Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America

Alan Powers traces life after the Nazis for the Bauhaus pioneers, reviewed by David Terrien

By David Terrien

Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America, by Alan Powers (Thames & Hudson)

Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America, by Alan Powers, Thames & Hudson, £24.95 (hardcover)

Corpse. Zombie. Doppelgänger. These words recur throughout Alan Powers’s vigorously researched and rewarding investigation into what became of the Bauhaus, as its prime movers left Nazi Germany and travelled west. As Powers charts the Bauhaus’s evolution from school and teaching model, to descriptor for 1930s European Modernism, to stripped-down mode of industrial design in which form is secondary to function, to belief system in which mechanised rationalism counters ornamentation, bad taste, sentimentality, romanticism, the heart… well, you start to see where the zombies come in. And why deadness, undeadness and relentless, ghostly accompaniment are the themes of this particular history of the institution founded a century ago.

He traces this transformation initially through the lives of ‘the big three’ – Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and fellow teachers Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy – over the short time each spent in England during the late 1930s (the Bauhaus itself, ultimately located in Berlin, had been disbanded in 1933, under pressure from the Gestapo who had branded it ‘unGerman’). The crux of Powers’s argument is that what has long been considered Britain’s shameful failure to embrace Modernism and its Continental disciples needs fundamental reframing. The environment, as Powers presents it, was far more complex. For one, an indigenous English proto-modern movement predated ‘first contact’ with the Bauhaus (alongside the living dead, Powers invokes anthropology, tribalism and the clash of civilisations, with a mix of irony and affection, particularly for the ideological battles, purity tests and thought police that he sees ‘patrolling Modernism’s border’) with the result that, once contact was made, a significant exchange of ideas occurred between émigrés and hosts, transforming both in the process.

Powers lays out the evidence at length, recounting what Gropius, Breuer and Moholy-Nagy found upon arrival in Britain: where they lived, how they supported themselves, who they spent time with and what they talked about. Contrary to popular belief, the Bauhausler received a respectable number of commissions given the general hostility towards modern architecture at that time. Gropius, Powers writes, rediscovered ‘a simple and more cordial accent, an easier and more spontaneous contact with the things of the world’, while Breuer, in his Gane Pavilion, a temporary building in Bristol, created what he would later consider one of the two most important projects of his career (the other being the UNESCO headquarters in Paris). Moholy-Nagy, whose character was perhaps the best fit for an English sensibility (‘that lovely madman’, ‘a Harpo Marx character’ who valued Britain for its amateurism, perhaps in contrast to the frighteningly efficient Nazi bureaucracy he had left behind), created a film about lobsters, which, it is generally agreed, did not represent his best work.

What none of these three educators found in England was a teaching position, with the result that Gropius soon departed for Harvard, writing back to his former colleagues, ‘it’s fantastic here! don't tell the English, but we are both ecstatic that we have escaped the land of fog and of psychological nightmares… here the girls look you right in the eyes’. With this the Bauhaus went further west, but Powers treats this better-known history in less detail. That said, he tracks the Bauhaus legacy with dogged persistence as far west – metaphorically speaking – as it goes, through 1968, up to Habitat and IKEA, and even into Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, confessing towards the end of this study that some of the stories told here ‘begin to sound like a deranged game of Consequences, which may be how they felt to the displaced protagonists at the time’. 

From the March 2019 issue of ArtReview