Bauhaus and America

In 2019, numerous museums and institutions celebrate the founding of the Bauhaus School 100 years ago. And not only in Weimar, Dessau or Berlin. In North Rhine-Westphalia, too, more than 40 exhibitions and projects recall an idea and its design that had existed in Germany for just under 15 years until the closing of the Bauhaus by the National Socialists.

The fact that the story is not over at this point, however, is also told by the exhibition ‘Bauhaus and America. The exhibition ‘Experiments in Light and Movement’ at the LWL Museum for Art and Culture in Münster, which even with numerous works from the museum’s own collection, such as those by Josef Albers and Otto Piene, makes the long tradition of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus visible.

My view of this history begins in the founding year, and the focus is on two people who will shape the Bauhaus and our view of it. And I now know that when I develop my best abilities in the way that is appropriate to them – when I try to grasp the meaning of my life honestly and thoroughly – then I am right to become a painter. My talent lies in the expression of my vitality and creative power through light, colour and form’.

László Moholy-Nagy

The young man is perhaps on his way to Vienna to join a small group of exiled Hungarian artists and to follow his abilities and ideas. But he won’t stay long. Already in the following year he is drawn to the epicentre of European culture during these years: to Berlin. He tried himself out, painted figuratively, was Dadaistic, and finally abstract. It is a rush in this metropolis of music, art, literature, lights, this pulsating cosmos, constantly in motion, a glowing hot star that captivates everyone and everything and releases pure energy. In this atmosphere of cultural exchange, the ‘First Russian Art Exhibition Berlin’ will take place here from October 1922 – very fashionably.

László Moholy-Nagy looks closely, listens closely, and finds his ideas and desires in the ideas and manifestos of a movement that wants to be more than an art movement. Constructivism wants to be political, critical, relevant, it observes the laws of nature, it is mathematical, exact, it breaks with the old easel, it is technical, contemporary. And he is painting, architecture, design, poster, stage design and furniture. Of course he is also propaganda, but what he primarily leaves behind here, in this place, in cultural and artistic exchange, is the impetus for De Stijl, for Concrete Art and for the Bauhaus.

Walter Gropius

It is about February 1923, László Moholy-Nagy has an exhibition in the gallery ‘The Storm’, and Walter Gropius is visiting. In Weimar, he is the director of a school that emerged in 1919 from the merger of the Weimar Grand Ducal Saxon School of Art and the Weimar Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, and which gave Gropius a new, catchy name that still shines today: State Bauhaus.

And of course this Bauhaus has a manifesto, formulated by Gropius, quite immodest and pathetic it says among other things:

If the young person, who feels a love of artistic activity in himself, begins to learn a craft again, as he once did, the unproductive “artist” will no longer be condemned to imperfect artistic practice, for his skill will now be preserved in the craft, where he is able to achieve excellence.

Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all return to the craft! For there is no “art by profession”. There is no difference in essence between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an enhancement of the craftsman. In rare moments of light, which are beyond his will, the grace of heaven unconsciously lets art blossom out of the work of his hand, but the basis of the work is indispensable for every artist. There is the primordial source of creative creation.’

Moholy-Nagy follows him to Weimar, finally to Dessau, is his assistant and head of the preliminary course and the metal workshop. He becomes one of the most influential teachers at the Bauhaus, and he will take his ideas with him into a forced distance, to Amsterdam, to England, and finally to the USA, where he founds the New Bauhaus and where, as a result, at the Institute of Design (ID), his teachings and ideas will live on and have an effect.

The ID’s website tells about history, commitment and mission

Founded 80 years ago in Chicago as the New Bauhaus by László Moholy-Nagy, in order to “ensure … society has access to the maximum use of constructive abilities for its benefit,” ID is a graduate-only professional design school in North America. Grounded in human-centered design and systems thinking, ID offers leading Master’s and PhD programs in design and design-driven innovation and develops pioneering thinkers and interdisciplinary problem solvers who navigate and facilitate change.

100 years after its founding, the Bauhaus is alive and kicking as part of a cultural and artistic practice, more than just memory, more than just exhibition and celebration, concerts and speeches, more than even the manifesto with which it all began. And that’s why it’s no small thing that there are all the exhibitions, speeches and celebrations. In 100 years much accumulates, much material and many stories, light and shadow, texts and biographies. All this needs to be told and seen. But where should you start and what is the one story you have time and space to tell? What should everything revolve around?

Everything revolves around light, form and colour

Light and movement are also the core themes of the exhibition in the LWL Museum for Art and Culture. Experiments with light, the staging of and with light, the movement of bodies and their effect in movement, theatre and stage are perhaps the lesser known facets of the Bauhaus school, but they are certainly its centre.

László Moholy-Nagy, light prop for an electric stage, 1930, replica 2006, Harvard Art Museums/Busch- Reisinger Museum, Hildegard von Gontard Fund, Photo: Imaging Department, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

And here, in Münster, the centre is a machine that is light, form and colour at the same time. Twice a day, a ‘light-space modulator’, or ‘light prop for an electric stage’, transforms the small space in which it stands, and all and everything in its vicinity, into canvases of a play of light and, as it were, hypnotized viewers of a mechanical chamber of curiosities, rotating, buzzing, reflecting, radiating. He is body in motion, architecture, sun and mirror, light source and stage. Created by Moholy-Nagy in 1930, it is regarded as the first large-format kinetic light sculpture at all, whose work and effect the artist describes in this way: The model consists of a cubic box with a circular opening (stage opening) on the front. A number of yellow, green, blue, red, white electric light bulbs are mounted around the opening on the back of the plate. Inside the box, parallel to the front, there is a second plate, also with a circular opening, on which the different coloured electric light bulbs are mounted around the opening.

Individual light bulbs light up in different places according to a predetermined plan. They illuminate a continuously moving mechanism made partly of transparent and partly of open-work materials in order to create as linear a shadow as possible on the rear wall of the closed box. (If the presentation takes place in a darkened room, the rear wall of the box can be removed and the colour and shadow projection behind the box can be carried out on a screen of any size)’.

The material list of the replica exhibited in Münster in 2006 reads: ‘Metal, plastic, glass, paint and wood, with electric motor’. These are the purely factual descriptions of a literally lynchpin of the narrative about cause and effect of what Bauhaus was and is beyond the well-known brands in architecture and design.

The light of the machine illuminates the view of the origins of the idea, the ‘Bauhaus stage’ and the ‘Mechanische Bühnenrevue’ by Andor Weininger, for example, or the stage elements by Xanti Schawinsky.