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Publishing Modernism: The Bauhaus in Print

Artifacts/Memorabilia, Documents
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Editorial Review

The broad influence of the Bauhaus

By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

Nearly a century after the Bauhaus opened its doors, the short-lived German design academy is associated mostly with minimalist architecture. That's understandable, because the name means "building house" in German and the school's best-known emissaries to the New World were less-is-more architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Yet that's not the whole story.

The National Gallery's "Publishing Modernism: The Bauhaus in Print," an exhibition of 27 books and journals, includes architectural drawings and photographs. But there also are depictions of the school's other fields of study, which encompassed not only painting, photography and typography but also costumes, textiles, wallpaper, furniture and even stained glass. The show is in the East Building's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, which is open only on weekdays and whose visitors must sign in.

The organizers of the Bauhaus were originally inspired by such crafts enthusiasts as William Morris, the 19th-century British designer who wanted homes to be complete works of art. Morris founded a publishing house, and so did the Bauhaus. The latter's quickly went bankrupt, after issuing only one volume, a 1923 catalogue of its creations. But the school continued to produce a design journal as well as books for other publishers.

Drawn entirely from the National Gallery's holdings, the show includes several copies of the journal and all 14 "Bauhausbucher" (Bauhaus books). These exhibit a design sense that was radical in its time: boxy, sans-serif type; only lowercase letters; bold, black rules; and paragraphs without indents. That this sleek style looks normal today reveals the lasting influence of the school's designers (and their like-minded typographers around the world).

The Bauhaus became associated with architecture's International Style, and the exhibit features a copy of the 1932 book that first publicized the connection, Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson's "The International Style: Architecture Since 1922." But Gropius, the school's first director, never wanted it to represent a single mode.

He invited such artists as Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich to teach at the Bauhaus or write guides to theory and emerging art movements, including cubism, De Stijl and suprematism. Their role is obvious in cover designs that feature the sort of squares, grids and blocks of primary colors familiar from Mondrian's canvases.

Not everything in the show's two display cases is hard-edged and geometrical. There's a large-format book of sketches and design motifs by Johannes Itten, a Swiss artist who taught the school's introductory course in its early years. Itten's drawings of animals and mystical symbols, rendered with curved lines and shadowed modeling, offer an intriguing footnote to the Bauhaus reputation for the simple and the severe.

The school planned to publish more volumes, but it was shuttered in 1933 by those noted book-burners, the Nazis. By then, the Bauhaus had produced relatively few publications. But their effects can be read throughout the industrialized world.

The story behind the work

In 1923, the Bauhaus produced a catalogue of its designs, simply titled "Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar, 1919-1923," after what was then the school's official name. This volume, notes National Gallery rare books specialist Yuri Long, was the only one the in-house print shop published before going bankrupt.

For this show, the book is open to a depiction of a rug whose blended hues offer a subtle contrast to the sharp red, blues and yellows that are the only colors in the other publications on display. The rug is a reminder that the Bauhaus began as place for traditional handicrafts, Long explains, although "by this point they're shifting from combining art and craft to combining art and technology."

Such traditional products as the rug originally were more successful than the modern design for which the school is now remembered. "The wallpaper designs," Long says, "were the only thing that turned a profit."

-- Mark Jenkins