The Bauhaus stood for delight, experiment and creative freedom. Gropius gathered talents, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, into an art school that became an alternative way of life. Once Hitler came to power in 1933, Gropius' situation became increasingly untenable. The Nazis opposed everything the Bauhaus stood for. Gropius' beliefs and his affiliations left him little choice but to leave Germany. His story is one of exile in a century of buffeting and conflict.
In this entertaining biography, Fiona MacCarthy argues that Walter Gropius's visionary ideas still influence the way we live, work, and think today.
In the history of 20th-century design, it is too easy to fall into the old trap of believing that modernists valued ideas and form – and more particularly ideas about form – over living, breathing people with all their warm mess. In this brilliantly recuperative biography MacCarthy provides the same service for Gropius as she did 25 years ago for William Morris. In short, she shows us the man behind the forcefield. Go to Ikea and you’ll see how much we still owe him.
Fiona MacCarthy, the well-known biographer of William Morris, Lord Byron and Eric Gill, and one-time design critic of The Guardian, sets out to scotch the myth of the cold fish Gropius in this engagingly written and lavishly illustrated biography... Gropius’s glorious period was undoubtedly the 10 blazingly intense years from the end of the First World War to 1928, during which he became director of the Bauhaus. It’s here that MacCarthy’s biography really comes alive, partly because Gropius was determined to hire the most radical artists and designers as teachers, so his austerity is offset by the entertaining and eccentric characters all around him.
MacCarthy refuses the often ill-researched reductionist characterisations of Gropius as the arrogant, dour modernist. Instead, she passionately weaves a gripping and powerful narrative deserving of a wide audience while also making for essential reading for anyone studying architecture and design.
MacCarthy tells these dramas in plain and factual prose, its sentences short to the point of jerkiness, interweaving private life with the historically significant acts of Gropius as an architect... MacCarthy’s book does justice to these achievements, detailing the ever-precarious financial and political circumstances in which this astonishing cultural supernova briefly flared... MacCarthy’s book doesn’t claim to offer deep analysis of all of Gropius’s or the Bauhaus’s artistic output. But, as a way of bringing the human stories of this extraordinary phenomenon to life, it’s hard to beat.
To redress the balance, MacCarthy, who claims to have been struck by the octogenarian Gropius’s sexual charisma, slices up his life according to his many affairs. It doesn’t quite redeem him, but it makes for an incredibly readable and rounded biography and gives credit where it’s due to the formidable women who shaped him.
As a biographer, MacCarthy has a gift for making a not immediately attractive man compelling. For Grim Gropius was really Gorgeous Gropius: a leader of men, a seducer of women, a soldier, philosopher, romantic exile and a mean ping-pong player. The Bauhaus art master Paul Klee called Gropius “the Silver Prince”.
The career, in short, was a triumph of the highest interest, and MacCarthy describes the public side with absorbing power. Her challenge, however, has been to bring out the human qualities of her subject. Gropius has not attracted biographers in the way that his Bauhaus colleague Paul Klee has. His character remains something of a blank, and he comes across as just a supremely efficient public man... There’s no doubt that MacCarthy’s book is a solid piece of work, and covers the impressive career with admirable accuracy and command. But in the end there is an undeniable sense that — unlike her previous subjects William Morris and Eric Gill — Gropius has escaped her.
The story of Gropius and Alma’s affair (and their subsequent marriage and child, Manon) is not new, but MacCarthy tells it with relish... MacCarthy gives diligent attention to Gropius’s nine years at the Bauhaus... MacCarthy’s enjoyable biography is an impressive achievement, finally giving us not just Gropius the architect in black and white, but the human being in full colour.
Her biography is essentially hero-worship, although hero-worship of an informed and painstaking kind. She has followed Gropius’s trail across Europe and America, and spent five years in archival research. She acknowledges her debt to Reginald Isaacs’s two-volume biography, but is able to add new material from the letters and journals of Gropius’s widow, Ise, who showed MacCarthy round their rural New England hideaway. She contests the association of Gropius with soulless tower blocks, popularised by Tom Wolfe’s satire From Bauhaus to Our House, and she counters the sneers of Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma, to whom Gropius was married for five years, by showing that she was vain, devious, untrustworthy, mentally unstable and oversexed.