Looking Forward: The Bauhaus and Harvard

October 16, 2018
BR48.101 Herbert Bayer, Design for a Multimedia Trade Fair Booth, 1924. Opaque watercolor, charcoal, and touches of graphite with collage of cut printed and colored papers on off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of the artist, BR48.101. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

While it’s been nearly a century since the founding of the Bauhaus—the influential school of art, architecture, and design that opened in Weimar, Germany, in 1919—its continuing impact is unmistakable.

That legacy is made abundantly evident through the Harvard Art Museums’ Bauhaus Special Collection, an online resource of more than 30,000 objects related to this pioneering school. For the past two years, the website has virtually placed the museums’ Bauhaus collection at viewers’ fingertips. But an upcoming special exhibition, presented on the occasion of the centennial of the formation of the Bauhaus, will give visitors a firsthand look at some of the very best from these holdings.

The Bauhaus and Harvard, on view February 8 through July 28, 2019, will feature approximately 200 works, including textiles, paintings, photographs, furniture, and archival materials, drawn almost entirely from the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s rich collection. 

Laura Muir, research curator for academic and public programs and former assistant curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, has spent the past several years organizing the exhibition as well as a full slate of related programming. We sat down with her to learn more about the exhibition and the enduring appeal of the Bauhaus.

Index: What are some of the goals of the exhibition?

Laura Muir: The Bauhaus centennial gives us the opportunity to reflect on the unique character of this collection and the circumstances that led to its formation in the late 1940s with the help of Walter Gropius. Gropius, director of the Bauhaus from its founding in 1919 until 1928, remained in close contact with many of his former colleagues long after the school closed in 1933 under pressure from Germany’s Nazi government. In 1937, Gropius came to Harvard to join the Department of Architecture. After World War II, Charles Kuhn, curator of Harvard’s Germanic Museum (today’s Busch-Reisinger Museum), worked with Gropius to contact former Bauhaus affiliates to establish a Bauhaus archive—the seeds of today’s collection.

In the exhibition, we want to recognize Gropius’s essential role in establishing the Bauhaus collection, but also underscore the fact that it was very much a group effort. The collection could not have come into being without the participation of many other former members of the Bauhaus community who felt tremendously invested in this initiative and generously donated works of art, design objects, and archival materials.

“Even 100 years later, the Bauhaus seems very forward-thinking and pioneering—a lot of artists and designers are still drawing inspiration from that.”

Other institutions with major Bauhaus holdings are also planning anniversary exhibitions that consider different aspects of the Bauhaus and its legacy. By telling our particular story, this project will illuminate a key episode in the history of the Bauhaus in America. This will be the first major exhibition of Harvard’s Bauhaus collection since 1971 and the first to focus on the Harvard connection.

Index: Why is the Bauhaus still relevant today?

Muir: Because of the way it brought together art, architecture, and design; it was multimedia, it was multidisciplinary, and it was attempting to eliminate hierarchies between fine and applied art. There are also the aesthetics associated with it: clean lines, geometric shapes. Even 100 years later, the Bauhaus seems very forward-thinking and pioneering—a lot of artists and designers are still drawing inspiration from that. As part of our opening celebration, for example, we have invited contemporary German artist Judith Raum to talk about her recent work, which deals with the Bauhaus weaving workshop.

BR56.253.A-FF Josef Hartwig, Set of 32 Chess Pieces, 1922. Wood and felt. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Julia Feininger, BR56.253.A–FF. © Josef Hartwig/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Index: With more than 30,000 objects in the Bauhaus collection, how did you choose just 200 for the exhibition?

Muir: I started with a list of about 400 objects and then narrowed it down. I wanted to give visitors a sense of the breadth and depth of the collection, but also highlight important strengths, such as materials related to Bauhaus pedagogy, the weaving workshop, and the domestic interior.

I also hope to demonstrate that it’s not just a collection of masterworks, but masterworks that can be put into conversation with related materials that we don’t often have a chance to show in our permanent collections galleries due to factors such as light sensitivity. In this way, we’ll be emphasizing its role as a research archive and study collection. It was established with the intention that it would be a resource for students—future artists, architects, and designers. And it is still in active use today.

  • BR71.21.24 T. Lux Feininger, Max Bill and Edmund Collein at the Bauhaus, 1929. Gelatin silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of T. Lux Feininger, BR71.21.24. © T. Lux Feininger.

  • 1991.200 Hansgeorg Knoblauch, The Properties of Color, 1932. Watercolor, black ink, and traces of graphite on cream wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1991.200.

Index: What might visitors learn from the exhibition?

Muir: People often associate the Bauhaus with certain iconic objects, like Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chair, Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jucker’s glass table lamp, and László Moholy-Nagy’s abstract paintings. We have examples of these objects, but what might surprise visitors is that we also have deep collections of materials related to these singular objects. For example, in the exhibition we’ll show the Breuer chair along with advertising materials that were produced at the Bauhaus to promote the sale of that chair. We have samples of the fabric designed in the weaving workshop, specifically for tubular steel furniture. And we have Lucia Moholy’s photographs of Bauhaus interiors that show the furniture in its original context. Through these conversations between objects, we want to stress the important role of collaboration between artists and designers.

  • BR48.27 Marcel Breuer, Club Chair, designed 1925, manufactured 1929–32. Nickel-plated steel tubing and modern canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Anonymous gift, BR48.27.

  • BR48.80.A Herbert Bayer, Erich Consemüller, and Marcel Breuer, Cover, B 3 Club Chair, from “Breuer Metal Furniture,” 1927. Relief halftone printed in black and gray inks on off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of the artist, BR48.80.A. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The best-known Bauhaus figures will be represented in the exhibition, including Gropius, Albers, Bayer, Breuer, Feininger, Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, and Klee. But we are also making an effort to highlight the contributions of lesser-known figures, such as weaver Otti Berger (whose textile is shown in the Baby Blanket photograph by Ernst Nipkow, below) and photographer Lucia Moholy. We have major collections of their work, but their achievements have been underappreciated. The work of women in general is something we want to foreground: female artists will be represented in every gallery of the exhibition, which reflects not only our collection but also the key roles women played at the Bauhaus.

We are also excited to consider the Bauhaus/Harvard connection through a section of the exhibition devoted to the Harvard Graduate Center (1950), designed by Gropius’s Cambridge-based architectural firm. A complex of dormitories and a commons building (now the Caspersen Student Center at Harvard Law School), it was the first modernist building on campus and integrated architecture, furnishings, and artworks commissioned from leading contemporary artists. Bayer’s mural Verdure, which originally hung in one of the dining rooms, will be the centerpiece of the show’s final gallery. Hans Arp’s wall relief Constellations II, which was installed in the nearby Grill Room, is the subject of a complementary exhibition that will be shown in an adjacent gallery.

1950.169 Herbert Bayer, Verdure, 1950. Oil on canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Commissioned by Harvard Corporation, 1950.169. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Major works such as Josef Albers’s brick relief America, a tile mural by Bayer, and an outdoor sculpture by Richard Lippold can still be seen at the Graduate Center. We are working on programs that will help make the connection between the exhibition at the museums and the actual building. We would love to raise awareness about this major site for modern architecture on Harvard’s campus.

Index: On a personal level, what have you found so fascinating about the Bauhaus?

Muir: I’ve been working on aspects of the Bauhaus for a long time. My first project was an exhibition at the Met devoted to photography and the Bauhaus. As part of my research, I had the chance to interview Lux Feininger, the son of Lyonel Feininger, who was one of the most gifted photographers at the Bauhaus. His vivid accounts of Bauhaus life and his commitment (even in his 90s) to promoting scholarship on the Bauhaus really made an impression on me.

When I came to Harvard, I was thrilled to be able to work with this incredible collection (which includes the Feininger archive). I’ve long been fascinated by the story of how the collection came together and the role that Harvard played at this particular moment in Bauhaus history. It’s not as well known as it could be, and the centennial seems a perfect moment to take a close look at it through the objects in this remarkable collection.

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