Criticism of the Bauhaus from Within: The Dornburg Workshop

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MA History of Design and Material Culture student, Maria Paganopolou, reflects on lesser-known aspects of the Bauhaus in its centenary year.

While writing my undergraduate thesis on the Arts and Crafts movement, one of the things I found most frustrating was encountering academic writing that condemned the whole of the movement, considering it a failure in its social purposes, design reform and even in its attempted improvement of women’s rights. Very often those academics regarded the Bauhaus as the successful offspring of Arts and Crafts’, as the place where its ideas fully developed, although these narratives were often coloured by nostalgia. Those academics tended to celebrate Bauhaus’ embrace of the machine and mass production and consider the rejection of them by the Arts and Crafts movement as the ultimate reason behind its failure. Arts and Crafts has tended to be characterized as merely a bourgeois endeavour for the middle and upper-classes.

As a result of these debates and my study of them, I have been  irresistibly drawn to alternative narratives that challenged the authoritative status of the Bauhaus and consider it historically rather than wishing nostalgically for its resurrection. Needless to say, when I discovered an opposition to the turn that Bauhaus had taken towards the machine and machine aesthetics, especially one coming from within the Bauhaus, I was utterly fascinated.

Fig 1. Marcks in the beginning of his position in Dornburg, circa 1920

I made this discovery during my three-month internship at Gerhard-Marcks-Haus in Bremen, Germany, a museum dedicated to Gerhard Marcks, sculptor and also a member of the Bauhaus teaching staff. Gerhard Marcks was in fact one of the first three artists that Walter Gropius invited to teach in his newly merged/ founded institution, along with the infamous Lyonel Feininger and Johannes Itten. Marcks and Gropius knew each other from 1907 through Marcks’ brother Dietrich who, like Gropius, was an architect. The two young artists shared a vision to align art and craft and, according to Marcks, this was why he accepted the position of Professor (Form-Meister) in Bauhaus.

Fig 2. Thomas Gräfin Grote, Renate Riedel, Max Krehan and unknown in front of the workshop

After the news spread about the establishment of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Max Krehan, a local potter who owned a workshop in Thuringia, approached Gropius for a potential collaboration. Gropius and Marcks visited his workshop in Dornburg and came to the conclusion that this was where the ceramics workshop of the Bauhaus should be established. In 1920 the plan was realized and the Dornburg Workshop came to life, 20 miles away from the central Bauhaus premises in Weimar, with Gerhard Marcks as its Form-Meister and Max Krehan as its Werk-Meister (master of technical aspects).

Fig 3. Cup made of burnt clay with a portrait of Johannes Driesch (student), made by Marcks in 1922

The intertwined life and teaching in the workshop were not ideal; on the contrary they were deliberately challenging. In Marcks’ writings, he emphasised the traditional aspects of the work of the workshop, especially in relation to the absence of advanced machinery and the physically demanding nature of the job that its absence caused. The potters’ wheels were operated by foot power rather than electricity. The ovens were wood-fired. However, the use of traditional equipment was perceived in a positive light. As Marcks wrote: “This was the purest nature”.

The learning procedure was long and for the first two years apprentices were allowed to experiment only with their decoration before they were considered ready to experiment “plastically” with the forms. To compensate for the hard work and the restrictions imposed, there were leisure activities, such as swimming and the collective reading of seminal texts. We can see, then, that this autonomous community, developed in the framework of the Bauhaus, functioned a lot more like C. R. Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicraft in Chipping Camden in Britain, rather than a school dedicated to industrial design. Nature, traditional equipment, common life and the concept of rural escape employed in the Dornburg workshop therefore reflect previous ways of thinking.

Fig 4. Postcard for an exhibition of the Bauhaus, designed by Marcks in 1922

As far as what was happening in the central Bauhaus, Marcks didn’t hesitate to voice his dissatisfaction. In letters to Gropius, Marcks made clear that Bauhaus should be a workshop not a school. He also stressed the need for contact with materials and the making of objects. This differentiated him from other Form-Meisters in the Bauhaus who were more interested in painting or in the intellectual aspects of creation, leaving the teaching of technical skills to the Werk-Meister. Finally, Marcks stood at a clear distance from the mass production shift advocated by Theo van Doesburg. In his words “I cannot identify anymore with Bauhaus. Sooner or later Formalism is taking place. If I was in Weimar I wouldn’t still be in Bauhaus”. The tale of the end of the Dornburg Workshop is a short one. Bauhaus moved to Dessau and Gerhard Marcks wasn’t invited to continue teaching. Max Krehan also died in 1925, around the time of this decision.

Fig. 5. The interior of the workshop

Last year, the Dornburg Workshop opened its gates as a museum as part of the Bauhaus centenary commemorations. Despite this, its story is relatively unknown, even in Germany. The history of the Bauhaus comprises many lesser-known stories that run in parallel with the evolutionary narrative of the heroic modernist school which, it is claimed, came to succeed where previous movements had miserably failed. The dominance of this modernist narrative, it seems to me, is partly informed by the stylistic preferences of those doing the telling. As the case of the Dornburg Workshop shows, however, Bauhaus shared common roots with some earlier Arts and Crafts endeavours instead of overthrowing them entirely.

Fig 6. The interior of the workshop

Kind thanks to Gerhard-Marcks-Haus for providing me with access to their resources and archives.

 

 

Contested colonial histories at the National Maritime Museum

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BA Visual Culture student, Annie Jones, reflects on the challenges to ethical representation at play in the National Maritime Museum.

In October 2019, undergraduate students on the second year module, Museums, Material Culture and Representation, alongside MA Curating Collections and Heritage students, led by Dr Claire Wintle, journeyed to Greenwich to explore the National Maritime Museum.

We started the day by venturing through the gallery, Traders: The East India Company and Asia. Its focus was how the East India Company brought exciting new spices to Britain, how the textiles it imported shaped fashions and fuelled demand, and how tea was transformed from an expensive luxury to a national pastime. Grand portraits
of British traders such as James Lancaster, who commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601, dominated the front half of the gallery.

The museum communicated a noticeable sense of British colonial pride with period quotes on the wall declaring “profit and power must go together”, describing the company as “the greatest corporation in the world” and observing, “whosever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world”. A box of the spicesnacquired during the period, including pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon,  were available for us visitors of the gallery to smell and to appreciate.

Towards the back of the gallery the museum’s tone shifted from pride to shame, noting the exploitation, conflict and drug wars that occurred due to British trade and the company’s subsequent fall in the 1850s. Instead of magnificent conquerors, here the British were described by contemporary voices as “evil foreigners” who tempted “fools to destroy themselves [with opium] merely in order to reap a profit.” Despite the museum’s critique of the company, I found the gallery had an overpowering British imperialist voice as a whole, with the objects on display used as tools to frame history in favour of the British. The emphasis was on boasting about what the company had contributed to British society, outweighing their acknowledgement of the terrible consequences for people of China and India.

Students listening to Dr Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum.

Next we had a tour of the new Pacific Encounters gallery lead by Dr. Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Officer. As we walked into the gallery we were introduced to Adi Yeta, a Fijian drua (sailing boat) built in 2014-15 by a team of Fijian men and women, along with taonga (treasures) displayed in a bookcase created by Ngati Rangiiwaho, a hapu (sub-tribe) of Ngai Tamanuhiri (a tribe) in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Dr Warrior was incredibly passionate about the museums’ continuing effort to collaborate with the pacific people in telling theirs and their ancestor’s stories in this traditionally exclusive setting, which is a shift I was delighted to see after viewing the Traders gallery. Words such such as ‘colonisation’ and ‘exploitation’ were not shied away from on these walls. It was acknowledged on a text panel that “some people question whether they [Pacific objects in European museums] belong there or if they should be returned.”

Efforts to show the dark, destructive side of Captain Cook’s voyages were made, noting that for many people of the Pacific, he represents the negative legacy of encounter. Many Pacific artists used his portrait to highlight the injustices that came in his wake, presenting him as an invader an murderer, such as one piece by Reg Mombassa titled Jim Cook Mugshot. To see the work of Pacific artists and tribe peoples’ interpretation of the colonisation of their ancestors on these walls was enlightening and a notable positive change in the Maritime Museum’s ethics.

Our final stop of the day was at the Polar Worlds gallery. This was my first time viewing the Arctic in a museum setting and I learned a lot as a result, most notably that over 40 different groups of people live there, sharing close connection to their environment and living off its resources. A video at the beginning, with Sammy Kogvik from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, provided a great insight into what daily life is like in the Arctic. Contemporary Inuit art was on show along with music by Tanya Tagaq, an avant-garde composer from Canada’s Arctic which was produced especially for the gallery and was available to listen to. The gallery was incredibly interactive and accessible to children, with many touchscreen games to help one’s understanding of the Arctic, its environment and people.

Altogether, it was an extremely enjoyable, educational and insightful trip. Dr. Claire Warrior’s inside knowledge of the exhibits and her transparency about the way the museum is handling contentious colonial objects and their histories today made me hopeful for the ongoing reframing of imperial histories at The National Maritime Museum.

Art in Exile at the Imperial War Museum

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BA History of Art and Design student, Sarahlouise Newman, evaluates a new exhibition showing art under fire.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is one of the most prominent museums in London. It focuses on the wars and battles which have affected the United Kingdom. Currently the IWM is holding a Culture under Attack season. This focuses on how art is affected in the time of war and how some people try exploit and destroy it while others try to defend and protect it. The season includes talks, performances and musical events including Rebel Sounds and What Remains. The Art in Exile exhibition focuses mainly on the Second World War and how Britain fought to protect its artefacts, while the Nazis burnt and destroyed art abroad.

Inside the first room shows how the IWM had to choose 280 pieces of art from the wide and varied collection, and how they evacuated it to safer locations, in order to preserve it for future generations. One fascinating exhibit is a document entitled ‘Procedure in the event of war’. This was issued to the staff of the IWM in 1939 as the Second World War began.  A selection of photographic evidence shows how the staff decided what to protect and what to keep on display at this time; the exhibition gives an insight into how they hid the work. It also shows how other national collections, including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery, had to deal with the preservation and protection of art and how they all worked alongside one another.

One of the main parts of the exhibition shows sixty small photographs lined up on shelves.  These represent what was known as the Priority List, as each photograph of a piece of art that was sent to wealthy museum Trustees’ country homes across England in order to be protected. The homes were situated in the areas least likely to be affected by the German bombers. The exhibition also show how works such as Renaissance paintings were hidden in quarries across England and how museum staff would check on them at certain intervals.

In the last room of the exhibition, there is a computer and a projection screen on the wall. When the button on the computer is pressed, the projection on the wall provides a thought-provoking question for the visitor.  The visitor is then asked to choose Yes or No. Once they have has chosen their answer, the screen shows the percentage of those who agree and disagree with the statement.  This interactive part of the exhibition allows the visitor to understand the complex quandaries that museums had to deal with when Britain was at war.

The Imperial War Museum is based on Lambeth Road and is accessible via Lambeth North and Elephant and Castle underground stations. It is suitable for all ages and allows photography throughout the museum. Art in Exile is a free exhibition which runs until 5 January 2020.