Always a Part of the Present

The Gropius network

Photography: Kurt Eppler / © WKV Archive
Opening of the Exhibition: 50 Years of Bauhaus in Stuttgart, Speech by Walter Gropius to protesting students of the Design School in Ulm, 1968 / Photography: Kurt Eppler / © WKV Archive

About Magda-lena

Magdalena Droste is a professor emerita of art history at the BTU Cottbus. Previously, she was research associate at the Bauhaus-Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung in Berlin.

[Translate to English:] Anfang

Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919 and headed it for nine years. In doing so, he left a much stronger mark on the school than Hannes Meyer (two years) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (three years). But unlike his two successors, Gropius continued to actively promote the idea of the school after his time at the Bauhaus. And what’s more, he assembled a strong and robust team of partners, friends and employees—a global network, if you will—with whom he devoted his life to the Bauhaus and his legacy. This team can be described as a global network.

Reading through the rich correspondence of the individual members of the network, their great willingness to adapt and their will to succeed is particularly striking. An important characteristic of the “London Group”. as Wassily Kandinsky once called it, is the fact that its members did not wait for invitations and impulses from outside, but rather actively launched proposals and initiatives on their own accord, time and again.

Gropius undoubtedly had organizational talent and leadership qualities. Even before he founded the Bauhaus, he spoke of “small societies” who maintained secrecy in order to lead their community to success. They are, so to speak, the intellectual forerunners of the network that Gropius then built up as director of the Bauhaus. But who belonged to this network?


At the Bauhaus 1919–28

In 1923, Walter Gropius (1883–1969) married Ilse Frank (1897–1983), later known as Ise Gropius, who was 14 years his junior. His wife was no artist, but she immediately identified with the “Bauhaus” project. As an excellent organizer, she handled the ever-increasing correspondence. The double desk in Walter and Ise Gropius’ Master House was the symbolic center for the joint work of this personal and professional partnership. 

In 1923, the Hungarian emigre and Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) joined them. The painter, photographer, filmmaker, commercial artist and theorist of modern art was known to be a workaholic. Moholy-Nagy initiated the successful series of Bauhaus books, which first appeared in 1924, and the first issue of the Bauhaus magazine, which was published on the occasion of the opening ceremony for the new Bauhaus building in Dessau in December 1926.

A trio of ambitious young men joined the inner circle of friends in 1925: They had been studying at the Bauhaus since 1920 and 1921, respectively, and had qualified themselves for teaching positions after graduation due to their great talent. Herbert Bayer from Austria (1900–1985), Marcel Breuer from Hungary (1902–1981) and Alexander (Xanti) Schawinsky (1904–1979) from Switzerland. Breuer worked at the Bauhaus as a cabinetmaker, promoted the development of tubular steel furniture and had ambitions to be an architect. Herbert Bayer taught advertising graphics and realized exhibitions there; the younger Schawinsky, who was also interested in theater, followed in his footsteps.

to the network illustration
Somengo 2019

Germany 1928–35

All three of them left Dessau with or shortly after Walter Gropius, and their foreign origins helped them to internationalize the Bauhaus idea in the further course of their lives. Josef Albers, another of the young masters (1888–1976), briefly cooperated with the Gropius network from 1933. As a student, he had already used the formula “Historical or Present?” to describe the rejection of tradition and the past. True to this motto, Gropius and his team always wanted to be part of the present.

The social structure of this network barely changed over three decades: Gropius remained the leader, everyone was on familiar terms and the hierarchies were rather flat. The wives were not or only marginally a part of it. Competitiveness and conflicts between the members were defused and not tolerated by Gropius—even when an affair between Herbert Bayer and his own wife that lasted for years severely endangered his marriage.

The competence in terms of modernity shaped the team even after leaving the school. In the years from 1928, each had his own office, but the team remained personally connected through vacations, trips, visits, parties, letters and love affairs. Beyond these private interests, however, they also came together time and again to collaborate.

To see how the network secured orders for its members, it is particularly instructive to look at their cooperations in major exhibition projects: the exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund in Paris in 1930, the Building Exhibition in Berlin in 1931, and even in 1934—after the Nazi takeover.

The changes that took place in Germany in 1933 did not mark a direct turning point in the history of this network, since its members had begun to disperse geographically as early as 1930/31: from 1931 on- wards, Breuer traveled (partly with Herbert Bayer) through Southern Europe and Morocco, founded an architectural office in Budapest in 1933 and found work in Switzerland. Moholy-Nagy completed projects in Germany, the Netherlands and England. Herbert Bayer was kept very busy with the artistic management of the Dorland branch in Berlin.

USA from 1937

After Gropius’ move to the USA in the summer of 1937, Schawinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Bayer and Breuer caught up with the Gropiuses at a beach in Planting Island, MA. The network’s ties never seemed stronger than in these crises and transition years that were soon to be followed by the Second World War.

In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized an (initially controversial) exhibition on the Bauhaus, the impact of which was to be of long-term significance. The catalogue and exhibition contained a section entitled “Spread of the Bauhaus Idea”, in which Albers and Moholy-Nagy were able to present works by students from Blackmountain College and the New Bauhaus in Chicago as a ‘continuation’ of the Bauhaus. Gropius himself had the opportunity for the first time to spread the idea that the Bauhaus’s concept of teaching was timeless. And Herbert Bayer, who was almost single-handedly responsible for realizing the exhibition, thus broke into a new career as a commercial artist in the USA.

After 1945

The network didn’t take permanent damage until after 1945. Marcel Breuer had already parted ways with Gropius and the architectural firm, which they had run jointly until then, in 1941. Moholy-Nagy died at an unexpectedly early age in 1946. In 1947/48, Gropius had a falling out with Schawinsky. Herbert Bayer, motivated by his own accomplishments, wanted to step out from under his mentor’s shadow. But Gropius’ commitment to “his” Bauhaus never wavered: after the war, the Harvard professor’s authority in urban planning in the young Federal Republic was enormous.

Gropius also began early on with the museification of his rich private archive and made donations to the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, MA on the one hand and the newly founded Bauhaus-Archiv in Darmstadt (later Berlin) on the other. One of the late highlights in Gropius’ life was undoubtedly the exhibition that opened exactly 50 years ago to mark the school’s 50th anniversary, which he once again co-curated with Herbert Bayer and for which he designed the catalog and poster.

Starting in Stuttgart, the show went on a world tour until 1971, laying the groundwork for the global recognition with which the Bauhaus looks back on its 100-year history today. Walter Gropius’ strategy of always remaining part of the present evidently panned out in the end.

[Translate to English:] Headline

The text sums up the results of a DFG research project whose other members besides Magdalena Droste are Patrick Rössler and Anke Blümm and media designers Andreas Wolter and Jens Weber.


This article was originally published in the second issue of the “bauhaus now” magazine.

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Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
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