In recent years our contemporary world has had many opportunities to consider the significance of events that occurred a century ago, from the outbreak and conclusion of the First World War to the centenary of the Russian Revolutions of 1917.  In the world of art and design, 2019 marks a centenary of a different kind: the establishment of a school in the German town of Weimar in a climate coloured by the country’s wartime defeat and postwar collapse.  The story of that school, which came to be known as the Bauhaus, is woven into the narrative of inter-war Europe, both in its optimistic beginning and its subsequent suppression by a Nazi state that had no time for its aesthetics or the cultural and social innovation that its curriculum and student body represented.

Fiona MacCarthy’s new biography of the Bauhaus’ founder, Walter Gropius, reminds us that the idea of the school was in place before the War had ceased.  In this sense, the Bauhaus became a symbol of what might yet be possible in the design and realisation of a new way of living.  Its subsequent move from Weimar to Dessau (the authorities in its first home having withdrawn their support for its activities) and its eventual closure in 1933 show how the ideas trialed within its walls were not as well-received at the time as they have been subsequently.  When we think of the influence that many of its pupils and instructors went on to have, however, the closure of the original Bauhaus seems not to be a tale of its failure, but rather the prelude to its lasting global influence.

Gropius’ vision for the school was avowedly international in scope: a vision reflected in the teaching faculty that were hired or who presented themselves at the school to offer their services.  These men and women circulate through MacCarthy’s book, from Kandinsky and Klee to Albers and Van Der Rohe.   The ideas discussed, experimented with, and promoted spilled out from the teaching rooms and studios into the wider world via a series of exhibitions and publications, and new arrivals brought with them still more different perspectives and practices.  The sense of intellectual and artistic liberty that one gets from reading this biography is as palpable today as it must have felt in the 1920s.

In another sense, however, the Bauhaus was subject to the larger conditions of its time.  The economic and political crises of Weimar Germany were never far away, and in dealings with those in other countries the international situation did not always permit dialogues to be as free as they could have been.  Wassily Kandinsky, for example, was an early recruit to the Bauhaus precisely because he had decided to leave Russia in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Having been so prominent in the establishment of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKHUK) in Moscow and the activities of the Department of Visual Arts in which he had served in the heady days after 1917, he arrived in Weimar carrying the frustrated hopes that he had once harboured for art in the Bolshevik state. In aesthetic terms, the relationship between the Bauhaus and the VKHUTEMAS workshops established under the aegis of NARKOMPROS for Artistic and Technical training is often one of surprising congruence, but with their significantly larger student body and more overt ideological focus the Soviet schools were politicised to a degree that Gropius’ project would never consciously be.  For a time, this assured them of the Soviet state’s support, but in the changing climate of the 1920s and 30s that support could be as problematic as it was helpful.

This might explain why those artists that were allowed to travel between Soviet Russia and Germany came to see the Bauhaus as an ideal in which they wished to belong.  Kasimir Malevich, feeling the Soviet regime’s attitude towards him cooling in the late-1920s, aspired to be taken on as a master when he visited the school, but was obliged to return to the USSR where his problems would multiply in the years that followed.  Malevich’s colleague from the Vitebsk School of the early 1920s, El Lissitzky, spent a good deal of time in Germany and on his return to the USSR and taking up of a key role in the VKHUTEMAS looked to apply many of the two-dimensional experiments of his painting to the field of architecture, turning the two-dimensional field into something in the built environment – an approach that Gropius would wholly approve – but very few of his projects were actually adopted by the Soviet state.  Kandinsky would never return to the USSR, moving further westwards as the German political climate worsened, opting for Paris over Moscow as a home for his final years.

In the context of recent exhibitions commemorating the relationship between the Russian avant-garde and the Soviet state – most particularly in Paris at the Centre Pompidou’s 2018 display on the school at Vitebsk and the current survey of Soviet utopianism at the Grand Palais – the story of the Bauhaus tells of a school that tried not to be political and ultimately found that its carefully modulated distance was itself a political stance that was too hard to sustain.  Like its Soviet counterparts, it fell victim to the shifting aesthetic and political tastes of the state in which it tried to operate.  Having so actively sought the state’s patronage, many of the institutes that struggled on in Moscow and Leningrad despite the shortages of food, funding, supplies, or official attention were to find that by the early 1930s the Soviet regime had no more time for aesthetic innovation than its Nazi rival that closed down Gropius’ school.

For a time, though, other outcomes might have seemed possible, and certainly preferable, as the 2015 exhibition on the VKHUTEMAS as Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau reminded its visitors.  MacCarthy tells us that Ilya Ehrenburg was present for the opening of the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1926, and that Soviet delegations – from a state that had not yet wholly discarded modernism for the neo-classical monumentalism of its Socialist Realist years – were regularly in attendance at early Bauhaus exhibitions.  In 1931, having been replaced as the Bauhaus director by Hannes Meyer Gropius himself submitted a plan for the proposed Palace of the Soviets, losing out to Boris Iofan in a ‘contest’ that was never really anything of the kind.  The early weeks of 1933 saw him lecturing in Leningrad on the topic of architecture and city planning, only to return to Germany equally despondent about the prevailing conditions in Stalin’s USSR and the Nazi state that was being forged in Germany.  These isolated and all too brief instances of overlap between the narratives of the Bauhaus and the world of art and design in the Soviet Union leave the reader contemplating, and perhaps regretting, that the daring futures conceived in both cases never quite managed to join together.  In this centenary year of its establishment the Russian presence in the Bauhaus remains, as it might have seemed at the time, a tantalising hint of what might have been.

Fiona MacCarthy’s Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus is published in hardback by Faber & Faber in the UK, and Harvard University Press in North America.