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LOS ANGELES — I had few expectations walking into the exhibition Bauhaus Beginnings, now on view at the Getty Research Institute, Getty Center Los Angeles. After all, what could be more antithetical to the buoyant creativity embodied by the Bauhaus than the Getty’s Ivory Tower looming above the 405 Freeway? But strange as it might seem, Bauhaus Beginnings manages to capture not only this iconic school’s freewheeling spirit, but its democratic mode of artistic production as well.
To a large degree, the success of the show is due to its avoidance of masterpieces by the likes of Joseph Albers, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and other Bauhaus faculty members. Instead, the Getty exhibition peeks behind the curtain into the development of young talent by featuring pedagogical materials created by Bauhaus teachers and the work that students made for their classes.
As curatorial assistant Gary Fox told me in a conversation, “We really wanted to foreground the exchange between masters and students” by placing teaching aides and notes in direct conversation with student exercises, as demonstrated in a vitrine in the exhibition’s central room that juxtaposes four elegantly simple pastel and gouache collages by Kandinsky (which turn circles into epiphanies in the way only he can) and four geometrical gouaches created by a student, Erich Mrozek, for Kandinsky’s course on color. With its casual interplay between form and space, Mrozek’s homework exhibits the school’s exploratory spirit while anticipating Joseph Albers’s iconic series, Homage to the Square.
Founded as a school, the intent of Bauhaus was to create a perpetual motion machine capable of infusing art and creativity into every aspect of everyday life. As such, it accepted many of the students that flocked to its doors, first in Weimar, then Dessau, and finally in Berlin. Once inside, students were encouraged to question everything that had previously been accepted as intrinsic and immutable.
There is a lithographed copy of Johannes Itten’s Einiges aus der Farbenlehre (Some aspects of color theory) (1930), an intimidatingly refined textbook illustrated with pasted-in watercolor samples. Bespectacled, clad in monkish attire, and a follower of Mazdaznan, an esoteric spiritualist practice, Itten perhaps personified the pedagogical philosophy of Bauhaus. Fearing that individual critique would curb the creative impulse of his students, Itten instead made general observations about the class as a whole, hoping each student would internalize these ideas in a manner appropriate to his or her creative practice.
Alongside Itten’s textbook are numerous irresistible color studies by students, including one by Léna Bergner. Orange and yellow halos that intersect each other are overlaid by one triangle of green and another of red. The resulting combinatory hues lend a complexity to the work that does not allow the eye to rest easily, reminding us that color, as a product of light, is always in motion. Nearby a meticulous color wheel and tone study by Hilde Reindl, created as an assignment for a class taught by Klee, reflects the degree to which color was atomized into its component parts and studied in a clinical manner.
Reindl’s works, along with Bergner’s, highlight another unique aspect of Bauhaus: it accepted as many women as it did men. Still, the school was far from a paragon of gender equality. Rather than being free to experiment in any media, women were often pushed into working with textiles.
When I asked Fox how the exhibition sought to represent this reality without perpetuating gender disparity, he commented, adroitly, “We made an effort in 2019 to highlight this work, that I think in many cases is some of the best work, some of the most interesting work was done by women students. But we wanted to be sure to be attentive to the historical reality which would demonstrate that women students occupied a tenuous role within the institution.”
The samples of female students’ textile work on display exhibit the same sophisticated experimentation found in the various media explored by their male peers. They also highlight another inequity perpetrated by the Bauhaus. Ever strapped for cash, the school sold these textiles in bulk, turning them into one of its most profitable products. In effect, the female students, among the most important economic pillars of the institution, were largely unacknowledged and ignored. To its credit, the exhibition’s wall text says as much.
Ever in search of a “total art,” Bauhaus’s adherents often turned to the theater as an art form that could combine multiple practices, including architecture, dance, music, design, and acting. Or as Fox phrases it, “The stage was the site where the Bauhaus ethos was condensed, summarized, and put on display for members of the general public.” Such events were both artistic and practical, in that they publicized the work of Bauhaus students to the general public, upon whose interest and approval the school depended.
A screen (that I wished were three times as large) plays two Bauhaus ballets on a loop. Premiered in Stuttgart in September of 1922, Oskar Schlemmer’s Das triadische Ballett (The Triadic Ballet), through geometric costumes and robotic choreography, creates a strange universe seemingly contained within the music box of an unknown deity.
Das mechanische Ballet (The Mechanical Ballet, 1923) conceived by students F.W. Bogler, Kurt Schmidt, and Georg Teltscher — presented as a reconstruction with new music by Hanno Spelsberg and choreography by J.U. Lensing — takes this conceit one step further. Human forms are replaced by outsized gears, cogs, and wheels, which are painted in primary colors and worn by performers who move mechanically, as if they had just escaped from the factories where they were made.
Archival exhibitions can sometimes fall flat, accomplishing little beyond dusting off a few pieces of ephemera from a long-gone artistic movement. But Bauhaus Beginnings succeeds not only in reanimating the dialogue that began in the school’s classrooms and hallways, but also in following it as it spilled out into the streets of a country, a continent, and a world between unimaginable wars.
Though the rise of the National Socialist Party sought to silence these conversations and ideas, they continued to resonate, and still do today, 100 years after the Bauhaus’s founding. It’s tempting to risk the ire of the museum guards and lean close to these works with the hope of catching one last echo of what they have to tell us.
Bauhaus Beginnings continues at the Getty Research Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, California) through October 13. The exhibition is curated by Maristella Casciato, with assistance from Gary Fox, Katherine Rochester, Alexandra Sommer, and Johnny Tran; the installation is designed in consultation with architect Tim Durfee.