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The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics

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Éva Forgács

Chapter 5. Weimar

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1THE TOWNSFOLK of Weimar were weary and frustrated in the autumn of 1919, when it became all too apparent that the new director of the renamed art school was not going to steer the Bauhaus in the spirit of Goethe and Schiller - or even according to the norms expected by Professor Max Thedy. Weimar's burghers did not count themselves among those who were impelled by the upheavals of the war towards creating a new life and a new world. On the contrary, their chief interest lay in restoring the way things used to be, restoring law and order. The Constitutional Assembly, convened in Weimar, had increased tensions to breaking-point: the town was surrounded by federal military units, Reichswehrtruppen and Prussian security police deployed to protect the National Assembly, pushing the population, already pressed by postwar shortages, to the brink of starvation. Some of the troops quartered with families were still in town as late as January 1920.

2Gropius's June 1919 address had made it clear that he wanted teachers whose spirit was alien to the town: artists with a European outlook and reputation, who were not on intimate terms with local Weimar traditions. But the people of Weimar were quite satisfied with their former Academy of Fine Arts, and did not have the slightest Inclination to exchange it for an art that was alien, unfamiliar, non-German in spirit, and possessed an inscrutable worldview.

  • 1 Cf. Pressesfimmen für das Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar. Auszüge, Nachtrag. Kundgebungen, Weimar, 1924 (...)

3It would seem that the Bauhaus had set out to function as an open, democratic institution in a town where the demos itself - the entire population of Weimar from the highest officials down to the housewives -opposed this. In the final analysis the sole supporter of the Bauhaus was the Social Democratic Party, itself a foreign body in the town; and whenever Gropius was forced to look for help for the school, he always had to turn to intellectuals and authorities outside of Weimar.1

  • 2 Hüter, op. cit., p. 20.

4The professors of the former art academy had drawn their own conclusions from Gropius's June address, and proceeded to take counter-measures. Professors Fröhlich and Thedy, together with a few Weimar painters, as representatives of a 'Kunstwollen based on national foundations' left no stone unturned until they reached a certain representative, Sturm, whom they tried to convince at the start of the new semester to block the Bauhaus's fiscal appropriations.2

5The most significant anti-Bauhaus organization was the 'Free Union for the protection of the town's interests', whose members held a public meeting at the restaurant Erholung on 12 December 1919. Among those attending were members of the Town Council, students and faculty of the Bauhaus and the Academy, and residents of the town. The meeting was opened by Dr Emil Herfurth, a teacher at the Weimar Gymnasium and leader of the Free Union. He admitted being one of those who approached the new art with caution, and stated that opponents of the Bauhaus would like to see the continuation of the old Fine Arts Academy in unchanged form, as well as more respect on the part of the new faculty and students towards local customs and traditions. Gropius responded with a conciliatory speech, requesting patience and confidence in the new institution. He argued that a public meeting was not qualified to make decisions in the area of art, and should restrict its debate to the discussion of practical matters.

  • 3 Hüter, op. cit., pp. 20-21. For the most complete description of the Gross affair and the attacks (...)

6Following this, the meeting degenerated into personal remarks, barring fruitful discussion of the issues outlined at the beginning. The tone was set by the presiding officer, Dr Kreubel, who compared modern art to the artistic attempts of the insane, referring to Klaus Prinzhorn's Bildnerei der Geisteskranken ('Artistry of the Mentally III'), a book that was well-known at the time. He went on to make political insinuations about the Bauhaus, calling it a 'Spartacist-Bolshevik institution' characterized by 'alien' and 'Jewish' art. The rest of the meeting was taken up by an emotional address read by Hans Gross, a student at the school. He spoke about German art, and its true sources in 'personality, energy and will', qualities which, according to him, were dying out as a result of the 'internationalist reign', which was nothing but a 'wolf thirsting for the blood of the German people'. Later Gross maintained that he was not referring to the Bauhaus, but merely to German folk art, and he was only quoting from a lecture he had given in Hamburg a few months earlier. However, the mood of the meeting was such that his remarks were understood by everyone as a direct attack on Gropius, and were enthusiastically applauded as such. Gross went on to demand 'men of iron and steel', and a leadership that would focus on 'the essential character of being German', since 'the German people had completely lost its self-awareness, the knowledge of its own soul, and would only awaken to its realization ... when the knife was poised at its throat.'3

  • 4 Quoted in Hüter, op. cit., p. 20.
  • 5 'Erklärung der gesamten Schülerschaft des Staatlichen Bauhauses Weimar zum Fall Gross'. September (...)
  • 6 Hüter, op. cit., p. 21.

7Gropius immediately called Gross to his office and took him to task, reminding him of the dangers of mixing politics and art at the Bauhaus. 'If we admit politics to the Bauhaus... it will collapse like a house of cards. I have already announced my intention to prevent any and all politics from entering the Bauhaus, and have watched like Cerberus that this should be so.'4 Gross was denounced at the meeting of the Bauhaus student body, which also issued a position statement. 'We are not in search of an old or a modem art... but wish to proceed on the road to truth and purity... We declare our total agreement with the work plan of the Bauhaus, and our complete confidence in the creator of the Bauhaus concept, Mr Gropius, and his associates... We request the population of Weimar... at last to give us the peace required for our work: this is our wish.'5 But thirteen of Gross's fellow students submitted an open letter to the artists of Weimar, addressed personally to a Mr Lambrecht, In defense of Gross: 'We the undersigned feel offended by the actions taken against Gross for being a true German. And like Gross, we find it absolutely Impossible to be part of this student body for even an hour longer. . . We are convinced that the Weimar art world thinks and feels like us in close solidarity and we count on their assistance.'6 As a consequence of this letter, dated 16 December, Gross and thirteen other students, most of them the offspring of noble families, left the Bauhaus. The conviction formulated in their letter was justified by later events.

  • 7 'Protokoll der Sitzung des Meisterrotes', 18 Decemberl919; in Hüter, op. cit., pp. 215-6.

8Although this incident, as Huter observes, liberated the Bauhaus of extreme right-wing elements, it signalled not the end but the beginning of a long series of attacks. Inside and outside the Bauhaus those who wanted law and order and the return of the undisturbed rule of former values were becoming more and more intolerant. They demanded to be rid of this group of unruly strangers in their midst, forced upon them by the Bauhaus, whose behaviour and manner of dress were so different from those prevalent in the town of Weimar. The Bauhaus Masters' Council held a meeting on 18 December, and arrived at a consensus that Gross had been used by the cliques opposing the Bauhaus to make the school's position untenable in the community. Engelmann, who had spoken with Paul Teichgräber, one of Gross's friends who signed the letter expressing solidarity with him, was of the opinion that the issue was not politics but easel painting itself, which had been so sharply attacked by Gropius in his speech that summer. He went on to hint that if the condemnation of easel painting within the Bauhaus were to persist, it was likely that other students would leave the school. Another representative of the students, Walter Determann, one of the signers of the letter expressing solidarity with Gropius, held the opinion that Gross's speech had not been that dangerous; according to him, the participants at the public meeting went home reassured that all parties, including the right, were represented at the Bauhaus, and not only Bolsheviks and Spartacists, as Dr Kreubel would have it. He also stated that the political debates were alarming many, especially among the older students, who were becoming concerned that they would not be able to complete their studies in peace, and were therefore contemplating leaving the school. Having heard the student representatives, the Bauhaus Masters' Council unanimously resolved strictly to prohibit political activity of any nature on the part of the 'apprentices' at the Bauhaus, on pain of expulsion. Apart from this, the school would continue to function along the lines of the Bauhaus programme, and it was again emphasized that nature studies and easel painting would continue as essential components of the curriculum. Professor Thedy added a handwritten note to the minutes of the meeting: 'On the issue of easel painting it is my feeling that both my school and easel painting itself had been chastised; to which masters Feininger and Itten objected that they themselves were easel painters, and the general consensus was that easel painting should continue.'7

  • 8 Miller-Lane, op. cit., p. 73.
  • 9 Leonard Schrickel: 'Was geht vor?'; in Deutschtand. 18 December 1919.

9On the same day the foes of the Bauhaus held a meeting at the restaurant Schwann, one of its results being a stepped-up press campaign directed at the school over the next two months, primarily on the pages of the Weimar nationalist daily Thüringer Landeszeitung Deutschland. Two journalists, Leonard Schrlckel and Mathilde Freiin von Freytag-Loringhoven, wrote articles about the presence and harmful influence of 'alien', 'non-German' elements at the Bauhaus. Freytag-Loringhoven, a member of the Town Council, kept the issue alive there as well.8 On the day of the meeting at the Schwann, Schrickel published an article containing a characteristic distortion of the Gross affair. He wrote, incorrectly, that Gropius and the Bauhaus students' collective censored Gross's speech before the public meeting, and comments: 'Is it believable that the opinion of foreigners is decisive in the student assembly? That foreigners sit in judgment over German art students? People whose un-German ancestry (Galicia? Slovakia?) is apparent a mile off? Who even give themselves airs over their "international" (more correctly, a-national, homeless) attitude? Who constitute an anti-German encampment in order to drive out Germans of belief and birth?'9

  • 10 Hüter, op. cit., p. 21.
  • 11 Gropius, Letter to Adolf Behne. 15 January 1920; quoted In Hüter, op. cit., p. 21.
  • 12 Letter from Max Thedy to Walter Gropius. 9 January 1920; in Hüter, op. cit., pp. 217-8.

10On 19 December, a group of 'citizens and artists of Weimar' submitted a petition, with fifty signatures, to the government, demanding the closing of the Bauhaus. The government, after a lengthy and exhaustive investigation, rejected the petition.10 Within the Bauhaus the rift at last became openly acknowledged. Thedy and Fröhlich withdrew their signatures from the Masters' Council's resolution to prohibit intramural politics, stating that they were not told that the resolution would be published. In protest. Fröhlich resigned from the Masters' Council. Thedy, whom Gropius held to be 'a man of good will, despite his narrow-mindedness',11 was not as much of a political fanatic as some of Gropius's other opponents; on the other hand, he was most deeply affected by Gropius's programme, directed as it was against the very substance of his life's work. Gropius and a portion of the student body had openly rejected easel painting, that is, the art of painting itself. They considered this medium, as became apparent from Gropius's June address, to be a superannuated, individualistic activity that presupposed a single artistic creator and a single owner, and thus stood In opposition to the collectively realized and owned, integral work of art: architecture, where painting is subordinate and determined by architectural form and structure. On 20 January 1920, Thedy wrote a letter to Gropius, informing him that he was withdrawing from Gropius's programme, deeply regretting that Gropius had to turn the flourishing and renowned Weimar school of art into the staging ground of his experiment.12 On 1 January 1920 Thedy had already signed the anti-Bauhaus protest published in Deutschland, and his signature carried considerable weight, since he was the presiding officer of the Thuringian Chamber of Artists.

  • 13 The brochure appeared in Weimar. 1920. with the title Der Streit um das Staatliche Bauhaus.
  • 14 Quoted in HOter. op. cit., p. 24.

11Early in 1920 the opponents of the Bauhaus formed a Citizens' Union (Bürgerverein) which published a brochure aimed at the Bauhaus.13 The president of the union and the editor of the brochure was Dr Emil Herfurth, and the most significant demand contained therein was the restoration of the independence of the former School of Fine Arts, and the safeguarding of its natural growth. All this was supported by the arguments of the political right: the former school had been 'thoroughly national and modest, German in the best sense of the word'. It also stated that 'the freedom of artistic creation has to be realized, and an end put to the Intolerable monopoly of certain one-sided trends' (meaning Expressionism).14

  • 15 'Offener Brief an die Staatsregierung Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach', Deutschland. 24 January 1920; in P (...)
  • 16 Letter from Walter Gropius to Dr Edwin Redslob, 13 January 1920; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 218.
  • 17 Letter from Walter Gropius to Dr Adolph Behne, Chartottenburg. 31 January 1920; In Hûter. op. cit. (...)
  • 18 Hüter, op. cit., p. 26.

12The position of the Bauhaus now became critical: its opponents, from art professors to right-wing politicians, massed into a single camp of enemies united by the press campaign. Against them the Bauhaus could only muster testimonials of sympathy: Gropius had rallied progressive German intellectual opinion, collectively and individually, involving well-known public personalities, including more than one member of the aristocracy. In the town of Weimar he was supported by Ernst Hardt and some of his theatre associates, and it cannot be doubted that the nation's leading artists, intellectual lights and institutions carried a certain weight even in Weimar circles. An open letter to the government, published in Deutschland on 24 January 1920, beginning with 'Young artists are under political attack', was bound to arouse nationwide doubts about the propriety of the Weimar events.15 It became a matter of prestige for the Social Democratic government of Thuringia to protect a Bauhaus exposed to the attacks of middle-class nationalistic forces. With his outstanding strategic intuition, Gropius emphasized in his letter to Dr Edwin Redslob, National Art Commissioner, that 'this was not merely a local, internal affair, but something far more significant: a war being fought by the old-fashioned, disappearing system of training - Weimar being one of its strongholds - against the emerging new, let us say neo-Gothic, worldview, whose adherents we are.'16 Gropius brought up the idea of withdrawing the Bauhaus from the control of the town of Weimar, and turning it into an institute run by the central national government. However, Dr Redslob saw no possibility of accomplishing this.17 The people of Weimar insisted on demanding that the new institute be split into two parts, meaning the complete restitution of the former School of Fine Arts, next to which there would be a School of Applied Arts which could remain under Gropius's direction. As a compromise, Gropius proposed the establishment of an 'Old Weimar Academy of Painting' to function within the Bauhaus.18 At the 3 February meeting of the Masters' Council the conflict was pronounced deep and unbridgeable, making a split unavoidable. By mutual agreement Thedy's School of Painting was given its independence; however, legally - and the name proposed by Thedy and his colleagues in 1919, uniting the names of the two former institutions under the title of Bauhaus had a role in this - the Bauhaus remained as the successor of both the former School of Fine Arts and the School of Applied Arts. The People's Council (Volksrat), temporarily governing the province of Thuringia after 1 May, in the wake of the upheavals occasioned by the Kapp putsch, announced in June the founding of the Academy of Painting under the direction of Professors Thedy and Rasch, and this also constituted a recognition of the Bauhaus. What was more, Gropius was right in reading the establishment of the conservative school of painting as tacit public acknowledgment of the radical nature of the Bauhaus itself.

  • 19 Miller-Lane. op. cit., p. 75. lists 7 parliamentary parties at this time in the Thuringian Parliam (...)
  • 20 Miller-Lane. op. cit., p. 75.

13With this, the first battle of the town of Weimar against the Bauhaus could be considered closed; or, more acccurately put, the scene of the battle was transferred to the Thuringian parliament. Gropius had to apply to the parliament for funds and for authorization of his programme. Of the eight parliamentary parties19 the two leading conservative parties, the Deutsche Volkspartei (German People's Party) and the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People's Party), opposed the authorization of the Bauhaus, albeit on purely financial grounds; the majority, however, accepted Gropius's thesis that politicians should not meddle in matters of art. The pro-Bauhaus SPD (Social Democratic Party) also emphasized that its support of the Bauhaus was not motivated by political considerations. Only the representative of the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party) condemned the enemies of the Bauhaus for their 'philistine resentment of the modem world-view'.20

  • 21 Gropius, Speech before the Thuringian Landtag in Weimar, 9 July 1920; In Wingler, op. cit., pp. 42 (...)

14The final outcome of the parliamentary debate was that the Bauhaus gained time: the decision about its fate had to be postponed until the time when the school could produce concrete results to prove that it merited continued state support. It is typical of the fate of the Bauhaus that Gropius defended the school in front of the parliament by claiming that the training it provided was much more conventional than avant-garde in nature, and was in harmony with the education offered at other similar institutions nationwide.21

  • 22 Nerdinger, op. cit., p. 46. Quotes Alfred Forbát, 'Erinnerungen eines Architekten aus vier Ländern (...)

15In spite of his rejection and prohibition of politics within the Bauhaus, Gropius designed a memorial for the nine Weimar workers who were victims of the 1920 Kapp putsch. In March 1920, at the funeral of the workers, there was a public demonstration in Weimar, at which placards bearing the names of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were carried by the crowd. In spite of the prohibitions, many Bauhaus members took part in the march. Gropius, who had been dissuaded from participating by Alma Mahler - she happened to be visiting In town at the time -eventually created the monument to express his stand regarding the murder of the workmen, who had been killed when the Reichswehr units fired into the demonstrating crowd. Alfred Forbát recollects having made the three-dimensional maquette22 on the basis of Gropius's loose sketch, and this was later poured in concrete. The Nazis destroyed the monument in 1933, but it was re-erected in not quite its original form in 1946.

16Upon the secession of the School of Painting from the Bauhaus, and subsequent parliamentary approval of their mutual autonomy, Gropius gained two new faculty positions, when Engelmann and Klemm joined the new school of painting in 1921. In their places Gropius, who had sharply attacked easel painting as artistic activity unsuitable for the age, invited two painters as form masters at the Bauhaus: Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee.

Notes

1 Cf. Pressesfimmen für das Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar. Auszüge, Nachtrag. Kundgebungen, Weimar, 1924; reprinted Kraus Reprint, Munich, 1980.
In response to Gropius's appeals many well-known public personages took a stand on behalf of the Bauhaus. See 'Kundgebung von Direcktoren und Professoren deutscher und österreichischer Kunstschulen für das Staatliche Bauhaus zu Weimar', March 1920, pp. 10-11.

2 Hüter, op. cit., p. 20.

3 Hüter, op. cit., pp. 20-21. For the most complete description of the Gross affair and the attacks on the Bauhaus see Barbara Miler-Lane, Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1928-1945. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1968. chapter entitled 'The Controversy over the Bauhaus', pp. 69-86.

4 Quoted in Hüter, op. cit., p. 20.

5 'Erklärung der gesamten Schülerschaft des Staatlichen Bauhauses Weimar zum Fall Gross'. September 1919; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 214.

6 Hüter, op. cit., p. 21.

7 'Protokoll der Sitzung des Meisterrotes', 18 Decemberl919; in Hüter, op. cit., pp. 215-6.

8 Miller-Lane, op. cit., p. 73.

9 Leonard Schrickel: 'Was geht vor?'; in Deutschtand. 18 December 1919.

10 Hüter, op. cit., p. 21.

11 Gropius, Letter to Adolf Behne. 15 January 1920; quoted In Hüter, op. cit., p. 21.

12 Letter from Max Thedy to Walter Gropius. 9 January 1920; in Hüter, op. cit., pp. 217-8.

13 The brochure appeared in Weimar. 1920. with the title Der Streit um das Staatliche Bauhaus.

14 Quoted in HOter. op. cit., p. 24.

15 'Offener Brief an die Staatsregierung Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach', Deutschland. 24 January 1920; in Pressestimme, p. 4.

16 Letter from Walter Gropius to Dr Edwin Redslob, 13 January 1920; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 218.

17 Letter from Walter Gropius to Dr Adolph Behne, Chartottenburg. 31 January 1920; In Hûter. op. cit., p. 221; and letter from Walter Gropius to Hans Poelzlg, Dresden, 31 January 1920; in Hüter, op. cit., p. 221.

18 Hüter, op. cit., p. 26.

19 Miller-Lane. op. cit., p. 75. lists 7 parliamentary parties at this time in the Thuringian Parliament: Unabhängige Soziallstische Partei Deutschlands (USPD) - Independent Socialist Party; Deutsche Volkspartel (DVP) - German People's Party; Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP) - German National People's Party; in addition, the Nazi Party (NSDAP), the National Socialist Freedom Party (NSFP) and the Communist Party (KPD). The records show that there was also a German Democratic Party (DDP).

20 Miller-Lane. op. cit., p. 75.

21 Gropius, Speech before the Thuringian Landtag in Weimar, 9 July 1920; In Wingler, op. cit., pp. 42-4.

22 Nerdinger, op. cit., p. 46. Quotes Alfred Forbát, 'Erinnerungen eines Architekten aus vier Ländern', p. 47: 'I translated a rough sketch by Gropius into a three-dimensional model, which was subsequently cast in concrete.'

© Central European University Press, 1995

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