As a prologue to the international ‘100 Years of Bauhaus’ programming scheduled for 2019, and in honour of the 80th anniversary of the ‘New Bauhaus Chicago’, the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin has mounted the most comprehensive exhibition of photography from the New Bauhaus Chicago school outside of the U.S. This didactic presentation is complemented by an elegant and legible exhibition design: a dark tunnel of archive materials from early exhibitions opens on three distinct sections of the show, marked by colour-coded yellow, orange, and green plexiglass labels and matching thick-felted benches. While not overly experimental in its presentation format, the exhibition takes visitors through the novel experiments of the New Bauhaus faculty and students, as well as works by contemporary artists based in, or focussing on, the city of Chicago.
Much like the Bauhaus-Archiv’s 2014 show ‘Sensing the Future’, the exhibition foregrounds the work of Bauhaus pedagogue and designer László Moholy-Nagy, whose black-and-white photographs, films, and photograms are today recognized as exemplary of the movement’s aesthetic. Following the closure of the Bauhaus school in Germany in 1933, under pressure from the Nazis, many of the school’s key players made the move to America. As part of that diaspora, Moholy-Nagy became the founding director of the New Bauhaus school in Chicago in 1937—subsequently known as the Institute of Design (ID)—working alongside fellow Hungarian György Kepes, who served as the head of the Light Workshop. Together, the pair exported many of the Bauhaus school’s already well-known methods and styles to U.S. academia.
In particular, Moholy-Nagy’s pioneering work in ‘camera-less’ reproduction processes—his photograms—were an essential component of the teaching foundation in the New Bauhaus photography stream. These recordings of unique forms on light-sensitive support materials created ethereal black-and-white compositions that pushed the boundaries of what photography could do, using simple means. In a 1957 untitled work, photography student Charles Swedlund reproduced a ghostly photogram of an infant, perhaps hyperbolically suggesting a primeval coincidence between the camera-less technique and the newborn’s unsullied flesh. Other works dealt with more abstract forms, focussing on light and movement as crucial to the outcome.
Students of the New Bauhaus Chicago were encouraged to conduct all aspects of the craft autonomously, from composition to printing, and assignments were often whimsical: for example, to capture “people without people” or represent the saying “all that glitters is not gold”, using experimental techniques of light and shadow. The radical pedagogy of the New Bauhaus Chicago extended to members of the general public, as many courses—offered in evenings or on weekends—targeted working professionals, retired soldiers, children, and people with mental illness. The school was certainly not looking for rule-followers, but actively sought out people from all walks of life and levels of knowledge who might push their spirit of experimentation forward.
The exhibition presents a section of Chicago-based contemporary artists working in the spirit of the New Bauhaus Chicago school (though not directly affiliated with the ID), including brief descriptions of their practice and how their techniques related to the earlier generation. On an aesthetic level, it becomes quite clear that the appeal of many of the original Bauhaus and New Bauhaus works lies in the simplicity and analogue nature of the means by which they are made. The digital reproductions by contemporary artists, while making homage to these techniques, have an air of sleek commercialism that, when shown in this comparative setting, undermines their autonomous merit. In short: for fans of the Bauhaus photograms and simple black-and-white photography, these works cannot compete.
This is not to say that commercialism was absent from the New Bauhaus Chicago school: it was, in fact, one of the main foci. Photography had not yet garnered a place in the art historical canon in its own right and was still often used as a means for straight-forward communication. In 1968, two of the school’s prominent students, Millie and Morton Goldscholl, produced an advertising film for Kodak that ran through nearly every experimental photography technique taught in the school’s foundation course. The roughly 8-minute film, entitled ‘Worth How Many Words’, examined the scrutinizing abilities of the modern camera, from macro to micro, in the vein of Charles and Ray Eames‘ film ‘Powers of Ten’, released the same year. This fascination with the potential of the camera to interrogate humanity at all scales, from the minutiae of nature to the vastness of urban centers, seemed to preoccupy many artists at the time.
The ‘New Bauhaus Chicago’ exhibition also focusses on how many of the school’s students addressed the context in which they lived: street photography from the city of Chicago paints a rare portrait of the city, post-Second World War, when immigration and industrial rebuilding affected many neighbourhoods. In this sense, the exhibition is not merely about the effect of the Bauhaus school on the city of Chicago, but also it’s opposite: European modernists were clearly fascinated by this city, and the works on display pay homage to the complexity of that newfound relationship.