From Lamps to Enlightened Materialism: Naum Gabo and the Problem of Functionalist Design
In a 1928 article published in the Bauhaus magazine, Naum Gabo offers a timely, if scathing, critique of what he saw as the Bauhaus’s deterioration into a mere style factory nearly a decade after its founding. Titled simply “gestaltung?” (i.e., “Design”) and punctuated with an accusatory question mark, Gabo’s article offers a critique of two Bauhaus lamps that is ultimately targeted against the cult of functionalism that had come into vogue in the post-war period.1 The problem, for Gabo, wasn’t in functionalism per se, but in the use of such words to obscure an essentially decorative application. And the timing of the article itself corresponds not just with the rising specter of the 1930s, but also with an important change of guard at the Bauhaus as it underwent one of several important transformations. In this case, a total policy change was triggered in 1928 by the voluntary departure of Bauhaus director and founder, Walter Gropius, and the subsequent accession to power of Gabo’s friend, Hannes Meyer—a Marxist architect whom Gropius appointed as his replacement. Meyer’s stridently Marxist reformulation of what he saw as the Bauhaus’s increasingly aestheticized orientation led to an embattled, which is not to say unsuccessful, tenure there before he immigrated to Soviet Russia, Gabo’s homeland, in 1931. Gabo’s intervention in the Bauhaus debate of 1928 helps clarify the context-specific opposition between formalism and functionalism generated by that debate, but also helps situate Gabo’s own sculptural idiom and the oscillating critical reception of his work in the thirty plus years since his death in 1977. [End Page 779]
The criticism Gabo levels at the Bauhaus lamps is doubly meaningful because it metaphorically addresses problems of materiality and objectification that Gabo had come increasingly to work out in his own sculpture—through translucent materials, for example, and a shift in focus from the investigation of sculptural masses to a “stereometric” approach to space. Representations of his work in a 1931 issue of Das Neue Frankfurt similarly underscore the affinity of Gabo’s art with lamps and lighting by juxtaposing three of his spatial constructions with two wall lamps by Otto Rittweger.2 In other words, his choice of Bauhaus lamps as the means for a critique of functionalist discourse wasn’t purely accidental. A founding figure of Russian Constructivism, Gabo’s innovative use of industrial materials (e.g., metal, glass, and newly developed plastics or celluloid) helped introduce a fresh set of materials to the more conventional materials of sculpture beginning in 1920. In the relatively new industry of plastics, this choice of materials earned Gabo unusual respect, as is evident, for example, in a 1938 article in the British technical journal Plastics: “to us, perhaps, part of the delight [of Gabo’s constructions] was due to the brilliant technique involved, as any worker in cellulose acetate will admit.”3
However it was also his constructive method that allowed him to transform the old ideas of volume and mass that had defined traditional, and even cubist, sculpture. In place of the more subjective processes of carving and molding, Gabo assembled forms from constituent parts that tended, in turn, to allow the generation of new possibilities even as they articulated one particular form. His constructive method, in other words, created a rubric of forms that could be manipulated much as if they were meant for mass production, rather than the creation of one-off aesthetic objects. As Herbert Read puts it, “his constructions are not objets d’art; they belong to no bourgeois artistic tradition . . . [his] new materials and new methods of working are awaiting a new generation of artists to create with them the monuments of a new civilization.”4 Rather than simply offering these industrial materials as the new sculptural content, Gabo imported them to the heart of the sculptural task and developed a constructivism based on industrial methods. His constructivism is therefore related to that of Russian Constructivism proper, but would remain deeply critical of its tendency to perpetuate precisely the antiquated aesthetic ideology it claimed to dismiss.
The productivist strand of Russian Constructivism, led by figures like Aleksandr Rodchenko, attacked art as such and demanded the entry of all artists into the factories. Gabo, however, found beneath this ostensibly radical gesture, a reactionary arts-andcrafts position inappropriate to the material needs and ideology of the new Soviet. As his “Design?” article reiterates in 1928, Gabo’s criticism of the Russian Constructivists in 1920–22 is based on the argument that any attempt to import artists into the factory would result in an aestheticization of industrial production, rather than the hoped for industrialization of art. Christina Lodder makes it clear that Gabo’s criticism of the extreme “productivist” position within Russian Constructivism was felt, even by his opponents, to carry real weight. She points out that [End Page 780]
the Productivist and the Constructivist were distinguished primarily by the difference in their relative commitments to the two halves of the art-industrial polarity . . . both were in danger of retreating to relatively traditional positions. Constructivism was warned at the time to “Beware of becoming a conventional artistic school” and the Productivist in the factory to “Beware of becoming an applied artist-craftsman.”5
Despite some successes, the Russian Constructivists failed to make the deep impact on industrial production for which they’d hoped. Gabo’s argument seems further born out by the fact that the Russian Constructivist influence on design was limited, for the most part, to precisely those aspects of industry that were closest to conventional artistic production: lithographs, printing, stage productions, films, and photography.
This negotiation of a working partnership between art and industry—one that doesn’t simply prefer one term or the other—was precisely the difficulty faced by the Bauhaus throughout its fourteen-year career. And Gabo’s intervention in the Bauhaus crisis of 1928 very clearly draws upon his heated participation in the Constructivists debates of 1920–1922. Indeed, there are a number of parallels between the Soviet design school, VChUTEMAS, and the Bauhaus: both were founded in 1919, both were state-sponsored institutions of design, and both sought to partner art and industry in the interest of mass production rather than handicrafts. The Bauhaus crisis of 1928 clearly echoes the earlier VCHuTEMAS discussions, but channels them through an opposition between purely utilitarian functionalism (advocated by Meyer and Gabo) and a stylistic formalism that takes the idea of functionalism as its inspiration.
Rather surprisingly, however, Gabo’s arguments against the aestheticization of industrial production have often been interpreted as a defense of precisely the reactionary aestheticism he was trying to fight. In the last thirty years in particular, Gabo’s arguments against the “productivist” strain of Russian Constructivism have been used to reject the validity of his commitment to Marxism and inscribe his own work as “formalist.” Hal Foster, for example, situates Gabo’s work using the following Greimasian map of positions: Art (autonomous individual)/ Not-Production and Production (utilitarian, collective)/ Not-Art.6 According to Foster, Gabo’s constructivism fits between the first set of oppositions (Art/Not-Production) and the productivists between the second (Production/Not-Art). From this initial grid of oppositions, he concludes,
[although] both his early cubistic sculptures and later abstract constructions involve a quasi-Constructivist analysis of structure (as articulated in his 1920 Realistic Manifesto), they are hardly materialist in a Marxian sense—on the contrary, they tend to dematerialization. Especially after his 1923 emigration, Gabo was resolutely committed to Art, indeed to spirit. The technophilic aspect of the work alludes to Production only to occlude its antinomy with Art, as social contradiction is masked by an aesthetic image of technological progress.7
In fact, Foster’s criticism echoes uncannily Gabo’s own criticism of the Bauhaus’s stylized functionalism. What’s interesting to me about Foster’s argument, moreover, is the fact that it rehashes the same logic that cold war critics used to exonerate Gabo in the 50s and 60s from the taint of his Soviet past and Communist sympathies. [End Page 781]
The Bauhaus debate of 1928 is therefore important, not only because it once again affirms Gabo’s commitment to Marxism, but also because it clarifies the tension in his constructions between the priority of (industrial) materials, on the one hand, and his work’s remarkable tendency towards “dematerialization” on the other. The “Design?” article, in other words, opens the possibility that Gabo’s constructivism has been critically misinterpreted from both the left and the right. I want to suggest that the problem is not just Gabo’s putative reactionary/capitalist or Marxist/radical position, a simplified grid of positions that is itself problematic. The danger of such a critical matrix is its failure to address his career-long search for a genuinely Marxist materialism, what I will call an enlightened materialism, rather than a Marxism that simply reiterates, through its fetish of the mass-produced object, all the problems and inequalities of commodity culture. To be clear, I am not suggesting that somehow Gabo arrives at a kind of utopic Marxist materialism, nor that the Constructivist worship of industrial production exactly corresponds to capitalist commodification. In fact, an important component of Gabo’s enlightened materialism, so to speak, was his long-standing defense of the category of art, and of artistic production as something that is distinct from industrial production without claiming to be transcendent. His doubled interest in materialism and art was ultimately an attempt to rethink the art object as such, but also the role of objects and their use value for individual and social life.
In his history of Constructivism, Gabo remarks that it was largely a reaction against the Suprematists, who seemed to have “detached themselves completely from the terrestrial world and had taken themselves off to a region of the irrational which was elevated above every reality.”8 In their reaction against that “spiritual leap into the metaphysical,” the group of Constructivists to which Gabo belonged felt that “this spiritual condition could have meant actual death for art. Then, however, we were all young and greedy for life, we wanted to create, we wanted to be regarded as an active force in life.”9 There is sometimes a slippery boundary in his writings between the metaphysical and the “irrational” that is part of human and material reality, but it is the latter that Gabo sought to embody—or rather disembody—in his work. The word “irrational” is somewhat misleading, though, because he courted it most intensely through his rationalistic, scientific, industrialized idiom. I am reminded of Marx’s comment in the opening of Das Kapital, that “the commodity is firstly an external object, a thing, that through its properties satisfies human needs of some kind. The nature of these needs, whether they correspond, for example, to the stomach or to fantasy, doesn’t make a difference.”10 In some ways, one might argue that Gabo was simply trying to categorize art as a thing that satisfies needs of a uniquely human, even spiritual nature. His work thus attempts to recast the spiritual—in the German, particularly Hegelian sense of Geist—as immanent and indeed necessary to lived, material reality.
More to the point, art for Gabo is preeminently a social phenomenon, a kind of medium for communication and human intercourse. When I speak of his enlightened materialism, then, I am referring to his channeling of the irrational or spiritual (the Geistlich) without ever attempting to transcend material, human existence. This dialectically figured goal is worked out, in part, through a critique of the Constructivist [End Page 782] cult of production which, in Gabo’s eyes, embraced Marxist materialism only to fetishize production and material objects as such. The problem, in other words, is that the productivists were paradoxically enacting a reified worldview that came to bear an uncanny resemblance to that of commodity culture per se. The transparent materials of his constructions serve, therefore, to destabilize the fetishistic faith in production partly by exposing the spectral nature of the fetish and partly by substituting for objects in and of themselves their socially relational character. In related fashion, Marx explains the commodity fetish through an analogy with the illusion of seeing itself: impressions of light reflected from things are not experienced as the subjective charm of the eye nerve itself, but rather as external objects. However, Marx tells us, “with seeing real light is reflected from one thing, the external object, onto another thing, the eye. It is a physical relationship between physical things.”11 Insofar as Gabo’s work is fundamentally an exploration of seeing, it is also for him very explicitly an exploration of relationality. To that end his work not only amplifies reflectivity and transparencies, thus disorienting our faith in classical perspective and reified material reality, it also calls into question, or better yet dis-closes, the self-enclosed reality of objects as such. He presents us, in other words, with the dialectical phenomenon of a dematerializing materiality.
This dematerializing tendency is underscored in a 1931 article about Gabo’s work in Form magazine: “He liberates himself from compacted massiness through both his design principles and choice of materials, from which he builds his plastic-spatial constructions. By using metal and glass almost exclusively, he is able to use lines and planes to construct his forms, which already through their very materials possess a striking immateriality.”12 Reproduced there is his sculpture, “In Suspension,” which embodies the mathematical principles, dematerializing effects, and industrial paradigm of his work. Intersecting celluloid planes interact with white opaque planes, as do circular and linear and rectangular shapes, all of which work together to deprive the eye of any stabilizing dimensional mass. American collector Katherine Dreier highlights this shift from volume and mass to space: “Formerly sculpture was only represented by volume of an enclosed circumference, creating a mass form in space, broken by outward irregularities of contour. By adding depth he created a new dimension.”13 In place of mass, there is a sense of interpenetration and movement, as if the traditional sculptural mass, the self-enclosed object, is divulging itself of its materiality but not its reality.
Or perhaps we could say that beneath the illusory stability of static materiality, Gabo cultivates a dynamism that is a function of space, time, light, and movement. Though he adopted a mathematical and scientific idiom, he was adamant that his work was no more science than it was industrial production per se: “The reference I so often make here to science and my claim for the artist’s right should not be understood as meaning that I consider visual art and science exactly the same thing. I am not claiming my work to be a work of science.”14 In their 1925 book Die Kunstismen, El Lissitzky and Hans Arp reproduce Gabo’s work as a demonstration of Constructivist principles, which they characterize as a “look[ing] at the world through the prisma [sic] of technic [ . . . ]. The shortsighteds [sic] see therein only the machine. Constructivism proves that the limits between mathematics and art, between a work of art and a technical invention are not to be fixed.”15 If those limits are not fixed, however, neither are they non-existent. [End Page 783]
In the context of industrial production, it is precisely these questions of limits or boundaries, both technical and ideological, that Gabo addresses when he questions Bauhaus functionalism. But the fixing or unfixing of such boundaries was also deeply political and in 1928 corresponded with institutional upheaval within the Bauhaus itself. Consistent with its demands for rationalist design, the Bauhaus began its influential, if protean, existence in the classical environment of Weimar, but would continue to face the continual turmoil plaguing the new republic itself. Walter Gropius had fought both bankruptcy and Johannes Itten’s spiritualist-aesthetic pedagogy for several years before precipitating Itten’s departure in 1923. But it was only in 1924 that the Bauhaus faced its first major crisis. When the city of Weimar withdrew financial and ideological support in 1924, the Bauhaus was forced then, as it would be in 1932, to either relocate or close its doors. After moving slightly north to the city of Dessau in 1925, Walter Gropius invited Hannes Meyer to join him in the architectural faculty before departing himself and leaving Meyer as his successor. But Gropius’s choice of successor was not a popular one, either internally or externally. Moholy-Nagy and other Bauhaus faculty, for example, chose to leave in protest rather than accept the new, and for them unwelcome, direction towards which Meyer made it clear he would push the Bauhaus. But that internal upheaval would be repeated externally in just two short years, by which time Meyer’s Marxist prerogatives had become intolerable to the city of Dessau and its Mayor, Fritz Hesse. Despite the appointment of Mies van der Rohe to replace Meyer, the increasingly right-wing Dessau would withdraw all funding from the Bauhaus in 1932 and the once famous glass and iron structure, designed specifically for the school by Walter Gropius, became home to local NSDAP offices. At that time, the Bauhaus fled to Berlin before being shut down completely by the Nazis less than a year later.
Appropriately, then, the transformation signaled in 1928 by Meyer’s radical politics was not accompanied by any comfortable celebrations of the Bauhaus success, but rather with a bleak reappraisal of the Bauhaus track record. As Ernst Kállai writes in his editorial of another Bauhaus issue of 1928, “The Bauhaus lives! The change of guard at the Bauhaus [ . . . ] has been publicly described again and again as a crisis that means the beginning of the end for the institute.”16 Of course Kállai, who co-edited the magazine with Meyer, went on to proclaim against all pessimism, “the Bauhaus, however, will pull through to greater successes.”17 The inclusion of Gabo’s article was meant to consolidate Meyer’s radically utilitarian position against those elements that had contributed to what all three saw as its disintegration into a superficial cultural force.
In accord with Meyer and Kállai’s views, the position Gabo puts forward in his “Design?” article is based on a commitment to historical materialism—what the Russian constructivists liked to call “scientific communism”—that vehemently rejects stylistic manipulation pretending to functionalism. It is precisely for the Bauhaus’s ostensible obeisance to such economic design that Gabo takes it to task: “words like ‘design,’ ‘economy,’ ‘functionalism,’ and ‘objectivity,’” he points out, “can be found in every modern magazine that discusses the new in art.”18 In 1928 as in 1920, Gabo argued that one of the biggest problems facing the leftist avant-garde was not the dangers of [End Page 784] aesthetic spiritualism or introversion. The gravest threat was instead to be found in the mistaken fetishism of mass production and materialism as an end in itself, rather than a means to an enlightened, which is to say non-fetishistic, Marxism. Like Meyer, Gabo was a historical materialist, but saw a danger in allowing objects and materiality itself to absorb the humanist and visionary energy of the communist revolution, which he would support for the rest of his life.
In his “Design?” article, Gabo goes on to argue that Man must master the object, he must stand in a superior relation to the object of consumption. The object exists only for man to use. It wants to disappear or, at the very least, be less conspicuous and disruptive when one no longer needs it. For in that instant there’s already another object available to fulfill its function.(“Gest,” 6)
It’s important to recognize, however, that Gabo’s critique of object fetishism, particularly the kind that hides itself under the guise of functionalism, is not a rejection of the object or materiality as such—quite the opposite. What Gabo imagines is instead a world of objects, a superfluity of objects that are constantly being replaced and transformed according to the human needs of a communist collective. And if we bracket for a moment his vision of proliferation—that is, the abundance of objects that are always replacing themselves—we can see that Gabo is really calling for the kind of object that his art was always attempting to embody: the perpetually transformative object, or, to put it another way, the object in motion, the object defined almost as motion itself. Usually considered the founder of kinetic sculpture, Gabo’s interest in motion was primarily invested in what movement revealed: the fluidity of space/time and a deterritorialization of mass and volume. In place of the fetish object that he claims the Bauhaus had helped popularize, Gabo proposes another object whose very identity as an object is defined by a protean materiality that paradoxically acquires all the traits of an equally protean immateriality. Taken in conjunction with the tendency of his constructions towards illumination and de-materialization—Steven Nash refers to Gabo’s constructions as instruments of light as one might say instruments of music—what we encounter in Gabo’s constructivism is not an industrially inspired “formalism,” but rather an attempt to save Marxist culture from the substitution of commodity fetishism for the organized satisfaction of collective need.19 Contrary to claims that Gabo’s constructivism capitulates to a bourgeois defense of the aesthetic, his work is rather mobilized against the tainting of communism by the objectifying logic of the capitalist system it theoretically rejects. One might say that he wants to prevent communism from consuming itself.
Although Gabo’s article takes the Bauhaus to task for its deferral to mere style, a charge that goes right to the heart of the historical avant-garde’s anti-art aesthetic, his proposed antidote to commodity fetishism acquires certain traits of the style system that it claims to debunk. One finds, in other words, that his dematerializing materialism avoids commodity fetishism not by rejecting the protean aspect of style, but rather by exploding it. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse Gabo’s final rejection of the reified object as an end in itself, continually remade through a semiotics of style that [End Page 785] seems incongruous with historical materialism and materialism per se. Gabo’s vision of abundant objects is offered rather as a means to make objects less, rather than more, important than the needs they satisfy. And Gabo’s article is particularly critical of the vogue for functionalism that the Bauhaus had, in his view, irresponsibly disseminated: a stylistic insatiety that nevertheless pretends to real “Sachlichkeit,” “Ökonomie,” and “Gestalt.” By proposing a world in which objects proliferate according to genuine need, Gabo seeks to inoculate Marxism against capitalist consumption without denying consumption its necessary place in human society: objects, he argues, “are necessary in the human sphere, but must fulfill their functions.” (“Gest,” 6)
Once we take into account the paradoxes of Gabo’s distinction between genuine and saccharine “Sachlichkeit,” his decision to discuss this problem in relation to the Bauhaus lamps suggests that the lamp is, for him, more than the tangential object of interest that the article might otherwise indicate. In the first major retrospective of his work in 1985–7, Nash clarifies that Gabo was not the first to use materials like metal or glass, but his
use of these new materials went further than both the implied transparency of Cubist sculpture and the suggestion of transparency in abstract Russian painting, and can also be compared with the contemporary turn in architectural design towards the use of glass for structural and ideological purposes.20
And yet the seeming rejection of materiality implied by this “tendency toward dematerialization” is explicitly denied by the very priority that such materials acquire in his work, both through their industrial references and through his process of depersonalized construction (rather than “creation” or “composition”). Without attempting to recuperate or critique his reputation, I want to suggest that Gabo’s fluctuating critical reception in the last thirty years is due largely to a confusion between dematerialization per se, a counter-materialist mode, and a more dialectically figured dematerializing-materiality conducive to what I call enlightened materialism.
Gabo’s discussion of the Bauhaus lamps, which he finds indicative of the Bauhaus’s failure generally, begins with the almost casual question, “Why should a candelabra from the palace of Marie Antoinette be scorned as ‘decorative,’ and a circular or cubically inspired lighting fixture be termed ‘design’?” (“Gest,” 2). Printed below this question is the reproduction of a seventeenth-century French chandelier that, on the next page, is juxtaposed by two more reproductions, this time of a Jugendstil chandelier and the sheer sphericality of a Bauhaus hanging lamp. Gabo’s accusation takes the form of a stylistic genealogy proposed to undercut the Bauhaus’s claim to newness and purified functionality. His comparison with a pre-revolutionary French fixture is obviously meant to expose the class politics beneath Bauhaus design. Equally troubling, however, is the similarity between the Jugendstil fixture and the unnamed Bauhaus table lamp. With its half-dome glass shade, industrially-inspired materials, and preference for geometrical lines, the lamp pictured in Gabo’s article resembles the iconic Bauhaus table lamp codesigned by Carl Jucker and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, one of several Bauhaus productions to enter the halls of design history.21 Whereas the truly functional object should give [End Page 786] way, according to Gabo’s opinion, when it is no longer needed, or when it no longer provides the best satisfaction of that need, the long cultural life of this “functional” lamp seems to confirm Gabo’s suspicion that the opposite often takes place: “when one no longer needs an object, it sets its functional existence aside and becomes independent, it destroys our power and threatens to conquer our spirit” (“Gest,” 6). Although writing in 1928, Gabo has rather presciently anticipated the afterlife of the Jucker/Wagenfeld lamp, as of the Bauhaus “style factory” generally.
Although the Wagenfeld lamp’s pared-down form and industrial references are meant to connote a kind of pure functionalism, Gabo’s comparison of it to the exaggerated formalism of both the Jugendstil and Baroque movements questions the Bauhaus’s claims to functionalist anti-formalism. It also arouses the old ghost of Bauhaus aestheticism and arts-and-craftiness that Gropius had tried to exorcise in 1924, along with Johannes Itten. But Gabo makes it clear that the force of his argument lies not on the superficial resemblance of these lamps, but rather to the fact that “in this object the core remains essentially the same, the identity of the object hasn’t changed, it’s simply been dressed up in another form”(“Gest,” 4). Gabo’s reference to the object’s Wesen is not so much ontological as it is structural and functional. And it is precisely the conjunction of these two factors—structure and function—that Gabo feels obliged to rename “Konstruktion” in order to differentiate it from the already diluted category of Gestalt preferred by the Bauhaus. In order to clarify this distinction, Gabo supplements these illustrations with drawings of truly constructive innovations in lighting technology: an oil lamp, candle, gas lantern, and electric lightbulb. His point is that the technology itself determines its appropriate form; all else is relegated to the status of window dressing.
The force of his argument comes simply from demanding of the Bauhaus the functional design it claims to offer. As he clarifies, “the real aesthetic of utilitarian objects lies not in their appearance but in their use” (“Gest,” 5). In contrast to construction, Gabo argues that the trendy design and savvy industrial connotations of the Jucker/ Wagenfeld lamp was built “as if it was built by an engineer or technician,” an “as if” that is, according to Gabo, “a danger, against which the developing generation of young ‘design-engineers’ can’t be warned enough” (“Gest,” 4–5). The problem of the Bauhaus, in other words, is not just style per se, but the stylized simulacra of functional construction that both imitates genuine design and threatens to supercede it. In fact, Wagenfeld himself later recalled that the industrial connotations of his lamp were largely illusory because the industrialists they consulted found it impractical for large-scale production. As Magdalena Droste remarks in her short history of the Jucker/Wagenfeld lamp, “Industry couldn’t be won over. The light, however, remains a symbol for the modern will of the Bauhaus: a victory of beautiful appearance and powerfully symbolic form over pure functionalism.”22 Although Droste seems enamored of the lamp, Gabo considered the similar lamps pictured in the article a failure for the same reasons.
Of course the polemical tone of Gabo’s article was also agitating for Meyer’s intended program of a more stringent Marxist functionalism. In the following issue of the Bauhaus magazine, editors Meyer and Kállai made sure to include Marianne Brandt’s resentful, and very likely representative, response to the Meyer-Gabo critique of the [End Page 787] Bauhaus. As a former student at the Bauhaus, and leader of the metal workshop after Moholy-Nagy’s departure, Brandt is responsible for some of the most successful, and aside from the Wagenfeld-Jucker’s creation, most familiar lamps generated by the Bauhaus. In contrast to Gabo’s five-page article, Brandt’s short response is understandably chilly in tone and consists mostly of denying his charge of simulated functionalism. If we take into consideration the fact that Brandt’s lighting fixtures constitute one of the more successful partnerships with industrial production, it’s clear that Gabo and Meyer’s criticism has less to do with the fact of that partnership than with the ideological direction it ought to take.
Gabo’s opposition to the Bauhaus style wasn’t meant to discredit the Bauhaus altogether, but rather to push it toward the stark functionalism that Meyer advocated as a means to total social organization along Marxist lines. In an editorial commentary in the Bauhaus magazine, the newly-promoted Meyer offers a formula for reversing the Bauhaus’s putative deterioration that recalls the anti-art creed of the Russian Constructivists: “Construction and design are one, and they are a social phenomenon. As an institute of design, the Bauhaus Dessau is not an aesthetic, but rather a social phenomenon.”23 And this difference between the social and artistic, he clarifies, is the radical organization of society in every aspect: “eine Organisationsform des Daseins,” an organizational form for existence itself, existence as a social phenomenon.24 Such fundamental re-organization, according to Meyer, Kállai and Gabo, could only be achieved by sacrificing the tidal modishness of stylized formalism in favor of groundup, rationalized contributions to a new social structure.
Although Gabo and Meyer differ in their understanding of art, they are in agreement in their sense of design and construction, both on how the terms had degenerated over the last ten years, and on how they should be revitalized for the future. Gabo’s argument, in fact, hinges less on a critique of the Bauhaus style, as on their use of the term design, which he suggests belies a fundamental confusion between formalistic innovation and genuine constructive contribution. The vogue for words like design, Gabo charges, had not only emptied them of meaning, but resulted in their complete inversion: “to find in the forms of today’s technical, constructed world and goods for consumption a replacement for art is a sentimental romanticism, of inestimably greater danger than the moony romanticism of our forefathers, who fell to their knees before every dug-up stone of the past” (“Gest,” 5). Design, according to Gabo, involves a superficial reverence for the industrial worker that, far from revising the traditional task of the artist, actually preserves it against the needs of a communist and genuinely rational culture. The fetish made of technology and economic functionalism, in other words, had nothing to do with technology or economy, but rather stemmed from a kind of romanticized fascination with the technological world as an end in itself.
It is important to point out that Gabo’s argument is mustered not to send art back to the pre-industrial world, but rather to exorcise from the constructive will an objectifying logic that belongs more properly to commodity culture. As the famously scientific and technical idiom of Gabo’s own art clarifies, his critique was explicitly not directed at the Bauhaus’s invocation of industry, mathematical rationality and economy, but [End Page 788] rather at the incomplete importation of such terms. The result is, according to Gabo, a muddying of both art and genuinely functionalist construction. Gabo argues that the danger of such aestheticized or formalistic functionalism is that “we therefore run the danger of making an idol of the object” (“Gest,” 5). It is precisely the object-fetish that Gabo’s constructions attempt to desecrate.
Certainly the Bauhaus students—and the architecture students in particular—felt a profound ideological and administrative shift with the substitution, first of Meyer [End Page 789] for Gropius, and then of van der Rohe for Meyer. Howard Dearstyne, the only American to graduate with a Bauhaus diploma, studied under Mies from 1928 to 1932 and later described the internal turmoil caused by Meyer’s dismissal for political reasons. Dearstyne was attracted to the sheer force of Meyer’s personality, but preferred the functionalist aesthetic of Mies and Gropius:
I was interested in architecture as an art, whereas Hannes (as everybody called him) steadfastly proclaimed his opposition to art in general, and to art in architecture in particular, insisting that the latter was totally utilitarian in character.25 [End Page 790]
Dearstyne’s recollection makes it clear that Meyer had won over enough of the students that his departure was accompanied by a near student rebellion, involving direct challenges to Mies’s authority and even the Dessau police. Dearstyne remembers that when Mies first arrived,
I had never heard of the Weissenhofsiedlung, the Barcelona Pavilion, and the rest of Mies’ executed works and projects. But certain of the students who were acquainted with them claimed that they were formalistic and that Mies built mansions for the wealthy when he should have provided dwellings for the poor.26
If the initial difficulty for both the Bauhaus and its Soviet counterpart, the VChUTEMAS, was to partner itself to industry without falling back into the older arts-and-crafts tradition, the vogue for design and objectivity that the Bauhaus helped popularize [End Page 791] transformed the surface terms of the handiwork tradition without fundamentally altering its class-bound aesthetic. As Gabo’s article makes clear, the earlier opposition between industrial production and arts-and-crafts had simply been re-written as a tension between genuine functionalism and a new formalism inspired by the idea of functionalism.
Ludwig Grote, the Dessau museum curator who’d been seminal in bringing the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1926, remarks that “it has become fashionable to assign the term functionalism to the new architectural movement which began in the early twenties, and to look upon the Bauhaus as the orthodox representation of form derived from function only”(“Mies,” 217). Although Grote sympathizes with Gropius rather than Meyer, he calls attention, like Gabo, to the diverse and often antipathetic positions organized by the same rubric of terms: “design,” “functionalism,” “economy.” Gabo never takes Gropius specifically task, but the force of his criticism depends precisely on those aspects of Gropius’s “functionalism” that Grote singles out for praise. Whereas Meyer “advocated, theoretically, the narrow view that form should be determined by function only [ . . . ] called himself a scientific Marxist and attempted to understand human needs by means of Socialism, tables, and calculations and to eliminate the irrational influence of art,” Gropius’s functionalism is, for Grote, mediated by a desire to humanize functionalism and make it aesthetically palatable (“Mies,” 217).
The mass-producible types that Gropius sought to produce are interpreted by Grote as proof that his functionalism is distinctly different from what he sees as Meyer’s too calculated, indeed inhuman, functionalism. He points out that “Gropius denied even then that the Bauhaus represented an apotheosis of rationalism,” and then cites Gropius’s comment that “I have always emphasized that aspect of life which considers satisfying emotional and spiritual needs equally as important as satisfying material needs; and which sees a new concept of space as something more than mere structural economy and functional perfection [ . . . ]. The slogan ‘if it’s functional then it’s beautiful’ is only half true” (“Mies,” 217). Clearly the distinction between functionalism and formalism is a dangerously plastic one that can be used by very different groups to advocate very different positions. And yet the very slipperiness of such terms raises the possibility that the difference between functionalism and formalism might hang precariously, even if inexplicitly, on their respective political commitment to the social collective. The question, in other words, might not just be the relation of art to industry that is, and was, so often debated, but rather the particular social or political uses to which such a partnership might be put. And perhaps as importantly, one is forced to ask why such antipathetic positions (like those Grote attributes to Gropius and Meyer) nevertheless share such similar terms.
Although Gabo was only tied to the Bauhaus through his article and intellectual coterie, his criticism of it comes not from the outside, but rather from someone who had himself helped secure the aesthetic currency of “design,” “functionalism,” and “economy” after the First World War. Gabo, for example, had collaborated directly on radical new journals like G, Material zur elementaren Gestaltung, published by Mies van der Rohe in 1923; as well as on the Berlin-based, tri-lingual journal Vesch/Gegenstand/ [End Page 792] Objet, edited by Gabo’s Russian colleague, El Lissitzky. And even when he didn’t offer such direct contribution, Gabo’s constructions and ground-breaking Realistic Manifesto of 1920 were widely reproduced and discussed in a host of other design and constructivist journals at the time. In the early 20s, these included eastern avant-garde journals like MA, Egyse’g (both Hungarian), and Stavba (Prague); as well as western-European design periodicals of the late 20s and 30s like i10 (Amsterdam), ABC Beitraege zum Bauen (Basil), Das Neue Frankfurt, Die Form, and the Bauhaus magazine.
When he arrived in Berlin in 1922, moreover, Gabo was part of the historical Erste Russische Kunst Ausstellung at the van Diemen Gallery, the first international exhibition of Russian art, avant-garde or otherwise, since the 1917 revolution.27 The high visibility of works by El Lissistzky, Rodchenko, Tatlin, and Gabo himself not only help turn the tide of the German avant-garde away from Dadaism and Expressionism, but also consolidated the rationalist, constructivist agenda proposed in Weimar by the Bauhaus in 1919. As a result, words like design, constructivism and economy were quickly on everybody’s lips as part of a general, if diverse, cultural movement that, by 1928, Gabo could already lament as diluted. Such terms, of course, had been catapulted into the cultural register in part by both the Russian Constructivists, with whom Gabo had earlier been associated, and the so-called International Constructivism that included, loosely and less programmatically, De Stijl in Amsterdam and the Bauhaus in Germany.
The popular respect for technology and economy that these movements generated was initially directed against post-war ennui and the old social order responsible for the war in the first place. But by 1928, such celebrations of rationality, science and industry could already be charged with the kind of superficial fashionableness that they’d been invoked originally to eradicate. The revolutionary impulse toward a material and comprehensive reorganization of society had ceded to an ornamentalism of industry and Technik. Gabo, like Meyer, conscientiously qualifies his otherwise technocratic vision in order to differentiate it from the technophilia that both men accused Gropius’s pedagogy of turning into a mere affectation. Rather than offering a technological cureall, both men insist that Technik is less important in and of itself than as a means to the consistent ordering of the social totality. The neue Sachlichkeit to which the Bauhaus had already contributed is, in other words, renewed—with stress on the ordering of material reality rather than a simple reification of materiality itself.
In a 1926 article for the Swiss periodical Das Werk, Meyer offered the stark formulations that he would in two-year’s time inculcate at the Bauhaus, Dessau. Meyer’s contribution was appropriately titled Die neue Welt and consumed most of the edition in which it appeared.28 In what amounted to a manifesto both for himself and for functionalist, socialist architecture, Meyer proclaimed
. . . grain silo, music hall, airfield, office chair, standardized goods. All these things are a product of the formula: Function times Economy. They are not works of art. Art is composition, purpose is function [ . . . ] construction is a technical, not an aesthetic process and the function of a house rejects composition again and again. Rationally and elementarily designed, our house for living becomes a machine for living[sic].29 [End Page 793]
Meyer’s argument is clearly motivated by the general spirit of die neue Sachlichkeit and functional rationality that seemed so attractive after the First World War. But it also, and perhaps more importantly, works to secure that spirit for a Marxist rather than capitalist culture.
And as the new director of the Bauhaus, Meyer would continue to push strenuously for this alliance despite great opposition from the city of Dessau itself. In an August, 1930 letter, Meyer describes the process of his removal from the Bauhaus and makes it clear that he was fired by the increasingly right-wing city of Dessau for his commitment to Marxism. Meyer, for example, explains that in a July meeting with the Dessau mayor, he was censured for privately donating his own money to the I.A.H. (International Arbeiters-Hilfe) and told in no uncertain terms, “. . . dass ein Marxist unmöglich Leiter des Bauhauses sein könne.”30 Elsewhere he was wrongly charged with politicizing the Bauhaus and starting, among other things, Marxist cells within the school that had harassed uncooperative teachers.
Philipp Tolziner, a student of the Bauhaus who earned his diploma in 1930, joined a group of former students who followed the ousted Meyer to the Soviet Union in 1931. In his memoir of the time, Tolziner explains the attractions both of Meyer’s pedagogy and the move to Soviet Russia:
One can’t forget that we’d already had political experience despite our youth. We’d all lived through the first world war, from the start of the war right up until the November Revolution. I was witness to the suppression of the Munich Republic, as well as to the first wave of national socialism after the Hitler putsch in Munich.31
Meyer’s students fought the right-wing pressure with strikes and demonstrations, but Dessau and Mayor Hesse were adamant in their opposition. Van der Rohe was called in to replace Meyer, and seven of the students followed Meyer to the Soviet Union four months after he had himself departed.
Meyer’s flight to the Soviet constitutes in many ways a closing of the circle begun by the Soviet avant-garde’s exportation of ideas to Germany through the Van Dieman Gallery exhibition in 1922. And yet, Meyer’s desire to constructively contribute to the social re-organization of the Soviet Union comes sadly late. By 1928 the Constructivist movement in Russia had, for all practical purposes, dissolved from both internal and external pressures—a death that would be finalized by Stalin’s proclamation, in 1932, of socialist realism as the official communist aesthetic. Indeed, Meyer would be forced by political pressure to leave Russia for Mexico after six years of working for the Soviet. As a member of the Russian avant-garde, Gabo had in fact left Moscow for Berlin in 1922 because, even then, support for the leftist avant-garde was quickly giving way to a consolidation of reactionary political and aesthetic control. Lodder helps clarify Gabo’s position, both in relation to his homeland and to the Russian avant-garde, by referring us to his diary around the time of Mayakovskii’s suicide: “Mayakovskii was a poet of genius, but the bastards consumed him. The millstone of materialistic ideology and a mechanical ideology crushed Mayakovskii.”32 With that in mind, Gabo’s “Design?” article clearly outlines his battle against materialism or objectivity as an end in itself—which is [End Page 794] not to say, against materials or objects as means. At the same time, however, it doesn’t necessarily address what Gabo’s work is, in a larger sense, mobilized against. That is, Gabo’s commitment to historical materialism and the communist revolution was not at all compromised by his refusal of materialism as an end in itself. For Gabo and, to a lesser extent, for Meyer, the dangers facing communism was not its difference from capitalism, but rather its uncanny similarity; that is to say, what most threatened to compromise communism in their eyes was its capacity to reiterate, rather than reject, the objectifying logic of commodity culture.
By nevertheless importing the language of mathematics and industry to art, however, Gabo was able to court a dissociation of the object as such so as to reclaim materialism from the instrumental logic of capitalism. Gabo often described his constructive technique in terms of stereometry, which Lodder notes stems from the language of mathematics. He usually explained the grounds of his stereometric method by referring to two instructional cubes that he exhibited in Moscow along with the early figurative works. The first cube is rendered in terms of its surfaces, which as in traditional sculpture, are mistaken for a solid volume of mass. The second square, defined by its lines and ligaments rather than surfaces, clarifies the space in which the first cube exists, and which it, at the same time, conceals. In “Sculpture: Carving and Construction in Space,” Gabo explains that the first cube “represents a volume of mass; the second represents the space in which the mass exists made visible. Volume of mass and volume of space are sculpturally not the same thing.”33 Gabo’s stereometric method is a clarification of the relationship between space, mass and volume, an opening up of the sculptural body that reveals a dynamic space in which things exist and can change.
The construction (or reconstruction) of forms in space using the stereometric method allows Gabo to quite literally illuminate the interior of an object in a way that reveals its own dynamic existence. The material object as such yields to a sense of its immateriality, not with the purpose of denying its material existence, but rather to expose the mechanics of that existence in the world. If forces (and the field in which those forces operate) are the central revelation of Gabo’s work, light and lightness are the means to that revelation. The result is a communist aesthetic that works toward what I have called enlightened materialism in order to distinguish it from what Gabo perceived as the objectifying logic of the commodity form. The industrial and scientific connotations evident in all Gabo’s work, as well as his interest in design itself, make it clear that he had no desire to jettison consumer or industrial objects, simply to subordinate them as means to human collective life.
In contrast to the industrial tropes (and aggressive rhetoric) of futurism, Gabo argues that if you
ask any Futurist how does he imagine “speed” and there will emerge a whole arsenal of frenzied automobiles . . . [but] does one really need to convince them that all that is not necessary for speed and for its rhythms? Look at a ray of sun . . . the stillest of the still forces, it speeds more than 300 kilometers in a second . . . behold our starry firmament . . . who hears it . . . and yet what are our depots to those depots of the Universe? What are our earthly trains to those hurrying trains of the galaxies?34 [End Page 795]
His response to the objects of Futurist fascination—automobiles, cities, weapons, machines for speed—is, in fact, resonant with his developing critique of functionalist style qua style. Both, according to Gabo, looked to industrial modernity as a new religion that was all the more mystical for pretending to Sachlichkeit. In contrast, Gabo refers the world of consumer objects to a physical context that has the effect of grounding them in lived, biological reality, which is to say, real use value rather than spectral exchange value. One finds in his ray of sun, “the stillest of forces,” a poetic, but nevertheless scientific, trope that will recur more and more powerfully in all of his subsequent work. I would suggest that this conjunction of speed and lightness— which provides the motivation for his famous use of plastics, glass and shiny metals, as well as his spectacular stringing techniques and formal rhythms—involves a radical renunciation of the art object as an object to be consumed by the viewer. Indeed the sense of movement conveyed in his work through play of light and formal rhythms prevent the aesthetically complete forms from ever seducing the viewer into a false sense of formal closure. The inability to “finish” his works serves as an alternative to the consumption of art objects; art for Gabo is rather to be experienced as life itself, without ever trying to be identical with it.
John Lessard is an Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of the Pacific. His current research focuses on East German film and twentieth-century negotiations of privacy, property, and the image.
1. I am profoundly indebted to the generosity of the Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Kunst, Fotografie, und Architektur for providing access to their archive of Naum Gabo papers and constructions. Special thanks to Prof. Jörn Merkert, Vorstand der Stiftung Öffentlichen Rechts and Gabo scholar, for his scholarly generosity and hospitality.
2. “Bemerkungen,” Das Neue Frankfurt: Internationale Monatsschrift für die Probleme Kultureller Neugestaltung 5, no. 1 (1931): 16.
3. “Constructions in Space: Naum Gabo’s Work in Plastics,” Plastics 2, no. 9 (February 1938): 50–51.
4. Herbert Read, “Naum Gabo,” reprinted in Naum Gabo: Ein russischer Konstruktivist in Berlin 1922–1932, ed. Jörn Merkert for the Berlinische Galerie Museum für Moderne Kunst, Photographie und Architektur (Berlin: Dirk Nishen Verlag, 1989), 41.
5. Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 75–6. Lodder continues: “The chief difficulty lies around the distinction b/w the approaches of the Constructivist (konstruktivist) and the Productivist (proizvodstvennik). Sometimes these labels are used as if they were completely interchangeable. When strictly defined, however, Constructivist seems to denote the artist who is trying to approach this fusion practically, by himself grappling with real form-making amongst materials, while the Productivist approached the problem of fusion from the standpoint of industry” (75–6).
6. Hal Foster, “Some Uses and Abuses of Russian Constructivism,” in Art into Life : Russian Constructivism : 1914 – 1932, ed. Jaroslav And l (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), 242.
7. Foster, Art into Life, 242.
8. Naum Gabo, “The Rational and Irrational in Modern Art” (1930), in Gabo on Gabo: Texts and Interviews, eds. Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder (East Sussex, England: Artists Bookworks, 2000), 68.
9. Gabo, Gabo on Gabo, 69.
10. Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, Vol I, ed. Karl Kautsky (Berlin: J.H.W. Dietz, 1928), 3. My translation.
11. Marx, Kapital, 36. [End Page 796]
12. Justus Bier, “Gabo,” Die Form: Zeitschrift für Gestaltende Arbeit 6, no. 12 (December 1931): 465. My translation.
13. Katherine Dreier, “Naum Gabo,” from the 1950 Catalog of the Société Anonyme, reprinted in The Société Anonyme and the Dreier Bequest at Yale University: A Catalogue Raisonné, eds. Eleanor Apter, Robert Herbert, and Elise Kenny (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 282–83.
14. Naum Gabo, “On Constructive Realism: The Trowbridge Lecture,” in Three lectures on Modern Art: Katherine Dreier, James Sweeney, and Naum Gabo (New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 1948), 79.
15. El Lissitzky and Hans Arp, Die Kunstismen: Les Ismes de l’art: The Isms of Art (Munich/New York: Eugen Rensch Verlag/Arno Press, 1925), XI.
16. Ernst Kállai, “Das Bauhaus Lebt!,” Bauhaus Zeitschrift für Gestaltung 2, no. 2/3 (1928): 1.
17. Kállai, “Bauhaus Lebt,” 1–2.
18. Naum Gabo, “Gestaltung?,” Bauhaus Zeitscrhift für Gestaltung 2, no. 4 (1928): 2. Henceforth abbreviated as “Gest”.
19. Steven Nash, “Die Transparenz der konstruktiven Form,” in Naum Gabo: Sechzig Jahre Konstruktivismus, eds. Steven A. Nash and Jörn Merkert (München: Prestel-Verlag, 1986), 41.
20. Nash, Sechzig Jahre Konstruktivismus, 22.
21. Contemporary editions of the lamp can still be purchased on-line or through the Bauhaus Archiv. Whereas Jucker’s 1923 version had a clear glass center tube, it was replaced by a metal tube in Wagenfeld’s 1924 remake.
22. Magdalena Droste, Die Bauhaus-Leuchte von Carl Jacob Jucker und Wilhelm Wagenfeld (Frankfurt am Main: Verl. Form, 1997), 5.
23. Hannes Meyer, “Bauhaus und Gesellschaft,” Bauhaus Zeitschrift für Gestaltung 3, no. 1 (1929): 2.
24. Meyer, “Bauhaus und Gesellschaft,” 2.
25. Howard Dearstyne, “Mies van der Rohe’s teaching at the Bauhaus in Dessau,” in Bauhaus and Bauhaus People: Personal Opinions and Recollections of Former Bauhaus Members and Their Contemporaries, ed. Eckhard Neumann and trans. Eva Richter and Alba Loman (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993), 223. Henceforth abbreviated as “Mies”.
26. Dearstyne, Mies, 224. Dearstyne continues: “. . . they also held turbulent mass meetings in the Bauhaus canteen, at which they expressed their indignation at the firing of Hannes and the hiring of Mies. In the course of one of these they dared Mies to descend from his sanctuary on the ‘bridge’ spanning the street between the Bauhaus and the trades school to defend himself. The new director, incensed at this lese majesty, ordered the canteen cleared and, when the students refused to leave, called in the Dessau gendarmes to disperse them,” 224.
27. For more information on the exhibition, see both Jörn Merkert’s introduction and Helen Adkins’s “Naum Gabo und die ‘Erste Russische Kunstausstellung’ Berlin 1922,” in Naum Gabo: Ein russischer Konstruktivist in Berlin 1922–1932, ed. Jörn Merkert for the Berlinische Galerie Museum für Moderne Kunst, Photographie und Architektur (Berlin: Dirk Nishen Verlag, 1989), 7–20 and 21–32.
28. Klaus-Jürgen Winkler, “Kunst und Wissenschaft: Hannes Meyers programmatische Schrift Die Neue Welt und die Wettbewerbsentwürfe “Peterschule” und “Völkerbundpalast,” Hannes Meyer 1889–1954 Architekt Urbanist Lehrer, ed. Werner Kleinerüschkamp (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn Verlag für Architektur, 1989), 94.
29. Hannes Meyer, “Die Neue Welt,” (1926), reprinted in Hannes Meyer 1889–1954 Architekt Urbanist Lehrer, ed. Werner Kleinerüschkamp (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn Verlag für Architektur), 70–71.
30. Meyer, Hannes Meyer 1889–1954, 173.
31. Philipp Tolziner, Hannes Meyer 1889–1954, 245. Tolziner also describes the political mobilization of the students, with which Meyer wasn’t directly related: “Die Hauptrolle in unserer politischen Erziehung spielte damals der Politzirkel, den die Zell der kommunistischen Studentenfraktion ‘Kostufra’—am Bauhaus organisierte. Dort studierten wir gemeinsam die Broschüren der marxistischen Arbeiterschulung. Ein Teil der Studieren zog aus den angeeigneten Theorien praktische Schlussfolgerungen: Einige wurden Mitglieder der KPD und nahmen an deren Propagandaarbeit teil, andere beteiligten sich an deren Massenveranstaltungen,” 245. [End Page 797]
32. Christina Lodder, Martin Hammer, and Naum Gabo, Constructing Modernity: the Art & Career of Naum Gabo (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 162.
33. Lodder, Hammer, and Gabo, Constructing Modernity, 50. For the complete essay, see Gabo on Ga bo, 106.
34. Gabo, “The Realistic Manifesto,” in Gabo on Gabo, 25–26. [End Page 798]