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World's Biggest Bauhaus Retrospective: The House That Mies and Walter Built

By Cathrin Schaer in Berlin

The legendary German art school, the Bauhaus, has influenced almost a century worth of art, design and architecture. This week the largest ever Bauhaus retrospective opened in Berlin. The show includes everything from design classics to fine art to students' party pictures and birthday cards.

Most venerable institutions usually wait until their 100th anniversary before making a big fuss of themselves. But not Germany's Bauhaus school of art and design. The grand Bauhaus retrospective "Modell Bauhaus," which starts this week at the Martin Gropius museum in Berlin, is being mounted 90 years after the institution's founding.

Still, maybe it's not surprising that the various Bauhaus archives couldn't wait another 10 years. The famous school -- or schools, as there have been several iterations -- of design, that launched a thousand facets of minimal, modern style as well as the adage "less is more," has always been a bit contrary.

When the school was first founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919, it was considered something of a radical experiment in that it brought students of art, architecture, craft and all facets of design together under one roof. Later on, there was a distinct socialist thread running through the school's output; they wanted to marry good looks with functionality, beauty with mass production and, basically, just make nice things for everyone rather than just a chosen, wealthy few.

As it turns out, there's a good reason for holding the largest Bauhaus exhibition ever this year. "It is because this is also the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall," says one of the exhibition's curators, Klaus Weber, of the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin. Weber explains that there are three archives for Bauhaus memorabilia and documentation around Germany, one in each city where one of the schools was located: Berlin, Dessau and Weimar. "The three institutions used to cooperate even before 1989 -- but it was a little bit complicated," Weber admits. "So if it German reunification had not happened, then the three institutions would never have been able to work together like this."

An Exhibition for Berlin and New York

Additionally the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which has had connections to the Bauhaus schools since 1929, has also contributed around 25 objects from its own Bauhaus collection; and an edited version of the exhibition will be shown at MoMA in early November.

This unprecedented cooperation has resulted in one of the most important exhibitions of Bauhaus output ever, filling 18 rooms, or about half of the floor space in the large Martin Gropius museum. There are around 1,000 objects on display -- ranging from the instantly recognizable archetypes of designer furnishings like the Wassily chair to artworks by the likes of Wassily Kandinski and Paul Klee, who both taught at the Bauhaus, to typography, weaving and publishing.

The exhibition is carefully arranged in a series of ever diminishing, cleverly color-coded (according to a Bauhaus-formulated color chart) circles that take visitors from the Weimar school founded in 1919 right through to the Berlin school, which was closed by the Nazis in April 1933. In the center of the spiral, there is an open space featuring contemporary artist Christine Hill's work: "DIY Bauhaus - Build your own Bauhaus!" The Berlin-based American's work uses the Bauhaus slogan "Necessities for people, not luxuries" as a starting point and asks about the point of art and design if there isn't some social commentary involved.

Along the way, you'll see the ceramic teapots that led to the Bauhaus' first date with mass production and industry, Walter Gropius' 44th birthday card, signed with kisses from his students, architectural models that are some of the first examples of Modernism and the freakish, flickering "Light Space Modulator" sculpture by László Moholy-Nagy, as well as rooms lined with mirrors and furnishings reflecting the serene, minimalist aesthetic of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who led the last Bauhaus school in Berlin. The exhibition is also filled with oodles of the finest chairs and lamps.

The Upside of Getting Shut Down by the Nazis

In its Berlin incarnation, "Modell Bauhaus" deserves at least a two to four hour visit. And at the end of the exhibition, the curators have enlarged a collage by one of the Bauhaus' few Japanese students, Iwao Yamawaki, who came to Germany in 1930. The collage, which was only ever published in Japan, depicts the Nazis closing down the famous school while bewildered students look on. But, according to Weber, this closure wasn't completely terrible. "Some say that if the Nazis had not shut the Bauhaus down, then it might never have become so well known," Weber muses. "Because the majority of important teachers left, a lot went to America, and they took the Bauhaus' message with them."

Interestingly though, of all the things that the Bauhaus students and teachers made, or inspired, there is one simple photo that is perhaps most poignant. It's a headshot of one the school's most important designers, Marianne Brandt, who became the head of the metal workshop in 1928. In the picture she poses in a strange outfit, what looks like the rim of a tin dinner plate strapped around her head, and a heavy silver choker around her neck. Turns out that it was indeed the rim of a tin plate: Brandt was dressed up for one of the Bauhaus' legendary themed parties. In this case, it was called the Metallic Party -- the name was changed from the Church Bells, Doorbells and Other Bells Party, apparently in order to keep the noise down. Guests turned up dressed in everything from frying pans to foil and entered the party, held in Dessau in 1929, by sliding down a large chute into one of the specially decorated rooms. At the time a newspaper reported that "everything was glitter wherever one turned. The rooms ... had been decorated with the greatest variety of forms placed together all over the walls, shinily metallic and fairy like ... in addition, music, bells, tinkling cymbals everywhere, in every room, in the stairways wherever one went." It sounds wild -- but one shouldn't forget that while the arty Bauhaus students were playing, they were also merging theater and art, inventing and designing modern classics out of gas pipes so party guests could sit down.

Now ask Weber, who has been sedately showing a media group, including SPIEGEL ONLINE, through the exhibition, what he hopes that visitors will get from this exhibition and his answer reflects some of that same feeling, the independent essence of the contrary Bauhaus school -- more than any staid tour.

"I hope that, whatever else they get, visitors are inspired by the openness that was at the Bauhaus, by the creative openness and the spiritual openness," he concludes. "That, and the freedom that they had to experiment," he adds. "I think that is the most important thing of all."

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