Valentina Grande’s and Sergio Varbella’s Bauhaus graphic novel tackles a complex history in its 128 pages. This is no small feat in considering a pioneering design movement that sat on the cusp of Nazi takeover. Commonly defined, the Bauhaus was a German art school that operated between 1919 and 1933 in three different locations—Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin. However, starting with its depiction in the prologue, the authorial choice here is to treat the Bauhaus as a living idea in the present day, symbolically rendered by the buildings of Weimar and Dessau locations. While the anthropomorphizing of geometric architecture sets a lyric warmth, it might be slightly confusing to those new to the topic of the Bauhaus.
From the starkness of these present-day architectural depictions, we dive into the school’s origins and the key historical figures that came together to create a legacy that has withstood a century of upheaval. We are immediately hit with pages of a kaleidoscopic rendition of one of the colorful classroom exercises of Walter Groupius, one of the founders. A subsequent block of text highlights the turbulent nature of the period and how it led to people seeing possibility amongst the societal shifts taking place. The name of the school itself was a riff on Bauhütte, the workshops that constructed Gothic cathedrals. Groupius saw large-scale industrial forms as the cathedrals of burgeoning modernity, and the skills required to build such things brought down to the level of the home. It’s an apt reminder that these 20th century thinkers and makers idealistically saw the technologies of mass production as potential ways to alleviate suffering and reduce labor.
In a history filled with many types of conflict, a strife-laden dichotomy emerges early on—that between Walter Groupius’ focus on mass production, and instructor Johannes Itten’s primacy of spirit, aura, and expression. Varbella’s graphic expression is a pleasure to look at, changing textures and techniques to show the contrasts between the two men. Illustrations portraying the early students are playful and full of movement. We see organic shapes and rounded forms duel against their boxy counterparts. Interestingly enough, this emerging time obsessed with the gridded and standardized brought forth the first contemporary comic books as well.
It is here that an outside antagonist emerges, shown in menacing, unidentified profile. Whatever the friction is inside the school over pedagogy, we mustn’t forget that there are outside contenders to deal with as well. Six years in, the school is forced to move when the right wing state cuts off financial support. Because of the industrial nature of the Bauhaus, they choose to situate themselves in Dessau for their second iteration, in part because of its manufacturing possibilities.
In the following pages, we are introduced to many of the now-famous couples of the Bauhaus and their iconic homes, including Paul and Lily Klee, as well as Wassily and Anna Kandinsky. Depending on the reader’s take on modern architecture, they may come across as standard, gray, and grim cubic buildings or revolutionarily orderly and clean with their straight lines. Following is the inclusion of Gropius’ realized construction of a simple residential complex for the people, Dessau-Törten, which is especially poignant in our current time of unaffordable housing. With each apartment built in less than two days with prefabricated panels, it was inspired by the devastating financial crisis that faced the region after World War I. Whatever the reader may think about the blocky homes that repeat on the page, it’s worth remembering that this aesthetic stoicism was a reaction in part to catastrophe and humanitarian need.
After seeing the master teachers of Dessau, captivating pages focus in on the women of the Bauhaus. Ironically, with all the housing idealism that created the school, even the Bauhaus’s renowned dormitories were explicitly designed for male architecture students; others stayed elsewhere. For all of the school's forward thinking, these women were still funneled into weaving classes while the men were trained in a full range of disciplines. It’s appreciated that the book gives individual attention to the innovative artists and designers that pushed for more equal education, as well as how vital women’s textile and design work has been to architecture and furniture design overall. This adds a strong cast of protagonists to the story, including the artist who would soon go by Anni Albers and be forced to flee to the U.S. with her husband, Josef. More shadows start to take up the panels with their negative space, a stylistically gripping way to portray the coming end. The Gestapo calls for the expulsion of Jewish and foreign instructors from their positions before the new director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, finally decides to close the school for good.
Thankfully though, Grande and Varbella not only praise the Bauhaus’s aspirations, but acknowledge its limitations as well. Throughout the volume, they successfully capture this accurate off-balance of the school. There were bursts of freedom, and also the sense of being patrolled. Of collaboration, but also intense discord. Many love to portray the Bauhaus in binary terms as the opposite of the Nazis—the artistic light to Hitler’s dark—but in the time before his rise to power, fascism and its oppositions weren’t always clearly defined. Even so, Grande writes that the Bauhaus did not bend to the will of the Nazis, but instead let itself break apart, disbanding in 1933. Lucky for us; we might not reading praise-filled graphic novels about the school if they allowed themselves to become co-opted by this hellish force.
These end pages astutely capture the still-present proliferation of the school’s design influence, and again lead us to question what the Bauhaus is today. Is it an idea, a movement, a style, a philosophy, a pedagogy, or dare we admit it—a brand? By the end, it’s easy to see it as a celebration of what humanized mass production could’ve been, which is maybe why it has such a contemporary cult. It’s not simply how to make art, but how to succeed at creating within the limits of a harsh economic framework—how to make art within the confines of the grid. Again, an apt thing to contemplate for anyone who works in the unit of the panel. We all have our dreams of utopia and our ways of making. By looking backward to the history presented in Bauhaus, readers will be inspired to both think inside and out of the frame.