Nine decades after Walter Gropius founded his revolutionary Bauhaus academy, dozens of exhibitions across Germany are celebrating a movement that embodied much more than simply aesthetics. Celeste Sunderland investigates.
Seven letters stream down the side of a building. No fussy serifs adorn this stunning, simple font. With clean lines and smooth curves they proclaim the existence of a building made of steel and glass, constructed to house a legendary school where creativity flourished, and art and technology became one.
The Bauhaus Building rises above the terra-cotta rooftops of Dessau where it was constructed in 1926. A symbol of a revitalised nation, the geometric building of interlocking blocks became a UNESCO World Heritage site seventy years later, but it was one hundred kilometres to the south, in the fabled city of Weimar, where the Bauhaus movement began.
In 1919, just a year after the end of World War I, a young generation of Germans was eager to rebuild their creatively and economically bankrupt nation. Inspired by the words of the then 36-year-old architect Walter Gropius, they signed up for an altogether new kind of academy dedicated to the merits of skilled craftsmanship without the academic hindrances of the "old arts" schools.
With a manifesto that linked art with craft, Gropius set out to form "the new building of the future" – a place where disciplines like architecture, sculpture, and painting merged seamlessly. He enlisted leading artists like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, visionaries who developed their own concepts, independent of tradition.
They taught courses on colour theory, analytical drawing, and three-dimensional studies while leading workshops on painting, printmaking, pottery, industrial and interior design, weaving, and typography. According to Dessau Bauhaus Foundation Director Phillip Oswalt, this trans-disciplinary approach set the Bauhaus apart from any other movement.
He recently explained that "bringing people from different design professions together" was one of its core ideas.
These highly specialised workshops developed products such as the table lamp by Karl Jacob Jucker and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Marianne Brandt's silver teapot, and Marcel Breuer's nesting tables and tubular steel chairs. Easily reproduced, they became icons of twentieth century craftsmanship and influenced myriad designers in the decades that followed.
"You have continuities," Oswalt told The Local. "Some of the products are still produced. Designers made updates or developments of [Bauhaus] design ideas. You have things that have a strong relationship to Bauhaus ideas, even something like IKEA furniture, just to give an example of one brand."
The convertible tables and stainless steel coffee pots that fill contemporary design stores today do reveal a marked influence, and would fit right in at one of the four Masters' Houses Gropius built adjacent to the main Bauhaus building.
But looks can deceive, and Oswalt warns against labelling anything that embodies a modernist aesthetic with the term Bauhaus.
"There are quite a few people who relate to the ideas of Bauhaus in an articulated, explicit way, but there are things you can see in relationship to the Bauhaus ideas which are not necessarily derived from studying the Bauhaus program," he said.
That’s because the the Bauhaus movement went beyond simple aesthetics. It incorporated societal issues and reacted to a population's basic needs. During the Bauhaus' fourteen years of existence, relationships between topics like art and science, style and form, functionalism and necessity were constantly debated.
After Gropius' departure in 1927, the directorial reins passed to Hannes Meyer and then Mies van der Rohe, who both presented new ideals, and shifted the school in ways that often conflicted with one another. These continual changes in perspectives, Oswalt explained, were a key factor in the Bauhaus' development.
"It was dynamic and controversial and many-fold," he explained.
In 1925, a far-right government came to power in Weimar, which compelled the school to relocate to Dessau. But the Bauhaus experienced further hardships and moved to Berlin in 1932, where it remained for just one year before it closed as the Nazis took power. Many of the masters emigrated to the United States. There, Mies van der Rohe became a superstar architect, Moholy-Nagy established the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Gropius took a position at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
In Germany, three important sites offer insights into the movement’s impressive legacy.
At the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, hundreds of objects created by teachers and students fill the original, historic building where the school was founded. The Dessau Bauhaus Foundation offers guided tours of the workshops and rooms where the masters lived and worked. And at Berlin's Bauhaus Archive, revolving exhibitions delve into topics complimenting the museum's vast permanent collection.
But this is a momentous year in the world of Bauhaus, and in addition to these three celebrated sites, dozens of exhibitions and events are taking place throughout Germany, offering plenty of ways to encounter its unmistakable style.
For a comprehensive listing see the Bauhaus 2009 website.
Exhibition: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - On the Way to Weimar 1917-1923
Kunsthaus Apolda Avantgarde, Bahnhofstrasse, 42
April 05 - June 21, 2009
Early paintings, drawings, and prints by the Hungarian artist and Bauhaus master trace his development from expressionism to constructivism.
Exhibition: Modell Bauhaus
The Martin Gropius Bau, Niederkirchnerstrasse 7
July 22 - October 4, 2009
Iconic pieces from Germany's three Bauhaus institutions, the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau, the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin and the Bauhaus Museum Weimar provide a comprehensive overview of the Bauhaus' contributions to 20th century design and examine the movement's influence on the present day.
Exhibition: Margaretha Reichardt
Kulturhof Krönbacken, Galerie Waidspeicher, Michaelisstrasse 10
September 12 - October 11
The life and work of Erfurt-born, Bauhaus-trained weaver Margaretha Reichardt is celebrated with this colourful exhibition of carpets, tapestries, photographs, and personal documents.
Exhibition: Encountering Bauhaus - Kurt Schmidt and Avant-Garde Artists Kunstsammlung Gera, Küchengartenallee March 25 - June 14
For the Bauhaus' first exhibition in 1923, Kurt Schmidt developed a performance called the "Mechanical Ballet," which joined dance and technology. A series of works from the artist's varied periods hang alongside pieces by Bauhaus masters and students like Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, and Lothar Schreyer.
Exhibition: Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain and the Bauhaus Museum of Applied Arts, Greizer Strasse 37 June 23 - September 20, 2009
Classic pieces of pottery and porcelain, like smooth white vases and elegant teapots created by Bauhaus ceramicist Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain sit within Gera's Museum of Applied Arts display cases all summer.
Exhibition: Modern but not Fashionable - Bauhaus Artists in Gotha
Schlossmuseum, Schloss Friedenstein October 10, 2009 - January 3, 2010
The desk lamps, coffee pots, and tea strainers of Wolfgang Tümpel and Marianne Brandt are displayed along with original sketches in this exhibition of two Bauhaus metalwork students who worked in Gotha during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Exhibition: Kandinsky - Paintings, Drawings and Graphic Prints
Stadtmuseum Jena, Markt 7 September 06 - November 22, 2009
Devoted teacher and visionary abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky was one of the Bauhaus' most revered masters. This exhibition presents examples from the artist's entire oeuvre, and examines his connections with the city of Jena.
Seminar - The Bauhaus in Jena 1919 - 1933 Volkshochschule Jena, Grietgasse 17a April 30, May 7, May 14, May 28, 6-7:30pm
Over the course of four Thursdays, this seminar traverses the history of the Bauhaus, through discussions and evening walks through Jena.
Film: New Building I - Efficiency Fever and Urbanism Kommunales Kino, Goetheplatz 11 April 23, 2009, 7:30pm
Kommunales Kino screens a series of historic films including one from 1926 where Ilsa Gropius demonstrates the time-saving advantages of a modern kitchen. A full program of Bauhaus related films runs through December.