Forty years ago, when working on my Fulbright topic (in Darmstadt and Berlin) about artists and their relationship to the machine, I tried to get a visa to visit Dessau (about 100 kilometers from Berlin) and to see what remained of the Bauhaus buildings in what was then East Germany. My application was denied. My current visit to Berlin, and the decision to stay in what in the 1970s was East Berlin, has been in part prompted by a desire to see all these places so important to the history of modern art and culture that are now open to the world. Finally, after years of showing slides and lecturing about this single most important institution in the construction of the functional modernist aesthetic, I would be able to step on the grounds where Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, and so many others taught and worked and developed modern fonts, graphic design, new ways to teach art, and the architectural foundations of so much of our built environment.
The day did not start out promisingly. After checking a gillion times how to take the train from Berlin to Dessau, we arrived at the Südkreuz-Bahnhof and discovered that–because we hadn’t bought tickets ahead of time–it was going to cost us some 150 Euros to get to Dessau! Since our train trip from Berlin to Vienna only cost us 60 Euros when we booked it in the summer, this just seemed ridiculously steep. So we bailed. (A good lesson learned: buy Deutsche Bahn tickets ahead of time and online!) But I was so determined to get there that I came up with another plan: since we had already booked a car to drive to Poland on Monday, I called up the nice guy at Berlin Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and found that we could extend our rental for 20 Euros a day! We were so proud of ourselves for being so resourceful. And here’s the car we got: A yellow Opel! I think car rental places must get the leftovers of bad color decisions on the part of the car manufacturers…But how exciting! Our own car to drive in Europe! I don’t think we ever drove ourselves before in the old days here.
We got to Dessau pretty easily, although I must say that being entirely dependent on the Android Maps app is problematic–or maybe I just don’t know how to work these things. What happens when the connection goes off, or when the phone runs out of juice? Give me old fashioned maps any day.
And there it was! That space, that “curtain wall” I lectured about so many times! Beautifully restored, with a minimum of explanatory texts or intrusive labels, and for the price of 13 Euros, access to all the buildings and to a tour of the Meisterhäuser, the Master Houses where Gropius and others lived. The place was filled with acolytes, taking photos like me of every angle, nook and cranny.
We were even able to go up into the dormitory floors, and out onto the balconies–something that would never been allowed in America, for fear of people falling off.
George, who is afraid of heights and gets vertigo, would only come out briefly to take this photo of me on the very same balcony where so many of those famous Bauhaus photos were made! I have always loved these shots, because they capture what a free, open, and exciting atmosphere it must have been for all these young people, just after that horrible war, and aware that they were part of the most exciting artistic experiment of the 20th century.
I had to get a photo of George sitting in the famous Breuer chair in that wonderful space! The mention of chairs, however, leads to a very interesting aspect of our day in Dessau: none of these spaces were furnished with Bauhaus-designed objects! There were Breuer chairs (or modern copies of them) in some spaces, but no Anni Albers rugs, no objects on the walls, no furniture whatsoever. This was especially noticeable in the Meisterhäuser, which were aside from some wall displays and labels, completely bare. In contemplating this omission, I came to the realization that, once again, the old East-West division is still in play. Here’s what leads me to that conclusion: the only exhibition on site focussed entirely on Hannes Meyer, the BH director from the late 20s who was the most socialist, indeed Communist, teacher of the school: “Volksbedarf nicht Luxusbedarf” was his motto (Things for the people. Not luxury items), a saying that was printed on the bags for sale in the (very nice!) shop in the main building. From what I could overhear from at least one of the tour guides who was in Gropius’ office at the time–the only space to have SOME BH furniture–the slant was entirely away from the “elite” aspects of Bauhaus design and emphasized instead Meyer’s efforts to create art “for the Volk”. One also got the feeling from the guards and other staff that, just like those earlier Dessau citizens who were horrified by the shenanigans going on at this radical school, they had no interest in understanding what was so significant about these buildings or the activities that drew so many people from all over the world to this place.
This attitude was especially apparent in the Master Houses, most of which were bombed to smithereens during the last days of World War II. Dessau was an important military target, where a Junkers factory built bombers, so it’s a wonder the city escaped until so late in the war. The dilemma, then, was what to do about the loss of these icons of modernity, exacerbated by the fact that Dessau remained in East Germany until the Wall fell. On the occasion of the reconstruction of the Gropius House a few years ago, The Guardian commented on these dilemmas:
All this may be true–that the rebuilding was caught up in the political questions of how to rebuild or not to build–but I really do think that the old East German resentments about their situation, coupled with a continuing skepticism and dislike of what is seen as elitist modernism, plays a major role as well.
In the remaining houses, the ones that were not completely destroyed by the bombs, such as the Muche-Schlemmer Haus, the guards were listening to the footie on the radio, and had no idea what the house was about, and no interest in knowing.
But thankfully, they have been restored, if with none of their furnishings–SO elite!–and are open for us to contemplate and rediscover. The houses were filled with students drawing shapes, angles, rooms, proportions–as Gropius and the others would have wanted them to.
Finally, I caught a snap of George walking down the stairs at the Schlemmer Haus–so near to the staircase that Schlemmer used as a model for his painting all those years ago, when Bauhaus students really believed that art could change the world.