Photography: remembering Bauhaus era

WHAT a roll call of famous names attaches to the Bauhaus, that school in Germany which contributed so distinctively -- and with such uncompromising modernity -- to the rejuvenation of architecture and design between the two world wars: painters like Kandinsky, Klee, Albers, Feininger, and Schlemmer; architects like Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Breuer; all-rounders like Moholy-Nagy. In fact, they were mostly ``all-rounders'' at the Bauhaus. The aim was teamwork rather than the pursuit of individuality. Emphasis was on synthesis, on ``the Great Construction'' -- on architecture uniting all the arts.

There is a certain paradox, then, in the lack of anonymity that history has accorded the Bauhaus notables. Breuer's name is remembered for his chair, Mies's for the superb Seagram Building in New York. The name Albers conjures up the warm formalism of his ``Homage to the Square'' paintings. Klee is known for his small, enigmatically subjective paintings, rather than the pedagogical theories expounded at the Bauhaus. Gropius, the first director of the school, is remembered for his architecture -- among other things, for the buildings he designed for the Bauhaus itself when it moved from its first home in Weimar to Dessau in 1925.

The fact is that the Bauhaus did not really squash individual artistic expression and in some ways actively encouraged it. The painters, for instance, may not have been there to teach the highly personal business of painting as such, but the students painted all the same and still asked their teachers for advice. As Ernst Kallai, a young Hungarian critic, commented in 1929: ``...many of the Bauh"ausler simply can't stop painting and they are pursuing this dangerous and useless vice more or less in secret.''

Many of the Bauh"ausler also took photographs.

At first this was more a hobby than anything, but gradually photography found its way, as a modern medium with many uses and possibilities, into the mainstream of Bauhaus teaching.

Not much study has been made of this aspect of the school's activities until recently. The exhibition of ``Bauhaus Photography'' at the Busch-Reisinger Museum here in Cambridge (through Nov. 30) provides a stimulating glimpse of photographic skill, originality, and variety. It is part of a fall/winter celebration of the Bauhaus in the form of films, concerts, symposia, lectures, tours and discussions, as well as exhibitions, all over Boston and Cambridge.

Variety is the point. The 125 works by 41 Bauh"ausler have been divided into categories, but no idea of an imposed ``Bauhaus style'' is evident. Self-portraits, photographs of Bauhaus buildings, portraits of Bauh"ausler, pictures of objects, montage, and the use of photography in typography -- these are some of the categories. Further sections not specified in the catalog of this traveling show include ``Series'' and ``Isolating-Detailing.''

You have to keep reminding yourself of the early dates of these photographs -- the 1920s and early '30s. The series of mouths by Kurt Kranz done in 1930-31, for instance, and of glass eyes by Herbert Bayer (1929), like lined-up film stills, seem now to be original variants of a format used decades later by Andy Warhol in his multiple-repeat portraits, or Bernd and Hilla Becher in their lined-up photographs of cooling towers, gasholders, and pithead winding gear in the '60s and '70s.

Photography at the Bauhaus, as Wulf Herzogenrath points out in the catalog, ``was never seen only as a means of artistic expression'' (though it was seen as a medium that called the purpose of painting into question). If one quality is held in common by these photographers, it is, perhaps, order. Structure and organization -- a kind of efficiency, even -- tend to predominate. Comparison with out-and-out Surrealist photography of the '30s -- Consemuller's female student wearing a Schlemmer mask and sitting cross-legged in a Breuer chair, for instance -- makes even the strangest of the Bauhaus pictures look quite dispassionate and straightforward. Emotions are checked, eroticism absent.

Two figures stand out: Walter Peterhans, who was head of the photography class at the Bauhaus from 1929-32, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The first was not an experimenter; the second decidedly was. Peterhans's images are scrupulous, clean, thought prompting. His ``Printing Plate With Proof Impressions of Music'' of around 1930 displays a simplified interest in tonal contrast and abstract composition. It quietly explores the relation of object to shadow and of symbol to meaning. Moholy-Nagy made bold, surprising images, contrived and memorable. His verbal description of the technique of ``montage'' aptly fits his practice of the art: ``Adding together, projecting one image onto another or beside another to create an organizational supra-reality, a Utopia or a joke.''

Many of the photos in this selection exhibit a fascination for the ability of the camera to picture the world from odd angles -- over, under, through, along -- foreshortening and transforming the three-dimensional into a surprising two- dimensionality.

This interplay of the flat and the solid is nowhere exploited with a more calculated but inspired sense of arrangement than in Herbert Bayer's title page of the Bauhaus periodical No. 1 of 1928. It is an immaculate piece of work, economical in statement, superbly composed. It is, if any one work could epitomize it, Bauhaus photography par excellence.

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