Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on May 10, 2010

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Museum of Modern Art, New York City
November 8, 2009–January 25, 2010

Upward and Goldrosa, c. 1926, by Josef Albers. © 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

Upward and Goldrosa, c. 1926, by Josef Albers. © 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

The Bauhaus retains impressive cultural significance for an institution that operated for a mere 14 peripatetic years. When Nazi pressure forced closure of the school in its third and final location, many of the teachers and students emigrated westward; a few landed in Boston. Graduates of local architecture schools are the progeny of aesthetic seeds first planted in Weimar Germany.

The pedagogy at the Bauhaus focused on a potent question, one that retains contemporary relevance: to what degree should art engage technology? To draw or not to draw? The dense MoMA exhibition (still available online), packed with sketches, drawings, paintings, photographs, and objects, chronologically traces the Bauhaus’ relationship to industrial production as it shifted from a craft-based school to one whose motto became “art and technology — a new unity.” An example is a studio exercise in which students created patterns with only the standard keys of a typewriter. The resulting abstract designs (later used for factory-produced textiles) are a wonderful example of how the machine can be harnessed for creative good. But no matter the cleverness evident in such techno-forward work, it is difficult not to be charmed simultaneously by the meticulous, hand-painted color-theory exercises by the students of Paul Klee.

The impressively comprehensive exhibition features work by both instructors and students. The devotion of seminal practitioners to introductory teaching — among them artists Josef Albers and Vasily Kandinsky, architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — was remarkable at the time and remains so in retrospect. These are the figures who persist, and theirs are the works that visitors want to see; but the student work is equally, if not more, delightful for its confident, experimental exuberance.

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