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Artistic License: Bauhaus 100 The Print Portfolios

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Natalia Goncharova, Female Half Figure (Figurine), 1922/23. From the portfolio “New European Graphics, Portfolio IV: Italian and Russian Artists”. © Estate of Natalia Goncharova, ADAGP Paris / Ivaro Dublin, 2019.

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of Bauhaus and provides an insight into the larger Bauhaus phenomenon …

Can you set the historical context for the exhibition?

The Bauhaus emerged from the chaotic aftermath of the First World War in Germany. Like many who had experienced the horrors of the Great War, Gropius, who had served as an officer, wished to start anew. He held utopian ideals about remaking the world and changing society for the better. He coined the term Bauhaus, literally “building house”, in which “a community of kindred spirits” would work together to create exemplary objects, buildings and spaces for an improved and more humane society. Gropius appointed acclaimed visual artists to his teaching staff, including Johannes Itten, Georg Muche, Lyonel Feininger, Gerhard Marcks, Paul Klee, Lothar Schreyer, Oskar Schlemmer and Wassily Kandinsky, all of whom fostered creative freedom and individual artistic expression within the various workshops. Instigating a new symbiosis of art, craft and industry, the Bauhaus not only attracted established artists and craftsmen but some 1,250 students from 29 countries. With its artistic radicalism, bohemian attitude and pioneering innovation, the Bauhaus became a symbol of a progressive age and the embodiment of modernity in design. The cultural revolution it brought about in art education, together with its goal of reshaping modern life, turned the Bauhaus into a global phenomenon. The ingenuity of Bauhaus design, still very much present in our built and material environment, attests to the school’s continued significance 100 years on.

Kurt Schwitters, Composition with Head in Left Profile, 1921. From the portfolio “New European Graphics, Portfolio III: German Artists”

What is the significance of the four prints on loan from Staatsgalerie Stuttgart?

In 1919, when the State Bauhaus opened in Weimar, the printing workshop was the first fully operational department. From 1921, Lyonel Feininger led the printing workshop, which was a training ground for apprentices and an experimental domain for staff and students alike. However, between 1921 and 1924, it also produced a series of portfolios of prints for sale. The most ambitious project undertaken by the printing workshop was the set of prints by international artists entitled Neue Europäische Graphik (New European Graphics), printed between 1922 and 1924. These portfolios were sold by subscription to raise awareness about the Bauhaus and to provide additional revenue for operating the school. Gropius petitioned a group of international artists to donate original prints. His intention through these portfolios was to produce “a document which will demonstrate how the artistic generation of our time shares the ideas of the Bauhaus …”. As a declaration of solidarity, an extensive network of significant European avant-garde artists rallied around the Bauhaus banner with this project. By and large, the impressions were printed by students in the printing workshop, which gave them first-hand exposure to the work of a wide range of prominent German and international artists.

Christian Rohlfs, Two Dancers, c.1913. From the portfolio “New European Graphics, Portfolio V: German Artists”

The internationalism of the German avant-garde, so central to the Bauhaus concept and promoted through these portfolios, was what the extreme right-wing conservatives despised. The National Socialists continually derided the Bauhaus. The school’s last director Mies van der Rohe was forced to shut the beleaguered Bauhaus in 1933, when the Nazis seized total power across Germany. A disastrous period ensued. All pioneering teachers were dismissed from their art academy posts, and vilified artists had their work displayed in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937, first shown in Munich and then elsewhere in Germany. Prints from the Bauhaus portfolios were shown in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition. In fact, many of the artists on display in this exhibition fell victim to Nazi persecution.

Johannes Itten, The House of the White Man (Architectural Study), 1922. From the portfolio “New European Graphics, Portfolio I: Masters of the State Bauhaus, Weimar” © Estate of Johannes Itten, Prolitteris Zurich / Ivaro Dublin, 2019.

Prints by 45 avant-garde artists are included in this exhibition. Who are some of these prominent artists?

This exhibition provides an opportunity to view prints by an array of distinguished artists who were either Bauhaus masters or at the cutting-edge of various modern art movements. The published portfolios comprise 52 prints by 45 artists, many of whom were renowned painters involved in Abstraction, Futurism and Expressionism. There are prints by Bauhaus teachers including Itten, Feininger, Klee, Marcks, Muche, Schreyer and Schlemmer. Other prominent artists include Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Oskar Kokoschka, Wassily Kandinsky, Natalia Goncharova and Umberto Boccioni.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Portrait of David Müller, 1919. From the portfolio “New European Graphics, Portfolio V: German Artists”

Have you any favourite prints?

There are many superb original prints in this exhibition, along with a wealth of printmaking techniques, so it is difficult to pick out favourites. That said, key images include the powerful black and white woodcut by Feininger and the striking colour lithograph by Kandinsky. Feininger was one of the first masters appointed to the Bauhaus. The facetted architectural forms in his woodcut “Cathedral of Socialism” (1919), which adorned the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto and shows his interest in Cubism, are similar to those in his oil painting “Umpferstedt III” (1919) in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. The Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 prompted Feininger to return to his native New York. In the United States, he taught at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, a successor institution of the Bauhaus.

Franz Marc, Genesis I, 1914. From the portfolio “New European Graphics, Portfolio III: German Artists”

By the time Kandinsky was appointed to the Bauhaus in 1922, he was already an artist of international standing. He directed the wall-painting workshop at the Bauhaus, and taught abstract form elements, colour theory and analytical drawing as part of the preliminary course, right up until the school’s final closure in Berlin in 1933. The Bauhaus published his Kleine Welten (Small Worlds) portfolio of prints in 1922, and his influential book Point and Line to Plane in 1926.

Oskar Schlemmer, Concentric Group, Figure Plan »K1«, 1921. From the portfolio “New European Graphics, Portfolio I: Masters of the State Bauhaus, Weimar”.

Schlemmer’s signature style of schematic figures in space is shown in two prints in the exhibition. Schlemmer joined the Bauhaus in 1921, and soon became one of its most influential teachers. Charged with the stage workshop, he pioneered new abstract forms of performance, and served as a catalyst for Bauhaus social events, including the famous “Metallic Party” of 1929. Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, his most famous production, with stylised choreography and inventive costumes, premiered in Stuttgart in 1922. This exhibition highlights the diverse artists directly involved with, or linked to, the Bauhaus by way of these print portfolios. 

Need to Know: “Bauhaus 100: The Print Portfolios” runs from July 20 – December 1 at the National Gallery of Ireland, Print Gallery; www.nationalgallery.ie. The exhibition is supported by the Friends of the National Gallery of Ireland. Free admission.

Penny McCormick

All images © Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

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