It took one determined trumpet to fell the walls of Jericho, but it has taken 90 years for scholars and curators to begin to grapple with and dismantle the Gropian curtain wall that created and defends our perceptions of the Bauhaus.
Recent shows at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity) and at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin (Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model) included many more aspects of the work done at this most influential of design schools than have any previous exhibitions. The great tussle between the Bauhaus’s Expressionists and its Constructivists is more fully exposed than ever before.
Similarly, a current crop of books and monographs (Gunta Stolzl: Bauhaus Master; Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft and Design; Bauhaus Conflicts, 1919-2009: Controversies and Counterparts, to name some) seem uninterested in shoring up the heroic quality of their subjects, and very interested in looking deeply into their subjects' humanity. This is a refreshing change.
The public façade of Bauhaus uniformity was a relatedness of vision that Gropius worked hard to achieve. His most notable effort was the MoMA 1938 retrospective “Bauhaus 1919-1928,” which he himself curated. At the time, he was chairman of Harvard’s architecture school. And in this exhibition--the first to show Americans what the Bauhaus had done-- he skillfully manipulated the facts. People at the school who had become his political enemies or had worked in genres that he considered a bit shop-worn and not of-the-moment were simply downplayed or not included. It was this warped vision--Gropius's public relations campaign-- upon which we began to create our current design history.
For years, young designers have been taught that the Bauhaus, though made up of individuals, had an “essential uniformity of vision,” an essential uniformity that informed all of its students’ work. Because a Bauhaus tea kettle had nice lines, our teachers somehow gave us the impression, inadvertantly or adamantly, that the person who had designed said teakettle had a direct line to the Spirit of Order in the Universe, and that this designer was more rigorous, more righteous, less messily human— more "modern" than we could ever hope to be. Certainly, quiet references were made to one or two "dissenting voices," but generally, we were given to believe that the Bauhaus was about clean lines and order. Nothing, it turns out, could have been farther from the truth.
And this is why Nicholas Fox Weber’s book, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, is such a wonderful thing to read. It’s the story behind the façade of the Bauhaus. It’s about the messy, sloppy, lovelorn, narcissistic, masochistic, petty, courageous lives of the people who did much of their best work there.
The wall of impersonality finds no role in our Facebooking world. It is interesting to note that the huge Berlin exhibition “Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model” was created to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are seeing that the seamless, impervious State-- the seamless, impervious corporate facade-- cannot hold up to a tweeting generation.
In getting to know these six people of the Bauhaus group (Gropius, Klee, Kandinsky, both Albers and Mies van der Rohe) in getting to know their financial troubles and their small successes, we get to feel closer to them. When Weber pulls them off their pedestals, we have the opportunity to learn from them in much more intimate ways than we ever learned from their "cleaned up" selves.
There is a downside: Seeing these artists and designers clothed in their everyday humanity is like catching the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain. In reading Weber’s book, Bauhaus modernism loses some of its somber, Germanic, patriarchal high seriousness for us. It is a serious loss, this loss of the heroic. We are losing it everywhere, not just in books about famous designers. But it is a loss that allows the Bauhauslers into our lives— makes us care about them, rather than revere them. Love, as Shakespeare mentioned, is not idolatry.