The Silver Prince
Our story begins in germany just after the first
World War. Young American architects, along with
artists, writers, and odd-lot intellectuals, are roaming through Europe. This great boho adventure is called “the Lost Generation.” Meaning what? In The Liberation of American Literature, V. F. Calverton wrote that American artists and writers had suffered from a “colonial complex” throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and had timidly imitated European models—but that after World War I they had .nally found the self-con.dence and sense of identity to break free of the authority of Europe in the arts. In fact, he couldn’t have gotten it more hopelessly turned around.
The motto of the Lost Generation was, in Malcolm Cowley’s words, “They do things better in Europe.” What was in progress was a postwar discount tour in which practically any American—not just, as in the old days, a Henry James, a John Singer Sargent, or a Richard Morris Hunt—could go abroad and learn how to be a European artist. “The colonial complex” now took hold like a full nelson.
The European artist! What a dazzling .gure! André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, Picasso, Matisse, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Valéry—such creatures stood out like Gustave Miklos .gurines of bronze and gold against the smoking rubble of Europe after the Great War. The rubble, the ruins of European civilization, was an essential part of the picture. The charred bone heap in the background was precisely what made an avant-gardist such as Breton or Picasso stand out so brilliantly.
To the young American architects who made the pilgrimage, the most dazzling .gure of all was Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. Gropius opened the Bauhaus in Weimar, the German capital, in 1919. It was more than a school; it was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus. Gropius, the Epicurus of the piece, was thirty-six years old, slender, simply but meticulously groomed, with his thick black hair combed straight back, irresistibly handsome to women, correct and urbane in a classic German manner, a lieutenant of cavalry during the war, decorated for valor, a .gure of calm, certitude, and conviction at the center of the maelstrom.
Strictly speaking, he was not an aristocrat, since his father, while well-to-do, was not of the nobility, but people couldn’t help thinking of him as one. The painter Paul Klee, who taught at the Bauhaus, called Gropius “the Silver Prince.” Silver was perfect. Gold was too gaudy for so .ne and precise a man. Gropius seemed to be an aristocrat who through a miracle of sensitivity had retained every virtue of the breed and cast off all the snobberies and dead weight of the past.
The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero.” Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future. Even new religions such as Mazdaznan. Even health-food regimens. During one stretch at Weimar the Bauhaus diet consisted entirely of a mush of fresh vegetables. It was so bland and .brous they had to keep adding garlic in order to create any taste at all. Gropius’ wife at the time was Alma Mahler, formerly Mrs. Gustav Mahler, the .rst and foremost of that marvelous twentieth-century species, the Art
© eckhard neumann
Walter Gropius, the Silver Prince. White God No. 1. Young architects went to study at his feet. Some, like Philip Johnson, didn’t get up until decades later.
Widow. The historians tell us, she remarked years later, that the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style were glass corners, .at roofs, honest materials, and expressed structure. But she, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel—she had since added the poet Franz Werfel to the skein—could assure you that the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was “garlic on the breath.” Nevertheless!—how pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be . . . starting from zero!
Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Henry van de Velde—all were teachers at the Bauhaus at one time or another, along with painters like Klee and Josef Albers. Albers taught the famous Bauhaus Vorkurs, or introductory course. Albers would walk into the room and deposit a pile of newspapers on the table and tell
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The Bauhaus. Gropius’ compound itself, built after the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925.
the students he would return in one hour. They were to turn the pieces of newspaper into works of art in the interim. When he returned, he would .nd Gothic castles made of newspaper, yachts made of newspaper, airplanes, busts, birds, train terminals, amazing things. But there would always be some student, a photographer or a glassblower, who would simply have taken a piece of newspaper and folded it once and propped it up like a tent and let it go at that. Albers would pick up the cathedral and the airplane and say: “These were meant to be made of stone or metal—not newspaper.” Then he would pick up the photographer’s absentminded tent and say: “But this!—this makes use of the soul of paper. Paper can fold without breaking. Paper has tensile strength, and a vast area can be supported by these two .ne edges. This!—is a work of art in paper.” And every cortex in the room would spin out. So simple! So beautiful . . . It was as if light had been let into one’s dim brain for the .rst time. My God!—starting from zero!
And why not . . . The country of the young Bauhäusler, Germany, had been crushed in the war and humiliated at Versailles; the economy had collapsed in a delirium of in.ation; the Kaiser had departed; the Social Democrats had taken power in the name of socialism; mobs of young men ricocheted through the cities drinking beer and awaiting a Soviet-style revolution from the east, or some terri.c brawls at the very least. Rubble, smoking ruins—starting from zero! If you were young, it was wonderful stuff. Starting from zero referred to nothing less than re-creating the world.
It is instructive—in view of the astonishing effect it was to have on life in the United States—to recall some of the exhortations of that curious moment in Middle Europe sixty years ago:
“Painters, Architects, Sculptors, you whom the bourgeoisie pays with high rewards for your work—out of vanity, snobbery, and boredom—Hear! To this money there clings the sweat and blood and nervous energy of thousands of poor hounded human beings—Hear! It is an unclean pro.t.... we must be true socialists—we must kindle the highest socialist virtue: the brotherhood of man.”
So ran a manifesto of the Novembergruppe, which included Moholy-Nagy and other designers, who would later join Gropius at the Bauhaus. Gropius was chairman of the Novembergruppe’s Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Working Council for Art), which sought to bring all the arts together “under the wing of a great architecture,” which would be “the business of the entire people.” As everyone understood in 1919, the entire people was synonymous with the workers. “The intellectual bourgeois . . . has proved himself un.t to be the bearer of a German culture,” said Gropius. “New, intellectually undeveloped levels of our people are rising from the depths. They are our chief hope.”
Gropius’ interest in “the proletariat” or “socialism” turned out to be no more than aesthetic and fashionable, somewhat like the interest of President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic or Chairman Mao of the People’s Republic of China in republicanism. Nevertheless, as Dostoevsky said, ideas have consequences; the Bauhaus style proceeded from certain .rm assumptions. First, the new architecture was being created for the workers. The holiest of all goals: perfect worker housing. Second, the new architecture was to reject all things bourgeois. Since just about everyone involved, the architects as well as the Social Democratic bureaucrats, was himself bourgeois in the literal, social sense of the word, “bourgeois” became an epithet that meant whatever you wanted it to mean. It referred to whatever you didn’t like in the lives of people above the level of hod carrier. The main thing was not to be caught designing something someone could point to and say of, with a devastating sneer: “How very bourgeois.”
Social Democrats in both Germany and Holland were underwriting worker housing projects and, for their own political reasons, commissioning younger, antibourgeois architects like Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Bruno Taut, and J. J. P. Oud, who at the age of twenty-eight had been made chief architect of the city of Rotterdam. Oud was a member of a Dutch group known as de Stijl (the Style). The Bauhaus and de Stijl, like the bourgeois-proofed Novembergruppe, were not academies or .rms; in fact, they were not like any organizations in the history of architecture prior to 1897. In 1897, in Vienna, a group of artists and architects, including Otto Wagner and Josef Olbrich, formed a group called the Vienna Secession and formally “seceded” from the of.cially recognized Austrian cultural organization, the Künstlerhaus. Not even the French Impressionists had attempted any such thing; their Salon des Refusés had been but a noisy cry to the National Institute: We want in! The Vienna Secession (and those in Munich and Berlin) originated an entirely novel form of association, the art compound.
In an art compound you announced, in one way or another, usually through a manifesto: “We have just removed the divinity of art and architecture from the hands of the of.cial art establishment [the Academy, the National Institute, the Künstler genossenschaft, whatever], and it now resides with us, inside our compound. We no longer depend on the patronage of the nobility, the merchant class, the state, or any other outside parties for our divine eminence. Henceforth, anyone who wishes to bathe in art’s divine glow must come here, inside our compound, and accept the forms we have created. No alterations, special orders, or loud talk from the client permitted. We know best. We have exclusive possession of the true vision of the future of architecture.” The members of a compound formed an artistic community, met regularly, agreed on certain aesthetic and moral principles, and broadcast them to the world. The Vienna Secession—like the Bauhaus twenty-.ve years later—built an actual, physical compound in the form of an exemplary building, the House of Secession, which they called “a temple of art.”
The creation of this new type of community proved absolutely exhilarating to artists and composers, as well as architects, throughout Europe in the early years of this century. We’re independent of the bourgeois society around us! (They became enamored of this term bourgeois.) And superior to it! It was the compounds that produced the sort of avant-gardism that makes up so much of the history of twentieth-century art. The compounds—whether the Cubists, Fauvists, Futurists, or Secessionists—had a natural tendency to be esoteric, to generate theories and forms that would baf.e the bourgeoisie. The most perfect device, they soon discovered, was painting, composing, designing in code. The peculiar genius of the early Cubists, such as Braque and Picasso, was not in creating “new ways of seeing” but in creating visual codes for the esoteric theories of their compound. For example, the Cubist technique of painting a face in cartoon pro.le, with both eyes on the same side of the nose, illustrated two theories: (1) the theory of .atness, derived from Braque’s notion that a painting was nothing more than a certain arrangement of colors and forms on a .at surface; and (2) the theory of simultaneity, derived from discoveries in the new .eld of stereoptics in dicating that a person sees an object from two angles simultaneously. In music, Arnold Schoenberg began experiments in mathematically coded music that proved baf.ing to most other composers, let alone the bourgeoisie—and were all the more irresistible for it, in the new age of art compound.
Composers, artists, or architects in a compound began to have the instincts of the medieval clergy, much of whose activity was devoted exclusively to separating itself from the mob. For mob, substitute bourgeoisie—and here you have the spirit of avant-gardism in the twentieth century. Once inside a compound, an artist became part of a clerisy, to use an old term for an intelligentsia with clerical presumptions.
But what was supposed to be the source of a compound’s authority? Why, the same as that of all new religious movements: direct access to the godhead, which in this case was Creativity. Hence, a new form of document: the art manifesto. There were no manifestos in the world of art prior to the twentieth century and the development of the compounds. The Italian Futurists delivered the .rst manifesto in 1910. After that, there was no stopping the various movements and isms. They began delivering manifestos day and night. A manifesto was nothing less than a compound’s Ten Commandments: “We have been to the top of the mountain and have brought back the Word, and we now declare that—”
Of course, it was one thing for artists—the Futurists, Vorticists, Orphists, Purists, Dadaists, Surrealists—to come down from the mountaintop with their commandments and declarations of independence and promethean aloofness to the bourgeoisie. It was quite another for architects, dependent, as they were, upon the favor of the usually conservative—and, if one need edit, bourgeois—elements who had the money needed to erect buildings. Amazingly enough, however, the strategy worked the very .rst time it was tried, by the Vienna Secession itself. Thanks to an accident of Austrian history, the government actually stepped in (inside the compound) and honored the Secession’s outrageous claims. There was a period of about .ve years when Otto Wagner and the others received important commissions.* That was all it took. The notion of the uncompromisable architect became highly contagious. Before the First World War, the privately .nanced Deutsche Werkbund had set about designing the perfect forms of architecture and applied arts for all of Germany. (The client, naturally, was supposed to clamor to come inside and get some.) Gropius had been one of the Werkbund’s leading .gures.
After the war, various compounds—Bauhaus, Wendingen,
* The government thought (quite mistakenly) that a new and cosmopolitan architecture might help transcend the country’s bitter racial and ethnic hostilities.
de Stijl, Constructivists, Neoplasticists, Elementarists, Futurists—began to compete with one another to establish who had the purest vision. And what determined purity? Why, the business of what was bourgeois (sordid) and what was non-bourgeois (pure).
The battle to be the least bourgeois of all became somewhat loony. For example, early in the game, in 1919, Gropius had
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Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower observatory, the ultimate example of Expressionist architecture.
Excerpted from From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe.
Copyright © 1981 by Tom Wolfe.
Published in December 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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