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Art Review

At the MFA, it’s the Bauhaus and beyond

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus. That most influential of art schools lasted only 14 years, from 1919 to 1933, when the Nazis shut it down. But the many events noted on the website Bauhaus at 100 give a sense of the global scale of that influence.

Closer to home, no fewer than four shows are currently on display in Greater Boston, with another opening next month, “Arresting Fragments: Object Photography at the Bauhaus,” at the MIT Museum. That’s not counting proximity to the Gropius House, in Lincoln. The architect Walter Gropius designed it for himself and his family when the Bauhaus founder came to live here in the late 1930s to teach at Harvard.

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Thanks to that Harvard connection, three of the four shows are in Cambridge. The largest and most ambitious, “The Bauhaus and Harvard,” runs at the Harvard Art Museums through July 28. “The Bauhaus at Home and Abroad,” at Harvard’s Houghton Library, is small and surprisingly enchanting (all hail the Bauhaus jazz band!). It runs through May 24. “Creating Community: Harvard Law School and the Bauhaus” is at Langdell Hall through July 31.

Wassily Kandinsky’s “Kleine Welten IV”
Wassily Kandinsky’s “Kleine Welten IV”(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Gropius oversaw the design of eight buildings at the law school, the first examples of modern architecture on the Harvard campus.

The fourth show is at the Museum of Fine Arts: “Radical Geometries: Bauhaus Prints, 1919-33” runs through June 23. Curated by the MFA’s Patrick Murphy, it manages to be both compact, taking up just one gallery, and agreeably full. It’s like the Gropius House that way.

There are 62 items, mainly lithographs and woodcuts, per the subtitle. There are also a few photographs, 10 postcards — promoting a 1923 exhibition with the very Bauhaus title of “Art and Technology — A New Unity” — and a charming 1930 short film by László Moholy-Nagy, “Lightplay: Black-White-Gray.” The film shows a kinetic sculpture built by Moholy-Nagy going through its paces. In a bit of Bauhaus-centenary interconnection, the sculpture is part of the Harvard Art Museums show.

Moholy-Nagy figures prominently here, as do his fellow Bauhaus teachers Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. The title “Radical Geometries” bespeaks the common association the Bauhaus has with angularity, abstraction, and a certain visual astringency. While those qualities are very much on display, part of the show’s fascination is to see glimpses of a concurrent strain in the Bauhaus aesthetic. Don’t forget that jazz band.

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It’s true that Kandinsky pioneered abstraction. Yet seen against what abstraction would become, his visual vocabulary seems almost whimsical: abstraction as illustration. Klee is Klee, as sui generis an imagination as the Western tradition knows. The biggest surprise is seeing an Albers self-portrait: not just a human face from this barest-boned of artists, but his .

The MFA has mounted a companion show of sorts in the gallery next to “Radical Geometries.” “Postwar Visions: European Photography, 1945-60” also runs through June 23, is also small (three dozen pictures), and is also agreeably full. The show’s companion status has to do with the idea that these photographs extend the Bauhaus aesthetic, with an emphasis on elements of abstraction and an openness to innovation.

A Josef Albers self-portrait
A Josef Albers self-portrait(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

That’s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but would that all shows offered such stretching. There are a few familiar names here: Bill Brandt (one of his distorted nudes), Herbert List, Josef Sudek (each with a still life). Most are lesser known: Toni Schneiders, Peter Keetman, Gyula Holics, Otto Steinert. Steinert is a key figure, with his membership in the group Fotoform, which soon came to promote Subjektive Fotografie (Subjective Photography). The camera should be liberated to become as much an instrument of expression as documentation — or even more so. That duality can be seen in a frequent contrast between a very ’50s biomorphism and the recurrence of industrial subjects (smoke stacks, railroads, factories). The latter look ahead, in content if not form, to Bernd and Hilla Becher.

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There are some marvelous images here, the marvelousness enhanced by grace notes in hanging characteristic of curator Anne E. Havinga. The curve of a Volkswagen factory, courtesy of Keetman, faces the curve of a Hamburg carousel, courtesy of Schneiders. A Holics view of peas spread on a table looks at first like an aerial view of a crowd — and, yes, there are several actual aerial views, though not of crowds. The most notable is Ilse Bing’s “Paris Street-Sweepers” (1947).

“Postwar Visions” includes another view of Paris, taken by Sabine Weiss, in 1950. It’s night. A man has lit a cigarette. The match and a street light cast halations in the foggy darkness. Impossibly romantic, the look is so Brassaï it could fit right in in his “Paris by Night.” It’s as if nothing had happened in the 17 years between the publication of that book and this moment captured by Weiss. Except that everything had.

RADICAL GEOMETRIES: Bauhaus Prints, 1919-33

POSTWAR VISIONS: European Photography, 1945-60

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through June 23. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.