THE BAUHAUS IDEA AND BAUHAUS POLITICS | Éva Forgács

 

Introduction

IN APRIL 1919 the Bauhaus opened Its doors in Weimar, under the directorship of the architect Walter Gropius. It was the successor Institute to the Grand Ducal Saxon Art Academy and the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts, the latter having been shut down at the outbreak of the World War.

Our first statement about the Bauhaus already contains the seeds of a conflict: the former Weimar Academy of Fine Arts, with its long tradition of landscape painting, was now renamed and headed by an architect enthralled not by the past or the present but by vistas of technological progress. As early as 1910 Walter Gropius presented his proposal For the Establishment of an Architectural Guild Founded on an Aesthetically Unified Basis1 and, by focusing on economy, speed and efficiency, and keeping in view the technological possibilities, had arrived at the concept of the ‘factory-made building’. This approach, which was, on top of everything, internationalist, existed worlds apart from the emphatically nationalist culture epitomized by the genteel local school of landscape painting. Yet it was within this setting that Gropius had to find the modusvivendi for the survival of the new approach by the side of the old. Whether such coexistence is at all possible, and if so, under what conditions, is a question to which the history of the Bauhaus cannot give a universally valid answer. The historical circumstances surrounding its existence were far too special. The fact of the matter is that the town of Weimar wanted no part of the renewal symbolized by Gropius’s first great achievement, the Fagus Shoe Factory, built in 1911 near Alfeld. This building was the first truly pure and elegant embodiment of functionalist architecture, a veritable manifesto of architectural modernism, with its glass walls wrapping around corners, its ‘curtain walls’ supported by a ferroconcrete framework, and its lucid articulation. Light years separated Gropius from everything the Academy stood for, not to mention the professors on its faculty, into this hallowed preserve of European cultural tradition, Goethe’s hometown, came a burst of the freshest ideas, complete with their unkempt and raucous garnishings, setting in motion a process that one camp interpreted as cultural erosion, while the other side saw it as breathtaking accomplishment.

3There is hardly an aspect of the Bauhaus that is not steeped in drama. The school seems to have spawned a veritable pyramid of mutually antithetical views, potentialities and irreconcilable oppositions.

4Today, when the reaction to any and all manifestations of straight lines, sobriety and rationalism has ripened into the sensibility that defines itself as postmodern, the very mention of the Bauhaus may invoke shudders and revulsion. It appears as austere and unimaginative, almost militantly disciplined, if judged on the basis of its most characteristically known products. Postmodern taste has had enough of programmes and objectives anchored in the distant future, and is especially repelled by the subordination of the arts to anything of the sort. Economy of form, and a sensibility fine-tuned to minimalist stimuli, are elements of Bauhaus aesthetics that appear bleak and puritanical for postmodern tastes that tend to be based on much higher stimulus thresholds. But while the postmodem mentality abhors anything that smacks of passionate missionary zeal, the very heat of its rejection is a reaction to the discarded model. The intensity of postmodern anathematization invoked by the least overtone of the Bauhaus reflects the fervour of the Bauhaus’s own manifestos. However, if we are able to rise above the dichotomy of modem vs postmodern, we must of necessity note the rhythmic alternation, the almost regular ebb and flow of classicism and mannerism in tastes, formal styles and modes of thought on the European cultural scene. Gropius and the Bauhaus under his direction signify the counterpoint against Expressionism (which was the last dying flicker of Romanticism) and came to stand for the new era that opposed the Romantic-Expressionist viewpoint. It would be naive and short-sighted to evaluate or condemn the Bauhaus on the basis of historical givens and determinants that cannot define its essential qualities. Especially since, in the meantime, and who knows for how long, our woridview and expectations regarding the future have been derailed from hope to dread. The Bauhaus, fuelled by ideas of a better future – just after the First World War, but still steeped in its catastrophe – may not have much to say to the child of the postmodern era, who has good cause to be terrified, and, craving aesthetic delights, would prefer to turn towards the beauties of the past.

5There is, in fact, no direct passage between the two eras and the two worldviews, unless it be the shared experience of a generation that enables one still to see in the parable of the Bauhaus an immediately applicable lesson, a valid model with importance undiminished in our days. At the time of writing – in the spring of 1989 – it appears that it is no longer only the age-group called with more or less accuracy the ‘Sixties generation’ that is entitled to feel a parallel between the ideals of its youth and the Utopias of the Bauhaus. In our days every social body, every creative or political association, may find an object lesson in the various forms of behaviour that characterize a community setting out with democratic intentions and struggling with the techniques of organizing itself, while constantly having to defend its openness and independence. Today, more than ever before, we may find the Bauhaus a useful model of a democratic community seeking a precarious balance in a world of power politics. It survived long enough to attempt to realize a democracy of ideas and artistic creativity in a variety of political situations, and this in the Germany of the Weimar Republic, where the attrition of the legal framework of democracy, a process that now seems unbelievable, progressed from day to day, while artists were convinced they were laying the foundations of a better world.

6The Bauhaus offers itself for anatomical Investigation. Its history is filled with the fireworks resulting from the head-on collisions of idea and matter, spirit and everyday existence. For the anatomist once touched by utopi-anistic yearnings It offers a rich abundance of examples illustrating the many ways reality’s capricious tissue may cast out the foreign body of any idea purporting to improve it. A survey of the history of the Bauhaus will bring a peculiar fact to our attention: all of the plans and concepts upon which the institution was originally founded were eventually turned inside out. Not merely slightly modified in the course of time, but changed into their polar opposites. This realization should give us pause, all the more so because, as we follow the progressive changes in agenda, it is always obvious that Gropius and his companions were led by meliorist intentions. They strove for higher spiritual, artistic and ethical values. How was it possible, then, that a community which had unequivocally demarcated itself from the majority – and, from the Bauhaus’s vantage, backward – portion of society, intending in 1919 to exemplify a new, higher way of life, had by 1928 adopted a programme endorsing total integration into the rest of society, and, instead of redesigning society’s needs, now aimed to serve those already existing needs? How was it possible for the reverence accorded the creative artist In 1919 to turn into scorn by 1928? How could the respect and appreciation of artistic genius turn into the impulse that ‘scorns the apelike excitability called talent’?

7Although the duration of the Bauhaus is nearly coterminous with the history of the Weimar Republic – the school was born amidst the catastrophic-euphoric feelings at the end of the First World War, struggled to survive during the years of the democratic republic, suffered through the gradual shift to the right, and its closing in April 1933 was one of the first actions of the Nazi Party – it would be too much of a simplification, too facile an explanation to restrict ourselves to these facts alone. Driving forces of another nature were also at work; the Bauhaus was the stage for a clash of personal and group ambitions, conflicting beliefs and convictions. Its masters and students had intended to be part of an experiment to evolve a model of a democratic creative community, proving by their own example that a better world does exist. But we can now see that although their efforts were directed towards raising a bold, rectilinearly constructed architecture, curving space-time, according to its own laws, had mercilessly warped the construct of their ideas, pointing It In a direction that none of them could have predicted at the time.

NOTES

1 Walter Gropius, ‘Programm zur Gründung einer allgemeinen Hausbaugesellschaft auf künstlerisch einheitlicher Grundlage m.b.H.’, 1910; in Hartmut Probst and Christian Schädlich (eds), Watter Gropius: Ausgewählte Schriften, vol. 3, VEB Verlag für Bauwesen. Berlin, 1987, p. 18.

 

Chapter 1. The Beauty of Progress

On 20 APRIL 1919 Walter Gropius received his appointment as director in the Weimar Court Chamberlain’s Office. In 1969 he recalled: ‘I arrived at the name instinctively. I did not want to use the term Bauhütte which had exclusively medieval connotations. I wanted a new, paradoxical name, something more far-reaching. The German word bauen has a very wide-ranging meaning: among other things, one builds character.1

2Gropius was born on 18 May 1883 into a family coming from a long line of German Intellectuals. Both his father and his grandfather were architects, the latter a friend of the prestigious architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. His grandfather’s brother, Martin Gropius, designed the Berlin Museum of Applied Art, and became director of the Berlin School of Applied Art in 1867.

  • 2 Ise Gropius, ‘Walter Gropius’; in Bauten und Projekte 1906 bis /969, Kunstgewerbemuseum Zürich, 19 (…)

3In the early years of the century Walter Gropius followed with keen interest the revolution taking place in technology and architecture, the beginnings of mass production and the rapid rationalization of its processes. While quite young, he became convinced that standardization and serial production would enter the domain of architecture as well. According to his second wife, Ise Gropius, he had arrived at this conclusion as a student in 1906, when an enlightened Pomeranian landowner, one of his uncle Erich Gropius’s neighbours, commissioned him to build inexpensive housing for the employees on his estate. According to Ise Gropius, ‘This is probably from where we may trace the germ of the idea that the construction of dwellings must be based on industrial mass production.2

Actually this idea had been in the air. Advances in machine production brought about a new state of affairs in the manufacture of objects as well as in architecture. The challenge of the machine was taken up by creative individuals of every description, and German architects, painters, sculptors, art historians, manufacturers and educators responded in a wave of overwhelming momentum, confidence and optimism, supported by the mighty resources of German society and industry. ‘In retrospect it seems as if all the spiritual and artistic power of the age had been waiting to join forces, obeying one and the same impulse,’ writes Braun-Feldweg.3 This joining of forces occurred in 1907 with the establishment of the Deutscher Werkbund. The organizers and leading figures of the association, Peter Behrens, Theodor Fischer, Hermann Muthesius, Bruno Paul, Richard Riemerschmid, Henry van de Velde and numerous others, including politicians, designated as their objective ‘the ennoblement of handiwork through the union of art, industry and handcraft’.4 The Werkbund amassed the leading personages of German art and architecture, and their unified front, together with the consolidated radicalism of their innovative strivings, endowed this association with considerable significance in public life. Most important was their insistence on quality, the aspect of production most threatened by mechanization. They declared their Intention of ‘selecting the best representatives of art, industry, crafts, and trades, of combining all efforts towards high quality in industrial work, and of forming a rallying-point for all those who are able and willing to work for high qualify.’5

 Quality meant ‘not only excellent durable work and the use of flawless, genuine materials, but also the attainment of an organic whole renderedsachlich, noble and, if you will, artistic by such means.’6 They deemed it important to give the matter the widest publicity, considering it a public issue of the gravest consequence, and realizing that the majority of society was unaware of the true significance of these questions. They grasped every opportunity to further their objective, relying on the triumph of the deepest human values to overcome and tame machines, and thereby maintain the human face of the human environment. In the words of Braun-Feldweg:

Their speeches, writings and acts indicate a passionate pedagogic involvement … It is impossible to convey the breadth and intensity of the Werkbund’s approach to innumerable problems of modem life, to the formal appearance of objects, and how it regarded these as basic Issues of national identity. Whether it is ‘the street as an artistic phenomenon’ (August Endell); ‘the structure of vehicles’ (Ernst Neumann, painter and outstanding automobile body designer); Gropius pondering the ‘style-creating power of industrial structures’ (‘These works of industry and technology must give rise to new forms’); or Peter Behrens speaking about ‘the use of time and space and its effect on modem design developments’ – we are constantly impressed by these men of action fully engaged in the whirl of everyday life, and their full awareness of it. All of the questions that still interest us have been raised by them in theory or practice during the years 1908-14, among calmer circumstances than those prevailing in the 1920s.7

Given this kind of intellectual-professional environment, the programme developed by the Werkbund might have led to the young Gropius’s growing conviction that only the collaboration of artists of the highest calibre could assure the aesthetic quality of standardized forms designed for mass production. This is where he may have derived his unshakeable conviction that human intuition must not be left out of machine-made products.

In 1907, when the Werkbund was established, Gropius was 24 years old and working at the architectural offices of Peter Behrens, who was perhaps the most highly regarded architect of the day. Thus the movement that claimed Behrens, chiefly a designer of Industrial plants, and other architects who mattered for Gropius, constituted the first – and possibly the most profound – professional and philosophical commitment in his life. In the 1913 Werkbund Yearbook he wrote: ‘The invention of new, expressive forms demands a strong artistic … personality. Only the most brilliant (genialsten) Ideas are good enough for multiplication by industry and worthy of benefiting not just the individual but the public as a whole.’8

However, this notion was not able to bridge the extensive theoretical and practical uncertainties it glossed over. The involvement of the artist in machine production was not going to be so idyllically clear-cut; this was the very issue that would produce the first, and basic, rift in the Werkbund’s unity. At the 1914 Werkbund Congress in Cologne it was obvious that there were two camps facing each other. One of these shared Mutheslus’s views: ‘Architecture and the entire sphere of activity of the Werkbund tend towards standardization. It is only by standardization that they can recover that universal importance which they possessed in ages of harmonious civilization. Only by standardization … as a salutary concentration of forces can a generally accepted and reliable taste be introduced.’ Meanwhile Henry van de Velde, representing the opposition, passionately declaimed: ‘As long as there are artists in the Werkbund … they will protest against any proposed canon and standardization. The artist is essentially and intimately a passionate individualist, a spontaneous creator. Never will he, of his own free will, submit to a discipline forcing upon him a norm, a canon.’9 Gropius’s fellow architect, Endell, and some 25-30 other Werkbund members whom Gropius refers to as the ‘opposition’,10 were ready to sharpen the conflict: either Muthesius should resign, or else they would. They resented the relegation of the artist’s role to the background, and even ‘the use of the soulless term “standardization” created the most violent opposition. This intimidating word, with its Greek root and Franco-German ending (Typisierung). does not really enlighten us about how and when it ought to be used.’11

The Werkbund debate was the clash of the same forces that collided in subsequent conflicts at the Bauhaus: the polarization of artistic individuality versus the increasing depersonalization of mass production became defined as one of the fundamental conflicts of the age. In prophetically summarizing the essentials of the debate, August Endell was actually forecasting an outline of the eventual developments at the Bauhaus. In conclusion to the 1914 debate he wrote:

The Werkbund is faced with an important decision to choose its aim: quality and standardization, or the serious involvement of beauty and the artist as equal partners in industry. The Werkbund will have a viable future only if it decides in favour of the latter. If it chooses the murky and ambiguous terms quality and standardization, the Werkbund will expose itself to the danger of sinking to the level of a mere organ of the ethical-cultural advertising so popular these days. Not even those manufacturers with business reasons for the artist’s collaboration would agree to this, for they see that, although the artist is barely tolerated in the Werkbund, he is most suitably qualified for advertisements of that sort.12

As we shall see, many of Gropius’s later decisions, seemingly completely irrational at the time, originated from this position statement of the Werkbund leadership: never, under any circumstances, would they grant absolute priority to the machine, or recognize it as an end in itself. This viewpoint was all the more heroic in that all practical considerations, as well as the rationalism so inseparable from machine production, point in the opposite direction. In 1914, on the eve of the war, the Intellectual leaders of the Werkbund demonstrated that even though they – being competent technicians – were fully aware of the positive aspects and natural history of mechanical production, they held it most important for the future that the human factor should not be relegated to the background. It was a basic issue of survival affecting all of human culture that technology should In no way pose a threat to the freedom of human inventiveness and imagination. The situation was already approaching a crisis; in the words of Theodor Fischer: ‘Industry has lost sight of its aim of producing work of the highest quality and does not feel Itself to be a serving member of our community but the ruler of the age.’13

Gropius’s earliest writings attest to the special attention he devoted to this problem. Already in 1910 he was preoccupied with the thought of ‘the prosperous union of art and technology’,14 and it seems that in his writings – with the help of his extraordinary diplomatic gifts, and regardless of the inner logic of his arguments – he attempted to bridge and resolve the contradictions that first polarized within the Werkbund.

By virtue of his personality and aptitudes, his social and public position, Gropius seemed predestined for a leading role. He was resolute, clear-sighted in pinpointing problems and resilient in debate, had an excellent intuitive grasp of a situation, and displayed a fundamentally farsighted optimism and extraordinary organizing ability. He was able to remain detached from every conflict, and maintained a coolly correct attitude even in situations that involved him personally. (Perhaps this is why Klee later called him ‘The Silver Prince’.) He needed a base of operations under his autonomous direction. This is also how he was perceived by Henry van de Velde, director of the Weimar Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts, who, as a Belgian citizen, had to resign after the war broke out. In 1915 he recommended Gropius, along with Hermann Obrist and August Endell, as his successor. The ruler of Weimar, the Grand Duke of Saxony, had been urging since 1913 that the otherwise unexceptionable van de Velde be replaced by a German director working ‘in the spirit of the new nationalism’, someone who would follow the more desirable neo-Biedermeier and neo-classicist trends which were deemed more autochthonously German than the cosmopolitan Sezession style.15 Van de Velde, who had no knowledge of the Grand Duke’s personal tastes, was mainly motivated by Gropius’s innate qualifications for leadership (although he must have been familiar with the Fagus Shoe Factory, and the factory building designed for the 1914 Cologne Werkbund Exhibition), as can be seen from the question he asked in his letter informing Gropius about his nomination: ‘Where and in what periodicals can I find publications of your works?’16

13Gropius recognized the extraordinary opportunity presented by van de Velde’s offer. He immediately travelled to Weimar, where the Grand Duke received him, but negotiations had to be suspended because of the war. Gropius was called up for active service, and the building of the School of Arts and Crafts was converted into a military hospital.

Nonetheless, from the battlefield in 1916 he sent a memorandum entitled ‘Proposals for the Establishment of an Institute Offering Artistic Direction to Industry, Applied Art and Crafts’ to the Grand Ducal Ministry of State.17 In this writing he outlined the ideas he had developed in response to the prewar Werkbund debates: his proposal was aimed at the ways and means of reconciling the mutually conflicting interests of large-scale industry and commerce on the one hand, and artistic and craft activity on the other. He conceived of a new kind of institution, a coordinating way-station of sorts, which would ensure that the articles to be manufactured combined the advantages of mass production with a high level of aesthetic value, by providing a common ground where the quantitative criteria of technological production could encounter that elusive qualitative extra that we like to call the artist’s personality.

Although this text was composed in its entirety on the battlefield, Groplus failed to take into account the fact of the war itself; he assumed an industry of undiminished power, a balanced society and unabated technological progress. Meanwhile it was precisely the upheaval caused by the war that occasioned the passage of these ‘Proposals’ into the Grand Duke’s hands. This was an age racked by the fever pitch of technological revolution, the fervour of ‘Americanization’, while marking time, vegetating, in the throes of the war in a state of heightened malleability. The age was receptive to considering any innovative system. As a matter of fact, given the Irrationality of the war, almost any concept, no matter how fantastic, would have received a serious hearing; Gropius’s ideas had the advantage of being quite sensible. ‘The old-fashioned craftsman combined in his person the technician, the merchant and the artist. If we now omit the artist from this triad, then the machine-made product will be nothing but an inferior substitute of the handcrafted item. But commercial circles are well aware of the surplus value contributed to industry by the artist’s spiritual labour.’18In reformulating the position taken by Ended and the other Werkbund leaders, Gropius was demonstrating that he was, in the strictest sense, a more level-headed and circumspect successor to van de Velde. The participation of the artist in production was seen as the ultimate guarantee of the product’s quality. ‘Today all of industry must take seriously the task of considering artistic values. The manufacturer has to be careful to avoid the stigma of his products appearing to be mere substitutes, and should endow them with the noble aspects of handcrafted goods, while keeping the advantages of machine production … Only the artist is capable of breathing a soul into the inert machine-made object; it is the artist’s creative power that survives in the object as live leavening.’19 This viewpoint, held by the Werkbund and Gropius, evinced a classical sense of ethics that would be within Gropius’s lifetime mercilessly invalidated by economic considerations, so that the humanistic restraint of technological progress, the limitation of profits ort account of human factors, would remain a Utopia, the purest Utopia of the Bauhaus. That which Gropius labelled the ‘stigma of ersatz substitutes’ would, not much later, reappear billed as triumphant innovations, splendid cost-diminishing or profit-increasing factors, while quality as an ethical concept was laid to rest once and for all.

16Gropius and his like-minded fellow members of the Werkbund carried on and even enhanced the Sezessionist longing for a new style that would apply to all of material culture, and that would characterize a whole period. Gropius and his colleagues considered industrial production itself to be a potential cultural outlet, and strove to bring about the manufacture of products that were repositories of aesthetic content, to the point where even a ventilator, a cooking utensil or an automobile would represent German culture to the extent that a painting or a poem does.

At the same time in his ‘Proposals’ Gropius also indicated that he intended to pay attention to the requirements of industry. He wrote, for instance, that the greatest care must be taken in selecting the applicants for admission to the new institute ‘so that tangible results may be shown as soon as possible’.20 In spite of the fact that he was talking about a school which, because of Its very nature, must make long-term plans, he made sure to refer to the basic expectation of the investors: I.e., the speediest return for their investment. This ambivalence of professional, pedagogic and economic values would haunt the Bauhaus for the duration of its existence.

18Although it is most difficult, If not impossible, to separate the external/historical from the interior/subjective human factors and the roles that they played in the fate of the Bauhaus, the history of this institution suggests that the dream of a humanistic technological culture received its death blow from both directions. External factors – the ongoing political strife – never allowed the Bauhaus a moment of respite to become a freely creative educational institution unfettered by budgetary worries, with the luxury of the right to commit an occasional mistake. Such independence remained a dream to the end; even the prospect of purchasing it at a financial cost glimmered on the horizon only at rare moments. Whereas on the subjective side, the involvement of the artist in the humanization of technology was hindered by the rudimentary, immature state of theory and practice, and the vacuum existing between the personal artistic make-up of the Bauhaus masters and the designated common goal.

Gropius himself saw the future unequivocally in terms of the gains to be made in the design and manufacture of standardized mass-produced items. His prewar writings all point in this direction. A glance at the titles is enough: A Travelling Exhibition of Modern Factory Architecture (1911),Monumental Art and Industrial Architecture (1911), Are Aesthetic Criteria Reconcilable with Practical and Commercial Viewpoints in the Construction of Industrial Buildings? (1912), The Development of Modern Industrial Architecture (1913), and The Style-creating Power of Industrial Architectural Forms (1914). Throughout all of these writings he persisted in his belief that the design of factory-made products and the creative work of the individuated, independent artist can be brought to a common denominator. He assumed that the artist would seek participation in such a collective enterprise. Meanwhile one has the feeling that Gropius, when he refers to the artist’s involvement in production, fudges the meaning of the word to denote what already at the turn of century was designated by the term designer – Gestalter. For he would have the artist involved In the process of mechanized production just as it was, broken Into several phases, whereas the work of the artist Is Indivisible and constitutes an undivided whole. Elsewhere, in his more Utopian writings, he outlines a state of affairs, existing in a post-mutation society, where the meaning of the word artist would be clarified only in the context of the future,21 at a time when the newfangled methods of production would have become universal, and the newfangled artist-mutant would be just another link in the process.

When he says artist, Gropius never intends the commonly accepted usage as painter, sculptor or graphic artist, but rather some undefined future descendant of these, as if (and here he is close to László Moholy-Nagy’s reasoning of a few years later)22 the arts of painting, sculpture and graphics were superannuated activities relegated to the past by machine-produced articles. The only part of the artist he would retain is that certain elixir of personal uniqueness and intuition. When he writes, ‘The new, enthusiastic, formal expression requires intensive artistic powers, artistic personality’,23 he is obviously thinking of designers: ‘Automobile and railroad car, steamship and sailboat, dirigible and airplane … in their pure forms clearly discernible at a glance both conceal and sum up the complexity of their technical organization. In them, technological and artistic form have matured into an organic whole.’24 For Gropius, the arts essentially meant this new aesthetic, and most likely the Werkbund’s use of the term was very similar. It is unlikely that when van de Velde resisted so emotionally the exclusion of the artist from industrial design, he had Intended to clear the way for Klee or Kandinsky’s autonomous, metaphysical art – towards the design of electric tea kettles.

The elemental – and, we may as well say, historical – differences between the spheres of technological and autonomous art can be best seen precisely in those Instances that promised a realization of their synthesis. In the years following the October revolution, Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Gustav Klucis and other abstract, Suprematist artists provided decorative motifs for the products of a Petersburg porcelain factory, chiefly teacups and saucers. These objects are valuable documents of an era, and vividly testify to their creators’ willingness to participate in the aesthetic transformation of everyday objects, in the creation, according to their lights, of a new aesthetic value for the new man. Meanwhile, with the exception of a few architectonic vessels by Malevich, their decorative motifs float as alien elements, like decals of painterly compositions on the traditional tableware. Had Gropius commissioned these artists to participate in the work of the porcelain factory, no doubt he would have had them design new forms out of new materials to fulfil new functions, but it is by no means certain that the artists would have accepted a task requiring technical know-how beyond their command.

At the same time Gropius never even entertained the thought that there could still be artists unaffected by technological progress. He firmly believed there was no higher artistic task, no work more exalted, timely or appropriate for the artist, than bringing aesthetic quality to mass production, a blessing for everyone. This would mean Americanism domesticated and tamed, transfused with a new soul, filtered through the sieve of European culture. In his photo collection at the time Gropius cherished an image of American wheat silos, contructed along perfectly functionalist lines.25 This was progress indeed: architectural design of a high qualify, perfectly rational, free of ‘artistic’ frills, and therefore aesthetically appealing. Such design, moreover, stood for ethical values, since it served a functional purpose for the benefit of the community. On this avenue of progress Gropius glimpsed endless vistas of prosperity for all of society.

NOTES

1 Gropius, Letter to Wulf Herzogenrath, Cambridge, Mass., 30 October 1968; in Reginald Isaacs. Walter Gropius, Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin, 1983, vol. 1, p. 460.

2 Ise Gropius, ‘Walter Gropius’; in Bauten und Projekte 1906 bis /969, Kunstgewerbemuseum Zürich, 1971, p. 9.

3 Wilhelm Braun-Feldweg. Ipar és forma (Industry and Form). Corvina, Budapest, 1978, p. 42.

4 Ibid.

5 Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modem Design, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth. 1974, p. 35.

6 Ibid.

7 Braun-Feldweg, op. cit., pp. 42 and 44.

8 Gropius, ‘Die Entwicklung modemer Industriebaukunst’; in Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit.. p. 55. Cf. Peter Behrens, ‘Kunst und Technik’; In Elektrotechnische Zeitschrift 31, no. 22, June 1916, pp. 552-5: ‘Nothing great which has been created In life has ever resulted from conscientious professionalism; on the contrary, It has been due to the enterprise of great and powerful personalities.’ Quoted by Marcel Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 1971, pp. 72-3.

9 Pevsner, op. cit., p. 30.

10 Franciscono, op. cit., Appendix C. pp. 265-6. Handwritten letter by Walter Gropius to Kart Ernst Osthaus, Timmendorfer Strand, 12 July 1914.

11 Ibid., p. 271. Probably August Endell’s comment on the Werkbund Congress.

12 Ibid., p. 274.

13 Pevsner, op. cit., p. 29.

14 See Introduction, note 1.

15 Karl-Heinz Hüter, Das Bouhaus in Weimar, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1976, p. 11.

16 Henry van de Velde, Letter 11 April 1915 to Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Archiv, Gropius Collection; In Hans Maria Wingler, The Bauhaus: Weimar. Dessau, Berlin, Chicago. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1969, p. 21.

17 Gropius, ‘Vorschläge zur Gründung einer Lehranstalt als künstlerische Beratungsstelle für Industrie, Gewerbe und Handwerk’, January 1916, Weimar, State Archive; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 201.

18 Ibid., p. 202.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Gropius, ‘Monumentale Kunst und Industriebau’, Lecture, 11 April 1911, at Volkwang Museum, The Hague; In Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit., p. 28.

22 Lászió Moholy-Nagy, Malerei. fotografie, film, Bauhausbücher no. 8,1927.

23 Gropius. ‘Die Entwicklung’; in Probst and Schädlich (eds), op. cit., p. 55.

24 Gropius. ‘Der Stilbildende Wert’, ibid., p. 59.

25 Winfried Nerdinger, Walter Gropius. Bauhaus Archiv, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin, 1985, p. 9.

 

Capitulo 2 do livro THE BAUHAUS IDEA AND BAUHAUS POLITICS | Éva Forgács
Chapter 2. Time out of Joint
p. 14-21
THE FIRST WORLD WAR postponed dreams of progress and prosperity for all of society light-years away into the future. Germany lost the war in 1918, and after the November revolution the country was rid of the Kaiser and the institution of the Empire. The troops dispatched to put down the October revolt of the fleet in Kiel joined the mutineers, whereupon sailors’ and workers’ councils came to power. The revolution spread to the great port of Hamburg, followed by Hanover and Braunschweig; on 7 November the head of the Independent Socialist Party, Kurt Eisner, assumed leadership of the uprising in Munich, and in Berlin the steel workers organized a mass demonstration. On 9 November Friedrich Ebert, president of the Majority Socialist Party, became the new chancellor of the nation. On the same day Scheidemann, the party’s other leader, announced the proclamation of the Republic in the presence of a vast crowd assembled in front of the Reichstag.1 Meanwhile the soldiers returning in closed ranks from the front, ‘undefeated in battle’, were greeted by exultant masses at the train terminals. The German High Command assured Ebert of the army’s support. The Kaiser abdicated and left the country. ‘It was a brief period of euphoria when … the proclamation of the republic was generally celebrated.’2

2But the accord did not last for long: the left-wing radicals of the Independent Socialist Party, the Spartacists among them, demanded a Socialist republic, and meant to escalate the revolution into a dictatorship of the proletariat, which was opposed by the majority. In January 1919 a new revolutionary wave inundated Berlin, and the leftists demanded the resignation of the chief of police. In the meantime the right-wing Socialists were recruiting vigilantes known as Freikorps, using these to reoccupy the government buildings on 11 January, and to arrest the two most important revolutionary leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Kart Liebknecht, who were then murdered ‘while attempting to escape’. There seemed to be no end to the state of anarchy: the assassination of Kurt Eisner in Bavaria set off a new revolutionary movement that led to the proclamation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic on 7 April. This was suppressed after bloody massacres. Meanwhile in Berlin a new revolutionary upheaval left one thousand dead. The Majority Socialist Party, led by Chancellor Friedrich Ebert, now summoned a national constitutional assembly, which convened in Weimar from 19 January until the summer, evolving the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and opening a new era in German history.
After the shock of the war, in the midst of the revolutionary events in Berlin, the artist-intelligentsia lived in a kind of narcosis composed of poverty and indulgence in unrealistic other-worldly dreams. Notions of a German renewal mingled with news of the Russian revolution and the illusions nourished by these. In the words of György Lukács, during these months ‘there was a widespread belief that we were at the beginning of a vast revolutionary wave which would flood all of Europe within a few years. We laboured under the illusion that within a short time we would be able to mop up the last remnants of capitalism.’3 René Schickele expresses the general euphoria of the age, and a sense of the disjointed time: ‘The new world has begun. It is here: mankind liberated! A face appears in the atmospheric maelstrom of anxiety and lies: the face of Man. The face of a creature bathed in heavenly light… At last he can begin his work. The Man. At last. . . Now! Let us begin afresh, freed from the burden of the Middle Ages. Let us create the Man of Modem Times. Forward!’4

4In the revolutionary centres the artists consolidated themselves into radical groups, associations and organizations. In the winter of 1918-19 the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Work Council for the Arts) was formed in Berlin along the pattern of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, providing artists and architects with a new forum for the evolution and propagation of the theories and aesthetics of the new art and architecture.
At the outset the Arbeitsrat was headed by a four-man committee with Gropius as one of the members. Later Bruno Taut became its president.5
Already in 1914 Taut had published a revolutionary appeal in Der Sturm: he was the first to describe the new mission of architecture in incandescently exalted Romantic tones. ‘Let us build together a magnificent building! A building which will not be architecture alone, but in which everything – painting, sculpture, everything together – will create a grand architecture, and in which architecture will once again merge with the other arts. Architecture will here be frame and content all at once.’6

7In 1918 Gropius and Taut collaboratively composed the text of the Arbeitsrat manifesto, the ‘Architecture Programme’:
The building is the Immediate bearer of spiritual powers, creator of sensations. Only a total revolution of the spirit will create this building . . . The beginning of large People’s Houses, not in the cities but on open land in conjunction with housing developments… These buildings… cannot stand in the city because it, rotten in Itself, will perish just as the old power. The future lies in the newly developed land, which will nourish itself.7

9The shock of the war, followed by the ecstatic events of revolutionary weeks – the ‘time out of joint’ – offered an exceptional vantage from where past and future appeared in a similar light, so that the deepest traditions of the German Middle Ages, that of the itinerant communities of builders, seemed just as relevant as the programme for building small housing units by mechanized processes in the future. A similar moment and special vantage point had also occurred in the history of the Russian avant-garde: around 1910-11 Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and the young Malevich dipped into the oldest layers of Russian folk art tradition In a radically innovative gesture, with the motto, ‘Our future is behind us!’ Gropius arrived at similar conclusions – which must have been strongly influenced by the ideas of the Blaue Reiter circle about reunifying the arts – when, in his 1916 ‘Proposals’, after a detailed exposition of how the proposed school would fit into the context of factory production, industry and commerce, he abruptly slipped the constraints of reality and turned to the past for his depiction of the future:
We could again establish a prosperous working community similar to those medieval builders’ workshops we so fondly long for, where architects, sculptors -all sorts of artisans belonging to many guilds – would coexist, autonomously accomplishing their portion of the common task. Imbued by the same spirit, full of understanding and respect for the unity of that single, common ideal whose meaning pervades them and fills their being.8

In the Arbeitsrat the architect Otto Bartning elaborated a plan for training in the arts and crafts. He proposed the abolition of professorships, and the restoration of the old master/apprentice relationship, with the renewed usage of these terms. This would clearly demarcate the new style of education from the conservative majority of society.9 The term ‘conservative’ referred to the bourgeois value system; in art it meant the Academy. To turn towards the Middle Ages was now an innovative, avant-garde gesture.

n 1918, when in the iridescent light of the historically disjointed times this vision of the potential and necessary synthesis of medieval German art – more precisely the Gothic style that had pervaded all media – and the new art linked to the making of a new world loomed up for Taut and Gropius, they were not introducing a new Idea into German culture. It was rather as If they were making way for the full onslaught of an artistic and intellectual current that had been present for decades in German cultural life. Wagner’s notion of a Gesamtkunstwerk had at an earlier time stirred up the most far-reaching waves among the members of the Blaue Reiter group (who could ‘hear the apocalyptic horsemen In the air’).’10 Besides voicing their vision of the unification of the arts, they were also the most outspoken expositors of the transcendence of art beyond material realities, of art’s responsibility to render the spiritual distillate, the dematerialized intellectual version of the material world. This idea, embodied as a formal motif, may be seen throughout the art of the period, and not only in Germany. Larionov and Goncharova in Russia, Robert Delaunay in France, Erich Heckel and Franz Marc in Germany – all undertook a new type of painterly representation of light itself. This type of painting, which dissolved and spiritualized forms, abolished the materiality of objects and focused on the optical refraction of light rays and their effective breaking up of objects, enabled the painter to create transcendental visions without relying on amateurish hallucinatory effects: after all, the artist was capturing an actual natural phenomenon, a certain optical effect. It was the painter’s real-life observation of the way light rearranges and recreates the visual world; the artist merely heightened the effect by, as it were, interposing a virtual prism between the human eye and the natural object, and capturing the ensuing spectacle, broken into prismatic, crystalline sheaves of light on the canvas.11 This transcendence over and above reality aimed at nothing less than the birth of a new spirituality, a new religion.

These were the painters Franz Marc had in mind when he wrote, in 1912: ‘Their thinking has a different aim: to create out of their work symbols for their own time, symbols that belong on the altars of a future spiritual religion, symbols behind which the technical heritage cannot be seen.’12 (Emphasis added.) This new spirituality was heading in precisely the opposite direction, away from Gropius, intending to unfold in a sphere set apart from technology, which it emphatically rejected, recognizing ‘the beginning of a new epoch in painting … the mystical Inner construction, which is the great problem of our generation.’13 ‘Mysticism was awakened in the souls and with it the most ancient elements of art.’14

Among the architects Bruno Taut was the most receptive to this motif: almost contemporaneously with these paintings that depicted fragments of reality dissolved in crystalline light he designed ‘The Artists’ Glass Palace’ for the 1914 Werkbund exhibition. Multicoloured glass panes on the building’s prismatic dome reflected light in every direction so that the structure itself seemed to be dissolving in light. Taut rejected the notion of functionalism; his interest lay exclusively in sacral, symbolic buildings that were the earthly stand-ins for transcendent ideas; any other kind of edifice he considered to be necessary but distasteful.15 Among the architects Bruno Taut was the true man of the times; Gropius, affected by the times, came under the Influence of Taut, and it was mostly under this influence that he composed, in the 1919 catalogue to the ‘Unknown Architects’ exhibition in Berlin, what became one of the first versions of his later Bauhaus Manifesto, in which he calls architecture ‘the crystallized expression of mankind’s noblest thoughts’. In the second part of his text, however, he sounds a practical and realistic note: ‘[Let us have] a clear watershed between dream and reality, between aspiring to the stars and workaday life. Architects, sculptors, painters – all of us must return to craftsmanshipl’16

n December 1918 Gropius, who was proving to be the better organizer, was elected president of the Arbeitsrat to succeed Bruno Taut. Even In these troubled times, Gropius had precise strategic ideas. In one of his letters he wrote: ‘The atmosphere at the Arbeitsrat is refreshingly radical, and we are indeed going to get some work done. I am certain that soon we shall present important proposals, and accomplish positive results. Given the current political situation, it is very important that our energies be not scattered, but should unite in one main stream. By now just about every radical artist and friend of the arts who is of any importance has joined us, and we surely represent a certain amount of clout.’17

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Agrandir Original (jpeg, 395k)
1 Max Pechsteln (?): Illustration for an Arbeitsrat handbill

After his long quest, Gropius was glad to have found the task ready-made for his personality, where he could demonstrate how fundamentally he had come to revise his earlier, one-sidedly functionalist approach:

18 Gropius, Letter to his mother, Berlin, 31 March 1919; quoted by Isaacs, op. cit., p. 196.
The ‘Arbeitsrat fur Kunst’ gives me real joy. I have turned the whole thing upside down since I became chairman and have created a very interesting lively thing out of it… All Important modern artists, architects, painters, sculptors under one cover … all come to the meetings and that is incredibly beautiful and animating … This is the type of life I have always had in mind, but the cleansing effect of the war was necessary for it. The effect of all that inner suffering during the war has been to convert me from Saul to Paul. On my return home, psychically devastated by the horrors of the battlefield, I plunged Into intellectual life, and today I have the satisfaction of stating that in this relatively short amount of time I not only managed to stay afloat, but have actually conquered new territories. Today I know that this was only possible because deep down I have changed completely and have become attuned to the new things that are bursting forth with tremendous energy.18

The war and the subsequent period of euphoria led for a brief time to the Illusion that the course of history had been turned about. At an earlier stage in his career Gropius had made a level-headed appraisal of the expectable consequences of technological growth, and turned his wholehearted attention as architect towards the expectable innovations promised by continuing technological advances. Subsequent events rendered this sober prewar architectural-engineering appraisal invalid; during the war, technology had revealed its destructive aspect. The apocalyptic spirit of the day now rechannelled Gropius’s thinking. Muthesius and his theories had vanished from the horizon, along with the shattered German industry. Events had proved that material objects were perishable. ‘Cultural values are the only goods our enemies cannot take away from us,’ was the conclusion Gropius drew in September 1919.19 It was the other principle, that of art as opposed to technology, a world-view based on spiritual and intellectual foundations, That was to be elevated now above the debased flotsam and emotionalism of current events, to hold out a promise of renewal and purification. These were the hopes that filled the artists who, after the revolution of November 1918, founded the Novembergruppe, which offered radical practical proposals in addition to its Intellectual programme, by demanding the thoroughgoing reform of art academies, the establishment of museums of folk art, public exhibition spaces, and the allocation of art supplies to artists.20

the Novembergruppe gathered a broader spectrum of artists than the Arbeitsrat, attracting, among others, writers, filmmakers, theatre people and musicians. It sponsored radio programmes and films along with other events. Brecht, Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann and Erich Mendelsohn were members, as well as Klee, Kandinsky and Gropius. In the group’s manifesto the words LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY appear in capital letters, as their motto for the creation of a ‘young and free Germany’.21

18Given the broad spectrum of artistic organizations, the Arbeitsrat and the Novembergruppe evinced the most peaceful Intentions and the most constructive approach. All around them the Berlin of 1918-19 resounded with the clamour of Dadaist manifestos and proclamations, and the diverse manifestations of anarchist and radical artists’ groups that were expressly anti-bourgeois and basically anti-art (since they held art to be a petit-bourgeois phenomenon). The proclamation, ‘What Is Dadaism and What Does It Want in Germany?’, signed by prominent Dadaists Raoul Hausmann, Richard Huelsenbeck and Jefim Golyscheff, announced the following programme:

1) The union of the creative and intellectual people of the world along the lines of a radical communism. (2) The introduction of growing unemployment as a consequence of thoroughgoing automation of all activities. Only unemployment can give a person the opportunity to ascertain the truth of life, and to get used to this experience. (3) The immediate expropriation of private property (nationalization); the communistic provisioning of everyone with food; the establishment of light- and garden-cities that teach people to be free.22

The Dadaists regarded the Expressionists as one of their chief enemies, believing them to be catering to bourgeois tastes, and bombarding them with mercilessly scornful and stinging broadsides. ‘Expressionism, that pseudo-theosophist-German tea party which goes so far as to recognize the East-Prussian Junkers, must of necessity leave us cold, ditto for Herr Walden’s commercial manipulations; he, too, is just a typical German burgher who tries to conceal his transactions behind a pretentious veneer of Buddhism.’23 In a Berlin rife with ultimatums, jeers and court martials in the arts, and where every shade of modernism had its vociferous spokesman, Gropius and a few friends formed a sober and narrow circle which they named Gläseme Kette (‘Glass Chain’), after Bruno Tout’s designs of glass architecture. The central figure of this circle of friends, Bruno Taut, received the pseudonym Glass, because of his Glass House. Each member of the group had such a name that was used only intramurally; Adolf Behne. known for his loyalty, was dubbed Ekkehard (or Eckart, from ‘ein getreuer Eckart’, a loyal guard, faithful friend). Walter Gropius chose to go by the name of Mass (measure, proportion).

Taut intended to guard the flame of higher spirituality in architecture, and to pass it on for the future, through this group. At a time of darkness and chaos he longed to work, and instead of indulging in the common complaints, he sought to establish a professional community during a period when no work was foreseeable for who knew how long. In his first circular of 19 December 1919 he writes, ‘Let us consciously be “imaginary architects”! Away with individualism, let us climb higher, let architecture again occupy those heights where the Master is anonymous… Let us not inquire about the maker’s identity but rejoice instead, that in the far distance, independent of us, the idea lives on.’24 Bruno Taut proposed that members of the Chain should, at frequent Intervals, prepare architectural plans, and send blueprints to every other member, so that they could mutually criticize and discuss each other’s work.

The correspondence went on for eleven months. The initial fervour was folowed by the gradual exhaustion of the faith and energies invested in the venture, casting the brief history of the Glass Chain In the light of an Overture to the grand opera in five acts known as the Bauhaus. Traces of the secret mutual admiration society, however, followed the members of the Chain in their careers. In letters to each other they continued to use their pseudonyms and, like members of a secret masonic lodge, they could count on the aid and confidential advice of their fellows in times to come.

 
 

NOTES

1 Iván T. Berend. válságos évtizedek (Critical Decades). Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest. 1982, p. 132.

2 Istvan Deak, Weimar Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals: A Political History ofthe ‘Weltbühne’ Circle. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1968, pp. 73-4.

3 György Lukács, ‘A Tanácsköztársaság kultúrpofitikájárór (The Cultural Policy of the (Hungarian] Soviet Republic); in Magyar wodalom. magyar kultúra, Magvetó’ Kiadó, Budapest. 1970, p. 626.

4 René Schickele. Der neunte November, Berlin, 1919; quoted by Deak, op. cit., p. 74.

5 The members of the committee were: César Klein, Otto Bartning. Adolf Behne and Walter Gropius; later A. Behne became secretary and B. Taut, president. See Isaacs, op. cit., p. 195.

6 Bruno Taut, ‘Eine Notwendigkeit’, Der Sturm 4, no. 196-7, February 1914, p. 175; quoted by Franciscono. op. cit., pp. 91-2.

7 Taut, ‘Architekturprogramm’; quoted by Isaacs (1991), op. cit.. p. 64.

8 Gropius, ‘Vorschläge zur Gründung einer Lehranstalt als künstlerische Beratungsgestelle für Industrie, Gewerbe und Handwerk’, January 1916; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 203.

9 John Willet, The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-1933. Thames and Hudson, London. 1978, p. 45.

10 Franz Marc. ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ (text on the subscription prospectus printed in 1912); in Klaus Lankheit (ed.). The Blaue Reiter Almanac (documentary edition). The Viking Press. New York, 1974. p. 252.

11 Cf. Erich Heckel, ‘Crystalline Sun’. 1913; the Rayonist (in Russian, ‘Luchist’) works by Larionov and Goncharova; the late paintings by Franz Marc, such as ‘Rain’, 1912. ‘Tyrol’. 1913; the Orphist works by Robert and Sonia Detaunay; August Macke, ‘Bathing Girls with Urban Background’. 1913, etc.

12 Marc, ‘The “Savages” of Germany’; in Lankheit (ed.). op. cit., p. 64.

13 Marc. ‘Spiritual Treasures’; In Lankheit (ed.). op. cit., p. 59.

14 Marc, ‘The “Savages” of Germany’, op. cit., p. 64.

15 Franciscono, op. cit., p. 102; see also Taut, ‘Die Stadtkrone’, Jena, 1919.

16 Gropius, Introduction to the catalogue of the Unknown Architects exhibition, Berlin, 1919: in Bauhaus – Idee – Form – Zweck – Zeit. Göppinger Galerie, Frankfurt am Main, 1964, p. 19.

17 Gropius. Letter to Karl Emst Osthaus, Bertin, 6 January 1919; quoted by Isaacs, op. cit., p. 195.

18 Gropius, Letter to his mother, Berlin, 31 March 1919; quoted by Isaacs, op. cit., p. 196.

19 Gropius, ‘Stellungnahme des Bauhauses zu einer Eingabe des “Künstlerbundes Ostthüringen”, die Beziehung zwischen Kunst und Staat betreffend’, 26 September 1919; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 213.

20 Members of the Novembergruppe included Lyonel Feininger, Gerhard Marcks. Otto Mueller. Erich Heckel, Kart Schmidt-Rottluff, Christian Rohlfs, Otto Bartning, Hans Poelzig, Bruno Taut. On Gropius’s membership, see Isaacs, op. cit., p. 197.

21 ‘Manifest der Novembristen’ (Entwurf); in Uwe M. Schneede (ed.). Die Zwanziger Jahre: Manifeste und Dokumente deutscher Künstler. DuMont, Cologne, 1969. p. 92.

22 ‘Was ist der Dadaismus und was will er in Deutschland?’ 1919; in Schneede (ed.), op. cit., p. 26.

23 Raoul Hausmann, ‘Der deutsche Spiesser ärgert sich’, 1919: in Schneede (ed.), op. cit., p.29.

24 ‘Die gläserne Kette: Visionäre Architekturen aus dem Kreis um Bruno Taut 1919-1920’. Ausstellung im Museum Leverkusen Schloss Morsbroick und in der Akademie der Künste Berlin, 1963. Catalogue.

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