The Bauhaus was never meant to be so complicated. As a movement, it considered the complex formalism that had long existed in traditional European art and created a long-running critique that generated a series of studies and designs currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art. The Bauhaus was Modernism’s time-sensitive interpretation of the Vitruvian Man drawn by Leonardo DaVinci (c. 1487) since it investigated how the figural form could successfully exist within the new, mass-produced square.Workshops for Modernity: Bauhaus 1919 – 1933 is unique in that it has brought together disparate fragments of a movement which once enveloped the fields of art, architecture and design, before disintegrating into the weave and weft of the Post War era.
The first room features both sculpted and painted attempts at reconciling the rich tradition of figurative art into far more simplified, accessible forms. “Form follows function,” was the motto of Bauhaus architect, Mies van der Rohe, and it was the defining factor for what was and was not successful in this new aesthetic. Clearly all of the attempts at depicting the figure did not work. Either the literal object was too distorted, as seen in Oskar Schlemmer’s Grotesque I (1923), or it was an object that could not function on its own. Motion studies were no longer a rescue. Ultimately the best way to deal with the figure was to assume its presence in the work, a factor that turned the Bauhaus art object into one of the everyday, as soon as it entered mass-production.
However just as one could accuse mass-production of moving the Modern populace far away from its traditional roots, the artists who sustained this endeavor were all the more keen on maintaining a strong connection to the evolution of human kind. Granted any interest in the European monarchies were off the table. But an interest in the basic human needs was not. Marcel Breuer, in particular, turned his attention to the way of life seen in African tribes. ‘African’ or ‘Romantic’ Chair (1921) was a collaboration with Gunta Stölzl featuring rather thin pieces of wood, reminiscent of skeletal bones, that were connected primarily with a tribal-looking tapestry. This piece of furniture not only was designed to sit low, toward the ground, but its function served as a shadow of the person sitting in it, keeping one propped up in natural form. Although ergonomics had yet to be refined, the efforts at making objects that would fit the figure were of the most interest to Bauhaus artists. The significance of visual decoration was secondary.
Josef Albers’ various studies of color squares expanded the critique of decoration, by reducing single colors to small, right-angled forms. The new focus given to color theory also suggested that color could function as metaphor rather than an elaborately depicted figure. Park (1924) consists of different hues of glass squares – primarily green, blue and white – set within wire, metal and wood. The juxtaposition of these mini-grids initially looks like an abstraction of a city map. However Albers’ suggestion of a small section of landscape, typically found within an urban setting, argues that colors not only render but create particular associations.
The Bauhaus was a critique, which responded to the technological developments that emerged during the early 20th-century. Paul Klee’s spindly renderings celebrated the expanse of open space while Albers, Gropius, Moholy-Nagy and others attempted to make it a mainstream concept worth understanding. As transportation and communication increased in speed the domestic interior, along with the idea of private life, was suddenly thrown into question. The viability of objects as well as that of public and private spaces was measured based upon utility. Oskar Schlemmer created masks for both men and women that carried a sense of the macabre, even though both were an extension of the artist’s reductivist critique of the individual in mass society. By slipping into anonymity, critical differences such as gender disappeared and a new sense of homogeneity became part of the new standard.