'Bauhaus Beginnings' Celebrates Anniversary of One of the Most Influential Schools of Art & Design
The Getty’s exhibition Bauhaus Beginnings celebrates the school of Bauhaus’ 100-year anniversary. It’s superb. It presents over 250 artifacts from Getty’s Research Institute collection using a variety of medium including video and digital images. There’s much to unpack, which is why I went a second time and joined a public tour led by one of the co-curators. I learned more about the roots of the school, the significant impact the Bauhaus had not only in Germany but internationally, the innovative curriculum, the ‘masters’ (teachers), and the students including the female students who were forced to pursue ‘feminine’ courses of study.
But the Bauhaus was short-lived; its doors closed in 1933, only fourteen years after opening in 1919 due to pressure from the Nazis. Yet despite its brief stint, Bauhaus’ influence on art, architecture and design were (and still are) significant. I share here the exhibition highlights, images and a video clip featured, along with a handful of sites and media for those wanting to dig deeper.
History of Bauhaus
Staatliches Bauhaus, known simply as ‘Bauhaus’ (literal translation is ‘building house’ but was understood as ‘school of building’) was founded in Germany by Walter Gropius. Gropius’ (idealistic) vision was to create a school that bridged art and craftsmanship, incorporated spiritual ideals, and overcame the divide between academia and workshop trades. Gropius wanted to create a new, modern and better society using the multi-disciplinary approach of the Bauhaus. Though forward looking, Gropius also looked backwards to medieval times when guilds worked collectively to build and create.
Architects, sculptors, painters—we all must return to craftsmanship! For there is no such thing as “art by profession”. There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan…So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! --Bauhaus Manifesto, 1919
The exhibition, located in the Getty’s Research Institute building, is divided into three distinct spaces. Yet before entering the exhibition there’s a good overview of the Bauhaus using text and images—this give context. I always appreciate this approach by museums. It’s like an on-boarding to prepare visitors for the exhibit (image below).
Once in the exhibition, the first space introduces the philosophy and spiritual aspect of the school, the second focuses on the preliminary courses that all students took in the first year. Artifacts here include teaching tools used by teaching ‘masters’ from artists that include well-known names such as Vassily Kandinsky, illustrations from courses, notebooks of students and media illustrating instructional concepts. The third exhibition space includes artifacts and media from the ‘workshops’—the course of study students enrolled in after the first year of preliminary coursework. There’s several gorgeous works here, including samples of textiles from Bauhaus’ weaving workshop and images from the architecture, stage and print workshops.
Highlights of First Exhibition Space: Introduction
The artifacts and exhibition labels in this space highlight the deep-rooted spirituality themes present at the school; though beliefs were diverse as many of the teachers hired by Gropius had diverging and sometimes strident set of values that influenced students and the curriculum. Exhibit labels describe Swiss painter Johannes Itten, who followed a branch of neo-Zoroastrian religion, Kandinskey who was a committed transcendentalist, and Adolf Meyer a theosophist.
Reinforcing the spiritual theme are the impressive selection of Bauhaus woodcuts from the first publication created in Bauhaus’ print workshop titled Zwölf Holzschnitte (Twelve Woodcuts). According to the co-curator the woodcut technique was reminiscent of print making technique from the Medieval period when print craftsmen worked in guilds. An image of cathedral using the Woodcut technique was featured in the Bauhaus manifesto, which Gropius included as it referenced the pre-industrial art form.
Highlights of Second Space: The First Year
The next exhibit space (the largest) is dedicated to media and artifacts related to the first year of classes at the Bauhaus. The ‘preliminary courses’, which all students had to complete before moving into a specific ‘workshop’, focused on the fundamental of art and design including material studies, figure and analytical drawing and colour study. The fundamentals may seem basic on the surface but Gropius and the master teachers agreed on a curriculum that built on the core elements, with ‘building’ at its core (image below). The first year courses were taught by true masters, artists that are studied and admired today—Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten and others.
The exhibits are marvelous, showing tools that aimed to teach students about interactions of colours, influenced by shapes and juxtapositions. The student notebooks are incredibly detailed, beautiful--works of art (image below).
Highlights of Third Space: Weaving, Architecture and the 1923 Exhibition
The third space is dedicated to productions from the school's workshops and print materials promoting an exhibition the school held in 1923. The majority of works are from the school’s latter years, by then under a different director when the philosophy had also shifted in response to the pressure from the government due to the political leanings of some of its faculty. One outcome was the 1923 exhibition, which aimed to showcase its products that demonstrated the school's commitment to technology, with a new guiding principle of ’art and technology’ where workshops were embracing mass production; it wanted to highlight its productivity and practicality.
A large glass case showcases the promotional postcards from the 1923 exhibition (image above). They’re charming. Several are available as postcards in the gift shop. Also in this space are several weaving and carpet design studies from the textile workshop, drawings and sketches from the architecture workshop (added in 1927) and furniture design workshops.
Women at the Bauhaus
The textile workshop was the most commercially successful for the Bauhaus, yet it was dominated by women. A touchy area in the history of the school given that even though half of students admitted to Bauhaus were women (more so in early years) almost all were forced into the weaving workshop. Only a handful were able to follow other paths. One woman, Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, entered into the wood-sculpture workshop because she claimed she wanted to design children’s furniture.
The co-curator of our tour did a good job emphasizing the complexity of the weaving process, aimed to alleviate the grumblings among our tour participants. Women at the Bauhaus is an interesting study—the school was viewed as progressive in its championing of gender equality, yet the ratio of women faculty to men was not representative of the student body and women artists studying at the Bauhaus were not recognized as were their male counterparts.
The ‘Stage Workshop’
A section of the exhibit space is devoted to ’stage’ featuring lithographs, a woodcut, and prints from Bauhaus’ stage workshop. Theatre productions at the Bauhaus were large-scale, known for their complicated and involved performances that incorporated design, art, mechanization that built on the foundational concepts taught in first year. The exhibit features a video of a re-creation of a stage production from 1923, titled ‘Das mechanische Ballett (The mechanical ballet)’. The same video (below) on YouTube was restaged by Theater der Klänge in 2009. It’s roughly five minutes; if you’re in a time crunch skip to minute 3.00 where it gets more interesting
Bauhaus Beginnings runs through to October 13, 2019. It provides an excellent snapshot into Bauhaus’ founding principles and its influence on art, design and architecture. If you aren’t able to visit in person there are several excellent sites to view Bauhaus artworks, initiatives, and to learn more about the Bauhaus philosophy, teaching methods, artists and ongoing influence. I’ll be publishing another post in two weeks about three very good online exhibitions about the Bauhaus. There’s also no shortage of interesting books, sites and resources for those interested in digging deeper into this unique and influential school.
References and Resources
Museum of Geology at School of Mines: A Model for Creating a Visitor-Focused Experience
I recently visited a small but mighty museum in Rapid City, South Dakota—the Museum of Geology located in the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SD MINES). It’s a gem of a museum (pardon the pun). I share here highlights, pictures and describe why it’s an excellent example of a visitor-focused space that provides ideal conditions for learning and enjoyment.
The SD MINES is a public research university established in 1885 with a focus on the industry of mining; it’s evolved into a leading science and engineering university in the region. The museum opened the same year as the school with the loan of a professor’s collection of over 5000 mineral and fossil specimens. In 1923 the museum opened to the public and like today, with no admission fees.
In 1899 the first curated specimen was added--an alligator snout discovered in the Badlands (a fossil-rich region in SD consisting of 244,000 acres of hills, mountains and grasslands) by Professor O’Harra while on the school’s first paleontology expedition.
The museum focuses on two areas: 1) South Dakota and Northern Plains fossils and 2) minerals from South Dakota and around the world.
Dinosaurs and More
The dinosaurs are really impressive; there’s nothing like large-scale skeletons of historic beasts to capture visitors’ imaginations. They almost embrace you when you first enter; though small in comparison to other Natural History Museums, it feels BIG. My favorite display is the huge plesiosaur in the middle of the gallery—a marine reptile of the Mesozoic era with large paddle like limbs and a long neck. This defines the space and creates a wow factor. But the rest of the museum lives up to the wow. Including the mammoth head, also discovered in South Dakota (several mammoth remains have been found in the area, mostly in Hot Springs which has an active paleontological excavation site and museum).
The dinosaur skeletons and other fossils are arranged spectacularly in full view, some are in dioramas, others in glass cases. What’s impressive is that almost all the specimens are from South Dakota, discovered by paleontologists on expeditions affiliated with the school. This makes the museum unique—it’s a research institution that openly shares its discoveries with the public and encourages engagement and learning.
Some of the discoveries on display include a near-complete alligator skeleton found in 1924 in the White River Badlands by three professors on an expedition. Another is the Triceratops head added in 1928; it was found in Hell Creek in SD and is now South Dakota’s state fossil. One novel discovery visitors love to learn about is the mosasaur skull, found by a local schoolboy in 1945. It was collected by one of the school’s professors and displayed shortly thereafter.
The Minerals: Bright Cases & User-Friendly Labels
The gem and mineral collection is spectacular. It includes minerals from all over the world, and includes meteorite specimens. The display cases are well done; they are bright with excellent descriptions. I like the user-friendly labels written in conversational language. They are relatable and help visitors make connections to real life. Take the sulfates exhibit label for instance, it reads “Looking within yourself with Barite”, and describes how barium drinks are used by some people for x-rays to help doctors see contrasts.
I compare this museum’s mineral exhibits to the Natural History Museum near me; sadly even though a large, respected museum, its gallery is dark, with even darker cases and labels that use academic language that are hard to relate to.
A Model for Small Museums
The Museum of Geology gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. Both give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. In addition to the tremendous displays, bright and inviting interiors, it has a kid zone with activities for children to engage with, explore and touch. The ‘Touch Table’ is my favorite, visitors can hold and touch different fossils, rocks and minerals.
The museum's visitor-focused approach creates conditions that invite visitors to explore, establishing the groundwork for learning and discovery. For instance, there are more ‘do touch’ labels than ‘don’t touch labels, including signs that encourage visitors to open drawers, view and explore ('don’t touch’ labels combined with hovering security guards create barriers to engagement).
Conditions that encourage visitors to engage, explore and feel welcome include:
If you ever find yourself in the area of Rapid City, SD I encourage you to visit. The museum is about a 45 minute drive to Mount Rushmore and the beautiful Black Hills of SD. If you can’t visit, check out the Museum’s online exhibits (below).
More to Explore
The Cleveland Art Museum is impressive. It lives up to Insider’s list of the top 25 museums in the United States; Cleveland’s Art Museum ranks #2 (Grebey, 2016). I visited this past June and was not disappointed. The permanent collection is phenomenal, but so is the exhibit Cuyahoga River Lightning by Cai Guo-Qiang. The exhibit is in a small gallery, but with big scope. When walking in you see three very large canvases and you smell something—a faint burnt smell. What is it my husband asked? It’s the scent of gunpowder. It’s because Cai Guo-Qiang’s works are created by using controlled explosions using a mixture of charcoal and saltpeter—gunpowder. Cai creates his work on long stretches of Japanese paper placed on the floor with pieces of cardboard stencils on top to shape his planned art work (image below). Cai invests considerable research and planning into all of his works, long before he gets to the final stage which is when he lights the fuse; it’s then an explosion happens and his work of art remains.
How appropriate that the Museum chose Cai Guo-Qiang to create an artwork using fire to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire—an event in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to the chemical pollutants from factories. Cuyahoga50 commemorates the historic fire (though it was one of several) by celebrating water and the progress made after the event towards clean water for all. I wasn’t familiar with the Cuyahoga River fire until seeing this exhibition. It was significant—the fire landed a story in Time Magazine and prompted a move towards environmental policies and a massive clean up initiative. The Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, was a symbol of polluted waterways and dirty rivers and lakes. Even Dr. Suess the children’s author referred to the pollution in Lake Erie in his book The Lorax, a story about environmentalism. In the story the Humming-Fish march out of a (very) polluted river, pollution caused by a factory: “They'll walk on their fins and get woefully weary in search of some water that isn't so smeary. I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie”.
Suess, removed the line referring to Lake Erie fourteen years later when he was contacted by two associates from the Ohio Sea Grant Agency who informed Suess that the river had been cleaned up; they politely asked that he remove the line from his story. He obliged.
There are three works in the exhibition; the main work, ‘Cuyahoga River Lightning’ was created specifically for Cuyahoga50. As for all of his works, Cai did extensive research for the project. An excellent documentary on YouTube (link below) includes Cai describing his process. It’s impressive. His aim is to embody the event. He spent nearly a year researching the river fire, as well as the Cuyahoga's features using Google maps and satellite imagery. He studied where the 1969 fire occurred, which he represented on the canvas by using extra gunpowder to highlight the exact location.
The Museum suggests the other works in the exhibition, Pine, Forest and Wolf (2005) and Late Carnival (2017) reflect the artist’s views on the “world’s diminishing natural reserves of fresh water”. I’m not so sure about that; regardless they are tremendous to experience.
These large scale works, though still impressive by viewing online, feel much different in person. It’s like you are immersed in something; it’s an experience that takes you out of the everyday. The faint smell of gunpowder adds another dimension.
The Fireworks Artist
Cai is an internationally acclaimed artist. Sotheby’s writes that Cai is a “member of the elite group of artists that transcends art world boundaries”. He currently lives in New York with his wife and two daughters. He's created an edgy studio that also serves as his home, fulfilling Cai's goal to combine his professional and family life.
Gunpowder is not Cai’s only medium for his work; he also uses interesting materials to create large scale sculptures, and not surprising he also creates phenomenal firework displays that are better categorized as 'performance art'. He’s created firework performances for audiences all over the world, including for the Beijing Summer Olympics. One of his most spectacular performances was in Florence, Italy in 2018. The 'City of Flowers in the Sky' was a daytime show outside the Uffizi gallery; an introduction to his solo exhibition at the museum. His exhibition Flora Commedia, and the fireworks performance were inspired by Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera. The spectacular series of explosions resembled flowers; colorful gardens like those in the painting. Below is a link to the YouTube video where Cai describes the show and his inspiration. I love how he is so enthusiastic.
I first learned about Cai through a podcast episode on Getty Arts & Ideas podcast show; it was interesting to hear Cai's perspective on art creation and his use of explosives. If you are in the Cleveland area I’d highly recommend visiting the exhibition, otherwise check out the links below to immerse yourself in Cai's art and unique story. Enjoy!
More to Explore
Museums for Real is a blog with ideas and thoughts on how to make museums relevant, approachable and fun for everyone,