A new book uses personal insights to lay bare the quirky personalities of six key Bauhaus figures, but which six? By Andrew Mead
The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, by Nicholas Fox Weber. Yale University Press, March 2011, 544pp, £18
Nicholas Fox Weber’s book The Bauhaus Groupis sometimes funnier than it means to be. Take a sentence from the opening chapter: ‘To be in love with this tantalising woman while dealing with the horrors of the battlefield and dreaming of an art institution that would transform civilisation was more than Walter Gropius could bear’. That does sound like quite a lot to handle, so it comes as no surprise that ‘Gropius began to descend into personal darkness’.
The woman was Alma Mahler, wife of the composer, who became Gropius’ on-off lover and then his first wife. With her ‘porcelain-like skin’ she was a ‘refined goddess’, but also ‘one of the most tyrannical women of the 20th century’. Thank goodness Gropius had ‘an iron will’ and ‘steely reserve’ or else the Bauhaus would never have happened.
Mercifully this tone doesn’t dominate Weber’s study of six key Bauhaus figures: architects Gropius and Mies van der Rohe; painters Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers; and textile artist Anni Albers. Weber doesn’t explain the book’s rationale in the introduction, but in the acknowledgements at the end he says he hoped to capture ‘the true spirit of the Bauhaus… and the marvellous particularities of the people I consider to be its stars’.
So Weber doesn’t think those stars include artist László Moholy-Nagy, despite quoting Gropius as saying that Moholy-Nagy’s approach was ‘the most important at the Bauhaus’. As the long-time director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, perhaps Weber concurs with Josef’s comment that both Moholy-Nagy and his teaching were ‘confused and unpleasant’? He doesn’t say.
It was Gropius who initiated the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 as ‘a working community of the collective artistic disciplines’, and Mies who oversaw its demise in Berlin in 1933, so theirs are the first and last portraits. Weber presents Gropius as a Don Juan whose ‘tumultuous’ emotional life stood in marked contrast to the ordered environment he strove for at the Bauhaus. He was ‘terrifically handsome’ and even though his ears stuck out it ‘only increased the impression that he was listening attentively’. He was an asset to any fancy-dress party, arriving once as Le Corbusier.
After Gropius’ departure from the Bauhaus in 1928 and the brief divisive period when architect Hannes Meyer was its director, Mies took over for its last three years. With an aristocratic manner that masked humble origins, he could appear forbidding, but Weber discerns his imagination, tenacity, even his ‘humanity’. Above all, Mies had an eye that was like ‘a musician’s perfect pitch’.
From beginning to end, the Bauhaus was a target for criticism, mostly for its presumed left-wing politics and sexual libertarianism. It was seldom free from internal conflicts either, but keeping as detached from them as possible was Klee, whose portrait is the fullest and most engaging in the book.
While his post at the Bauhaus obliged him to teach, Klee made the most of the freedom he had to spend time in his studio. Weber clearly responds to Klee’s paintings and gives succinct accounts of them, alert to their delicacy, mystery and wit. He highlights Klee’s love of nature and
his daily walks, both in Weimar and Dessau, where Kandinsky sometimes joined him. The two of them occupied one of the semi-detached houses that Gropius had designed for the Bauhaus masters, each decorating his half in a highly distinctive way (AJ 13.04.00).
For one lesson, Klee asked his class to study the behaviour of the fish in his aquarium. Mies’ approach to teaching was rather less oblique. Working only with advanced students, the first task he set them was to design a single-bedroom house facing a garden and his usual response to what they did was ‘Try it again’. Gropius particularly admired Josef Albers: ‘He had the very rare quality of a teacher who treated every student in a different way. He was the very best teacher I could imagine.’
Just as Princess Diana famously remarked that ‘there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’, so this book about six people turns out to have seven protagonists – the seventh being Weber. He got to know the Albers in the early 1970s so we hear something of their post-Bauhaus life, whereas the long US careers of both Gropius and Mies are barely mentioned.
Weber takes Anni Albers to her oncologist, pushes her around a Klee retrospective in her wheelchair, and just happens to be there when she gets a phone call saying Nina Kandinsky has been murdered. If his presence is a little too obtrusive, it does at least make the narrative seem more like a memoir at times than a synthesis of secondary sources.
Despite the clichés, the book is vivid and entertaining, and Weber is surely right to suggest that at the root of all Bauhaus activity was the question of vision. ‘I have never taught painting. I have taught seeing,’ said Josef Albers. Amid the beguiling visual plenitude of the world, the task was to develop a discriminating eye. That’s something that Weber’s six subjects all shared and we are their beneficiaries. n
Andrew Mead is a writer and former reviews editor of the AJ