Josef Albers, Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow (© 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society)

The Bauhaus lasted exactly as long as Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and is its principal cultural achievement. But the revolutionary school of art and design is also an achievement of modernism itself, for it answered a most vexing question: Was it possible to make a viable institution out of a movement that had arisen out of conflict with institutional authority, and which drew its focus, vitality, and sense of purpose from that conflict? Merely to demolish one bastion of academic authority, such as the imperious École des Beaux Arts, and to replace it with another would hardly have been worth the struggle.

One forgets that modernism before the Bauhaus was a volatile, many-sided, centrifugal affair and that there was little reason to believe that its various factions and groupings—whether Cubist, Futurist, or Constructivist—could ever make common cause. At times, their insistence on stylistic orthodoxy could rival that of the École (one thinks of El Lissitzky and Malevich purging Chagall from the Vitebsk School of Art). Yet the Bauhaus, by enforcing no aesthetic conformity and by promulgating no official style, proved to all that a modernist institution need not repeat the failings of its academic predecessors. Such an omnivorous and receptive stance was perhaps only possible in Germany, which, historically, had been accustomed to draw on the lessons of France, Italy, and elsewhere and to mix the results freely.

Whatever the reasons, the Bauhaus demonstrated that modernism could function as a collective enterprise in an institutional setting, and still give the student the widest scope for individual expression. It is this extraordinary achievement that has created the mythic Bauhaus of the imagination, a shrine where artists toiled away in happy accord, savoring the idyllic fellowship of the guild—much as the eighteenth century had imagined Periclean Athens, or the nineteenth the great cathedral-building lodges of the Middles Ages.


Michael J. Lewis
New Criterion