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Berlin Vol 3: Modernist Photography

Bauhaus Archiv

I must admit, I’m newbie when it comes to modernism. I’m fascinated by its origins and philosophies, but I still have a lot to learn. For several months, I’ve had a post-it note on my computer screen reminding me to research modernist photography. So naturally, I was thrilled when I arrived at the Bauhaus Archives in Berlin to find that the exhibit they were presenting focused on photography and film from The New Bauhaus in Chicago.

Founded by Walter Grobias in 1919, the Bauhaus was closed in 1933 due to pressures from the Nazis. Most of the teachers at the German art school emigrate, many to the United States. One such teacher was Laszlo Monholy-Nagy, who founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937.

Now the Institute of Design, the school held fast to the ideals, curriculum and teaching philosophy of the original school. A 1940s pamphlet for The New Bauhaus explains the allegiance:

“To the Bauhaus we are indebted for a new philosophy of design, which enabled it to accept the machine as a means of production worth of the artist, to face the problem of design for mass production, to bridge the gap between the artist and the industrial world, to break down the hierarchy of which divided the ‘fine’ from the ‘applied’ arts, to differentiate between technique and creative invention, to stimulate the later and discard outworn habits of design, and finally to liberate the artistic spirit in the development of a modern form of beauty.”

I wandered around the exhibit studying the work and commentary to gain a better understanding of modernist photography and the principles of artistic instruction that made the Bauhaus so revolutionary.

I was struck by a recurring concept:  art and design need not be at odds with the commercialism.

I watched a short film called “Worth How Many Words,” produced by New Bauhaus students Morton and Millie Goldshol in 1968. It felt like an art film, but I was surprised to learn it was an advertisement for Kodak. The exhibit plaque beside the film explains that “only in very rare cases is it possible to distinguish between artistically and commercially productive work.”

I was shocked by the presence of commercialism within the exhibit because the Bauhaus was heavily influenced by modernism – a movement described by Roman Mars of 99 Percent Invisible as committed to documenting the world as it is and only what’s needed and nothing more. Many famous modernists rejected consumer culture and deliberately created things that without mass appeal. They believed that things shouldn’t be made only to attract the customer’s eye, that they should have a purpose.

Within the exhibit, I got the sense that a paradox existed within modernism around how commercial, industrial and capitalistic ventures were viewed. In the early 20th century, the industrial revolution and machine technology made it possible for artists and designers to mass produce work and spread their messages much further. There was also an ideological tug-of-war going on between capitalism and communism. Capitalism promised greater freedom and choice but brought with it brutal competition and greed. Communism promised equality and protection but led to limited choice and access.

In this confusing and turbulent time, it’s easy to see how, for artists and designers, capitalism could be both enemy and emancipator.