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Boston Society of Architects

Pivot Art Review

Course of study

The Bauhaus and Harvard captures the movement’s arc with a studious energy

Installation Bauhaus Harvard Photo Karen Philippi GS011118 c

Photo: Karen Philippi; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

“The ultimate aim of all visual arts,” Walter Gropius wrote in his Proclamation of the Bauhaus in 1919, “is the complete building.”

His encompassing aesthetic merited a manifesto. He was playing with German philosopher K.F.E. Trahndorff’s idea from the previous century, Gesamtkunstwerk—total work of art. This year is the legendary German design school’s centennial, and it’s being feted with exhibitions, books, and events. Gropius, an architect, was the school’s founding director. In his vision, fine art, architecture, textiles, tea services, and typefaces all struck harmonizing notes. Art entwined with industry.

After World War I, Gropius saw design as a means to leave the pain and relics of the past behind and strive to make a more humane world. His aesthetic wasn’t merely about image and consonance; it was about how to live rationally, pragmatically, and creatively. It shaped a century, and it still holds sway today.

Anni Albers, Design for a rug, 1927. Black ink and watercolor over graphite with cut and drawn paper additions on off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Anni Albers , BR48.49. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Herbert Bayer, Design for a Multimedia Trade Fair Booth, 1924. Opaque watercolor, charcoal, and touches of graphite with collage of cut printed and colored paper on off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum. Gift of the artist, BR48.101 © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

“The complete building” notwithstanding, the school, based in Weimar, Germany, didn’t offer an official course in architecture until 1927. But everything, one way or the other, aimed students in that direction. Bauhaus teachers such as László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers pared art and design down to essentials—form, material, color—and prodded students to use them with grand inventiveness and hard-boiled practicality.

The Bauhaus and Harvard, an exacting and expansive exhibition of mostly small-scale works at the Harvard Art Museums through July 28, dips into the largest Bauhaus collection outside Germany, at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum. It recounts the Bauhaus’ rise and fall, and the school’s ties to Harvard.

Photo: Karen Philippi; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Nazi officials, suspicious of modern art, shuttered the forward-thinking design school in 1933. In 1937, Harvard’s architecture department invited Gropius to be its chair, and the university became a central channel for Bauhaus pedagogy and aesthetics. Gropius and his firm, The Architects Collaborative, designed the first Modernist building on campus, Harvard’s Graduate Center, which opened in 1950.

Laura Muir, Harvard Art Museums’ research curator in the division of academic and public programs, adroitly begins the exhibition with the Bauhaus’s fabled preliminary course, inviting viewers along as students set out on a radical course of study.

In student exercises, young artists worked to master design ABCs such as color theory and spatial effects. It’s striking to see these clever drafts among works by teachers such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Most women were shunted to the weaving workshop, which proved to be a hotbed of inspired production, and vibrant textiles by Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl are on view.

Adele Jackson Kaars-Sypesteyn, Student exercise from Newcomb College, 1946-49. Wood, string, tape, paper, and paint. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Professor R.D. Feild, BR49.322. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Lucia Moholy (photograph), Walter Gropius (architecture), Bauhaus Building, Dessau, 1926. Gelatin silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Isa Gropius, BRGA.20.24. © Lucia Moholy Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

As early as 1923, Gropius had students designing and furnishing a model home. In 1925, the school moved from Weimar to Dessau. The local government donated land and money, providing a playground for Gropius to put his utopian design ideals into practice.

Emphasizing utility and frugality along with his Modernist vision, Gropius designed 314 housing units, crafted from standardized components and structured from concrete slabs. These townhomes—with three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room shoehorned into 600 to 800 square feet—came together with as little labor, material, and money as possible. Because they were well lit and had split levels, they felt roomier than they were, and each had a balcony and garden.

Harvard’s collection includes a trove of drawings of the buildings Gropius designed for Dessau, and Lucia Moholy’s spectacular photographs of the campus, including the Bauhaus Building and faculty housing. Moholy’s clever framing and wild perspectives put the blocky buildings into dynamic motion.

Her 1926 photograph of the Bauhaus Building, which has an industrial design inspired by Gropius’ youthful apprenticeship to architect Peter Behrens, was shot through an angled entryway and framed in deep shadow. It shows off the building’s famous glass-curtain wall, which wrapped around corners, afforded light to those inside, and let outsiders see the structure within.

A generation later, when Harvard commissioned Gropius’ firm to design the Graduate Center, he had another dream project on his hands. He set out to fashion an integrated and original building, an expression of midcentury America. He called on Anni Albers to design plaid cotton linens for the dormitories and invited Hans Arp to create art for the dining room in Harkness Commons. (Arp’s Constellations II, biomorphic relief panels made from redwood, squiggle and squirm over the wall in a nearby gallery.) He invited Herbert Bayer to paint a mural for the dining area, and the calming greens of Verdure undulate and hum.

Gropius’ version of Gesamtkunstwerk set a seminal pattern for art, design, and teaching. Anything that influential will lead to stale copies, and many blank-faced buildings, behemoths, and eyesores that followed in Bauhaus’ wake fail to live up to its ideals. But The Bauhaus and Harvard reminds us of the crackling energy and vaulting ambition at its beginnings, the vibrant designs it spawned, and how it upended the ways we think about art and architecture.

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