Thursday, 29 March 2012

Travel: Weimar ~ The legend of the Bauhaus

The first inkling of an art historical revelation arrives in November 2000 as a letter from the current director of the Bauhaus museum at Weimar in Germany: 'Did you know that the first Bauhas exhibition outside Germany took place in Calcutta in 1922 under the leadership of Abanindranath Tagore?'

The news is electrifying, considering that the Bauhas, the fount of industrial design in Europe, came into being only in 1919. A follow-up missive adds details to the news break: "This exhibition was organised by the Indian Society of Oriental Art. It included 250 graphic works, 35 drawings and woodcuts from Lionel Feininger, 23 drawings and woodcuts from Johannes Itten, four drawings by Wassily Kadinsky, nine water colours by Paul Klee, 29 woodcuts from Gerhard Marcks, nine graphics from Georg Muche, 83 watercolours and woodcuts by Lothar Schreyer, 57 works by Margit Tery, 49 works from the courses of Johannes Itten and two watercolours by a student named Susanne Korner".

But the best was yet to follow: "You could buy the works for just £ 5 to £ 15". That is how Herr Michael Siebenbrodt concludes his letter.

The letter contains photocopies of the correspondence between the Bauhas and the society in Calcutta. One, dated October 22, 1922, from its assistant secretary, reads: "I am directed to inform you that the pictures sent to Dr. Abanindranath Tagore for exhibition in the Indian Society of Oriental Art have reached this city, but as a very heavy customs duty is being charged, delivery cannot be taken. The packets are with the Customs and the government has been moved for orders for delivery of the packets free of duty. We shall not receive them till the decision of the government is arrived at. Kindly let us know how long the pictures may be kept here?"

Did any of the now historic Bauhaus works find a market in Calcutta? The society's letter dated March 3, 1923, lists one: Korner's work sold for all of £ 3.

Though further details of the exhibition are hard to come by, either at the Max Mueller Bhavan libraries or through contacts with an art historian in Calcutta, the Bauhaus news transports me back to Weimar in the autumn of 1999, then designated the year's European City of Culture.

The aesthetics of Bauhaus design

My first stop is a room that is purest Bauhaus. I know it from the instant I step into it. The frosty-domed lamp, with its electric cable visible within the glass shaft, harmonises function with aesthetics. Since it was first made in 1923-34, it has become a milestone of modern industrial form.

It is placed on a functional table of dark wood, adjacent to right-angled shelves in wood-and-glass. The lighting overhead extends the theme of right-angles, each tube of light slotting into the other at black T-points.

The sofa is a bright canary yellow, extending the geometric resonances. The carpet is a wondrous pattern of rusts, mustards and blues; each slanted plane fusing harmoniously into the adjacent one. The tapestry on the door extends the colour scheme, its textured surface knobby. The large glass window in the room overlooks a rustling pattern of autumn foliage.

This could pass for an unusual German office room, except that it is the recreated and restored office of Walter Gropius, legendary director of the original Bauhaus, when it was founded at Weimar, 278 km southwest of Berlin, in 1919. It was re-opened to the public on December 3, 1999.

I conjure up Gropius, intense and dapper, in my mind's eye - and the visionary architect fits perfectly into the ambience of the room. As we continue our Bauhaus trip, footnotes to the movement are provided by Bauhaus University's public relations officer Reiner Bensch.

For the Bauhaus movement was, of course, a pathbreaking attempt to overcome the results of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, to erase the boundaries between the artist and the artisan, and to realise a lifestyle that respects the creative worker.

Its large, airy building, replete with zigzag staircases, features sweeping passageways, which welcome daily gusts of fresh air. And new ideas, design revolutions in their wake.

The Bauhaus was the very first German art school reformed after World War I, to teach in the Weimar Republic constituted in 1919. Its 150 initial "apprentices" rallied around the essence of the Bauhaus Manifesto framed by Gropius: "The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building." They were to erect a Utopian "building to which all would contribute through craftsmanship".

Bensch emphasises that the Bauhaus faculty was drawn from the most brilliant creative spirits of its time, starring the painter Feininger, the sculptor Maracks, Expressionist painter Muche, avant-garde genius Klee and Kandinsky of the Munich-based Blue Rider group.

He adds, "Johannes Itten, painter and art theoretician originally based in Vienna, became a role model. With his shaved head and round eye-glasses, dressed in a special Bauhaus uniform of his own design - funnel-shaped trousers, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, with a high-necked jacket fastened by a belt of the same material - he superscribed to the Mazdaznan sect, with its precepts of vegetarianism, fasting, disciplined breathing, and sexual discipline. Soon, many of his students began to dress like Itten, and even to think like him."

Once, Itten showed his 1920 class the weeping Mary Magdalene from the Grunewald Altar. They try to extract its basic elements from the complex maze. Itten looks at their efforts and storms out of class. He feels if they were sensitive enough, they would have burst into tears themselves.

Breakaway. Non-conformist. Radical. These adjectives are appropriate for the Bauhaus of the early 20th Century. If its teaching methods were unorthodox, including workshops on bookbinding, graphic printing and weaving, so was its campus life. Bensch narrates: "The young men and women often had wild parties with jazz music in the nearby Ilm Park, best known in the context of Goethe. The conservative inhabitants of Weimar were so shocked by their behaviour that, when a child was naughty, the parents would threaten it: Behave yourself, or will send you to the Bauhaus."

Celebrations apart, the Bauhaus was distinctive because it admitted equal numbers of men and women, the result of the 1919 Weimar constitution that allowed women the unrestricted right to study. But the women were sent directly to the weaving workshop, where they made the acquaintance of the weft and the warp by trial and error. None was admitted to the architecture course. Was it then considered a male preserve?
Today, the Bauhaus is a hothouse of youthful energy. Students from all over Europe converge on its historic premises to plunge into courses from architecture to online design. Its faculty hopes for students from more distant climes, but with little success - mainly due to the recent resurgence of the skinhead phenomenon in eastern Germany.

A special exhibition of the fruit of the early workshop looms is on when I visited the Bauhaus museum. The walls are draped in an array of richly-textured, autumn-hued tapestries. Rusts merge into browns, veering into patches of burnt gold on one. A kite- bright carpet for a children's room, made in 1923 by Benita Koch- Otte, adorns another wall. It is a visual feast, an invitation to touch - immediately denied by the custodians of the sacred cloth.

In a room nearby stands a pot-bellied Gropius teapot with its distinctive spout, now a classic prized by European families, despite its tendency to spill while pouring. Marianne Brandt's 1923 tea essence container, squat and rotund with an unusual handle, calls for attention. Close by is Marcks and Max Krehan's round-bellied 1921 jug with abstract patterns. Peter Keler's design catches the eye, an unusual kinderwiege or cradle in bright cotton with a metal frame. Their unorthodox contours made Bauhaus products stand out in the market even then. And spawned imitations by the dozen in later years. Soon, variants on the theme became the norm in global design circles.

But, to return to the core of the first major Bauhaus experiment - the building. The initial energies of the Bauhaus were directed towards a major exhibition in 1923 (partially due to the stipulation of a government loan), including a fully furnished house, named after its site beyond the Ilm Park - the Haus Am Horn.
The house, designed by painter Muche and executed by Adolf Meyer, is now regarded as an architectural classic. Its exterior resembles a white concrete block, unrelieved by landscaped greenery beyond. Its corridor-less interior - with all the functional rooms grouped around the central living room - is a challenge to conventional lifestyles. The original model features pictureless walls in the living room, with the horizontal- vertical planed furniture of Marcel Breuer juxtaposed against a geometricised carpet by Martha Erps-Breuer.

In the starkly functional Frau's room, constructivist forms dominate the furniture, besides a round mirror on a flexi-frame. The chair facing it has an angled backrest, enhancing the contrasts of light rosewood and dark walnut. The man's chamber has equestrian-style seats that require unusual balance, while the WC is tucked into a discreet corner, with standing room only.

The kitchen at the Haus Am Horn is the first ultra-modern one of its kind. Its workshop extends in front of the window, while its chairs fit under the table. It features technical innovations like a hot-water boiler in the kitchen and a laundry in the cellar. As for the children's room, it has large wooden blocks and walls to scribble on.

Today, the Haus Am Horn is infused by the humane story of its recent dwellers. According to Bensch, the head of the Gronwald family, who lived there since 1971, was an architect with a faculty position at the local University of Construction. He brought the Bauhaus back into focus in former East Germany through an exhibition of its history. Even Muche visited them, most recently in 1983. But with the reunification of Germany, the disillusioned architect hanged himself, unable to adapt to the new reality.

During the reconstruction of Germany, Frau Gronwald and her two sons continued to live in the Haus Am Horn, treating it as an inhabited museum. But with mounting costs, she found the upkeep of the house impossible. That is when the "friends of the university" took over the historic house.

'Monument to the March Dead': sculpture by Walter Gropius

The spirit of the original Bauhaus has grown, brick by brick. Despite its relocation to Dessau in 1924 after the National Socialist victory in the Thuringian elections, and then to Berlin until its dissolution in 1933 under Nazi pressure, it remains a touchstone for movements that revolutionise lifestyles. Even today, the legend of the Bauhaus continues to thrive, from Weimar to Calcutta and beyond.

No comments:

Post a Comment