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PARIS — L’Esprit du Bauhaus (“The Bauhaus Spirit”) is a serenely spirited show that reintroduces us to the many and enduring innovations of Walter Gropius’s German art school. As many of the things on view at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs could be mistaken for products from contemporary global retail chains, we need to work backwards to extract principles from the objects by revisiting the theoretical and political-utopian premises that shaped them.
Operational from 1919 to 1933 (when it was forced to close under Nazi pressure), the Bauhaus’s functional spirit was adroit open-mindedness in diametric opposition to that of “art for art’s sake.” The Bauhaus faculty included some of the most innovative artists and thinkers of the day. The school embraced everything avant-garde: from Dada photomontage, Functionalism, and Expressionism, to De Stijl and Constructivism. As a result, this show is sumptuous, with more than 900 objects that include furniture, textiles, ceramics, metal work, stained glass, mural paintings, sculpture (in wood and stone), weaving, typography, advertising, architectural models, photography, theater design, drawings, and paintings. Most are products of the school’s curriculum, created in class workshops.
Gropius, who considered himself a follower of John Ruskin and adhered to the ideals of Ruskin’s sublime, developed the curriculum based on his ideal of art as gesamtkunstwerk (or total artwork), which Ruskin traced back as far as the Gothic period. However, Gropius theorized that his 20th-century version of unified art harmony was only possible under the direction of a creative leader, which for him was the architect. Paradoxically, the historical legitimization of this concept was rooted in the medieval communal anonymity of working for the church. Yet Gropius used the expression “cathedral of future freedom” interchangeably with his more prosaic phrase “unitary work of art” when promoting his total-artwork ideal. In his 1919 programmatic essay “Architecture in the People’s Free State,” he explicitly revealed this integrative function, which he determined for all the arts under gesamtkunstwerk principles, predicting that different art forms would break their isolation from each other in Gothic fashion. That is why L’Esprit du Bauhaus kicks off with a 15th-century sculpted oak lectern from St. Pierre church in Subligny (in the center of France) as an example of cathedral aesthetics. For Gropius, the supreme model for artists was the organization of the guilds that worked together to build medieval cathedrals. However, near the lectern are also examples of art from Asia and two movements indebted to the philosophical history of Romanticism: the British Arts & Crafts movement and the Viennese Wiener Werkstätte (or Vienna Secession).
Gropius radicalized these movements’ Neo-Romantic ideas, making them the core of the Bauhaus’s pedagogy, drawing especially heavily from Henry Van de Velde’s Art Nouveau ambition to forge an alliance of industry and modern aesthetics. Van de Velde, a Gesamtkunstwerk-inspired designer, architect, and theorist, had earlier called for the unification of art into the space of the whole room (wallpapers, furniture, and paintings), and his Brussels company, the Société Van de Velde, created all the interior furnishings of his buildings, including rugs, metalwork, and, in one case, even a matching dress for the home’s owner. Van de Velde advocated in his tracts for the unification of all of the arts as an instrument of social reform and a rejection of historical forms. Living in Germany, he was associated with the rise of the Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) and became an early member of the Deutscher Werkbund, which invited him to build a theater for its planned exhibition in Köln in 1914. His reappraisal of the status of the applied arts became a fundamental issue in the Sezessionist movement.
Surpassing the goals of Van de Velde, Gropius envisioned his Bauhaus as an educational institution that would be concerned with industrial design in service of an architectural totality — where architecture would endow the arts and crafts with unifying ideals. He put into pragmatic operation the cooperative gesamtkunstwerk ideals that cantilevered out of German idealist and Neo-Platonic philosophy and 19th-century cultural utopian Romanticism. It is consequential here to recall that Romanticism’s ideals proved an inducement to historical research, which in turn aroused a new interest in art history and stimulated the Neo-Gothic Revival trend of the early 19th century, from which the gesamtkunstwerk ideal re-emerged in Europe.
To a large extent, modern Neoplatonist philosophy led the way for the avant-garde artists and artisans who taught in and supervised the Bauhaus workshops. Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy, and Josef Albers successively directed the school’s prerequisite course. Paul Klee taught art theory, Wassily Kandinsky mural painting, Oskar Schlemmer theater, Marcel Breuer furniture design, Theodor Bogler ceramics, Gunta Stölzl weaving, Marianne Brandt metalwork, Herbert Bayer graphic design, and Walter Peterhans photography. It is fascinating to discover some of the class materials here, such as Kandinsky’s “Nine Elements of the Chromatic Circle” (1922–33) placed near one of his explosive finished lithographs, “Kleine Welten I” (1922).
The Bauhaus faculty’s collective theory was that new materials, made available by new technology, should be used in the design and creation of both art and utilitarian objects, which in turn would integrate with larger architectural designs. Within that context, I very much enjoyed the school studies in texture and materials, exercises in color, rhythm, and movement, architectural models, textile samples, and typographic experiments on view alongside finished pieces, like Gunta Stölzl’s remarkable “Five Chöre” (1928) Jacquard weaving, produced at the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop. I also loved Ruth Consemuller’s playful “Tapestry” (1926) and a preparatory gouache by Anni Albers titled “Study for unexecuted wall hanging” (1926), which makes superb use of the interpenetrating principle of the loom itself in its repetitive motifs. The exhibition also includes many of Theodor Bogler’s unique pottery creations designed for industrial production, such as the charming “Teapot with Handle” (1923). It’s also truly thrilling to see the original Breuer “Wassily Chair (Club B3)” (1927) and Josef Albers’s cool and smartly seductive “Stacking Tables” (1927).
A great mass of diverse craft experimentation converged in the theater workshop that Schlemmer directed , as evidenced by some interesting photographs featured here. Marianne Brandt’s “Self-portrait reflected in a Globe in Bauhaus Atelier” (1928–29) and Erich Consemüller’s photo “Woman in a B3 Club Chair by Marcel Breuer wearing a Mask by Oskar Schlemmer and a Dress by Lis Beyer” (1926) are truly peculiar. As are Moholy-Nagy’s stereotypes and photograms, Schlemmer’s photo “Metalltanz or “’Dance in Metal’ (Carla Grosch) at the Bauhaus theatre in Dessau” (1929) and T. Lux Feininger’s photo “Mask for the Bauhaus Stage on the Roof of the Bauhaus School” (1928). Schlemmer’s presence is peppered throughout, as he was instrumental in the school’s many parties and frenetic celebrations, for which everyone participated in the creation of decorations, costumes, and invitation cards.
I found visually sophisticated an unknown student’s photograph, “Life at the Bauhaus” (1927), which suggests something of the concept of aesthetic convergence as Schlemmer defined it: social synthesis in a new society. Of course, it was in theater where progressive, utopian, gesamtkunstwerk ideals could be put instantaneously into practice through the blending of the arts. Toward that end, in 1926, Gropius founded the Bauhaus Theater, in which many of the partly realized total-art ideas came to fruition in the work of Schlemmer, Moholy-Nagy, and a number of the Bauhaus students whose ideas of total-theater consisted of an altered use of space. Moreover, in terms of the immersive gesamtkunstwerk, Gropius’s pivoting, 180-degree “Total Theater” design is consequential. It entailed a comprehensive, 180-degree stage design that included encompassing, movable architecture, a theater stage, and a cinema screen that united performers and audience in a rich, pluralistic synthesis. The spherical form of the theater situated the spectators around the edge of the rotund form, which, according to Gropius, set up a new perceptual rapport with the performance and enhanced the sense of immersion within the presentation of the spectacle. The term total was adapted by Gropius for this “Total Theater” (in spite of its limited version of the idea) so as to indicate that the viewer could see everything in its entirety. In his view, this totalizing use of physics, optics, and acoustics would produce a concentric field of view extending out in all directions. Gropius ideologically envisioned this new perceptual field as educating the masses and teaching a new way to think through the re-edification of the mass psyche.
Gropius’s ideal of total-architecture rejected the ideology of capitalistic profit, in which land was conceived of as a commodity, in favor of what he saw as a synthesis of the future. This overall visual effect was achieved by virtue of his latent Neo-Platonic sensibility, which shunned any form of decorative disguise and privileged the sleek, cool assurance with which good-looking and expensive materials are used to enrich the surfaces. That sleekness, in conjunction with Constructivism, eventually prompted Gropius to change the Bauhaus’s motto from “Art into Industry” to “Art and Technology, a New Unity.” Toward that end, in 1923, he organized the first Bauhaus exhibition around the Haus am Horn, a house designed by Georg Muche and executed by all the school’s workshops. In 1925, the school moved from Weimar to Dessau, into a new building illustrating Gropius’s ideology of unifying art and technology. The school’s campus included teachers’ houses, whose interiors and furniture were designed by Breuer. The Bauhaus continued in Dessau until 1932 when it had to close (due to the formation of a Communist student organization and a sex scandal) and move to Berlin. The school’s last director, the architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, decided to close the school in 1933. But here, the results of this largely utopian enterprise sit firmly before us, beautifully reminding us of what was and what might have been.