Posts Tagged ‘Martin Gropiusbau’

Modell Bauhaus

October 13, 2009

Review of ‘Modell Bauhaus’, a major Bauhaus retrospective held in Berlin July-October 2009, published in Blueprint Magazine, October 2009:

Given the importance of the Bauhaus as a founding institution for 20th century modernism, it’s surprising that so few retrospectives have been held, and certainly nothing approaching the scale and ambition of Modell Bauhaus. The exhibition sets its sights high: a reappraisal of the Bauhaus legacy that both acknowledges and critiques the brand it has become, bringing together over 1,000 objects from the New York’s MoMA and the three major german Bauhaus collections: the Bauhaus Archive Berlin, the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau and the Weimar Classical Foundation. 

The timing is apposite; 2009 is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, and also the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a division which kept so much of this collection apart in the post-war period.  Coincidentally, 2009 is also the 80th birthday of the New York MoMA, which became a home for many members of the Bauhaus after they fled the Third Reich, holding the first Bauhaus retrospective there in 1938.

With so much material, Modell Bauhaus could easily have been overwhelming, viewed only as an endless display of objects removed from their context.  To counter this, the curators have been keen to emphasize that the Bauhaus was not a static design office turning out branded products, but rather a continually evolving and changing project.  Its brief 14-year life saw three directors (Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe), and three consecutive homes (Weimar, Dessau and finally Berlin), due in part to constant attack from the reactionary right.   It was also not always harmonious.  Gropius began early on to turn away from the Bauhaus’s founding idea – a modern equivalent of a group of medieval craftsmen – towards an alliance of art with technology, disappointing many of its co-founders.  The ever-apolitical Mies utterly rejected Mayer’s communist leanings.

The eighteen rooms are chronologically arranged, with each room focusing on a different aspect of the Bauhaus’s design output and its changing nature.  The rooms also follow a gradually changing colour scheme representing each year with a different hue, the order based on Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten’s Colour Sphere system. The design, by Berlin-based chezweitz & roseapple, is almost faultless, apart from the slightly cluttered and strangely 1970s feel of the final room, which features various examples of Mies’ tubular steel furniture,  confusingly set against rather too many mirrors and dark wooden panelling.  Occasionally, you can’t help feeling that you’re in a branch of Habitat, with tableware and lamps displayed in minimalist surroundings, although this says more about the long-term influence of the Bauhaus’s designs than any failure in the exhibition’s approach. 

There was always a tension between mass production and elitism at the Bauhaus; its slogan under Hannes Meyer was “The needs of the people, not the dictates of luxury”, and it is ironic that a strictly limited edition Mart Stam S43 chair is being produced as an exhibition tie-in. This paradox is acknowledged as part of the show with Christine Hill’s tongue-in-check contemporary installation, DIY-Bauhaus, where visitors are given advice on how to bring Bauhaus style into their homes.

The exhibition really comes alive though when it focuses less on the domestic design objects  and more on the Bauhaus’s overlapping work in advertising, sculpture, theatre and architecture reminding you what an incredible scope of activities the Bauhaus encompassed in striving for total art. Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator is placed in a translucent cube within a darkened room, with coloured lighting playing fantastical shadows over the cube’s surface from within.  Nearby, video screens play re-stagings of Bauhaus theatre and dance pieces, one of which features a robotic figure performing an early but unmistakable moonwalk.  A new model of Mies’ famously unbuilt (and equally unbuildable) glass skyscraper for Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse is a stark contrast to the rather lacklustre new building going up on the same site today. 

The term ‘Modell’ in the title is translated as ‘conceptual model’ – signifying both the Bauhaus’s intention to create model designs, but also to establish itself as a model for other institutions.  With such ambition to present a new perspective on the Bauhaus, it’s disappointing that explanatory text is so limited – generally each room has a single board of text with individual objects labelled with only name and designer.  There’s also a risk that Modell Bauhaus could imply a neatness and continuity which its curators are striving to avoid, but despite this the show is not to be missed.  Given that the last major Bauhaus retrospective was in Stuttgart in 1968, and that the forthcoming New York version will be in much reduced form, the sheer scale and completeness of Modell Bauhaus is unlikely to be repeated for many years. ‘More is more’, as Mies wouldn’t have said.