MoMA Takes the Bauhaus Back to School
December 16, 2009
The first object that visitors find when they arrive at Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is not a tubular steel chair or a coffee and tea service or any of the other icons that have come to represent the storied German school. Instead, it is a photograph showing a group of students posing inside a stack of gridded shelves taken as a memento when founding director Walter Gropius departed.
Blown up to the full height of the title wall, the photo signals that if MoMA’s first—and only previous—Bauhaus exhibition, which Gropius organized in 1938, sought to cast the history of the Bauhaus as the crucible for his theory of Modernism, this show will be about something more complex, messier, and more playful, the Bauhaus as a design school.
Organized by MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman from the department of painting and sculpture, the exhibition, which runs through January 25, includes some 150 objects. All of them were created at the school during its 14-year existence—there is no contextualizing work from the same period in the show.
The volume of work allows the curators to display the full range of media and production methods employed in the school’s discipline-blending curricula, displaying the work of masters alongside that of their lesser-known students. “African” or “Romantic” Chair (1921), a five-legged throne by Marcel Breuer thought to be lost for 80 years, for example, features a brocade by Gunta Stölz, whose textile work stands out throughout the exhibition.
The chair shares one of the show’s early galleries with (Untitled) Pillar with Cosmic Visions (1919-20) by Theobald Emil Müller-Hummel, who blends an idea of the exotic with the mechanical by carving what resembles an abstracted Oceanic spirit board from a wooden airplane propeller. The chair and the sculpture show a well-known teacher and an unknown student experimenting with an early-20th-century style of avant-garde exoticism frequently written out of Bauhaus orthodoxy.
The exhibition’s major success is in the visual connections that it draws between similar groupings of works without imposing an evolutionary idea of the school’s development. A 1919 painting by Johannes Itten, who taught a mysticism-infused foundation course until 1923, appears at the beginning of the show, and it establishes a palette of bold colors that connect everything from Herbert Bayer’s graphic renderings of advertising-covered public spaces and textiles by Anni Albers, Otti Berger, and Stölz to drawings made years later by students in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s architecture class.
These colors are probably best associated with wall painting in the school’s Gropius-designed Dessau facility (1925), and several of the walls in the exhibition have been painted in the bold hues to great effect. They not only pull out the color in the work on view, but they orient viewers in galleries packed with objects.
The exhibition also shows the range of production methods advocated by the school from photographs of workshop-produced materials for Gropius’ Sommerfeld House (1920-21) in Berlin-Steglitz to a gallery dedicated to the affordable, mass-produced objects designed for the conceptual Volkswohnung (people’s apartment). The latter were developed under Hannes Meyer, director from 1928 until 1930, who, bookended by the giants Gropius and Mies and historically criticized for his emphasis on class politics, gets something of a resurfacing in the show.
The overarching sense in the exhibition is of experimentation. Far from an institution uniformly developing a Modernist program and style — a reputation not only espoused by Gropius after the school’s closing but also cultivated by some of the Bauhaus marketing material on view — what emerges from the collection of objects is an institution adapting to and fueled by a period of social, technological, and aesthetic change while charting the course for the kind of interdisciplinary learning championed in today’s design schools.