When the Bauhaus was formed in the aftermath of World War I and the Spartacist Revolution, it was meant to be the reversed image of contemporary history and society. If the outside world was a field where opposing forces, in the form of class and national struggles, raged, the Bauhaus aimed to extricate itself from these conflicts in order to establish an alternative primordial community. In this community, the Gestaltung of men counted as much as that of things, the two being strictly interdependent. Within the exercises dictated by Johannes Itten to his students, the material and historical conflicts of the outside world were thus sublimated into balanced contrasts of forms and colors.1 Rather than seize the impure contradictory world—as Dada did at the same time, according to its homeopathic logic of curing evil with evil—the Bauhaus invested in the illusion of immaculate origins, unscathed by history and its conflicts.2 This approach only seems paradoxical: its fundamentally anti-materialist stance, namely the escape from conflictual reality, relied largely on matter—more specifically on the sensitive appropriation of the scarce matter that was still available and the subsequent rediscovery of its promised tactility. Thus, matter was not considered as a synecdoche of a net of relationships and means of production, but rather as the synecdoche of a timeless relationship between the subject and the world.
Several years later, in the wake of even more profound historical crises, Anni Albers would immigrate to the United States, and the Bauhaus itself became a thing of the past—an altogether personal, collective, and national past. At that time, she would often comment on the chaotic and disorienting character of life in Germany in the years after the First World War. “Outside was the world I came from, a tangle of hopelessness, of undirected energy, of cross-purposes,”3 she said. But if the outside reality was a “tangle,” that is a mess of conflictual and opaque experiences, the Bauhaus promised to unravel its heterogeneous threads in order to weave them anew, according to a pattern and a meaning. The metaphor, therefore, worked both ways: the chaos of history found a privileged metaphor in the intermingling of threads and the coherent weaving practiced at the School could be in turn a symbolic model for the society to come. Metaphors do not only to describe history, but also produce it.
Of course, Albers immediately added that “inside, at the Bauhaus, after some two years of its existence, there was confusion too, but certainly no hopelessness or lovelessness, rather exuberance with its own kind of confusion.” Thus, listening to Gropius present the Bauhaus project in 1923 (the year of the school’s famous turn towards industrial rationalization), Albers was undergoing “the experience of a gradual condensation, of our hoping and musing into a focal point, into a meaning, into some distant, stable objective.”4 In other words, the “tangle” of outer reality was interpreted as an “end” experience, whereas the “confusion” of the Bauhaus was an experience of a beginning. This ambivalent temporal identity—a single moment that is experienced both as an end and a beginning—is a salient feature of the historicity of modernity, understood as a regime of “crisis” and as a “situation of breach,” for better or for worse.5 “What had existed, proved to be wrong,” Albers added in 1938. Anyone seeking to find a point of certainty amidst the confusion of upset beliefs and hoping to lay a foundation for a work which was oriented towards the future, had to start at the very beginning.”6 Reified traditions, transformed into dry formulas, were of no help to life and the Bauhaus wanted to revive the corpse by experimenting with materials close at hand, materials that were at the same time substitutes for the missing experience and a means for re-establishing it.
In this essay, I would like to comment on what seems to me to be Anni Albers’s problematic relationship to the past in general and to history in particular. Anni Albers is not a unique case though, but rather a case study, which despite its particularities, can be considered as analogical to the Bauhaus in general. Yet, I’ll limit myself to two aspects of this relationship, namely to a certain kind of primitivism and its evolution, in the 1930s, into the conception of the historical regime of the “longue durée.”
The primitivism of the first Bauhaus was different from the aesthetic and conceptual modernist use of the masks and other wood artifacts before the First World War. Although the Bauhaus inherited this kind of aesthetic affiliation, its members were much more interested in a re-foundation of history and society and thus reactivated some of the most important ideas that—since the exploration and the colonization of the “New World” and all through the conjectural history of Enlightenment—had constituted the “first” steps of human societies. It was this conjectural “beginning,” reactivated by a devastated industrial society, that was deeply anti-materialist and anti-historical, since it aimed to sublimate a “poor” historical situation with an “elementary” beginning. “Poor” is used here in the sense given to modern “experience” by Walter Benjamin, an Armseligkeit interpreted as a fundamental rupture between the past and the present, a rupture due to the “tremendous development of technology,” to which society was not adapted and thus corresponded to a “new kind of barbarism.”7 For Benjamin, it was urgent to relinquish what he considered to be bourgeois culture’s most harmful function: its transformation into a contemplative sphere that guaranteed an autonomous subject and an autonomous class the privilege of purity in a dirty world. Benjamin opposed the ideal of the Bildung of a “new man,” hysterically prevalent in Germany in those years, with the metaphor of a man who “lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present.”8 The Bauhaus eliminated all materialistic determination from the poverty of the present, making it essentially a moral value, according to the logic of a profoundly Christian reversal: “the last will be first.”9
There are at least four aspects of this reversal that were necessary to the ideological foundation of the Bauhaus. First, and as Gropius asserted in plenty of texts, the material poverty of Germany after a four-year war and its subsequent defeat was meant to be converted into a spiritual wealth, something like a plus-value of interiority, which was supposed to make the humiliated nation a model in the struggle against universal materialism. Intoxicated by their supposed victory, Germany’s adversaries were unable to take over this task.10 Second, the acknowledged devaluation of artistic tradition in modernity was considered to be the very condition for its future flowering. Anni Albers would thus write that the weaving workshop was “fortunate not to have had the traditional training in the craft. It’s no easy task to throw useless conventions overboard.”11 Third, the scarcity of materials in an impoverished country ultimately brought about the rediscovery of what was immediately available and “natural”: the Sommerfeld House, built from wood, was presented by Gropius as an incredible opportunity. Finally, the very lack of concrete tasks for the first Bauhaus allowed its members to undertake the “re-foundation” of the arts through playful activity, which Friedrich Schiller once referred to as the field of freedom because it was opposed to blind necessity.12 In Albers’s words: “Unburdened by any considerations of practical applications, this uninhibited play of materials resulted in amazing objects […] of often barbaric beauty.”13 Now, if for Benjamin the new, positive concept of barbarism meant “to begin with a little and build up further” in an “arbitrary, constructed” language, with no organicity left in it, it was because of these new barbarians that Brecht or Klee for instance, weren’t “yearning for new experience,” but were longing “to free themselves from it.” Benjamin elaborated further: “They long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty—their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty—that it will lead to something respectable.”14
Primitivist discourse is of course antithetical to this line of thought. While it depends deeply on this ideology of deprivation, lack, and scarcity, primitivist ideology is seldom neutral. Far more often, it is either positively inclined, as in the case of the “noble savage,” or negatively inclined, as it is the case in its familiar racist discourses. The topos of primitive “lack” is very important and as such has countless and varied examples. However, I would like to revisit one of the first, that of the Jesuit missionary Joseph François Lafitau, who discovered the Iroquois of North America.15 In his comparative study Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains, Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps [Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times], published in 1724, he was describing the Iroquois as “men deprived of everything, without letters, without sciences, without apparent laws, without a Temple for the most part, without a regulated Worship,” adding that they seemed as if they were “just coming out of the mud of the earth.”16 The “comparison” is based on the “without,” the zero degree of institutional and cultural history, the white page ready for the writing of European History on the new land and its people. By contrast, in Germany, the “without” came after an overwritten history, which had not only lost its meaning, but was also felt to be all the more negative. Considered as the consciousness and the use of the past, history was still equivalent to the historicism that Nietzsche had criticized so harshly; considered as a process of events taking place in the present, it was, as stated above, confusing, conflictual, and hugely disappointing. The primitivistic “without” could thus resonate with the deprivation of national pride, economic misery, and, most importantly, the loss of a valid common experience. All those specific “withouts” were to be converted into primordial values. Such was the case in the weaving workshop.