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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 25 MARCH 2010 — The questions floating over the pages of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism by Nicolas Fox Weber (Knopf, 521 pages) are the ones that have dominated German art and culture for generations: what does it mean to be German, and what is characteristically German in the arts? German-language texts routinely dig into those questions in a particularly German way — with much soul-searching and Angst — but English-language texts often ignore them or give them short shrift. Weber’s interesting and refreshing book does not probe the point, but to understand the German dilemma of identity is to understand better the story that Weber tells.

As Weber clearly understands, you can’t write about Gropius without writing at length about his first wife, Alma, whose biography makes for such deliciously scandalous reading, it is hard to concentrate on the art of any of the artists who occupied her life and her bed.

Weber undoubtedly initiated his project because he had useful material from first-hand experience. He came to know, late in their respective lives, the artist and Bauhaus master Josef Albers and his wife, Annelise (Anni) Albers, who studied at the Bauhaus and became a widely exhibited and influential weaver of Modernist textiles. The Albers are the subjects of two of the interlocking biographies of Bauhaus participants that form the core of the book. Through the biographies, the author paints a full portrait of the Bauhaus and the Modernist movement it helped create.

The subject of the first biography is the founder, the architect Walter Gropius. As Weber clearly understands, you can’t write about Gropius without writing at length about his first wife, Alma, whose biography makes for such deliciously scandalous reading, it is hard to concentrate on the art of any of the artists who occupied her life and her bed. Unsuccessfully pursued by the painter Gustav Klimt, she married the composer Gustav Mahler and later started seeing on the side the much younger (than both Mahler and she) and better-looking Gropius. After Mahler learned of the affair, Alma swore to end it, but she kept having trysts with Gropius. Mahler sought and obtained an emergency consultation with Sigmund Freud. After Mahler died, Alma pursued Gropius, initially without success: Gropius had gone to an exhibition of the Berlin Secession and had recognized the woman pictured in bed with the artist Oskar Kokoschka as Alma, who had been seeing the painter while proclaiming her devotion to Gropius. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 sent Gropius, a reservist, into service with the cavalry. In a secret ceremony the following year, he married Alma, who soon took up with the novelist and poet Franz Werfel and had by him a son who lived only a few months. It was perhaps for the best that the Gropiuses divorced before Alma made life at the Bauhaus more difficult and colorful than it already was. She later became Mrs. Franz Werfel but called herself Alma Mahler-Werfel, thereby erasing Gropius in both body and name. (Fans of comic songs will be pleased that the author has reproduced lyrics from Tom Lehrer’s Alma.)

Gropius mustered out of the army as the war ended, the Kaiser abdicated and Germany endured waves of social unrest and political violence. Gropius got permission to combine an existing art academy with an existing arts-and-crafts school to form the new Bauhaus; he persuaded the left-wing government of the German state of Thuringia to help support it. The Bauhaus began operation in 1919, only months after the war ended calamitously for Germany. The institution would be situated in the small but culturally significant Thuringian city of Weimar — a former home to Goethe, Schiller and Bach and the city where the new (and doomed) German republic had been formed.

More than a few of history’s great artists could not balance their own checkbooks, and it is a rare talent to be a master at your art (in Gropius’s case, architecture) and a master administrator. In a report he sent to the state authorities during the war, Gropius outlined goals that would become the staple of the typical Bauhaus true believer. Championed at the new institution would be the removal of the ornament that had so weighted design during the Historismus (Victorian) period. Gone would be "the old, discredited method, which was to stick unrelated frills on the existing forms of trade and industrial products." The artist, Gropius declared, "possesses the ability to breathe soul into the lifeless product of the machine." The Bauhaus would do that by becoming a community of artists and artisans who would bring the new spirit to everything that touched people in their homes and workplaces, from the architecture of their buildings to the chairs they sat on when having their morning tea, to the teapots themselves.

Of course, problems arose almost immediately and plagued the institution for the duration of its short life. Gropius was constantly on the road, in search of funding. Early in 1920, before the Bauhaus had had its first anniversary, a right-wing "Citizens’ Committee" issued a pamphlet that said the school had fallen short of its stated goals. Meanwhile, Johannes Itten, a painter Gropius had met through Alma and who taught the Bauhaus’s introductory course, had strayed from the Gropius orthodoxy; challenging the founder’s emphasis on the impact of design on society, Itten focused on individual creativity. He espoused the practice of Mazdaism, a way of life derived from the teachings of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. For Itten, that meant wearing strange robes and encouraging followers to shave their heads, take ritual baths, eat a vegetarian diet, and take fasts after puncturing their skin with a needle machine (industrialization was always a Bauhaus theme), after which they were to rub their bodies with laxative oil.

Funds remained in short supply. Josef Albers took a pickaxe to the Weimar city dump to chop up bottles for use in the glass workshop. Money became such a problem that the Bauhaus had to fire its janitors; this being Germany, the masters’ wives took to scrubbing floors, and they were kept spotless.

In 1923, seven policemen rummaged through Gropius’s property, based on a search warrant the object of which Gropius never learned. In September of 1924, the government of Thuringia demanded that the school close by the following April. That would have finished off a lesser man than Walter Gropius. He got new official patronage and, in April 1926, the Bauhaus reopened in the city of Dessau, soon locating itself in a building of Modernist design (by Gropius) that epitomized the institution’s views of the unity of form and function.

It took nearly two more years, but after further public relations problems, Gropius finally resigned. be German meant to be racially "Aryan," but the question was never fully answered — except that it was state doctrine that, to be German meant that you couldn’t possibly be Jewish.

The biography with which Weber picks up the story is that of the Swiss artist Paul Klee. He was called schizophrenic by some doctors, but such was the place and so were the times that he was a balancing influence. As a Bauhaus master, he proved he was an able ombudsman in the institution’s internal struggles. He was always the cool observer, even at its many dances and other social gatherings, where he kept to himself, smoking a pipe.

Alma is a hard act even for a revered painter to follow, and the section on Klee drags a bit in comparison, but it does offer a key note on what would finally do in the Bauhaus: as Germany moved slowly toward Nazism, anything that was not German was considered a taint on national culture and identity. Weber states that,

As the Bauhaus began to fall out of favor with the government, Klee’s Swiss nationality was one of the reasons the school was accursed of "favouring Jews and foreigners at the expense of true Germans." Powerful nationalists were vocal in charging the school with "promoting ‘Spartacist-Jewish’ tendencies." Besides Klee, the other foreigners at the Bauhaus included Lyonel Feininger, who was American, and several Hungarians, among them Marcel Breuer.

(Quoting John Willet, Art and Politics in the Weimar Period.)

Worrying in Dessau about the foreign influence of a Swiss from Bern is like fretting in Buffalo over foreign corruption from Ottawa. But that paranoia was at the core of the German experience for the first half of the twentieth century; it came from a persistent inability to understand and articulate what being a modern German meant. In a country with notoriously flexible borders, many semi-subjugated ethnic minorities, and friction among the former independent states that were pressed into forming the nation, the addition of a strong military and Nazi ideology could only have horrific results. From whatever amounted to intellectual fervor within the Nazi ranks came a general belief that, to be German meant to be racially "Aryan," but the question was never fully answered — except that it was state doctrine that, to be German meant that you couldn’t possibly be Jewish. Germany is a much changed and wiser place, but the question of what is or is not German in culture, art and design continues to vex politicians, intellectuals and the population at large. Under its last director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in 1932, the Bauhaus moved to Berlin. In April of the following year, in the first months of the Nazi reign, the Bauhaus, under pressure, voluntarily closed its doors for the last time. Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and the Albers emigrated to the United States, as did many others in Modernist circles, including Mr. and Mrs. Franz Werfel.

Weber’s profiles are rounded out by an eloquent biography of the painter and Bauhaus master Wassily Kandinsky and an insightful one of Mies van der Rohe, who obliges the Alma-starved reader by starting out in his father’s stone-carving shop, inventing his aristocratic-sounding name, marrying a rich woman from whom he was eventually estranged, and then cohabiting at the Bauhaus with his mistress, who headed the weaving workshop. What comes through Weber’s approach to his subjects is that, to succeed at the Bauhaus, it helped if you were one part socialist visionary, one part technician and one part social climber.

By focusing on personality and personal interactions more than academic questions of aesthetics, Weber brings to the Bauhaus something that the stark Modernist lines, socialist theorizing and industrialized productivity it championed all too often push aside: a sense of humanity, even warmth. Perhaps one day, those virtues, along with an embrace of Modernism, will come to be known as things that are characteristically German.

The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism
By Nicholas Fox Weber

Hardcover: 544 pages
Knopf; First edition (October 2009)
ISBN-10: 0307268365
ISBN-13: 978-0307268365

Alan Behr is a partner in the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. A dual national (Germany, USA) and a regular contributor to Culturekiosque on fine art photography and Austro-German history and culture, Mr. Behr last wrote on Burton and Bauhaus at MoMA.

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