Germany celebrates 100 years of Modernism
A century after the Bauhaus movement’s birth, two museums showcase its art & artifacts
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Staatliches Bauhaus, an art and architecture school that began with reform to Germany’s art education and ended by transforming world design and architecture forever. An interdisciplinary school with international and avant-garde dimensions founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, the Bauhaus tells a story as complex as the volatile political and social events of the times. An intellectual and cultural center since the age of Classicism, the Weimar Republic after WWI paved the way for a democratic Germany with political and social changes generating the optimism necessary to promote new solutions to old problems. In the end, the Bauhaus existed in three cities—Weimar from 1919 to 1925, the heyday in Dessau, Germany, from 1925 to 1932, and Berlin from 1932 to 1933. After Nazi pressure finally shuttered Bauhaus doors, many teachers emigrated. Their ideas blossomed, particularly in America, where Bauhaus philosophy transformed into the dynamic and irrepressible global force called Modernism, challenging design and architecture principles around the world.
The story behind the rise of Modernism began with reaction to profound social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Progressive forces in Germany concerned with social evils and growing criticism of poor-quality, machine-made goods founded the Deutscher Werkbund in 1907, an organization of independent artists and industrialists, whose purpose included “the refinement of commercial processes through the collaboration of arts, industry, and crafts.” Its aim to uplift Germany’s economy after the chaos of war by “enhancing craft work” and helping designers find industrial employment had a corollary in improving the quality of German products. Aspects of this movement to bring art and design into the public sphere included inexpensive, healthy housing, and functional, affordable wares. Peter Berhens, its founder, was a painter turned designer, architect, and educator, as was fellow member, Belgian-born Henry van de Velde, the guiding intellectual force of the Art Nouveau movement and founder of the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar. The influences of both Berhens and van de Velde on young architect Gropius cannot be underestimated.
Later, when he wrote his revolutionary Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius called for artists and craftsmen to reunite all arts under one roof and to work with a sense of social responsibility under the primacy of architecture. Breaking with the past called for a radical curriculum. Students tapped into their own creativity, practicing exercises using texture, form, color, tone, and line analysis. Training to become a master craftsman in the artisan apprentice tradition also played an important role, since craft was considered the ideal unity of creative design and material production. “The school,” the Manifesto proclaimed, “is the servant of the workshop.” Students had to complete practical hands-on training in workshops with both a master of form, an artist responsible for the aesthetic aspect of the work, and a master of crafts, who oversaw technical skills. This dual approach promoted teamwork and allowed method and technique to go hand in hand with intuition and creativity.
But should a school that wanted to be modern revive age-old crafts? When avant-garde Dutch founder of the De Stijl movement Theo van Doesburg arrived in Weimar in 1921, his skepticism galvanized Bauhaus students, forcing Gropius to deal with issues that ultimately changed the school’s direction away from crafts toward industrial methods of production and their consequences for design. Students worked—and reworked—prototypes of products and furnishings by combining and interlocking geometric shapes, often in primary colors using contrasting textures and proportions and innovative materials such as chrome-plated steel tubing, plastics, and neon lights as well as ordinary materials, like glass, in innovative ways.
In 1923, Gropius staged “Bauhaus Week,” which included modern dance and music performances, an exhibition of Bauhaus products under the new central theme, “Art and Technology—a new Unity,” and the construction of Haus am Horn, a prototype for the single-family house of the future, entirely furnished by the workshops. Thousands traveled across Europe to view this cutting-edge model house planned as a synthesis of art and function, an experiment in design for future living featuring new construction methods and new materials. This was to be the first dwelling for an entire Bauhaus settlement, a project that never came to fruition. Today Haus am Horn is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the only original example of early Bauhaus architecture in Weimar.
Grand-Ducal Saxon School for Fine Arts, now Bauhaus University, and the former School of Arts and Crafts (1905-1906), now the Faculty of Art and Design of Bauhaus University, both designed by van de Velde and fine examples of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil architecture, were home to the original Bauhaus.
The 100th anniversary highlights are two museum openings. On April 6, the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar will open, displaying some 1,000 objects from the world’s oldest collection, and in Dessau, the city most closely associated with the Bauhaus, Gropius’s school building stands intact along with the masterhouses where teachers Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky lived. A new museum opens on Sept. 8 in Dessau.
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.