Deadly Style: Bauhaus's Nazi Connection

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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....
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