The interest evinced by European artists of this period in their own folk art and what they understood as primitive art from other parts of the world would inspire artists across the globe to examine with new respect alternatives to academic art’s focus on mastering specifically European codes of representation. Anni and Josef Albers’ increased esteem for the pre-Columbian art of the Americas was perhaps a way to identify with and assimilate in the United States, where they never attempted to work with the leading avant-garde artists of their own generation, although at first at Black Mountain College and then, in Josef’s case, at Yale they would teach and inspire many younger artists.8 Nationalists in India and elsewhere would also find in local iterations of Expressionism a way of bridging the divide between an intelligentsia acutely aware of European modernism and the peasantry who were not.
But Expressionism is not the whole story of the Bauhaus, even as many of those associated with the school continued to be haunted by its legacy. Throughout its short existence, the Bauhaus was in a continual state of flux. It moved twice—from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin in 1932. Hannes Meyer succeeded Gropius as director in 1928, only to be replaced two years later by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But certainly, the biggest upheaval in the school’s brief history came in 1923, when Gropius replaced Itten with the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy, who in 1925 asked Anni’s husband Josef, who had come to the school as a student in 1920, to partner with him in leading the preliminary course.
As a celebrated photograph taken by his wife Lucia hints, Moholy-Nagy saw himself as an engineer as much as an artist, once famously ordering a painting over the telephone by dictating the placement of color on a gridded surface.9 Fascinated by light, he helped shift the orientation of the school from painting towards photography.10 Equally as crucially, he was sympathetic to Gropius’s determination to move from Expressionism to an artistic position closer to De Stijl (the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg lived in Weimar for a time in order to have the maximum influence on students dissatisfied with Itten) and Constructivism (El Lissitzky spent much of the 1920s in Berlin). This shift also coincided with a highly pragmatic move from emphasis on the kind of artisan production seen in the African Chair to a new engagement with industry. Gropius hoped that local industries would benefit from working with students and staff capable of designing innovative high-quality wares—as design reformers in Germany had for a generation.11 With public funding always in question, this was a strategy intended to improve the school’s chronically shaky finances.
The result was the emergence of a marriage of abstract form and an industrial aesthetic that is now often termed “classic modernism” in Germany, as since at least the 1960s it has often appeared entirely timeless. It should be admitted, however, that it first went out of fashion, including with many of its original adherents, from the 1930s through the 1950s, when avant-garde artists were fascinated by surrealism and again by primitivism, while less experimental patrons flirted with both monumental and vernacular variants of historicism. And classic modernism’s apparently eternal appeal was also reduced during the height of postmodernism’s challenge—that is during the 1970s and much of the 1980s.12 Nonetheless, this fusion of crisp geometry and machine-like styling seemed at the time and has up to the present often appeared to be a universally valid design aesthetic. Furthermore, it appealed to many from the Global South for its ability to communicate modernization. Indeed, adopting the appearance of modernism sometimes appeared like a short cut to achieving actual technological modernization in places where colonialism and other forms of economic exploitation had often sundered connections with the immediate past—especially to court and other elite urban patrons.
The approach chosen by Marianne Brandt in her tea infuser or Erich Cosemüller in his photograph, Bauhaus Scene, which depicts a female figure wearing a metal mask designed by Oskar Schlemmer and a dress by Liz Beyer, seated in Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair (whose iron-cloth Beyer also crafted), captures the tone of these designs, for a tomorrow where even people were pictured as slightly machine-like. The Bauhaus production ethos was in line with emergent industrial mass production techniques like that of the Model T Ford, which appeared to many to promise improved standards of living for both workers and consumers as new and efficient means of production made what had formerly been luxury goods available to a mass market, not least because so much labor would be saved in their making. What is less obvious at first glance, however, is the degree to which products produced at the Bauhaus, remained nonetheless—as Robin Schuldenfrei in particular has pointed out—luxury objects.13 For instance, Brandt’s tea infuser was made of silver with an ebony handle and was actually hand-crafted. But the simple shift dress proved prescient for the degree to which designs made at the school in this period stood slightly outside contemporary fashion in ways that now appear to be almost timeless.14 Although its short skirt would have caused a scandal anywhere in the world before the early 1920s, it shares little else with the flapper dresses in vogue across Europe and beyond at the time. Unlike most of the high fashion of the period (Coco Chanel’s suits being a notable exception), it could easily be worn today as it could also have been frequently in the intervening years. Many people at the Bauhaus seemed to have had a knack for finding this sweet spot. Breuer was inspired to design his classic tubular metal chair, which he named for the artist Wassily Kandinsky, by studying the handlebars of his bicycle. Cool, self-possessed and rational, such objects paradoxically endure after nearly a century as markers of the new.
The pedagogical process through which they were developed was also significant. Breuer’s tipping of his hat to Kandinsky was no accident. Gropius hired a number of talented Expressionist painters to teach at the Bauhaus, none of them more celebrated than the Russian-born artist, who had lived in Munich between 1896 and 1914, where he became a major theoretical voice and one of the first abstract painters. His book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1912, made him one of the most famous artists of his time.15 Upon the outbreak of World War I he returned to Moscow, where he helped inspire Constructivism, before returning to Germany in 1920. Gropius brought him to the Bauhaus two years later, where his presence cemented the school’s stature as the most advanced art school in Europe and helped attract talented students from as far away as the United States, British Mandate Palestine and Japan. Kandinsky’s turn from Expressionism towards a more austere geometry paralleled and undoubtedly helped inspire the shift that took place at the school soon after his and Moholy-Nagy’s arrival towards more hard-edged rectilinear abstraction.
What was exciting about the Bauhaus was not just the presence of leading painters, but the use to which Gropius put them. In a school that was intended at the beginning to train craftspeople and whose focus eventually shifted to industrial design, painting was never the whole story. Instead, new directions across many media were forged by the coupling of form masters, as the artists were termed, with craft masters, most of whom were already experts in their respective fields, which included metalworking, woodworking, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, stained glass, photography and stagecraft. This pairing was not entirely new, as it had previously been attempted in several German schools of industrial design before the war. Indeed, Gropius inherited several of his craft masters from the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts that the Belgian designer and architect Henry van de Velde had established in Weimar in the first years of the new century. But the Bauhaus differed due to the relentless commitment the painters who taught there had to modern art, whether Expressionist or abstract, and those who taught the preliminary course to abstraction. Gropius appointed Kandinsky to lead the mural painting workshop, which paradoxically was never one of the school’s most successful.
The relationship between the form and craft masters is perhaps clearest in the case of the weaving workshop, although Gunta Stölzl, the first woman to be named a craft master, taught herself and her classmates to weave only after she arrived at the school. Gropius insisted on shunting as many of the female students as possible into the weaving workshop, as he feared that if the many talented women clamoring to study at the Bauhaus were allowed into every workshop, the school would not be taken seriously. However, that he assigned the talented Swiss painter Paul Klee to be the weavers’ form master shows that he did not write them off entirely. Indeed, the transformation of weaving into a fine arts practice was all but invented at the Bauhaus, and the appearance of much mainstream production, especially in the area of upholstery fabric, was also transformed by the workshop’s emphasis on tying together form and structure. Now that the attention of scholars is shifting from Bauhaus masters to the school’s students and from the men associated with the school to the women, the weavers have become the stars of most recent Bauhaus exhibitions and related scholarship.16
Like Amrita Sher-Gil in India, many of these women came from middle class backgrounds (some of the men who studied beside them were from families of more modest means) and found in artistic experimentation a welcome alternative to the gendered norms that had until recently limited many women’s prospects to marriage and children. Their training also provided them with a respectable means of making their own living. The loss of so many men of their generation in the recent war, as well as the subsequent inflation that wiped out the savings of many formerly well-to-do families, helped spur the emancipation of German women in the 1920s, who under the country’s new constitution gained the right to vote and equal access to work. This was very different from the aftermath of World War II, where huge civilian losses and the complete conquest of the country—including the rape of many women by conquering troops—would bolster a return to conventional domesticity, at least in what became West Germany, that would temporarily diminish awareness of the accomplishments of these pioneers.