Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Largest Show on Earth

Ah, movements: Conceived in aesthetic wonder only to calcify into aesthetic ideology. Take MoMA's impressive Bauhaus exhibit. The first room of the show, depicting the early stages of the movement, are a delight. Gerhard Marcks' 1920 triptych, sporting traditional Christian imagery, was completely acceptable alongside a totemic carved airplane propeller depicting a cosmic vision. The artisan/artist barrier was meaningless in the first stages of the Bauhaus, just as it was in the Middle Ages. Painters were required to learn metallurgy and pottery. Klee taught bookbinding! This was quickly abandoned, however, as the distilled essence of pure design - free from the taint of the past - was isolated and then propagated. Architecture took over. The original director, Itten, resigned in frustration, and the Bauhaus (not without Nazi approval) conquered the world. They knew it as Hannes Meyer's Marx-inspired Volkswohnung (people's apartments) that would mercifully provide affordable design for the masses. We know it as Ikea.

The story has been told many times: See Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House (ripe for a re-reading) or Nathan Glazer's From a Cause (Meyer) to a Style (SWPL #79), oft-cited here. Bauhaus shaped chairs, rugs, tables, lamps, tea kettles, even toys and cribs. The hand that makes the cradle rules the world. No one can deny that many of these products are beautifully sleek. I like a Michael Graves teapot as much as the next guy. But the Bauhaus didn't know when to stop, as Ludwig Hilberseimer's chilling cityscapes make plain. Here's Michael J. Lewis on the matter: "The same Cartesian coordinates that are so stimulating when applied to textiles or chess sets take on a rather different aspect when the grid grows larger than the individual, who shrinks into a speck."

Stop what you're doing and look around you. Granted you have a window nearby (but even if you don't), how long does it take to find an object or building influenced by this imperious simplicity of the Bauhaus? This show does not end at the walls of the exhibit, but extends into the Bauhaus structure of the museum itself, and onto the more cheerless of New York skyscrapers, through the low-income housing projects that Bauhaus ideals inspired, and on further into anonymous edge-cities, suburban office parks, and dreary residential realities. The show closes soon, but don't worry if you can't make it. You can't not make it.