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Dancing on the Roof

Photography and the Bauhaus (1923–1929)

June 5–August 26, 2001

The first exhibition in New York to focus on photography and the Bauhaus, this show brings together approximately sixty rare, often unique, photographs from New York–area collections that were created by Bauhaus students and teachers between 1923 and 1929—a period of freewheeling innovation before photography became an official part of the school's curriculum. Photographs by László Moholy-Nagy, Lux Feininger, Umbo, and others reflect both the dynamism and turbulence of the era and the optimism, energy, and experimental liberties of life and work at the Bauhaus.

Founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus was a utopian haven for avant-garde artists during the period of dramatic change and tenuous peace between the two world wars. United in their goal to create new art for a modern industrialized age, the Bauhaus artists, who included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, and Oskar Schlemmer, among others, embraced novel techniques and free experimentation. While architecture, graphic and furniture design, metalwork, weaving, and theater all had official workshops at the Bauhaus before 1929, photography was neither taught nor even organized as an extracurricular activity. Liberated from the requirements and expectations of a formal course, photography was practiced as a form of play; its myriad avenues for exploration and discovery enchanted Bauhaus masters and students alike. Boldly fusing ideas absorbed from Dada, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, illustrated newspapers, avant-garde film, and even jazz, these artists created images that reflect both the dynamism and turbulence of the era and the optimism, energy, and experimental liberties of life and work at the Bauhaus.

Although Moholy-Nagy never formally taught photography during his years at the Bauhaus (1923–1928), he exerted enormous influence through his groundbreaking photographs and through his writings, in which he advocated unusual vantage points, extreme close-ups, radical cropping, negative printing, and cameraless photography. The fourteen works by Moholy-Nagy in the exhibition range from his astonishing new visions of the modern world, such as Pont Transbordeur, Marseilles (1929), to seductive and radiantly mysterious photograms. An extraordinary group of his nudes and negative prints are also on view: his Negative [Portrait of a Woman] (1927/28), with a reversal of tonalities and overhead viewpoint, creates a dreamlike image that belies its source in the ordinary world.

The work of the (then) adolescent student Lux Feininger, son of the painter and Bauhaus master Lyonel Feininger, was more lighthearted than that of the older master and theoretician Moholy-Nagy. Never without his camera, the young Lux, whose nickname is Latin for "light," roamed the school in search of activities he could transform into his characteristically exuberant views of student life, exemplified by the sprightly Jump over the Bauhaus (ca. 1927). He combined his love of photography and music in a suite of lively photographs of the Bauhaus jazz band; this includes an energetic rendering of his fellow band member Xanti Schawinsky with the New Saxophone (1928) and Charleston on the Bauhaus Roof (1927), a riff on youth and modern life. Like the spirited pictures that Jacques-Henri Lartigue made as a youth, Lux Feininger's photographs are witty, playful, irreverent, and extremely rare. With more than twenty of his photographs included, "Dancing on the Roof" provides an in-depth display of his best work—a "mini exhibition" of a remarkable photographer who is relatively unknown but still lively at the age of ninety.

In addition to providing a fertile environment for the experiments of both the great theoretician and the teen-aged student, the Bauhaus nurtured the visions of many other talented photographers, including Umbo (Otto Umbehr), Lucia Moholy, Herbert Bayer, Irene Bayer, Florence Henri, Werner David Feist, Lyonel Feininger, and Josef Albers. Dizzying overhead shots, disconcerting night scenes, innovative industrial and architectural views, beach scenes, Bauhaus theater photographs, and a series of surprising portraits are among the highlights of the exhibition.