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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Photography at the Bauhaus

Founded by the architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) in 1919, the Bauhaus was a utopian haven for avant-garde artists during the period of radical change and tenuous peace in Germany after World War I. A war veteran, Gropius found his battered country badly in need of rejuvenation and believed that the collective of Bauhaus artists could play an important role in that process. Based on the concept of the medieval cooperative of artists and craftsmen combining their talents to build the great Gothic cathedrals, the progressive school of art and design sought to bring together the fine and applied arts, human ingenuity, and modern technology in order to help construct a new rational, egalitarian, and ordered society.

In 1925, after losing the financial support of the city of Weimar, the school’s original home, Gropius relocated the Bauhaus to Dessau, an industrial city of 50,000, about 100 miles southwest of Berlin. On a level plain just outside of the city, Gropius constructed his Bauhaus building, a gleaming glass and concrete complex of interrelating structures that became the center of a small universe. Sheltered from the turmoil of the external world, it provided a stimulating and nurturing environment in which the artists could apply themselves to the task at hand. United in their goal to create new art fit for the modern era, they embraced novel techniques and free experimentation.

While architecture, typography, carpentry, metalwork, weaving, sculpture, wall painting, and theater all had established workshops at the school before 1929, photography was not taught or even organized as an extracurricular activity. In spite of this, it attracted an enthusiastic following, particularly after the arrival of the Hungarian Constructivist artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), whom Gropius appointed to lead the preliminary course and metal workshop in 1923. Aided by his wife, Lucia Moholy (1894–1989), the dynamic young artist had established himself as one of the prime movers and enthusiastic advocates of experimental photographic techniques (1987.1100.69). While at the school, he continued to write articles and books on the subject, including his seminal Malerei, Photographie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film, 1925), which was illustrated with many of his own photographs. He demonstrated unusual camera vantages and various darkroom techniques that were tantalizingly fresh: they constituted, he believed, a “new vision” for a medium that was surely the expressive vehicle of the future.

Just as traditional media and materials were being subjected to intense reappraisal at the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy advocated unlimited experimentation with the photographic process. The photogram, created by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light, exemplified the idea that the medium, formerly valued primarily for its ability to reproduce, was capable of producing entirely new art. In his 1926 Photogram (1987.1100.158), he deftly deals with light and issues then being explored in modern painting simply by using the play of light to create a radiant image of a hand and paintbrush floating serenely in dimensionless space.

The force of Moholy-Nagy’s talent and enthusiasm galvanized other artists to begin their own adventurous explorations. Unencumbered by the structured expectations of a formal course, photography at the Bauhaus was practiced as the best sort of play—its myriad modes and magical processes enchanted masters and students alike. Even as they recorded the beginner’s array of elementary topics, they were instinctively employing techniques absorbed from a variety of sources, ranging from Constructivism to illustrated newspapers to avant-garde film. The smaller cameras and faster exposures gave them a new dexterity, enabling them to keep time with the energetic pace of school life.

This aspect of photography at the Bauhaus is exemplified in the lively work of the young student Lux Feininger (1910–2011), son of the painter and Bauhaus master Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956). Never without his camera, Lux roamed the school in search of activities he could transform into his characteristically exuberant views of student life, exemplified by his sprightly Charleston on the Bauhaus Roof (1987.1100.107). Possessing the dynamic immediacy of the most innovative press photography of this period, Feininger’s photograph captures a dramatic instant that perfectly expresses the youthful verve and spirited freedom that was clearly present on both sides of the camera.

With the departure of Gropius in 1928 and the controversial appointment of the Marxist architect Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) as his successor, the Bauhaus became increasingly unpopular with the local government and community. In 1930, Meyer was forced to resign and within two years the city completely withdrew funding, forcing the school’s closure. Although Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), the school’s final director, relocated it to Berlin as a private institution, it lasted only a year before it was permanently closed by the Nazis in 1933.