Bauhaus Museum Weimar
Jeremy Melvin, 30 May 2019
In this year of celebrations for the Bauhaus centenary, Weimar has stolen a march on the other two hosts of that legendary institution, Dessau and Berlin. Earlier this year it inaugurated the Bauhaus Museum Weimar, designed by Heike Hanada, who won a competition in 2012, as part of a programme which places the Bauhaus’ emergence in the context of time and place.
Appropriately so: this small central German city is where it all kicked off in 1919. The new museum, an apparently blank, cuboid concrete box set on the edge of the city centre and an urban park, contains some complex spaces, fabulous objects, and fascinating narrative displays. At night its striated walls streak with light, hinting at the fireworks within, but also marking its presence in the city.
Bauhaus Musuem Weimar, Photo: Andrew Alberts, ©heike hanada laboratory of art and architecture 2019.
The Bauhaus Museum by night, Photo: Andrew Alberts, ©heike hanada laboratory of art and architecture 2019.
This is vital. As mentioned above it sits on the cusp of park and central area but this is not any old urban park, or city centre. The park was given over to the public for recreation and exercise in the early 20th century, while the centre still struggles with the legacy of National Socialism. For Weimar was not just the home of Goethe, Schiller and Herder and the German Enlightenment; it was also birthplace of its eponymous and liberal republic, and a favourite city of the Nazis, whose rise drove the Bauhaus, through funding cuts, to Dessau in 1926. Its gauleiter was Fritz Sauckel who, whatever his own crimes, some commentators think took the rap at the end of rope for his boss, Albert Speer.
The Nazis inscribed their mark in the city centre. On the site of the Bauhaus museum itself they placed a petrol filling station, the sort of mark of modernity of which they approved. Around it they built administrative buildings in their favoured stripped neo-classicism. On one corner, just out of sight from the Bauhaus museum, but forming a knuckle en route between it and the confusingly called New Museum (it was new when it was built in the 1860s) is a low tower: believed to have been the idea of Hitler himself, its chilling efficacy making one wonder what might have happened had he stuck to city planning. Meanwhile the New Museum’s restoration forms part of the city’s overall cultural programme: the idea of a Bauhaus museum was conceived in 1995, given impetus when Weimar was the European City of Culture in 1999, but not formally initiated until 2008.
All this forms what the city terms its modern quarter, a district charged with historical and cultural fluctuations that give it an almost magical quality of being the eternal present. The residents whose works gave it this charge loom large: Goethe’s presence can be sensed, but so can Sauckel’s. Schiller’s Ode to Joy competes in an imaginary sound world with shrieks of Sieg Heil; Gropius and Henri van de Velde are having a ghostly but intense conversation about form and spirituality. And that’s without even considering how the buildings and public spaces shape one’s steps and perceptions.
It is into this complex of space, form, ideas and memories that Heike Hanada had to fit her museum design. Unsurprisingly she chose a regular form as it gives the building presence in its charged context which it neither tries to compete or subvert but augment and transcend. This though remains mute until one explores the interior.
View into the exhibition, Photo: Andrew Alberts, ©heike hanada laboratory of art and architecture 2019.
The ground floor is clear and logical, divided into two more or less equal parts, one with the foyer, the will have a shop and small display area. Off the first is a stairs down to a café overlooking the park. From the middle of the plan a narrow stairway rises to the first floor where the exhibition proper starts. Its opening displays deal with the intellectual forces that gave rise to the Bauhaus, the competing ideas of new concepts of modernity, social relations and visual culture that Walter Gropius so deftly brought together on his appointment in 1919. There were new ideas about the human body, including questions of its perfection through ideal types or, sometimes, machine augmented capabilities. Sometimes the results are chilling, but in another display on the first floor on dance (part of a section on ‘modern life’) is, glorious and paradigm shifting: its centerpiece features Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, which he began in 1912 but finally staged as an apotheosis of Bauhaus creativity in 1923.
Each of these depends on reconstructions, but on the top floor are objects actually designed or made at the Bauhaus. These include examples of the ceramics workshop, one of the school’s most productive departments and source of some of its most enticing and beautiful products. There are also Mies’ furniture classics, though he did not take over the Bauhaus until 1930, some years after it left Weimar, but suggesting that the ethos survived.
Eberhardt Schrammen, Five Hand Puppets, about 1923, Permanently on loan to Klassik Stiftung Weimar by Ernst von Siemans Kunststiftung © unknown
Peter Keler, Cradle, 1922, Klassik Stiftung Weimar © Jan Keler
Its post-1926 history is relatively well known: the move to Dessau with its magnificent building and staff housing, followed by its sad decline in Berlin before being closed in 1932. Less well known and possibly more interesting (because it opened rather than closed questions), is its pre-history in Weimar, which shows how convoluted and complex were question of modernity, Modernism and politics in the first third of the 20th century. This set the context from which the Bauhaus emerged and there is a spine-tingling hint of what came later: a clear view from the top floor of the monument on the site of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Weimar’s tradition as a cultural capital dates from the Renaissance, which sheared and reshaped the Grand Duchy into a small territory around Weimar and its neighbourhood. With little political power it turned to culture, which came to fruition in the 18th century when JW von Goethe, JG Herder and Friedrich Schiller moved there. All lived into the 19th century.
The later 19th century saw a twist to this cultural tradition. In 1860 Carl Alexander, Grand Duke since 1853, founded an art school that fostered a strand of avant-garde painting. The New Museum, designed by Czech architect Josef Zitek, followed. Around 1900 several events combined to catapult Weimar to the forefront of modernity. Friedrich Nietzsche, who had lived there more or less incapacitated for several years, died and his sister metamorphosed from carer into the zealous promoter of his cult. She set out a programme for Weimar’s cultural future with her brother’s legacy at the heart of it, encouraging Grand Duke William Ernest (who succeeded his grandfather in 1901) to appoint the urbane and far-sighted Harry Graf Kessler as director of the city’s museums, and the Belgian artist Henri van de Velde as the Grand Duke’s artistic adviser.
Ready to open. Photo, André Kühn, ©Klassik Stiftung Weimar
Kessler’s inspired exhibitions (30 before 1906) and purchases (including works by Rodin, Monet, Bonnard and Redon) drew on his travels between London, Paris and Berlin but never quite succeeded in his goal of making Weimer Athens-on-the-Ilm. But they did shift German notions of contemporary art, all underpinned by Nietzsche’s intellectual meat and the growing influence of his ideas. Alongside, van de Velde was reinventing the bourgeois interior from napery to villa design, distinguishing it from aristocratic taste and its earlier Biedermeier incarnation. More fruitfully than the English Arts and Crafts movement, van de Velde incorporated art and contemporary artistic ideas, which led naturally to his design for the Grand Ducal art school. Much of the refurbished 1860s New Museum (it was slated for demolition by the DDR and long abandoned) is given over the van de Velde, his grand ducal patrons, and the interacting influence of Nietzsche and Kessler.
Van de Velde lived on until 1957, though his Weimar career ended badly. During World War I he spent some years under house arrest before he was eventually allowed to return to his native Belgium. This made the stage for Walter Gropius to come in, and build on van de Velde’s and Kessler’s achievements and with his experience of the war – during which Nietzsche’s works were popular reading in the German trenches - ask ‘how can we live together?’
His answer, of course, was stated more as a series of propositions about the nature of life in the fraught political and economic conditions of the Weimar Republic. Others, tragically, had alternative propositions and the fragile experimentality of the Bauhaus, its tentative steps to a new visual language, were swept aside.
The achievement of the New and Bauhaus Museum’s, and Heike Hanada’s design, is that it allows an insight into that milieu, with reference to the context from which it came, and in apposition to what came after. Visitors can make up their own minds, both about the new building’s inherent qualities and their relation to its pre and post history in the uncanny ‘eternal present’ of Weimar’s quarter of modernity.