June 18, 2019

The Genius of Walter Gropius

“In 1948 Irving Penn undertook a series of portraits of celebrities in a corner he’d assembled in his New York studio. The aim was to provoke the subjects into revealing something of themselves. Of all the figures, from Marcel Duchamp to Marlene Dietrich, the hardest to read was the architect Walter Gropius. Where others had responded with an element of theatricality, Gropius remained as impassive as the façade of his Bauhaus building in the German town of Dessau.

The portrait adorns the cover of Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of the enigmatic Bauhaus founder. Her approach is engaging and surprisingly nimble given the size of the book. Though not without criticism, she retains admiration for Gropius throughout, gleaned from meeting the quietly charismatic architect towards the end of his life. This is understandable. Gropius managed to create the most influential design school of the 20th century from virtually nothing, having proved himself architecturally with modernist works created, astonishingly, during the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II. MacCarthy’s account of Gropius’ privileged youth becomes particularly compelling when contrasted with his brutal, vividly painted, experiences in the First World War. Almost killed on numerous occasions, Gropius conducted himself with immense courage, taking control of situations when superiors were slain. He retained this bravery and integrity throughout his Bauhaus years, when defending the school against vicious attacks from the Nazis and aiding refugees while in exile. He remained stoical about these experiences, bar the death of his beloved daughter Manon.

There is a prevailing sense, throughout MacCarthy’s book, of Gropius at the eye of the storm; a figure of resolve and calm. Yet there is something of Prospero to him, in terms of conjuring his own storm of activity. He was bourgeois yet radical. Measured yet intensely romantic. Suave yet mercurial. This is evident in the webs of intrigues, rivalries and love affairs which MacCarthy explores, often via correspondence. Characters pass by fleetingly but vibrantly, particularly the tempestuous Alma Mahler (MacCarthy is less enamoured by her than many writers – including Alma Mahler herself). Hints of stranger undercurrents emerge with Gropius’ attempts to bring order and guidance to situations best left alone; such as mediating with the third party in affairs, culminating in the oddly haunting scene of a lantern-wielding Gustav Mahler leading Gropius through the darkness so Alma can choose between them.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for..."

"“I hereby sentence you to death.” The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house..."

"The video footage of Jewish Israelis dancing with Palestinians at a wedding should be something to celebrate. It should be an expression of joy and joint faith in the future. Instead, it has brought danger and disgrace to Radi Nasser, the mayor..."

"In 2013, I was executive editor of the NY Daily News, and we, like every other publication in the country, were covering the series finale of Breaking Bad. As one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows in history, the finale was..."

"Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tells us that wealth inequality is at grotesque and immoral levels. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has a plan to tax everyone lots and lots to solve this. The slight problem is that the Federal Reserve tells us that..."

"For much of World War I, Sir Phillip Gibbs was one of the few journalists the British War Office permitted to correspond from the Western Front. Gibbs’s mission was to describe, in terms that would be acceptable to government censors, the..."

"In the 1940s, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who was on the verge of publishing his first major report on male sexuality in the US, enlisted a photographer named Thomas Painter to investigate gay subcultures. Painter, a white, openly gay man, had..."

"What was Postmodernism? In the 35 years since Fredric Jameson’s New Left Review essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” — and the 40 years since the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition..."

"My husband and I are proud fathers of a 5-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy. I was grocery shopping with them last week when I saw a sign that made me cringe. Attached to a basket of free fruit, the sign reminded kids to “Ask Mom” before taking a..."

"Family farms are central to our nation’s identity. Most Americans, even those who have never been on a farm, have strong feelings about the idea of family farms — so much that they’re the one thing that all U.S. politicians agree on. Each..."

"The Big Bang is the defining narrative of modern cosmology: a bold declaration that our universe had a beginning and has a finite age, just like the humans who live within it. That finite age, in turn, is defined by the evidence that universe is..."

"After a protracted siege by the Roman tenth legion, the situation of the Sacarii, the Jewish rebels holed up on the mountain fortress of Masada, became hopeless. The Jewish rebels led by Elazar Ben Yair decided to kill themselves rather than be..."