Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 30, 2020
Nina Wiedemeyer Original Bauhaus Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2019. 224 pp.; 155 color ills.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9783791359045)
Nina Wiedemeyer and Friederike Holländer, eds. Original Bauhaus Workbook New York: Prestel, 2019. 160 pp.; 109 color ills. Cloth €29.00 (9783791359014)
Bauhaus-Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung and Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, September 6, 2019–January 27, 2020
Renate Buser, Treppenhaus Bauhaus Dessau, 2019, installation view, Original Bauhaus, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, 2019–20 (photograph by the author)

Bauhaus scholars had a wealth of exhibition offerings to choose from in 2019, from major events in Weimar and Dessau, to provincial museums capitalizing on local architects’ ties to the Bauhaus, to, not least of all, three special exhibitions in Berlin. One of these, Original Bauhaus, was based largely on the collection of the Bauhaus-Archiv and, to a lesser extent, the Berlinische Galerie. It sought to highlight the Bauhaus’s current relevance by presenting fourteen case studies. Each case study took an archival object or group of objects as its starting point—its “original”—and used further items and histories to probe its meaning and value. These case studies were presented in the exhibition and discussed in detail in brief catalog essays. In the exhibition the results were diverse, sometimes surprising, and, with approximately seven hundred objects on display, almost too much to take in. (The number may have been inspired by the Museum of Modern Art’s 1937 Bauhaus exhibition, which also displayed nearly seven hundred objects and which the catalog critically examines.) With the Bauhaus-Archiv’s own building closed for renovation and expansion and the Temporary Bauhaus venue too small to hold an exhibition of this scope, the Berlinische Galerie stepped in as host and collaborator. The exhibition curators seem to have assumed visitors had some knowledge of the Bauhaus, as they did not offer an overview and jumped between seemingly unrelated themes or objects. A timeline along one wall was far away from most of the objects on display. Yet the objects were, for the most part, thought provoking, and they indicated many avenues for further exploration and research.

At the center of the Berlinische Galerie is a long, high, open space that could only be accessed from one end. The exhibition began here. Immediately following the initial wall text, visitors could turn right into what felt like the end of the show, to see the case study “Lecturing – Exhibiting” (number seven in the catalog), on Walter Gropius’s and Hannes Meyer’s efforts to publicize the school and determine the telling of its history. The other route into the exhibition was equally disorienting. It started with two sets of videos that offered reflections on the Bauhaus. One set, 7x Bauhaus, featured seven contemporary artists; the other, Bauhaus Myths – Rectified by Bauhaus Students, interspersed commentaries with six film clips by Bauhäusler like Viking Eggeling and Ellen Auerbach. There was no immediately obvious reason why these seven modern artists were chosen to reflect on the Bauhaus, and the very myths being rectified, through statements such as Eva Weininger’s claim that “[Marcel] Breuer was interested in nothing but his own advancement,” had not been presented or contextualized for the viewer. Saving the videos for the end of one’s visit would have been a better idea.

When the viewer finally reached the center of the hall, the exhibition truly began. It was clever to have the artists Renate Buser and Oskar Schlemmer seemingly pull visitors out of Berlin and into the architecture of the Bauhaus buildings in Dessau. Two panels by Buser, Treppenhaus Bauhaus Dessau, flanked the staircases at the Berlinische Galerie that lead upstairs and cross each other to make a large X in the hall. The panels were room-height images of the staircase at the Bauhaus Dessau that Schlemmer painted in his iconic Bauhaus Stairway (1932), and they fit in seamlessly. In Schlemmer’s painting, the viewer is positioned at the base of the stairs. People ascend straight ahead, round a landing, and continue to the right, a progression that visitors could nearly imitate in the Berlinische Galerie—the architecture is not the same as the Bauhaus stairway but that did not hamper the effect. Buser’s photographs stood adjacent to a section on Bauhaus Stairway (case study “Family Resemblances,” number six in the catalog). Viewers could approach Schlemmer’s painting through fifteen other versions of it, including a preparatory drawing, installation views, other artists’ takes on it, and photographs of the original location.

Next came the case study on the Preliminary Course (Vorkurs, number thirteen in the catalog). While the exhibition may otherwise have left the uninitiated in the dark, this section addressed the entire public in a crucial way. In an interactive media installation conceived by Patrick Kochlik and Jens Wunderling of Syntop, visitors were encouraged to perform drawing and design exercises based on principles originally taught by Bauhaus professors Johannes Itten, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, and Wassily Kandinsky. Nine stations utilized digital tools (a touch screen, body tracking, a scanner, etc.) to bring design principles into an interactive, current form. The resulting two-dimensional images were part intentional, part random and could immediately be projected on a nearby wall.

The section on the Vorkurs continued with archival material, where a jam-packed display exhibited students’ work. Crowding made it difficult for visitors to read all the explanatory text, and it was impossible to back up and see the display as a whole. The real value in Original Bauhaus’s exploration of the Vorkurs lay in two specific features. First, the curators chose to display objects made by students whose names are often entirely unknown. This broad view onto many different people’s work and presence powerfully suggested that many different histories extend from the Bauhaus. What did these students make of their experiences? Where did they all go and what did they do when they finished studying? How many students actually attended the Bauhaus in total, and how many studied under the various Vorkurs professors? What are all the different ways that the Bauhaus legacy plays out? The exhibition could not provide all the answers, but a second publication, Original Bauhaus Workbook, released in addition to the catalog offers a more sustained look at the Vorkurs. The workbook, available in German and English, presents fifty design and construction exercises. Each exercise is accompanied by instructions that quote either a professor or a student and provides an explanatory text in case the quotations do not suffice. The exercises are also accompanied by historical examples of their associated results. As authors Nina Wiedemeyer, Friederike Holländer, and Sarah Lamparter point out, this workbook is the first-ever publication to delve so deeply and broadly into the nature of the course itself and what it produced.

Further case studies took the history of the Bauhaus in unexpected directions. Some, like Hannah Höch’s plans for an unrealized exhibition at the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1932, helped place the school within a network of progressive interwar artists. Others, like the case study of a carpet made by Gertrud Arndt, led to more in-depth explorations of certain Bauhaus workshops. In the case of Arndt’s carpet, the related history of the weaving workshop integrated the work of eleven students, many of whose names are not well known. The selection of case studies was thematically determined and could not represent all major works, people, or periods at the Bauhaus. In the same vein, their distribution in the exhibition and publication is thematic and not intended to provide a sequential, authoritative guide. Rather than telling one particular story, the curators provided signposts.

There were benefits and drawbacks to this approach. One clear benefit was that it departed from a historiography that begins with the major figures and moves on to acknowledge the minor ones. Many women were represented in the exhibition and professors were not necessarily featured at the expense of their students (although many of the major works in the case studies were indeed made by professors). Perhaps it was the sheer number of objects on display that made it impractical to include an exhibition checklist in the catalog. Its absence will render it nearly impossible to gauge what percentage of the objects were made by women, by students, by artists whose work has never been the subject of a solo exhibition, and so on. A drawback to the curators’ seemingly random selection was that certain professors and students were either surprisingly emphasized or ignored. Höch was not a Bauhäuslerin, but she is the starting point of a case study. El Lissitzky appeared more than once. Yet Lilly Reich, who was at the Bauhaus and worked closely with director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is not among the eleven names representing the weaving workshop. The names Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Moholy-Nagy appeared most frequently, and two case studies centered solely on Schlemmer. The selection had a democratizing effect, but the criteria determining who received priority were unclear. This telling of Bauhaus history opens up the canon; it would have been contradictory to provide, or even suggest, a definitive history or to rank the importance of Bauhäusler.

Two other Berlin exhibitions provided a framework for Original Bauhaus. The Bröhan-Museum for Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functionalism first showed From Arts and Crafts to the Bauhaus: Art and Design—a New Unity! (January 24–May 5, 2019) and then Nordic Design: The Response to the Bauhaus (October 24, 2019–March 1, 2020). The first exhibition situated the Bauhaus in historical discourses on art, design, and handicraft and the impact of industrialization on these areas. The second began with German modernism of the mid-1920s as a starting point for functionalism in the Scandinavian countries, which was touted as a corrective to German modernism’s coldness. The Bröhan-Museum’s exhibitions took on and refuted the idea of the Bauhaus’s uniqueness in the fields of design and architecture. Original Bauhaus avoided the most commonly told histories surrounding the art school; its own thesis was that the Bauhaus’s importance is best revealed by examples that history has neglected. Still, the irony of the centennial is that the Bauhaus’s popularity lives off the myth of its uniqueness and its most prominent names.

Emily Joyce Evans
Research Associate, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin