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by Xavier LaBoulbenne
As a brand name, "Bauhaus" truly came into its own in the 1980s with the widespread popularity of the Marcel Breuer tubular steel chair B3, known as the Wassily Chair, and the Wilhelm Wagenfeld glass and brass nickel-plated table lamp, called the Bauhaus Lamp. That a progressive and socially engaged design movement from the Weimar era should come to describe iconic status objects found in the offices of cultured corporations in the 21st century is curious, to say the least.

It can be difficult today to grasp modernist ideals, which offered so many liberating promises, considering that in practice these same ideals have proven to be vain or even oppressive. Still, the emancipatory promises of modernism remain seductive, at least as presented in the remarkable 90th anniversary exhibition, "Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model," which was on view this summer at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (and which is on its way to the Museum of Modern Art, in a different form, Nov. 8, 2009-Jan. 25, 2010).

The huge exhibition gives a comprehensive overview and rather unexpected account of the foundation of a design academy that existed for a mere 14 years, with no more than 1,250 students in all, but that nevertheless managed to become a historical touchstone and a veritable synonym of modernism. With all this material, the apparent clarity of the Bauhaus dissolves into a synthesis of the sometime contradictory elements of a sprawling collective endeavor.

We tend to associate the Bauhaus with textures that are technologically modern, in a mid-20th-century, pre-digital sense: glass and steel, a black-and-white chromophobia, and geometricality and angularity. The exhibition tells another story, of a dissident movement founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 at the dawn of the Weimar Republic, of a community with an unusual number of women participants, of a school whose curriculum proposed nature study and "harmonization theory" as well as workshops in textiles, earthenware, bookbinding and photography.

At its beginnings the Bauhaus had völkisch roots, casting the artist as a craftsman with lineage traceable to the medieval guilds, and suggesting to our eyes a precursor of the 1960s hippie lifestyle sensibility. The first Bauhaus manifesto provided a romantic metaphor of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, mixing architecture and painting and sculpture as if in a modern cathedral.

But by 1923 Gropius was moving the Bauhaus towards modern industry, with the emphasis on training artists to design prototypes for the industrial manufacture of everyday objects -- thus the Wassily Chair and the Bauhaus Lamp. Although the futuristic Gropius design of the still-operating Bauhaus academy building in Dessau, where the Bauhaus took up residence in 1925, situates the school as a modern factory, the physical experience is pleasantly human with its harmonious spatial proportions, generous light exposure and brightly colored wall paintings.

In 1928, Gropius resigned as director, to be replaced by Hannes Meyer, an advocate of strict functionalism who scorned the school’s artistic ambitions -- he prompted the resignation of artists like Breuer and Herbert Bayer -- and adopted a more practical attitude towards the school’s clients. In 1930 the increasing political tensions in Germany led to the abrupt dismissal of Meyer, an outspoken Communist. His tenure was followed by the last, charismatic and authoritarian directorship of Mies van der Rohe, who moved the school to Berlin before dissolving it all together under National Socialist pressure in 1933. Once again, creative practices reflect political and societal contexts.

The lasting impact of the Bauhaus in our daily life is undeniable, as is the increasing trivialization of its tenets, demonstrated all too well, for instance, by Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner’s IKEA-inspired Stealing Beauty [see "Artist in Residence," Feb. 11, 2008]. Entombed in the museum, the Bauhaus concept of pure functionality, as either an ethic or an esthetic, seems irretrievably lost in the past. One might wonder what remains for the 100th anniversary. Perhaps a survey of the Bauhaus’ worldwide influence.

Xavier Laboulbenne is a curator and critic living in Berlin.