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Essential Journal

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A Centenary of Counter-Culture

Discarded by high school students in favour of a daydream, we revisit an art & design teachers pin-up as it celebrates its centenary

Words by Thomas SUMNER

Bauhaus. Probably a vague high school memory for most, but the 1920s German institution is quite possibly the most influential art school of the 20th Century. Its teaching style and bringing together of art, society and technology continues to have a major influence to this day. Much like the school itself, faculty members such as Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Paul Klee likely bring back faint memories of 4th period art or day trips to the Tate, rather than the lasting influence of their radical visions that our underappreciated art teachers intended to ingrain in our ‘art is just an extension of break’ adolescent minds.

Despite the turbulent political uprising of the time and universal cultural conservatism experienced in the aftermath of WWI, the Bauhaus offered an optimistic and internationalist vision of the future. Influenced by the reuniting of manufacturing and creativity, spearheaded by the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts movements, Walter Gropius (the school’s founder and first director) set out to quash the industry hierarchy to bring architecture, textiles and furniture design on par with fine art. Combining these practices ultimately allowed complete works of art to be enjoyed and experienced by the masses, rather than owned as a luxury by the few.

Having developed his vision and a proposal for a new school whilst serving on the front line in 1916, Gropius – a serial collaborator – became director of the Weimar Academy of Fine Arts in 1919. It was during this same year he developed the Bauhaus manifesto and would combine the Academy of Fine Arts with the School of Applied Arts to create the Bauhaus.

As the German far-right grew in popularity as did criticism of Gropius’ and the school’s international outlook and socialist views, deeming the principles to be more inline with Communist Russia than the German cultural tradition of the day. Rapidly growing in power and influence the far-right cut the school’s funding, leaving Gropius in search of a second home to relocate his vision, esteemed faculty and students. Settling on Dessau (two hours south-west of Berlin, by today’s money) it was here he had his most famous work realised, in the way of the Bauhaus itself. Built in 1926, the new school building embodied his vision of new architecture.

As pressure continued to mount from the far-right, Gropius resigned as Director in 1928 and handed the reins to Hannes Meyer, director of the department of architecture.

The lesser-known of the three directors, Meyer’s time at the helm was short lived. Though he brought the school its two most important commissions and for the first time, saw it turn a profit, it would be his communist views and political influence on the school, its teaching and students that would lead to his ousting. Having removed Meyer amid political unease, Dessau’s Chief Mayor turned to Germany’s avant-garde and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but only after an unsuccessful bid to reinstate Gropius. Being politically-neutral Mies (for short) would keep the school clear of any further political butting of heads.

Though perhaps known more for his time and work in the USA, established architect Mies led the Bauhaus through its final years (1930-33) during which the Nazi party continued to gain popularity ultimately coming into power on the 30th January 1933.

During this time, Meis, who saw the political attention as an annoyance, didn’t allow it to distract him from implementing his own theories on modern design. Merging furniture design and metal work, for example, into interior design, Meis shifted the Bauhaus’ focus almost completely to architecture, leaving some faculty members spending more time in the meisterhaus rather than the klassenzimmer. Having gained partial control of Dessau, the Nazi party closed the school in 1933. This did not deter Mies who, investing his own funds, moved the school and it’s students to a derelict factory in Berlin. With the students breathing new life into the forgotten building, the Nazi party were hot on their heels. The Gestapo raided and closed it down just a year after it’s opening, suspicions having been raised of it producing anti-Nazi propaganda. After a successful protest to reopen the school, its director and remaining faculty members voluntarily closed it down as conditions had been set to replace professors with those who better supported Nazi principles.

As the once radical and forever-imitated school reaches its centenary, its influence is as present as ever. Around the world, after 30 years of mass consumerism and digitisation, we have turned our attention and appreciation back to tangible craft. Many a USA city skyline features a Bauhaus faculty member’s handiwork, be it designed by them or a student of theirs, with the modern day offices within those skyscrapers adorned by both legitimate and rip-off Bauhaus furniture. And I wouldn’t doubt a Klee and Kandinsky dominates the entrance halls of some, prompting an office worker to daydream a while of 4th period art class. EJ