- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 29, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE BAUHAUS GROUP: SIX MASTERS OF MODERNISM

By Nicholas Fox Weber

Knopf, $40, 544 pages, illustrated

Reviewed by Ellen Sands

How is it that the artists of Germany’s famed Bauhaus design academy, champions of clarity, reason and order, were themselves a bunch of really messy personalities? Nicholas Fox Weber’s “The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism” profiles six of the school’s teachers, offering an intimate look at the institution and the art world of the time.

In this, his latest foray into art analysis, Mr. Weber examines the founding of the Bauhaus, the years of its heyday and ultimate dissolution, and the dispersal of its faculty, many of whom came to America to teach. While sometimes indulgently overlooking the frailties and egos of his favorite personalities, Mr. Weber provides an entertaining story of the development, politics and personalities of the school, providing an engaging look at modern art in the period just before World War II.

In a world where art and architecture would be expressions of nature and materials, these six masters of the Bauhaus were consumed by yearnings and passion. Their personal lives read like something out of a soap opera, filled with paradox and scandals. Beginning with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Mr. Weber profiles the man living with one of the great divas of all time - Alma Mahler - while trying to establish a new design school model.

In fact, the first half of the profile focuses so heavily on Mahler that I checked the chapter heading to be sure whose story I was reading. Their life together reads like “Anna Karenina,” with Mahler playing the siren and Gropius relegated to the cuckolded Karenin. Gropius even took the same honorable route when his wife’s wanderings produced an illegitimate child.

Gropius, like Karenin, eventually lost out in the partnership, but he managed to get back in circulation, marrying twice more after the split. While his architectural projects became crisper and more streamlined, his personal life never quite achieved the same order.

Paul Klee, on the other hand, was the opposite. A painter enticed by Gropius to join the Bauhaus faculty at its first home in Weimar, Klee craved a simple domestic life. His paintings, on the other hand, explored quirky and provocative realms. Klee was an at-home dad to son Felix; his wife remained in Berlin when the two went off to Weimar. Klee missed many of the more outrageous social events at the school because he preferred to be home with his son. Yet his artwork explored sexuality and gender in ways that belied his apparently placid life, earning him the label of “degenerate” from the Weimar authorities.

Wassily Kandinsky, Russian by birth, came to the Bauhaus somewhat later, after the school had moved to its Dessau location. Mr. Weber writes that Kandinsky, a painter and teacher, was aloof among students and “had some very private issues he was very deliberately keeping from view.” Mr. Weber speculates that it was an “overriding instability” that caused Kandinsky to keep a distance between him and colleagues. In fact, his greatest friend at the Bauhaus was Klee, who also guarded his privacy. Mr. Weber makes a compelling argument that it was Kandinsky who produced the first pieces we now call abstract art.

Josef Albers and his wife, textile artist Anni Albers, receive a chapter each in the book and clearly are Mr. Weber’s sentimental favorites; he was the director of the Albers Foundation for 30 years. His affection for them is evident, although it causes him to gloss over their intolerance. Citing examples of their artistic opinions, he inadvertently shows that they were elitist in the consideration of who or what constituted true art and disparaged those who disagreed with them.

In fact, Mr. Weber seems unaware of the irony that intolerance of differing artistic impulses might have been mirroring what was going on politically throughout the country; the early years of the Bauhaus coincide with rising nationalism in Germany during the 1920s. Leaders of the school struggled with local authorities over morals and religious affiliations of the faculty. It was a combination of the approaching war and the exhaustion of trying to maintain funding and staffing that eventually caused the Bauhaus to disband.

The profile of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last in the book, is a fascinating glimpse into the life of this enigmatic architect. He was the creator of some of the most iconographic images in modern architecture - the Barcelona Pavilion, Tugenahdt House and the Seagram Building. Mr. Weber provides satisfying descriptions of Mies van der Rohe’s work that are refreshingly jargon-free.

In describing the Weissenhoff apartment project, Mr. Weber writes, “Mies’s architecture is always alive with movement. The turns of the stair rails have the grace of flawlessly executed ballet steps, adding further fluidity to the minimalism and inducing the ‘spiritual’ aspect Mies desired. As in a Zen rock garden, the visual becomes inexplicably religious.”

The Bauhaus remains an enigmatic notion, a living/learning community fostering artistic invention and collaboration. Mr. Weber shows the foibles and humanity of the artists who dedicated their lives to the school. It doesn’t suffer at all from the knowledge and insights the book provides. In fact, the book fosters an appreciation of the lengths these dreamers would go to for their art while prompting the wonder of where our next generation of dreamers might come from.

Ellen Sands, who lives in Maryland, writes frequently about art and architecture.

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