would soon be a matter of Nazi policy to denounce anything connected to the Bauhaus as a “degenerate,” Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy.

Gropius quietly emigrated to the UK in 1934 — but, as Jonathan Petropoulos documents in Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, he still hesitated to burn bridges. In 1936, he requested permission from Goebbels to accept a position at Harvard, in a letter that argued for the propaganda value of his teaching work in the US. Though Gropius spent the remainder of his career obscuring the details of his Berlin years, he also made several attempts to secure visas for endangered architects and designers.

In 1926, Mies van der Rohe designed a monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht: an asymmetrical construction of rough brick evoking the walls against which countless socialist martyrs had been shot. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were victims of the Social Democratic Party’s haphazard policy of appeasing the far right, only to be betrayed in turn — a pattern which repeated itself, albeit less dramatically, in the final throes of the Bauhaus on Mies’s own watch.

In 1933, Mies, like Gropius, was a finalist for the Reichsbank competition; a submission for the Third Reich’s pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair followed in 1935. As the architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff has suggested, it is easy to picture Mies’s hesitation as he added a stone eagle and swastika flags to his sketches — less for their content than for their status as external embellishments, mere “decorations.”

In 1937 he emigrated to the US—having realized, Dyckhoff writes, that

his future patron would be no government, no political system, but the economic system that was emerging triumphant in the US. Modernism…would succeed as the landscape not of communism, bolshevism or nazism, but of international capitalism.

Researcher and curator Patrick Rössler has uncovered, in the case of Herbert Bayer, an exceptionally high degree of collaboration by a Bauhaus alumnus with no known Nazi sympathies. Bayer left the Bauhaus with Gropius in 1928 and established a successful advertising practice in Berlin.

Despite the danger faced by his many Jewish friends (including his estranged wife Irene Hecht), he stayed on well after the Nazi takeover. Bayer contributed design and illustration to three highly-visible propaganda exhibitions between 1934 and 1936; in the case of German People, German Work, he joined Gropius and Mies. But even Bayer’s 1936 design for a pamphlet on the Hitler Youth provided insufficient cover for his links to the Bauhaus; he fled the next year when one of his paintings was included in the anti-modernist Degenerate Art exhibition.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, he would play a central role in the consolidation of corporate modernism in the United States. Bayer joined New Bauhaus patron Walter Paepke in founding the International Design Conference in Aspen — a meeting-ground for design and management which would become the model for TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design).

The political zig-zags of these former masters were not uncommon in a period of capitalist crisis met by rising challenges from the Left and the Right. However, the incoherent commitments of its most prominent alumni underline the ambiguity of the Bauhaus’s politics of form. A century since its founding, it is commonplace to say that the Bauhaus was neither a school nor a style, but a “utopian ideology.”

In its investigations of modern productive capacities and its rejection of waste and want, the Bauhaus was utopian in the positive sense of that word. But just as often, it was utopian in the negative sense. The Bauhaus idea convinced a number of influential designers that their practice had an inherent life-reforming potential — one which could be actualized above or beyond the existing relations of social power.

But since they nonetheless remained entangled in those relations, they frequently stumbled into affirming and even intensifying them. Gropius, Mies, and Bayer’s pioneering design ideas proved compatible with anyone — be they revolutionaries, dictators, or capitalists — that flattered this sense of world-historical importance.