06 September 2019
by Marco Romanelli
1919-2019, the celebrations marking the centenary of the Bauhaus, the famous school based successively in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, have achieved the sort of extraordinary media prominence that is altogether unusual for a niche phenomenon such as design. Not just in the specialist press, but also in daily and weekly publications. Why? First and foremost because the Bauhaus almost instantly became the stuff of legend (the first great exhibition of the work of the school was held at MoMa in New York in 1938, just 5 years after it closed), another example of the fate of those who “die young” – from James Dean to Marilyn Monroe. Nobody had a chance to see how the Bauhaus might have grown old, witnessed a Mannerist revival or a hypothetical dearth of pupils. The 14 years of its life were a continual firecracker split into three stages, with three locations and three directors: Weimar and Gropius, Dessau and Meyer, Berlin and Mies. The world outside the school was always opposed to it – not just the unspeakable Nazis who finally had it closed down for good, but also the German upper middle classes, hostile to change of any kind. Yet the Bauhaus was no meteor – from the onset it was firmly rooted in the school of Applied Arts, already flourishing in Germany in the late 19th century, and drew formally on the English Arts and Crafts Movement, as exemplified by Ruskin and Morris, and consolidated by Muthesius and the Deutscher Werkund. In a nutshell, the problem was neither aesthetic nor educational, it was political. Strangely enough, the Bauhaus and the Weimar Republic were born on exactly the same date and in the same place, Weimar - 1919. While even Gropius believed initially that the Nazi movement could adopt the Bauhaus aesthetic as its official expressive code (a misunderstanding shortly to be repeated in Italy during the lengthy courtship between modern architecture and the Fascist regime), it soon became clear that freedom of artistic research was totally incompatible with a totalitarian regime, which had to keep a tight grip on all forms of communication and, as is always the case, preferred to express itself through “arches and columns.” This was one reason for the school’s enormous posthumous success. It was not seen just as a design experiment, rather as a real political experiment. Was it really like that? The answer could be: “partly, but only partly.” The political element was not, in fact, the prime driver of the Bauhaus, but simply stemmed from the fundamental principle that places man at the centre, therefore inviting the assumption that it was not just a school, but an experiment in a new social order. A situation in which there is a need to recognise, although this is not always the case, the powerful influence of the theosophical movements, which characterised German thinking in that they proposed a different way of life, including practical matters such as dressing, eating, sexual relations and communing with nature
Lastly, in terms of the political aftermath of the Bauhaus in this day and age, the huge focus on the school sounds a rather “sour” note now, in 2019, when new and equally dangerous identity-related and nationalist ideologies are springing up in many parts of Europe, almost as if we have lost the ability to recognise the revolutionary element of the Bauhaus message, in the conviction that a nostalgic celebration was all that was required!
A second reason for the enormous success of the Bauhaus lies directly in the school’s operating practice and consists of its capacity for communication. For various reasons (not least because it had to be self-funding) a commitment to advertising formed part of the project from the outset. This led to extraordinary weight being attributed to graphics for that time (a “printing and advertising workshop” had already been set up at Dessau), which effectively turned the school into a “consulting arts centre for industry and trade,” immediately demonstrating the intention to “get out of” the metaphorical school compound and impregnate the society around it (not everybody knows that the Bauhaus managed to keep going, at least in part, by manufacturing products designed by the students under licence). It is fair to say that the concrete links between productive centres and didactic centres, destined to last and evolve enormously over time, took off with the Bauhaus, despite the fact that many people believe it to have been a legacy of the rather later, Ulm design school.
Lastly, among the reasons for its enduring success, we must not lose sight of the tremendous cultural influence, particularly in America, of the masters driven from the Bauhaus by the Nazi persecutions. Gropius and Mies left their own mark on the American scene and can unquestionably be regarded as the fathers of the International Style that, many decades later, the Postmodernists dared to attack.
Having determined some of the reasons for the enormous and instant recognition garnered by the Bauhaus, there are various fundamental or perhaps problematic issues that need to be flagged up.
The far from easy position of women within the school is one of the critical points. While many women were enrolled right from the start, they were often prevented from frequenting the main courses such as industrial art and design, instead being pointed towards courses in weaving, bookbinding or ceramics … We must, however, beware of losing sight of the historical period in which this all took place, and judging the situation from a contemporary perspective. In the early Twenties, access to that sort of study was in itself a rather revolutionary feat for women. Another problem rests in the decision not to include history among the study programmes. At the Bauhaus everything had to be geared to the future (overlooking the fact that there can be no future without a past). This has again become an extremely topical issue, which has recently stoked huge discussions about contemporary Italian schools.
Amongst the attitudes that are of fundamental importance to us today, I should like to flag up the ability to run the school without necessarily imposing one single method or one single aesthetic trend (an approach characteristic of the ULM, however). Rules at the Bauhaus were undoubtedly strict, but there was no obligation to follow a united design approach. Each teacher was free to expound on their own view of the world.
Equally topical, and even today largely unrealised, or rather denied by an early tendency to specialise, the principle of Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art”, applied both theoretically and practically, according to the pedagogical assumption, crucial in all design disciplines, that “hand and mind” were united under the banner of “learning by doing.”
Lastly, the desire to fight for the concept of “collective design” which, while generating a good many problems at the time (some still persist with the difficulty in attributing a precise paternity to Bauhaus objects), strikes us today as an important message, geared to mitigating the sort of creative egocentricity that causes many contemporary designers to dream up mega-recognisable objects just to satisfy their own compulsions, regardless of user needs, and often resulting in actual “monstrosities.”
Finally, eschewing any dangerous or uncritical glorification, I would suggest that the legacy of the Bauhaus has been a positive one. Although it is confusing that objects conceived by the Bauhaus are still (or are newly) in production, and have become a-historic elitist symbols, directly contradicting the egalitarian and democratic principles that underpinned their design.