Monday, December 28, 2009

Deadly Style: Bauhaus’s Nazi Connection

My close friend & colleague, Octavio Coleman of the Jejune Institute scooped this one from the New York Times.
Deadly Style: Bauhaus’s Nazi Connection
By NICHOLAS FOX WEBER
Published: December 23, 2009
IN the catalog preface for “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” a comprehensive survey now up at the Museum of Modern Art, the curators write about the museum’s — and America’s — last major exhibition on the subject, in 1938. That show, they maintain, offered a scattershot presentation of the Bauhaus, complety ignoring its last five years, after Walter Gropius, the school’s larger-than-life founding director, had resigned. Not coincidentally, they suggest, most Americans have a limited understanding even now of what the Bauhaus accomplished or how it fit into the history of its time. We think of the word Bauhaus as shorthand for “an international modern style unmoored from any particular moment,” the curators write, and their show, on view through Jan. 25, does a lot to counter this impression. It connects the evolution of Bauhaus art and design — painting, furniture, glass constructions, metalwork, photography, textiles and theater design — with the extreme social and political changes that roiled Germany during the Weimar Republic. More than 400 works by artists and designers including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer, Marianne Brandt, Anni Albers, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy testify to the wealth of visions and the shifting social contexts that shaped the school up to its tragic end in 1933, when its remaining faculty members shut it down rather than work with the Nazis. Of course when an institution is as influential as the Bauhaus, even the most repressive totalitarian regime cannot totally defeat it. Leah Dickerman, the curator of the MoMA show with the museum’s curator of architecture and design, Barry Bergdoll, points out that the Bauhaus left a particularly important “divided legacy” on its own home turf after the war, from the International Style towers and high-end consumer products of West Germany’s economic miracle to the endless rows of workers’ housing that came to define the East. Until recently, however, few who have studied the school’s history, including me — I run the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and wrote a book called “The Bauhaus Group” — have been aware of how palpably its influence lived on in the Third Reich. The story of what happened after the Gestapo padlocked the last Bauhaus facility, in Berlin, has always been about flight and persecution. Most of the school’s artists and artisans left the country, many for America; the few who remained, it has been thought, were Jews who did not get out in time. But this summer and fall at the Neue Museum in Weimar, the city where the school got its start, another exhibition told a different story, of a Bauhaus-trained painter and architect who applied the school’s aesthetic advances to concentration camp design. Franz Ehrlich, who had studied with Moholy-Nagy, Klee, Kandinsky and Josef Albers, began working for the Nazis as a prisoner at Buchenwald, then continued long after his release. It is impossible to determine to what extent Ehrlich was a collaborator, a victim and resistance worker, or something in between. His story is not unlike that of many Germans of the time. But that may be what is most unsettling about him for those of us used to thinking of the Bauhaus — that wellspring of idealistism and innovation — as a world apart in prewar German culture, untainted by Hitler’s regime. And Ehrlich was not alone, as a Weimar-based Bauhaus scholar who helped organize the show pointed out as I stood with her at the wrought-iron gates of Buchenwald on the city’s outskirts, shuddering to realize that the lettering on them was pure Bauhaus. Ehrlich, their designer, was not the only Bauhausler to put his progressive training to work for the Third Reich, she said, just one about whom a great deal has lately been learned — including his connection to this particularly chilling symbol of the Nazi era. Ehrlich, who was arrested as a Communist in 1935, arrived at Buchenwald two years later, when the camp was still new and had only a few temporary structures. Like all prisoners there he was immediately forced into hard labor, but after two weeks he walked into the joinery workshop, declared himself an architect — he had worked in Gropius’s Berlin office — and began to draw at a drafting table. Rather than report him to the SS, the prisoner in charge assigned him to design and build the entrance gates. From then on, the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others who were brought to Buchenwald to be worked to death entered on foot under Ehrilich’s elegant rendereding of the words “Jedem das Seine”: “To each his own.” It was a translation of a Roman legal maxim invoking the individual’s right to enjoy what is his, but — like the recently stolen “Work makes you free” sign at Auschwitz — recast with a sneer, in this case as a sort of cynical “Everyone gets his just deserts.” The stylish sans-serif lettering reflected Ehrlich’s training under the Bauhaus typography master Joost Schmidt.
READ THE WHOLE THING HERE

2 comments:

  1. It's funny how much anguish they're projecting about 'designers on the dark side'. Just because the Bauhaus had a nice aesthetic, it can only be used for good? Someone is surprised that the Nazis sought out good artists and designers? That not all designers were willing to die for aesthetic purity?

    Or, more pointedly, who the hell hasn't figured out that modernism and totalitarianism grew up together? I mean, they still kiss Corbusier's ass in architecture schools even though his architectural philosophy was basically fascist.

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  2. I was definitely surprised about the association, but then not surprised after thinking about it. I'd argue that Corbusier's style is essentially totalitarian socialist, which was an element of fascism & Nazism, but Corbusier's work isn't humanist or populist as much as it is dehumanizing, which is a counter to the populist angle of fascism.

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