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Art Review

Bowing to the Bauhaus: When we all were Modern

“Verdure” (1950) by Herbert Bayer Harvard art museums/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

CAMBRIDGE — “Less is more, ” Mies van der Rohe, he of the towering, steel-ribbed black-glass boxes, once famously proclaimed, though no one seems to have told Harvard Art Museums. Mies, a seminal figure in the evolution of the Bauhaus school — and thereby Modernism, whether in art, architecture, design, urban planning, or any other aesthetic pursuit — isn’t part of the museums’ expansive “The Bauhaus and Harvard” exhibition, maybe for having fled Germany for Chicago, not Cambridge, as his Bauhaus confrere Walter Gropius would, under a rising Nazi threat. But in the show’s 200-plus works by 74 named artists, almost everyone else is. More is more, more like it, right down to clusters of maquettes by long-ago students at a women’s college. It closes July 28.

The Bauhaus, arguably the most pervasive, virally-influential aesthetic movement of all time, turns 100 this year, and commemorative exhibitions and events — some 600 in Germany alone — are popping up all over (nearby, the MFA just opened a show of Bauhaus prints). Harvard’s has a particularly completist’s air. Like Mies, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius found refuge stateside, where he became chair of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; with him came volumes upon volumes, now in the careful hands of the university’s Busch-Reisenger Museum. It’s the biggest trove of Bauhaus material outside Germany itself.


That surely made for tough sledding for Laura Muir, the museum’s research curator for academic and public programs, and the result is an exhibition that feels reverent, though detached — methodical, procedural, by-the-book (the founder, with his love of astringent simplicity, would surely approve).

Its arc is a simple timeline, step-by-step. You enter into the school’s early days, close to its 1919 founding, in Weimar, with little works by instructors like Lyonel Feinenger, Johannes Itten, and Wassily Kandinsky on the walls; there’s a view through its far end, many galleries hence, where a sea-foam-green composition of hard-edged abstract forms by Herbert Bayer beckons. Soon, but not yet; in-between lies the rise, fall, and rise again of its radical aesthetic, politics, and persistent influence.


If anything, “The Bauhaus and Harvard” is a little spleenless for my liking, delving deep into the heady realm of pedagogical models while eliding the social and political spasms of the day. Gropius may have landed here, bringing his ur-Modern movement along with him, but the why is at least as important as the what.

Mies, the school’s last director, made the decision to close in 1933 as the Fascist tide rose quickly around him. In Adolf Hitler’s broad spectrum of “degenerate art” — all of Modernism, essentially, of which the Bauhaus was a leading, cross-disciplinary light — the school was an extreme offender. An editorial of the day told of the Nazis pursuing “the disappearance from German soil of one of the most prominent places of Jewish-Marxist art,” talking about the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, where its biggest architectural footprint — its studio building, a cluster of houses — still stands, miraculously, a world war later.

By the end, the school had endured 14 years, many of them on the move, as the political climate grew ever more hazardous for an avant-garde of any kind. But its scattering of seeds — Mies, Gropius, Bayer, Josef Albers, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy are its headliners, all of them landing in the United States as refugees, pre-war — meant less an end to the Bauhaus movement than its broad-based mutation, with an enduringly radioactive half-life. A century on, its ideas pervade art, architecture, design and the urban fabric itself.


In Chicago, where the self-proclaimed “New Bauhaus” found its home, Modern architecture (and Mies’s buildings) blossomed; here, Gropius — not so grandiose as his Chicago-based colleague — settled on the less-firm terrain of idealism. Gropius built a handful of buildings here — the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, the Harvard Graduate Center, his own house in Lincoln — though he was at least as devoted to idea as he was to built form. Instead, his Bauhausian philosophy — of design as a humanizing, liberating force for social democracy — became his true legacy, more than any building that bears his name.

It’s a long way from there to here, though, and “The Bauhaus and Harvard” is long on journey and short on destination (of the show’s eight sections, only the last two chronicle stateside exploits, ending up with his Harvard Graduate Center, which he completed in 1950, making it less a show of Gropius’s impact here than the archive he brought with him). Still, the Bauhaus’s High Modern utopianism — its most enduring vision, there or here — pervades. That may seem a lot to put on, say, a tea service, a shimmering version of which awaits in the exhibition’s second gallery, alongside Marcel Breuer’s very famous Wassily chair. But it was also a tenet of the Gropius ideal, to make “contact with industry and the practical work of the world” — the quotidian and workaday made beautiful.


Indeed, Gropius’s notion of aesthetics was to expand its limits in an unprecious, cross-fertilized brew — art too rarefied, the mass-produced too crass. His idealism also took shape in urban schemes. A crisp, precise drawing here shows right-angled rowhouses, arrayed in perfect symmetry — the city of the future, to each according to his or her needs (in a mini-revelation, some of his drawings here alternate bright colors, unit to unit, bringing an unexpected sunniness to the whole affair).

It’s a short hop from here to a section on “The Bauhaus in Paris,” where Gropius enlisted Bayer, Moholy-Nagy and Breuer to curate the German entry to the Society of Decorative Artists’ annual exhibition, in 1930. Their playful, cross-disciplinary mash-ups — Moholy-Nagy’s “Light Prop for an Electric Stage,” a motorized sculpture that reads like a Constructivist painting, rendered in three dimensions and chrome-plated for a Fritz Lang movie — put on view for the world their radically hopeful, age-of-industry aesthetic.

But by now, you should be aware, there’s been a quiet revolution brewing under your nose, right here in the galleries. Room by room, Muir has been running thread, weaving it around and through the big names, adding subtitles and footnotes to the main event. Photographs by Lucia Moholy — often misattributed to Gropius, Muir said — appear again and again; spectacular weavings — precisely ordered, but deeply nuanced in color and composition — by Anni Albers and Gunta Stolzl counterweigh a rigid display of Gropius city plans with understated grace — sensual minimalism, if such a thing can exist (the school was “open to anyone,” Muir said, a nod to the school’s nominal egalitarianism, “but if you were a woman, you ended up in the weaving studio. So they had a ways to go.”)


By the time you reach the penultimate gallery — one of just two that display Bauhaus-related activity in America — it’s a decidedly female affair: A vitrine holds a cluster of sparsely whimsical student sculptures from Newcomb College in New Orleans; an array of colorful works by Ruth Asawa, a student of Albers at Black Mountain College, hang nearby. One of the best things in the show is an unearthed gem by Mary Henderson Boggs, a long-ago Newcomb student: her “Pigment Control Tone” from the 1940s, a grid of color tests rendered as tiny, exuberant multi-colored abstract collages.

We end up, finally and at last, at Harvard itself, and the show’s end. That big sea-foam-green Bayer that beckoned from the outset, commissioned by Gropius for the Graduate Center, helps draw things to a close. Just as prominent and facing, though, are the bedspreads and room dividers that Albers designed for the graduate apartments — big bolts of fabric that rival the Bayer both in presence and scale.

A gesture by the curator, perhaps, to underscore the Bauhausian vision as a holistic aesthetic enterprise, from high to low, art to design, painting to bedclothes? There’s that. I suspect there’s something else, too. With the lightest of hands, Muir has helped broaden the Bauhaus myth’s narrow spotlight to illuminate more than the usual suspects, inflecting an enduringly macho myth of new world orders with a feminine touch. She both softens the show’s sharp corners and leaves a heretofore-immutable myth rife with might-have-beens. That you call revolution.


At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through July 28. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.