The Bauhaus is dead.


Cover of the band’s first single Bela Lugosi’s Dead, released in 1979.

White on white translucent black capes
Back on the rack
The Bauhaus is dead

The bats have left the bell tower
Victims have been count
Red velvet lines the white box

The Bauhaus is dead

Undead, undead, undead
Undead, undead, undead

The student file past its tomb
Strewn with time's dead flowers
Bereft in deathly bloom
Alone in a darkened room
The Masters

The Bauhaus is dead

Undead, undead, undead
Undead, undead, undead

Oh Bauhaus
Bauhaus undead

Oh Bauhaus
Bauhaus undead

Oh Bauhaus

Bauhaus live at Rock City, Nottingham, 19 Oktober 1982. Photos: Graham Turner.

The poem with which I start this text is an adaptation of the lyrics to the song Bela Lugosi is Dead by the band Bauhaus.1 A tribute to the silent film actor Bela Lugosi, who, like the historic Bauhaus, had already been resurrected several times during his lifetime. When in 1956 Lugosi died at his Los Angeles home, people were not sure whether he would immediately rise again from the grave, as he had previously demonstrated this impressive ability on the silver screen several times during his career. Originally released in 1979 as a single by the record label Small Wonder in London, for the cover the band used a 1926 film still from D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan, executed in the Xerox copy style of the 1980s. The single didn’t reach the UK charts immediately. On the Bauhaus live LP Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape (1982) it can be heard as performed at The Old Vic in London that same year, at a time when the band had already stormed European dark wave clubs with “Bela Lugosi is Dead.” The live album’s cover photo celebrated the minimalist black-and-white aesthetics that Bauhaus students such as Lux Feininger explored.

Bela Lugosi (born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó) was a child of the nineteenth century, born in the city of Lugos in 1881. Then part of the dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary and an outpost in Europe’s feudal-imperial world order—which ended with the conclusion of the First World War and the Russian and German revolutions—the city is now located in the westernmost part of Romania. Lugosi immigrated to the United States in 1920, when the Bauhaus in Weimar was in its first year and still captivated by Johannes Itten’s reformist pedagogical/spiritual influence. More than fifteen years later, some Bauhäuslers tried to gain a foothold in North American exile. Migrating from Germany via Great Britain to the United States during the 1930s, Gropius, Albers, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, and Bayer were able to establish the Bauhaus myth in the U.S. through a now canonical exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art, classes taught at various Boston-area universities and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and through founding a second Bauhaus in Chicago. In total, these disparate activities led to a reception of the Bauhaus inflected by a Cold War liberal ideology: we are now attempting to trace the winding paths and enigmas of this mythical reception a hundred years after the Bauhaus was first founded.

In 1928, Bela Lugosi arrived in Hollywood, having completed a West Coast run of the stage version of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Here he celebrated his greatest film successes; not as a performer of modern urban themes but in the horror genre, which revived the tropes of nineteenth century horror novels, rendered in a black and white celluloid aesthetics. With his portrayal of Count Dracula, Lugosi achieved worldwide fame, as if the shadow of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s former grandeur extended as far west as California. Tod Browning’s film adaptation of the undead count’s story premiered in 1931, the same year the NSDAP won a local election in Dessau and demanded the closure of the Bauhaus. The KPD voted against the closure, the SPD abstained. There are those who say the Dessau Bauhaus was already dead when it closed the following year, in September of 1932.

Lugosi’s horror film career flagged in the mid-1930s. The zenith of the horror genre had passed; horror scenarios of a completely different kind were well under way across the Atlantic, following the seizure of power by the National Socialists: anti-communist, anti-avant-garde, racist and homophobic persecution and mass murder were underway in Germany and Europe even before the Second World War. The persecuted and murdered included a large number of Bauhaus students lacking the means or visa to flee to North or South America, Palestine, the Soviet Union, or Shanghai. The expulsion, flight, and slaughter of an entire generation of intellectuals and cultural workers left something incomprehensible behind, a pain that can hardly be expressed … the loss of a history of alternative urban lifestyles explored by young women and men during the Weimar Era, the loss of stories of the aborted modernist, socialist, and communist movement—including the self-critique this movement engaged in in its efforts to clarify its own radicalism. It is us who now visit these stories and criticize modernism. But the undead of the twentieth century are looking over our shoulders.

Helen Chandler and Bela Lugosi in Dracula. Credit: Getty Images/Archive Photos.

To migrate to the United States is to anticipate social mobility, but the opposite is often the case. Long after the Second World War had ended and at the height of the Cold War, a now chronically unemployed and drug-addicted Bela Lugosi played roles in the B-movies of cross-dressing director Ed Wood. Wood’s film Plan 9 from Outer Space helped Lugosi achieve lasting cult fame. With no storyline in mind, Wood had shot impromptu test footage of Lugosi in his Dracula cape in front of Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson’s home, at a suburban graveyard, and in front of Lugosi’s Hollywood apartment building just prior to the actor’s death. When he began to film in earnest, Wood was compelled to substitute for Lugosi his wife’s chiropractor, who was notably taller, in order to use the footage the two had shot together. Dubbed the worst film ever made in a film guide from 1980, Plan 9 achieved belated fame and is still shown in art house cinemas; one of Lugosi’s stylistic progeny, the actress Vampira, also became a style icon within the European dark wave movement. It is therefore not surprising that the postpunk band Bauhaus, founded in 1978 by four Northampton youths—Peter Murphy, Kevin Haskins, Daniel Ash, David J (the latter two having put in time at art school)—paid homage to Bela Lugosi. With their debut album In the Flat Field (and single of the same name), Bauhaus became the avant-garde of the goth movement; Peter Murphy, a working-class kid from a strict Catholic upbringing, is still called the “Godfather of Goth” today.

Actress Maila Nurmi as Vampira in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, 1959.

That the four chose to name their band Bauhaus is astonishing and difficult to interpret. In fact, the band was originally called Bauhaus 1919—bassist David J, who trained as a graphic designer, suggested the name, because of its “stylistic implications and associations”—before shortening it to Bauhaus. Perhaps Ash had also learned about the Bauhaus through his art school preliminary course, which had earlier made a furor in Britain in the 1950s. In a 2018 interview David J, whose first solo venture, significantly, was a collaborative single made with Weimar Bauhaus alumni, the artist and poet René Halkett, explained the association with the historical Bauhaus like this:

“The music we were doing when we first started was very stripped down. It was very stark and minimalist. I thought there was some resonance with the Bauhaus ideology, with respect to form and minimalism. It’s ironic because it’s the opposite of what is considered Gothic in architecture! But it just felt right. I had this book, Bauhaus 1919, referring to the year that the Bauhaus started in Weimar, so that was the original name of the band: Bauhaus 1919. When I suggested it, everybody instantly said, ‘Yeah! That’s great.’ Then we appropriated the Bauhaus face insignia. We just took it.”2

Perhaps the band from the East Midlands were attracted by the cool, and by that time obsolete, surface of modernism, as a new counter-aesthetic in the time of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal bourgeois hardness. But the band appropriated the name of the school and Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus logo at a time when the Bauhaus and its writings were slowly being covered in dust in archives, museums and libraries. The band Bauhaus gave the school a new life in pop culture. As a punk kid living in the Ruhr area, in 1980 I was listening to legendary BBC announcer John Peel’s program the day he hosted the band on his show. The program helped to give Bauhaus its breakthrough. It also left me with a vague interest in Bauhaus and modernity through the group’s name and appropriation of the Bauhaus logo.

Bauhaus the band had become the medium of a resurrection. Their pop-cultural appropriation of the historic Bauhaus, many years after the fact, opened my eyes that the Bauhaus, like Bela Lugosi, had emerged from the spirit of the nineteenth century. There are those who say the Bauhaus was the last school to give institutional form to the artistic critique of the commodity form under industrial capitalism, a critique that had already been formulated in the middle of the nineteenth century by the British Arts and Crafts movement. The return to medieval guilds was reflected not only in the name Bauhaus or the school’s invocation of craft (which Gropius shared with Indian poet and pedagogue Rabindranath Tagore), but also by the cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto. Designed by Lionel Feininger, the pamphlet featured an expressionist wood print depicting a cathedral that also reflected Bruno Taut’s city crown. The so-called English Gothic Revival, to which the graphics and text of the first Bauhaus Manifesto refer, originated in early imperial industrialized England. The revival, which Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, John Ruskin and William Morris advanced in theses, texts, and works of architecture and design, developed into the British Gothic style. It was to become the country’s defining aesthetic sensibility. It is astonishing that this revival of the Gothic was still being pursued by Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus at the beginning of the twentieth century, and, according to Sarat Maharaj, was to have a far-flung effect, influencing Gandhi’s ideas for recovering the means of production. But this return to pre-capitalist modes of production also says something about the effectiveness of capitalism/colonialism and its recurring, conflicting forces. For this is the only way to understand the survival of enduring ideas; that they could not realize themselves completely in their time and, like a poltergeist, wished to show themselves again and again in unexpected places. In the late 1970s, it was the post-punk band Bauhaus that erected a monument to the forgotten Gothic past of the early Bauhaus on a grave that does not want to close.

This may be due to the fact that, unlike Marx and Engels’ analysis, the Arts and Crafts movement along with the Bauhaus aimed above all to promote aesthetic and educational reform. It is possibly this replacement of a necessary social upheaval by an aesthetic reform movement still haunts us today with its restless spirit. At the end of the 1970s, Bauhaus the band understood Bauhaus the school beyond the myth that, contrary to the imperative, it was necessary to redesign the entire world of objects. Rather, the band Bauhaus transformed the utopia of the Weimar Republic into a dystopia in which the obsolete lived on in its reversal. For the ideologies of progress and growth of industrial capitalism, and the embrace of the synthesis of art and technology that the Bauhaus propagated, after an initial stage where the crafts were foregrounded (roughly from 1923 to 1933), had been used up and the working class and its children disposed of. Unemployment became the hallmark of the so-called postmodern period, under the auspices of the neoliberal ideology predominating in Europe and the United States. Bauhaus lead singer Peter Murphy grew up at a time when the self-sacrificing working class hoped for a better life, and prayed for this eventuality for at Catholic churches built in the Gothic Revival style.

At about the same time Bauhaus was achieving fame, the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten played a concert in one of the derelict squatted factories in my hometown of Bochum in the Ruhr. Blixa, Mufti & Co. held the concert in solidarity with the precarious youth, who had equipped themselves with everything the abandoned factory had to offer. Throughout Europe, former centers of industrial production had fallen silent. The outsourcing of industry had recently celebrated its triumphal march, and in the now empty factory halls young people all over Europe created centers for their own culture: the wish to establish places beyond paternalism, class and gender hierarchies, beyond social adjustment, beyond schools, vocational training and pre-established career paths were what myself and my comrades had in mind and in common. We sought them in subculture, music and style in clear dissonance with the conservative bourgeois and left-liberal mainstream.

The name Einstürzende Neubauten (collapsing new buildings) refers to a different funeral scenario. For although many young people lived with unemployed or under-employed parents in new buildings from the 1950s, it was the 1972 demolition of a complex of fourteen-story apartment buildings in St. Louis, Missouri, the Pruitt-Igoe complex designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, that symbolically heralded postmodernism—an event captured and disseminated broadly by an attentive media. Twenty years earlier the complex had been considered a premier example of reformist welfare architecture, one that would greatly improve the lives of the poorest section of the population. By the time of its demolition, the complex was known for violence, vandalism, chaos and squalor. The American architectural theorist and landscape designer Charles Jencks commented on the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe with a sentence that has become canonical:

“Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts). … It was finally put out of its misery. Boom – boom – boom.”

Another replacement and no time to mourn. No time to mourn for the African-American residents, especially the single mothers who lived (in misery) in the settlement, only to be delivered from Pruitt-Igoe to another misery. To introduce a new time and to use the language of violence, Jencks says grinning: “BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.” These shots from the mouth of an architectural critic sound more than cynical today in the context of Black Lives Matter. What the violent wars of the twentieth century did not destroy, demolition balls, explosions, housing speculation, urban politics and racist discourse do today.

In opposition to Jencks: Affordable housing and education for all are demands of a modernity I certainly do not wish to bury. Nor do I wish to inter the necessary creation of new institutions when social conditions require it. The ethos with which the Bauhaus began—to found a school dedicated to the idea that art and design processes might enter into a new relationship with mass industrial production, creating a third place where artistry and good design were neither rejected nor left to the caprices of market forces and/or turned into status symbols for the social elite—is an undead that will continue to haunt us until we here in the present are able to realize it.

Lyonel Feininger, Kathedrale, 1919. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, photo: Atelier Schneider, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Frontispiece to The Present Revival of Christian Architecture (1843) by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.
Photo: Jacqueline Banerjee; from Victorian Web.

The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin, first page of text, 1890s.

Goth-Patches, LordOfTheLeftHand / Etsy.

The second, widely televised demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe building that followed the initial March 16 demolition, April 1972. Photo: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development/Wikimedia.

Moving-in day at Pruitt-Igoe, 1954. Credit: [#48, 732.654] The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection.

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