Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus
Fiona MacCarthy, Faber & Faber, 2019, ISBN 978-0-571-29513-5
Hardback, 548 pp., 9¼ x 6¼”, £30
Josef Albers: Life and Work
Charles Darwent, Thames & Hudson, 2018, ISBN 978-0-500-51910-3
Hardback, 352 pp., 9¼ x 6¼”, £24.95
Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America
Alan Powers, Thames & Hudson, 2019, ISBN 978-0-500-51992-9
Hardback, 280 pp., 9¼ x 6¼”, £24.95
Interest in the Bauhaus and all it stood for has long outlasted its brief lifetime from 1919 until suppressed by the Nazis in 1933, as evidenced, for example, by the recent Tate Modern retrospective of the weaver, Anni Albers. However, as Alan Powers persuasively argues, ‘everyone finds the version of the Bauhaus they are seeking, either as a positive or a negative value.’
These three elegant books, published to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, provide considerable insight into the personalities involved, and their contributions to the continuing legacy of the Bauhaus. Fans of Fiona MacCarthy’s previous biographies of Eric Gill and William Morris will not be disappointed, while Charles Darwent provides a fascinating insight into the notably reticent Josef Albers. Alan Powers is more concerned to unpack the mythology of the Bauhaus and its impact on the theory and practice of design following the diaspora of some of its leading lights, with particular focus on the UK and the US from the 1930s to the present day.
When Walter Gropius arrived in London in 1934, his opportunities for work having evaporated under the Nazis, he was preceded by his considerable reputation both as the founder of the Bauhaus and also as the designer in 1914 of such modernist icons as the Fagus Factory, Alfeld-an-der-Leine.
And yet, despite teaming up with the architect, Maxwell Fry, his time in England was not a commercial success, with relatively few realized commissions. There was little real understanding of modernism at that time, and as Anthony Blunt was to remark in a Spectator article on 2 August 1935: ‘The Englishman in general dislikes functional architecture – the buildings of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mendelsohn and the rest – because they are not homey.’
Gropius was more successful in the US, where he had been invited to head the newly formed Graduate School of Architecture at Harvard University in 1937 – a position he managed to combine until his resignation in 1952 with setting up and active participation in The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC). Thereafter, he appears to have spent the remainder of his life continuing to promote the ideas of the Bauhaus, and his own role in it.
A minor criticism of MacCarthy’s book is that, as in her previous biographies of Gill and Morris, she is arguably seduced by her subject (who she met in the penultimate year of his life in 1968), and is thus inclined to be less critical of some of his more questionable achievements, such as the controversial Pan Am building in New York. However, she is concerned to reveal the man behind the reputation, chronicling amongst other things his several passionate love affairs and his unlikely first marriage to the self-serving Alma Mahler. She also shows how true he remained to his original principles. The initial Bauhaus manifesto in 1919 owed a clear debt to Morris and Ruskin: ‘There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art.’
Throughout his life, Gropius went on believing in the essential nature of art, promoting the values of community and good living as the true goal of architecture. In so doing, he was opposed to the notion of the ‘starchitect’ as exemplified by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier. As Sally Harkness, one of his TAC colleagues, was to say: ‘Everyone wants to think of him as one of the world’s great architects; he wasn’t. He was one of the world’s great philosophers.’
The Bauhaus existed in a more or less permanent state of financial and inter-personal crisis – ameliorated to some extent by Gropius’ ability to throw a memorable party. But of course the greatest challenge was political once the Nazis started to grow in power following the surprising cultural flowering that took place in Germany immediately after the First World War, of which the Bauhaus itself was an example.
Gropius himself was at pains to remain apolitical (although personally opposed to the Nazis, he did necessarily accept some architectural commissions from them after he had left the Bauhaus in 1928). However, his successor at the Bauhaus, the architect Hannes Meyer, promoted an openly Marxist agenda, gradually revealed only after Gropius’ departure. And it was Josef Albers – a determined ‘non-joiner’ throughout his life, who resisted any kind of political alignment – together with Kandinsky who played a significant role in Meyer’s eventual removal, by controversially denouncing him to the authorities at a time of acute political sensitivity when there was an increasingly hostile National Socialist faction on the Dessau city council.
It seems that one can legitimately ask how successful the Bauhaus was in its stated aim of combining art and technology, and in somehow linking handwork with mass production techniques. Yet it is perhaps in Albers’ work that we see the closest attempt at a reconciliation. Between 1950 and his death in 1976, Albers created more than 2000 paintings in the series that was to define him as an artist, ‘Homage to the Square’. Darwent argues that there is a mechanical element to this infinite variation on a theme. Furthermore, the materials used in each painting are meticulously described on their reverse so that they could, in theory, be repeated by anyone. And yet, for Albers, ‘colour was an analogy of human behaviour and this led him to a belief in the inescapable moral function of art’.
Of the three books, that by Alan Powers is the most questioning of his subject. He shows persuasively how some of those most concerned with promoting the Bauhaus ideals (such as Niklaus Pevsner or Herbert Read), were responsible for creating another kind of fiction. According to this narrative, the Bauhaus emerges ‘as a kind of zombie, capable of deceiving people into believing it was the real thing, while actually a caricature and oversimplification of the complex original. This zombie is still walking the planet . . .’
Powers brings his considerable erudition and knowledge of the contemporary cultural scene that existed at the time when some of the ‘big beasts’ of the Bauhaus (Gropius, Van der Rohe, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, etc.) were forced into exile, and charts the complex reaction to the modernist project that took place during that period and in subsequent years. In so doing, he also reveals some of the dichotomies that existed both in actuality and in the self-promotion of the Bauhaus, and sets out a rational assessment of its successes and failures, at one point suggesting that the Bauhaus was, ‘in many ways better adapted to the new world of branding, corporate identity and promotion than to the Platonic quest to cross the chasm between art and industry while leaving the purity of art intact.’
Of all the characters described, perhaps ‘that lovely madman’ (to quote Jack Howe), Moholy-Nagy, comes across as the most interesting for our times in view of the impending global ecological crisis we face. In his posthumously published Vision in Motion (1947), he argues for the interrelatedness of all aspects of man’s fundamental nature, including our relations with the natural world, and coins the intriguing concept of the ‘biotechnical’ to explore, amongst other things, how human technology is in fact based on natural processes.
Letter Exchange members will be particularly interested in the brief account of Anthony Froshaug’s time teaching at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm from 1957 to 1961. The HfG had been established in 1946 as the self-declared ‘successor to the Bauhaus’, with Max Bill as Director from 1951. Froshaug had been influenced by Jan Tschichold’s New Typography (famously repudiated by Tschichold in a fierce exchange with Bill in 1946 – interestingly not covered by Powers), while Tschichold himself had previously been inspired by the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition.
Perhaps Froshaug may be permitted the last word in describing what made the HfG (and, by extension, the Bauhaus) so special: ‘. . . in spite of the internecine conflicts among the staff, in spite of the blinkered attitude of the formalists, the dilettantes, the romantics, the contract-hunters, in spite of all friendly and all inhuman tendencies – the mixing of nationalities, professions, abilities and cultures in the foundation course produced incredibly high standards of thinking and presentation, both among staff and students.’
All three books are intelligently designed and contain a generous number of colour illustrations. The MacCarthy and Powers books also print coarse-screened black and white halftones on the uncoated text paper, lending the books an artefactual quality consistent with their subject matter.