Exhibition Review: Craft in the Bauhaus centenary and beyond

There are many myths about the Bauhaus. Perhaps the most persistent, familiar to all of us (and quite frankly frustrating among them) is the progressivist myth that maps the evolutionary trajectory from the craft utopianism of the Weimar years to the Dessau successful realization of the unity of art, industry and design. This myth was created by members of the Bauhaus themselves and it goes without saying that craft as a concept in this particular narrative holds a rather unfavorable position. 

Τhe centenary of the Bauhaus in 2019 created a unique opportunity for a re-examination of craft in the Bauhaus through many exhibitions in Germany and elsewhere. Due to a twist of fate, a several-month delay of my scheduled internship in Gerhard Marcks Haus Sculpture Museum, I found myself in Germany in the beginning of 2019, ready to observe and take in as much as I could. Museums and archives in all German states, in an effort to become a part of the Bauhaus exhibition map, were going through their collections to discover stories and develop exhibitions that would connect them to the Bauhaus. Gerhard Marcks Haus was no exception. Gerhard Marcks was a Bauhaus form-master himself, who, as I have suggested elsewhere, was very vocal about his dissatisfaction with the formalist machine aesthetic turn of the Dessau years of the Bauhaus and a proponent of the first period’s craft approach.

The exhibition We are going to Halle: Marguerite Friedlaender and Gerhard Marcks in Gerhard Marcks Haus, which I had the chance to assist in setting up, featured beautiful porcelain objects by Marguerite Friedlaender, a relatively unknown creator, member of the Bauhaus ceramic workshop [Image 1, Image 2, Image 3]. Further, complementary stories to the Bauhaus arose, as that of the Burg Giebichenstein, the local art school of the picturesque city Halle/ an der Saale which was celebrated during the centenary as the refuge of Gerhard Marcks and his disciples after the Weimar Years of the Bauhaus. The school combines to this day arts and crafts in its curriculum (image 4, image 5, image 6). This effort might instinctively sound to the reader as an opportunistic attempt on behalf of German Museums to claim a piece of the Bauhaus legacy. Quite in the contrary, these attempts undermined the progressivist myth of the Bauhaus and brought to light concomitant to it opposition stories. The existence of such stories revealed that the Bauhaus legacy is infinitely more multifaceted than a linear evolution from craft to industrial design.

Craft in the Bauhaus was also discussed in two further exhibitions to which I had the chance to contribute; the exhibition From Arts and Crafts to the Bauhaus. Art and Design – A New Unity! at the Bröhan Museum, Berlin and Pioneers: William Morris and the Bauhaus at William Morris Gallery, London. One of my tasks as an intern was to prepare the condition reports for loaned artworks such as the Seated Mother and her child (1924) for the Bröhan Museum (image7, image 8 ) and the Small Altar (1920) in William Morris Gallery (image 9). The mobility of artworks at the time was remarkable. More than 4-5 artworks every two days were sent away on a regular basis. Besides the number, the type of the exhibits was also unusual for the museum’s standards. Gerhard Marcks is mostly known in Germany for his sculpture oeuvre and the public sculptures such as The Caller in Berlin Tiergarten (image 10). For this occasion, however lesser known experimentation of his with terracotta, porcelain, wood, as well as etchings and sketches were sent away in exhibitions. The museum curators attributed this mainly to the logistics of moving museum objects.

Craft objects are usually smaller and easier to transport than vast bronze sculptures. Beyond the practicalities however, the choices of the museums testify to an increased preoccupation with the aspect of craft in the Bauhaus. In a conversation which I had with Inglesby Roisin, curator of the Pioneers exhibition, who kindly dedicated the time for a friendly talk, she confirmed that the choice of Gerhard Marcks’s works was a conscious one. Due to his stance on craft and the Bauhaus he constituted a smoother link between William Morris and the later Bauhaus experiments.

Due to the very nature of the spaces hosting both exhibitions – the first a traditional design history museum and the latter the place which holds William Morris’s oeuvre – had a craft-oriented character. Beautiful radical and rarely seen craft objects were exhibited by both them. Besides the Gerhard Marcks objects, the William Morris Gallery held wonderful tapestries by Benita Koch-Otte as well as contemporary garments by Mary Katrantzou. But did this new visibility of craft objects challenge the evolutionary narrative of the Bauhaus? In Bröhan Museum, the Weimar Bauhaus period was presented as correlated to craft (image 11), with a lesser focus on the mysticism of Johannes Itten with whom the Weimar period is traditionally linked. This was however a single exception and the narration maintained the traditional evolutionary narrative. It presented Arts and Crafts as Bauhaus’s prehistory and maintained the hierarchical phases within the Bauhaus that the progressivist myth entails. At case studies, craft was even directly portrayed as incompatible to industrial production and as an agent of failure in business ventures as in the case of Heinrich Vogeler’s “Failed Utopia”. Although the exhibition’s goal was to contextualise the Bauhaus within the wider framework of design history as a way of dismantling the idea that Bauhaus appeared in a vacuum, it ended up upholding long-standing ideas about craft, that contribute to the progressivist Bauhaus myth. After the first Bauhaus period section, the exhibition felt like a rather tiresome 3D illustration of a design history textbook. In William Morris Gallery, the information in the main text again affirmed such divisions. However, the unusual exhibits, the playful and original grid-like exhibition design as well as the contemporary touch of the dresses by Katrantzou, offered a delightful, visually fresher image in comparison to the Bröhan exhibition.  (image 12).

Overall, despite some hesitation in re-examining notions of craft in the Bauhaus, the topic of craft seems to have gained popularity in the exhibitionary activity of museum and cultural organisations. So much popularity, that the Martin Gropius Bau, in which a major Bauhaus exhibition was held in the centenary of 2009, made the bold choice to not host a Bauhaus exhibition in 2019 at all. Instead it held the exclusively craft-related exhibition And Berlin will always need you: Art, Craft and Concept made in Berlin. So, one has to wonder: has Bauhaus today become a metonymy for speaking about the relationship between art, craft and concept?

Words: Maria Paganopoulou, follow her on Twitter here

Maria has just finished her MA in History of Design and Material Culture at University of Brighton. She has a BA in Theory and History of Art awarded by Athens School of Fine Arts. Only to make things hard for her, Maria thinks and writes about subjects as diverse as craft as a sociological concept, graphic design, museums, exhibitions, national identities or all of the above at the same time. Maria has worked and volunteered in museums in Germany and Greece such as Gerhard Marcks Haus in Bremen and Athens City Museum.