Part 1: Morris on Bauhaus
George L.K. Morris, you may recall, was the chief financial backer of Partisan Review,and served as art critic for the journal. Morris was known as one of the “Park Avenue Cubists,” a group of abstract artists, born into old American families with money and educational privileges. His wife, Susy Frelinghuysen, was an opera singer as well as another member of the “Old East Coast” elite. Morris and Suzy created a life for themselves as advocates of abstract art. Another member of the PAC was the painter Charles G. Shaw, who trained for a time to become an architect, and made the skyline of New York City an emblem of American abstraction. Shaw was also a rich New Yorker, an heir to the Woolworth fortune, and a graduate of Yale.
And backing them all was the patron of European and American Modernist art — collector, painter, philanthropist — A.E. Gallatin, who created in 1927 The Gallery of Living Art, a few years later renamed The Museum of Living Art’ at NYU.
In 1939, when the Moscow Trials were being discussed still in uncomprehending tones, and Trotskyism was a growing argument with the Stalinist Popular Front, Morris used his “Art Chronicle” to review an exhibition at MoMA on the Bauhaus Movement, as a counterpoint to a show at the Jacques Seligmann Gallery, on 57th street, near MoMA, of paintings by Juan Gris. The political argument about the popular front was about the meaning of revolutionary activity: was an alliance, even temporary, with the ruling classes of Europe to defeat Fascism a road to the defeat of revolutionary socialism altogether, or the only way to secure Fascism’s end?
Walter Gropius 1883-1969.
Morris’s article doesn’t explicitly take up these issues, but his commentary on how MoMA understood its task in putting on the Bauhaus exhibition, compared with the Juan Gris show at Jacques Seligmann Gallery offers elements of a wider critique.
The Bauhaus project of refining and stripping away ornamentation in favour of a modern simplicity of form with straightforward and explicit functionality, was the work of many, but Walter Gropius, an architect and advocate of modern design along with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and others conceived of a site where architecture and design could be studied and reformed for the modern age. The exhibition at MoMA was to honour the work of the Bauhaus, which had been shut down by the Nazis in 1932. The buildings were closed, but the impact of Bauhaus remains with us. One of the more important slogans for the project was “Art and Technology” — a more forward-looking idea than the contemporary version inBelgium of — “Art and Craft”.
Alfred Barr, Director of MoMA at the time, wanted to make Bauhaus’s history and its achievements available to an American audience: He writes in the Preface:
“It is twenty years since Gropius arrived in Weimar to found the Bauhaus; ten years since he left the transplanted and greatly enlarged institution at Dessau to return to private practice; five years since the Bauhaus was forced to close its doors after a brief rear-guard stand in Berlin.
Are this book, then, and the exhibition which supplements it, merely a belated wreath laid upon the tomb of brave events, important in their day but now of primarily historical interest? Emphatically, no! The Bauhaus is not dead; it lives and grows through the men who made it, both teachers and students, through their designs, their books, their methods, their principles, their philosophies of art and education.”
Morris however, sees the show as an example of what MoMA always gets wrong:
“The current survey of the Bauhaus and its teaching methods is ideally suited to the policies of the Museum of Modern Art, for whom historical sequence has from the start been more interesting than the showing of good paintings. At any rate, the Museum found it difficult to spoil the odds and ends that found their way out of Germany into the present exhibition, as they were nearly all uniformly bad to begin with.”
Morris here draws the divide between aesthetics and method that gives the ‘Art Chronicle’ its sub-title, “Art versus Method.” In autumn 1939 issue of PR, Clement Greenberg will theorise this issue of aesthetics in his canonical essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch” but you can tell in Morris’s piece that he has either incorporated a popular frontist view into his review, or has decided that a work being avant-garde is not as compelling as its being ‘fine’ aesthetically. His criticism of the MoMA staff impugns their aesthetic capacity, and being the child of rich collectors and Rockefellers, the Museum is accused of crass philistinism:
“The insensitive touch is apparent in the work of pupil and master alike, in the painting, the sculpture, the pottery, the furniture, and in the peep-shows that the Museum evidently intended as a lure for the uninitiated.”
Morris also asserts us that it is really the German “temperament, so at home within the limits of tonal and musical structure, flattens out before plastic problems into a heavy slickness and bad taste,”as much as it is trouble with MoMA curators that renders the exhibition ‘a drag.’
Yet he also wants to insist on the importance of Bauhaus, and he devises a view of its work that is committed to the ‘life-affirming’ qualities of Bauhaus processes and products:
“Turning from the exhibition to the catalog we are confronted with something vastly more absorbing. Here are gathered all the enlightened devices for instruction and presentation that must have made life at the Bauhaus a joy for students and teachers alike. Everyone was taught to be completely free with his hands, and this is certainly the essence of plastic creation.”
It is, of course, very difficult to judge Morris’s judgements about the Bauhaus exhibition because he doesn’t evince any criteria by which to assess the art in the show. It is when he then goes on to discuss the Juan Gris show, that we see what he has in mind for aesthetic success.
Bauhaus Masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer, photo: unknown 1926, reproduction 1998. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, with the courtesy of Société Kandinsky, Paris.