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The Building of the Future, 100 years later: Bowdoin College Museum of Art celebrates lasting legacy of the Bauhaus

March 29, 2019

Bowdoin students need look no further than Coles Tower or the VAC fishbowl to see examples of Bauhaus architecture. This year, Bauhaus’ hundredth anniversary will bring this legacy to the fore on Bowdoin’s campus.

Founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius, the revolutionary modernist art school proclaimed its aim “to create a new building of the future that will unite every discipline … as a clear symbol of the new belief to come.”

What followed was a movement that forever changed definitions of art, design and architecture, stretching across the world and across the century. Among its fanatics are Alexander Dobbin ’18 and Juliette Dankens ’18, who last fall, inspired by their independent study with Jill Pearlman, senior lecturer in Environmental Studies, approached Curator of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) Joachim Homann about the upcoming centennial. Serendipitously, Homann had just received an email from a lending institution with a wealth of Bauhaus artifacts.

The exhibition slowly came to life. Through Pearlman’s course, “The Bauhaus and its Legacy: Designing the Modern World,” students engaged intimately with not only the work produced by the Bauhaus, but also the culture of creative expression it fostered.

After Dobbin and Dankens graduated, Danny Banks ’19 inherited the project. As a assistant to the curator, he has found that an essential aspect of this project is the BCMA’s focus on creating dialogue with its permanent collection.

“They’re thinking about how to make old art contemporary, or at least to acknowledge the contemporary in interaction between these pieces. So seeing the Schlemmer right beside the marble?” Banks said of the Bauhaus sculpture which stands at the entrance to the permanent collection. “It makes complete sense.”

The museum is not the only place on campus celebrating the centennial. There is currently a display of student responses to the Bauhaus at Edwards Art Center, a concert of Bauhaus music by students of Senior Lecturer in Music Frank Mauceri on April 9, lectures such as “Haunted Bauhaus” and even a forthcoming museum venture in virtual reality at the Goethe-Institut on April 12 and 13.

“This is the semester of the Bauhaus,” said Banks.

The combined effort of many departments in bringing this centennial celebration to life mirrors practices of the Bauhaus itself, in which, as Homann explains, collaboration was always key.

“[The Bauhaus masters] developed ideas in conversation, and when you see their work in the galleries, you suddenly realize: they were, in this moment in the 1920s, thinking literally along the same lines,” said Homann.

Striking lines abound, whether in the prints by Wassily Kandinsky, photographs of the Bauhaus studio or even found in the furniture and household wares on display. Beneath the constant playful exploration, Homann sees the underlying current which sets this school and its moment in history apart.

“These people wanted to respond in positive and productive ways to the devastation of the war. They felt that they needed to start from a new foundation,” said Homann. “People started, with scraps and trash, trying to rebuild the world.”

Despite the political polarization and grim realities of the Weimar Republic, transformative work poured from the Bauhaus, until after consistent defunding efforts and relocations, the school was eventually closed by the Nazis in 1933.

Its impact, however, was far from over. Pearlman’s course examines Bauhaus members’ movements to London and eventually to America, where, from Harvard to Black Mountain College, they continued dreaming of a newly-designed world.

“It’s a moment in which all they’re doing is planning for the future. And then it breaks, and there’s this wave of building after the war that is unprecedented in size,” Pearlman said.

In modern cities, in furniture in every home, in countless spin-offs and reiterations: thanks to these myriad students and masters, the Bauhaus endured.

“Its legacy really rested on individuals who carried the spirit from one side of the Atlantic to the other, sometimes at great risk,” said Homann.

One such individual was Serge Sabarsky, who became a New York art dealer after his exile in Vienna. Through his estate, the BCMA displays a highlight of the exhibit—Wassily Kandinsky’s “Small Worlds.” This series of 16 prints is signed and dedicated by Kandinsky to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, both paramount figures in modernism and twentieth century art.

Across the world, on paper and in the skyline, buildings and books celebrate 100 years of the school which, as Homann believes, maintains significant relevance today.

“This comprehensive vision of society that the Bauhaus developed through the arts—this is something that is still posing a challenge. It’s not settled yet,” he said. “There’s still a lot that the Bauhaus can offer us.”

The exhibit will be on display through May 12 at the BCMA.

Editor’s note, 3/29/19 at 1:58 p.m.: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the movement of Bauhaus members as described in Pearlman’s course. The style was influential at Black Mountain College.


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