Bauhaus Goes West
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Bauhaus Goes West

Modern Art and Design in Britain and America

Alan Powers

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eBook - ePub

Bauhaus Goes West

Modern Art and Design in Britain and America

Alan Powers

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About This Book

Bauhaus Goes West is a story of cultural exchange between the Bauhaus émigrés in the years following the schools closure in 1933 and the countries to which they moved, focusing in particular on Britain. Taking as its starting point the cultural connections between the UK and Germany in the early part of the 20th century, the book offers a timely re-evaluation of the schools influence on and relationship with modern art and design in Britain, concluding with the schools American legacy. Following the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, teachers and students found new opportunities in Britain and the United States. Among them were Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy, who simultaneously spent time in London before moving to America, an episode often overlooked but freshly explored here in the context of the interaction between German Modernism and British-based design reform from 1900. Other Bauhaus-trained artists women as well as men stayed in the UK and made important contributions into the 1960s. In America, Mies van der Rohe and Josef and Anni Albers had significant late careers, but, over time, the Bauhaus became a shorthand for Modernisms failure. Now, the centenary of the schools founding provides a key opportunity to reconsider how its values emerged and were contested both during its lifetime and beyond.

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Elective Affinities: England and Germany

When Walter Gropius arrived in London on 18 October 1934, he was treated like a creature from another planet. Under the Nazis, the founder of the Bauhaus was no longer welcome in his home country, Germany, and remained in Britain for two and a half years before moving on to America. How different were these planets, however? While the two cultures were divided by war, language and the rival attractions of France, the background story to the reception of the Bauhaus in Britain needs to be traced in the underlying history of shared ideas.
In 1936 Nikolaus Pevsner’s book Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius popularized the narrative that ideas travelled from Britain to Germany before coming back in the form of Modernism, as represented by Gropius, who personally acknowledged the influence of Morris. The work of C. F. A. Voysey and Charles Rennie Mackintosh had influenced the art nouveau movement in Europe and thence led to Modernism proper; but at home, these ‘pioneers’ failed to spark Modernism of a recognizable kind, while Britain apparently took a wrong turning towards classicism. Such historical interpretations by Pevsner and others were intended to support the development of the new movements of their time and to achieve specific outcomes in the future, when scientific progress would no longer be impeded by individual ego or inappropriate memories of the past. That future was perhaps briefly credible, but the historical pathway described by Pevsner was oversimplified, and when the Platonic world of pure forms that he favoured became reality, it provoked a reaction against its emotional coldness.
The Bauhaus has often been taken as the exemplar for this imagined future, with British art and design judged adversely for its delay in arriving at similar results. Art nouveau was short-lived, and condemned in Germany as well as in Britain. True originality, as influential German thinkers now thought, lay not in instant novelty but in more appropriate past models, such as the Biedermeier style from the period after the Napoleonic wars, when classicism was tempered by sobriety and local vernacular building wisdom. After 1900, this was adopted as a touchstone of sanity and quality, in much the same way that Georgian was adopted in Britain, suggesting that a reluctance to accept superficial solutions was the main cause of British ‘backwardness’. The majority of British architects chose classicism because the sobriety and informality of Arts and Crafts architecture seemed inappropriate to the rhetorical needs of the modern world. Furthermore, Britain was not alone in this apparent regression, since classicism in some guise became a universal trend in Western architecture in the first three decades of the new century; even two of the future leaders of the Bauhaus – Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – began their careers before the First World War on lines similar to those of some of their English counterparts. First with Gropius and later with Mies, however, this classical seed developed in unexpected ways, although only later was it hailed the long-awaited new style.
When, in 1911, Gropius and his architectural partner, Adolf Meyer, completed their design for the administrative offices of the Fagus shoe-last factory near Hannover, their building showed how a new clarity of expression could be achieved with glass and steel. But this famous, glass-fronted office block with transparent corners featured in a rather dull photograph in the 1912 yearbook of the Deutsche Werkbund, and, if seen in Britain, left no recorded impact.1 When the Architectural Review eventually reported on the Faguswerke in 1924, the article’s author, Herman George Scheffauer (see below), failed to recognize its significance, describing its glass corner as ‘an unnecessary, even disturbing tour de force’.2 Even Gropius himself needed time to understand what he had done.3
From the British side, there is no evidence that Gropius was recognized until Scheffauer’s article appeared. Even this was well ahead of any other written tributes, but there was nonetheless a continuing interest in progressive German art and design, even during the years of the war. This took the form not only of seeking to emulate specific design features, but also of channelling the spirit that had previously animated the Arts and Crafts Movement in a new direction, where Germany had recently shown the way. Individuals in both countries believed in a deeper possibility, that design could lift up the whole of society through a process beyond rational explanation.
Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, Fagus shoe-last factory, Alfeld-an-der-Leine, Lower Saxony, 1911–12, as illustrated in the 1912 yearbook of the Deutsche Werkbund, but failing to show off the features that have made it a landmark of Modernism.

Elective affinities

In Howards End (1910), E. M. Forster reminded English readers how far the liberal Germanic upbringing of the Schlegel sisters could temper the insensitive and materialist values of the Wilcox family. In fact, the intellectual and spiritual pathways of the two cultures had been intertwined for centuries, despite a growing sense that France and Germany represented mutually exclusive choices. German music, philosophy and science made a stronger impression than art or literature, but there was common ground in the Romantic period, including the belief that science, art and technology were fundamentally unified.4 In Germany, thinking about the role of design was a way of investigating ‘the deep structures of reality, a path overlooked by Enlightenment thinkers’.5 Nikolaus Pevsner traced William Morris’s theories, as transmitted from Goethe through Thomas Carlyle, ‘back to the Classic-Romantic school of Germany’, suggesting that his parallel between Morris and Gropius was not accidental, since they had common intellectual roots.6
An essential aspect of German thinking was that people and their surroundings have a fluid interaction. This aspiration to a higher form of existence belonged to the long tradition of mental and spiritual improvement known as Bildung, an education that also constitutes an individual’s process of inner growth. Lacking a direct English translation, its equivalent in Britain could be found among a section of the middle class who followed the urging of the poet and critic Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) to bring ‘sweetness and light’ (a phrase borrowed from Jonathan Swift) to those less fortunate than themselves, and who, while sensitive to the arts, steered away from the excesses of fin de siècle decadence. Women as well as men thus found a purpose amid inequality and materialism. These were the patrons of Arts and Crafts and, in the next generation, of Modernism, and their desire for social change marched alongside their preference for simplicity and freedom. Disdained by the Wilcoxes of Edwardian England, who took their cue from higher levels of society, such English Bildung became the sphere of progressive educators, social entrepreneurs and artistic activists whose activities ran in parallel to related German movements.
The Bauhaus was first and foremost a school of art and design, but the process of art education is often overlooked when its products are studied. Thus the educational ideas seen in the school founded by Gropius in 1919 and stemming from Friedrich Froebel – such as bringing together fine art and craft and learning by actual physical contact with materials – had been universal in Britain since the 1890s and continued until the 1960s.7 Craft learning offered the potential for training industrial designers of a type that scarcely existed, but the British problem was that industry seldom expressed a demand for original work and offered little encouragement to the crafts community to make connections with it. However, it is wrong to assume, as many did at the time and since, that all the design talent deliberately shunned the very idea of machine production. The need to compete internationally against Germany and America grew more urgent, and in 1911 twenty-seven artists and architects told the then prime minister, Henry Herbert Asquith, that ‘British manufacturers no longer enjoy that superiority in machinery alone, which almost amounted to a monopoly during the middle part of the last century.’8 Ideas must now be the leading feature of products. Three years later, in his introduction to a translation of a German book on children’s creative education as a preparation for a productive life, Viscount Haldane warned: ‘It is a movement with which we will have to reckon. If we do not keep up with it our workmen will in the course of a few years compete with their fellow-workmen abroad at a serious disadvantage.’9
On the German side, the sense of rivalry with England in the export of goods increasingly became a conscious one, carried on in tandem with colonial and naval competition. In addition to the support given by scientific research, German industry after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) enjoyed an influx of capital from French reparation payments. At first, German goods were identified as ‘cheap and nasty’, but there were enough industrialists in Germany determined to do better. If Britain had the edge over Germany in creative invention owing to its liberal-minded art schools, Germany was catching up with its well-funded and systematic training and, through such massive enterprises as the Allgemeine Electricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), bringing new design principles to the mass market.

Cologne and London

In 1906, against a background of deteriorating diplomatic relationships, a group of German cultural leaders sent a letter to The Times in an effort to cool down the mounting opposition on both sides; it was seconded by a reciprocal letter heavy with the signatures of English artists and others associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. The instigator was Harry Kessler, an Anglo-German count and patron of the arts who would have known all the signatories. Kessler was an unintentional contributor to the founding of the Bauhaus, which grew out of the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Art) in the small Thuringian city of Weimar that he had encouraged his protégé, the Belgian architect-designer Henry van de Velde, to lead in rivalry to the more traditional academy; it was in this school that the Gropius-led successor institution opened under his brilliantly conceived name ‘Bauhaus’, whose uniqueness, brevity and relative ease of pronunciation has probably assisted the durability of the Bauhaus’s reputation as much as what it actually achieved. Introducing Van de Velde was part of Kessler’s attempt to help the young Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach emulate the glorious age of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar a hundred years earlier. In 1909 Van de Velde created new buildings for the school in a simplified art nouveau style, as well as many villas in the neighbourhood. With Kessler’s patronage, he also remodelled the house on the edge of Weimar to which the incapacitated Friedrich Nietzsche had been brought by his sister. After Nietzsche’s death in 1900, the house became an archive and a shrine, at a time when the philosopher’s work was also popular in England.
Kessler promoted the avant-garde theatre designer Edward Gordon Craig and brought him to Weimar, without any direct outcome apart from the edition of Hamlet with Craig’s illustrations that finally emerged from his Cranach Press in 1929. More consequential was Kessler’s introduction of the new approach to lettering design devised by the British calligrapher Edward Johnston, whom he had first met in 1904. When Johnston was unable to accept Kessler’s invitation to run a lettering course for art teachers in Dusseldorf in 1905, he sent in his place Anna Simons (1871–1951), a German student ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. About the Author
  4. Other titles of interest
  5. Contents
  6. Introduction
  7. 1 Elective Affinities: England and Germany
  8. 2 ‘A simpler and more cordial accent’: Walter Gropius
  9. 3 ‘The habitability of the whole’: Marcel Breuer
  10. 4 ‘That lovely madman’: László Moholy-Nagy
  11. 5 The People with No Taste: English Modernism in the 1930s
  12. 6 Beneath the Radar: Other Bauhäusler in Britain
  13. 7 For Better, for Worse: America’s Bauhaus Affair
  14. 8 Dead or Alive? The Bauhaus Legacy
  15. Notes
  16. Further Reading
  17. Sources of Illustrations
  18. Acknowledgments
  19. Index
  20. Copyright