Operational from 1919 to 1933 (when it was forced to close under Nazi pressure), the Bauhaus’s functional spirit was adroit open-mindedness in diametric opposition to that of “art for art’s sake.” The Bauhaus faculty included some of the most innovative artists and thinkers of the day. The school embraced everything avant-garde: from Dada photomontage, Functionalism, and Expressionism, to De Stijl and Constructivism. As a result, this show is sumptuous, with more than 900 objects that include furniture, textiles, ceramics, metal work, stained glass, mural paintings, sculpture (in wood and stone), weaving, typography, advertising, architectural models, photography, theater design, drawings, and paintings. Most are products of the school’s curriculum, created in class workshops.
Gropius, who considered himself a follower of John Ruskin and adhered to the ideals of Ruskin’s sublime, developed the curriculum based on his ideal of art as gesamtkunstwerk (or total artwork), which Ruskin traced back as far as the Gothic period. However, Gropius theorized that his 20th-century version of unified art harmony was only possible under the direction of a creative leader, which for him was the architect. Paradoxically, the historical legitimization of this concept was rooted in the medieval communal anonymity of working for the church. Yet Gropius used the expression “cathedral of future freedom” interchangeably with his more prosaic phrase “unitary work of art” when promoting his total-artwork ideal. In his 1919 programmatic essay “Architecture in the People’s Free State,” he explicitly revealed this integrative function, which he determined for all the arts under gesamtkunstwerk principles, predicting that different art forms would break their isolation from each other in Gothic fashion. That is why L’Esprit du Bauhaus kicks off with a 15th-century sculpted oak lectern from St. Pierre church in Subligny (in the center of France) as an example of cathedral aesthetics.