Though often understood as a rigid cult of technocrats, the Bauhaus movement was a romantic tag of avant-gardists whose influence persists to this dayby Keith Miller / June 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
In 1934, Walter Gropius and his second wife Ise were driven by a friend to visit Stonehenge. As they motored past a series of adverts for breweries—“You Are Now Entering the Strong Country”; “Take Courage”—the architect and founder of the Bauhaus art school, who had recently escaped Nazi Germany, grew anxious. “Why does England need all this propaganda?” asked Walter. As retold in Fiona MacCarthy’s new biography, the story has the effect of humanising someone who has at times been caricatured as a technocrat and ideologue, a real-life counterpart to the dastardly Otto Silenus in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. (“The problem of architecture as I see it… is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form.”) But it also suggests someone who wasn’t always as quick on the uptake as he might have been.
MacCarthy’s aim is to bring to life a man who is seen as something of an abstraction, even by his admirers. She suggests that the Bauhaus wasn’t some arid machine-age cult. She patiently shows how romantic, expressionist and surrealist influences made themselves felt alongside rigid formalism. She also makes it clear what an achievement it was for Gropius that a ragtag assortment of mystics and avant-gardists from all over Europe—among whom boundaries between disciplines, hierarchies of rank and experience were largely disregarded—should have lasted as long and worked as well as it did.
She presents us with some of the maestro’s endearing quirks, too, such as his lifelong passion for horses (acquired when he served as a hussar during the First World War) and his fondness for cacti. Neither does she neglect his energetic love life: a turbulent relationship with the composer and socialite Alma Mahler (which resulted in a daughter, Manon); an almost intolerably civilised menage à trois with Ise and the graphic designer Herbert Bayer; a couple of dalliances with students during which the lover and the pedagogue vie for supremacy. In later life, he and Ise seem to have enjoyed a deep conjugal harmony: he designed a two-seater desk where they could work side by side.
In these pages, Gropius takes on full three-dimensional form: kind, patient, proud, at…