Feb 25, 2010

After the Bauhaus Exhibition: Dutiful Critics, Forgotten History


The 90th anniversary exhibition of the Bauhaus has come and gone. The MoMA has paid homage to one of the great stories, an essential moment, the ur-historical moment really in the emergence of modern design. Barry Bergdoll, elegant writer, thoughtful historian, until this exhibition capable of being a popular curator, able to capture the public imagination through shows like the critically unloved but totally enjoyable and well-attended Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, has dutifully done his job of cobbling together the mishmash of ornaments, objects, media and art that constituted the direct products of the Bauhaus School during its existence as a school. It was all so much less than expected. I was not surprised by how dutifully critics praised it. It was a show only a design critic could love.


The core vision of the Bauhaus was to reconcile craft--the handmade--with an industrial capacity that had outmoded entire artisan trades and steadily transformed workmen into servants of machines; it therefore had assembled every sort of artist, artisan and craftman to tame this machine by designing objects in accordance with the demands of modern life. Sometimes this relied on perversely mechanistic notions, such as a basic dwelling unit of measurement that would determine the planning of every aspect of domesticity, the 4 x 8 gypsum drywall of humanity. It invented the language of modern design by harmonizing machine-made products with the most forward-looking ideas then in circulation in art and architecture. But if the Bauhaus was responding to what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas called the uncoupling of the system and the lifeworld--the alienation of workers from the products of their activity--this exhibition gives us an already colonized lifeworld in which the fragmentation of work into narrower and narrower categories and specializations was accomplished long ago and we're left to emptily wonder at its relics.


In the 90 years since the founding of the Bauhaus School, enormous, monumental, world-historical changes have come to pass that should have influenced the way we received these objects. Small things like the extermination of a people from central and eastern Europe, the virtual enslavement of the region for the next half-century under totalitarian dictatorship, the exile of the group's teachers into a booming capitalist world where they produced enormous office parks that had almost nothing to do with the school original egalitarian ideals, the radical fragmentation of architecture in relation to other arts and crafts.

This, among other things, is a story worth telling, and the failure to appreciate the presence of monumental figures like Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky as teachers at this very early stage in the formation of modern design speaks volumes about the MoMA's general failure to fluidly reconcile its narratives about modern art, beginning with the experience of Americans in Paris, with other modern forms, despite the resurfacing of an anecdote about Alfred Barr's visit to Germany in 1928. You need the Bauhaus, and a painter like Lyonel Feininger, a teacher at the school, to make any sense of it. This exhibition left that chasm still unexplored except through the vague inclusion of representative knicknacks.


As if that were not enough history to ignore there was also, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the revolutionary reopening of that closed-off and half-abandoned history, the reconstruction of the institutions, experimental housing developments, and demonstration projects--the Haus am Horn in Weimar, the creation of the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar (much better than the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin), the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau (now under the capable leadership of Philipp Oswalt), the Weissenhoff Museum in Stuttgart--all completed in the past decade, in a way that suddenly made available this rich historical archive. A forceful narrative of the recovery of that past could have spoken in a wildly meaningful way to today's designers interested in craft and social consciousness--and even, possibly, to the non-design-caring-about public. And how about just a little nod to Black Mountain College, where Josef Albers essentially brought the school to the United States in its purest form and spawned generations of avant-garde practice?


Perhaps it was the dimly lit spaces somewhere in the ass-end of MoMA that made it all seem small, insignificant, and forgettable. Perhaps it was the extraordinarily narrow and academic way in which this incredibly rich trove was condensed into the decade and a half of the school's actual existence that made it seem somehow historical without history, historical-ish. The school and history deserved better. But that was a month ago. Go ahead and forget about it. -STEPHEN ZACKS

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