Does the Bauhaus belong in a Museum? Musings on a Centenary
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
A shorter version of this text was first published on the Decorating Dissidence blog as part of the special issue 'Bahaus Continued'.
How much Bauhaus is too much Bauhaus? A question many Germans might have asked themselves this year as every street corner in every village attempted to prove a link modernism’s most famous institution.
This autumn, I visited the three main sites of the Bauhaus – Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin – to find out. In Weimar and Dessau two new museums have opened to coincide with the centenary, while in Berlin a temporary exhibition is taking place at the Berlinische Galerie in collaboration with the Bauhaus Archiv, whose own venue is still being renovated and expanded.
Full disclosure to begin with, I am a veritable Bauhaus nerd. So much so that the highlight of my stay in Germany was watching a new TV series that fictionalises the early years of the institution with great attention to detail. In Die Neue Zeit(The New Era), despite an improbably hunky, Charleston-dancing Gropius, there are also plenty of glimpses of Stölzl making textiles, Breuer making chairs, and Itten making everyone eat garlic. The series focuses more on the students than the masters, a preoccupation shared by the centenary exhibitions.
At the Berlinische Galerie, the Bauhaus’s famous preliminary course takes centre stage, giving the exhibition a fresh, experimental quality. The students’ exercises are on display, including a piece of fabric patterned through repetitive use of a typewriter, many drawings and collages, and a number of impressive reconstructions of three-dimensional mixed-media models. A multi-media workstation in the centre of the exhibition allows visitors to try out some of the techniques, manipulating shape, colour and light. Interactivity in museums is sometimes difficult to get right, but the set-up in this case was genuinely engaging, with visitors of all ages clamouring to be Bauhäusler for a few moments.
While fragmentary in its approach, the exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie was the most surprising, endeavouring not so much to narrate the Bauhaus as to tease out multiple thought-provoking strands. The institution’s ‘exhibitionism’ was explored through the various promotional activities of its directors, such as the almost flat-pack travelling exhibition organised by Hannes Meyer, or Gropius’s lecture tour through Germany and Holland, with a box of indexed glass slides and a long suffering Ilse Gropius in tow (‘no more Sundays off’ she wrote in her diary). Hannah Höch also makes a surprise appearance, having been invited to exhibit at the Bauhaus in 1932, but being eventually prevented by the rise of National Socialism. Her address book was the highlight of the exhibition for me, a veritable three-dimensional collage, overflowing with colourful bits of paper and card and full of scribbles. Another room was dedicated to the mysterious twin of the Haus am Horn, a building with a near-identical floor plan in a small town called Burbach. It was built in 1924, only a year after the Bauhaus’s own project, by the eccentric engineer Willi Grobleben whose solution to becoming unemployed was to pre-emptively sell his body to science, thus being assured of a small pension until his death.
If such a pick’n’mix of oddities is not to your taste, the new Bauhaus Museum is Dessau goes to great lengths to present a comprehensive history of the school. This approach is somewhat less successful in my view, condensing a great deal of objects and information in one large hangar-like space.
A section called ‘School as Testing Ground’ presents the preliminary course and the workshops in a somewhat novel way, by pairing masters with students and following the unfolding of their careers. Yet, even the few women who made it to positions of leadership at the Bauhaus are paired with a more prominent male and the problematic word ‘influence’ is bandied about a lot. Gunta Stölzl is inexplicably paired with Paul Klee, despite having been a master in her own right in Dessau, while the biography of talented photographer Elsa Thiemann mainly tells us how she was ‘influenced in particular by Walter Peterhans’ and ‘met her future husband’ at the Bauhaus. This was my first encounter with Thiemann’s works, and I was intrigued by the designs she produced for the Bauhaus wallpaper range, which she created by making collaged photograms of plants and leaves. These were exhibited in a section entitled ‘Factory as Horizon’, which explores how the Bauhaus faired outside its own grounds. Wallpaper was one of the school’s most successful products when it came to reaching a mass market, something that the Bauhaus was surprisingly bad at. Marianne Brandt’s famous teapot was too complex for factory production and had to be hand-crafted, so that only eight examples are known to exist today. Seven of them have been gathered together at the Berlinische Galerie from collections all over the world, another winning moment for that exhibition, offering a rare opportunity for comparison.
There are plenty of lovely objects in Dessau too, in particular furniture, textile samples, lamps, and even a rare Bauhaus dress made by Grete Reichardt from fabric she herself designed. Interestingly, the original nucleus of the Dessau collection gets its own space, with collages by Marianne Brandt side-by-side with Lyonel Feininger woodcuts. In 1976, on the occasion of a commemorative Bauhaus exhibition, over a hundred objects were bought from the exhibiting artists (including Brandt!) and thus the Bauhaus Dessau foundation was born, after years of the site being neglected. A document with the original itemised list of purchases is nearby, and the collection seems to emerge out of this cocoon to expand across the vast space where the rest of the exhibition resides.
In Weimar, the core collection has an even more impressive pedigree, having been selected in 1925 by Gropius and local museum director Wilhelm Köhler, who offered to look after it.
Despite its imposing lineage, this museum exhibits a lighter touch than the one in Dessau, with objects being given space to breathe and a delightfully playful section on performance at the Bauhaus. Unexpectedly, Julia Feininger steals the show from the school’s famously raucous parties and Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet with her elaborately constructed puppets donated to the museum by her (and Lyonel Feininger’s) son. The Weimar museum is not only more adept at dealing with the gender, pointing out for example the entanglement of Lilly Reich’s work with that of Mies van der Rohe, but it is also the only museum of the three to credit makers as well designers in all its labels. Likewise, the display about the various workshops contains information on both the masters of form and the masters of crafts, revealing that the latter had no voting rights within the Masters’ Council until 1923. The Weimar museum is also of course inextricably linked to the Haus am Horn, the Bauhaus ‘show home’ built on the edge of the city’s Park an der Ilm. Some of the original furniture, such as Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s children’s closet is in the museum, and the house itself is once more open to visitors after renovations. It is worth the trek on the other side of town to experience Georg Muche’s perfectly square ground plan, which feels fairly awkward for real life usage. While the display itself is disappointing, with many pieces of furniture only represented by white metal outlines, it is still thrilling to be in a space which exists due to the collaboration of so many bright young artists and designers, as attested by period photographs.
So, does the Bauhaus belong in a museum, as the Weimar exhibition asks? Perhaps, if the approach is similar to the one taken by the Berlinische Galerie, less didactic and more experimental, rather like the school itself. As for me, I look forward to the return of dancing Gropius and raucous Stölzl in another series of The New Era.