Looking back at the Bauhaus: objects of their affection
CAMBRIDGE — There are many things to praise about “Arresting Fragments: Object Photography at the Bauhaus,” which runs at the MIT Museum through Sept. 1. Like the Harvard Art Museums’ “The Bauhaus and Harvard, the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Radical Geometries: Bauhaus Prints, 1919-1933,” the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s “Modernism for All: The Bauhaus at 100,” and “The Bauhaus at Home and Abroad,” at Harvard’s Houghton Library, the MIT show observes the centenary of the most influential art school of the last century.
What sets apart “Arresting Fragments” is how it conveys a particular sense of why the Bauhaus was so influential. Yes, there were the many famous names who taught there — Klee, Kandinsky, Albers, Gropius, Breuer, Mies van der Rohe: a Cooperstown of Modernism — and their many gifted students. More than that, the Bauhaus witnessed a unique blend of innovation and rigor, playfulness and severity, comprehensiveness and energy. In ways both varied and unexpected, “Arresting Fragments” gives a sense of the remarkableness of that remarkable mix: the sheer spiritedness of its spirit.
The show, which was curated by MIT’s Gary Van Zante in collaboration with the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, consists of 92 photographs. The title comes from a remark by László Moholy-Nagy, who taught at the Bauhaus. He hailed the camera’s capacity to capture “arresting fragments of the world.” Photography was more than 80 years old in the 1920s, longer than the average life span. But it seemed new to the Bauhäuslern, as they were called, and you not only see but feel the passionate newness found in these images.
Many of the arresting fragments take the form of discrete objects, hence the show’s subtitle. Bauhaus cameras captured champagne glasses, a gramophone arm, tea strainers, tableware, a splendidly hallucinatory alarm clock. The last item, photographed by Werner David Feist, gets its look courtesy of multiple exposures — an example of the consistent experimentation found throughout the show. Unconventional angles, unconventional lighting, unconventional juxtapositions (for “Still Life 1930,” Lony Neumann draped a necklace over a slice of citrus fruit): Convention was to the Bauhaus as curvature is to right angles.
The flouting of convention extended beyond the frame. The Bauhaus curriculum included an advertising workshop. And more than a dozen of the photographers in “Arresting Fragments” are women — another sign of how far ahead of its time the Bauhaus was.
A Feist photograph bears the startling title “Life of Dead Things.” Cue Nosferatu? No, what we see are electrical implements. “Life” is the right word, too: They look very nearly animate. Initiates of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” may find themselves recalling Byron the light bulb — and wondering as to the whereabouts of Franz Pökler when the photo was taken.
The world is made of feelings and thoughts, neither of which, past a certain point, can be communicated visually. The world is also made of things. Those can be shared. And in these photographs one observes an acceptance of thing-ness that is also an accepting of the external world and deepening of one’s relationship to it. It’s a mysticism of the material. Hannes Meyer’s close-up shot of a zipper shows not just the modernity of the mundane (the zipper, a new invention, had come to Germany only a few years earlier). It makes so seemingly trivial an item appear monumental, even vaguely sacral.
The tradition of still life stretches back for centuries. What these images do is bring still life into the machine age, nature morte become machinerie vivante. It’s telling that one of the least successful photographs here shows such a traditional, even trite, subject as a pair of old boots (cue van Gogh).
It’s in the nature of still life to show a standalone world within the frame. These object photographs do that, too, but with a difference. What’s shown is shut off but not airless. The robustness of life remains, minus the randomness. The Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy said that her “aim was to record people as factually as objects.” That sounds a bit creepy — maybe now cue Nosferatu? — until you realize how vividly, with what a spark and gleam, she and her fellow Bauhäuslern photographed objects. That spark and gleam can owe as much to subject as form. The show includes work by more than 30 photographers. Most of them were drawn to smooth surfaces: porcelain, metal, glass.
A few of the photographers had reservations about thing-ness. The first teacher at the Bauhaus expressly dedicated to photography was Walter Peterhans. (It wasn’t taught as a standalone discipline until 1929, an indication of how much photography had previously been taken for granted within the curriculum.) Peterhans had a flirtation with abstraction that at times looks more like an affair. A group of photographs provide documentation of student work from the required first-year materials-studies course. There the relationship with abstraction resembles marriage.
Fine as so many of these photographs are, it’s a relief to come to the end of the show and realize that the subtitle is a bit of a cheat. Object photography gives way to photographs of the Bauhaus and an array of portraits. These Bauhäuslern look alive and alert and aware of how blessed they were to be at that particular where at that particular when. The quintet of teachers and students in T. Lux Feininger’s “Life at the Bauhaus” could be auditioning for a Marx Brothers movie.
A wall text at the beginning of the show notes that all of the images are digital reproductions. It would take a keen eye to note any difference from vintage prints. More to the point, an argument can be made that these versions, as a demonstration of the ongoing collaboration between art and technology, honor the Bauhaus spirit further.
ARRESTING FRAGMENTS: Object Photography at the Bauhaus
At MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Sept. 1. 617-253-5927. mitmuseum.mit.edu