Firstly, she doesn’t play with the facts. Naomi Wood abides by the chronological timescale of the Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin. The historical characters, too, (Gropius, Itten, Kandinsky) are present and are “not meddled with”. However, given that her impetus for the novel was the joy radiating from the students in a photograph of the Bauhaus metal ball, and her question, “what would happen if I started corrupting them?” , the resulting relationships are tangled, complex and in many ways a microcosm of the greater German context.
Take the Weimar Years. The Bauhaus, with its new manifesto, set up in a flurry idealism. This is an art school with a mission to change society, The foundation course throws aside all accepted notions of pedagogy, and its tutor, Johannes Itten, tells the students, it is time “to play”. And six students, from various backgrounds, do just that. Enjoying the classes and their leisure time in the beech forest around Weimar. The idyll is lost and the plot thickened by romantic entanglements and then by politics. The school is asked to identify foreign, Jewish or communist students. The right wing is in the ascendancy and flexing its muscles. The Bauhaus left Weimar in 1925 – eight years before the Nazis came to power.
One of the six, needing to earn while studying, spends his nights, in a workshop deep in that playground forest, painting kitsch, art with values diametrically opposed to those of the Bauhaus. Art that would find favour once the Weimar Republic days were done …
The seeds of the Bauhaus’s undoing were always present.
The move to Dessau was precipitated by money. When the Thuringian State Government withdrew funding, a partnership between the Bauhaus and industry resulted in the move to Dessau. There, Wood said, the idea of the Bauhaus, was “concretised”. Most notably in the iconic Bauhaus school building, a marvel of open design, where everything could be seen. Ironically this resulted jn a feeling of entrapment, of being constantly under observation.
It’s an atmosphere in which the closeness of the six becomes suffocating, particularly as it becomes obvious that they’re not sharing the same goals and ambitions, sexually or politically. The right wing is no longer hidden in the woods, but is now visible, even within. The political tensions, which the Bauhaus could not withstand, and forced the move to Berlin, have also fractured the six. By the time of the Metal Ball in 1929, their camaraderie has been corrupted entirely.
Some leave voluntarily, others are forced out, and the remainder , according to Wood “bury their head in the sand” and move with the Bauhaus to Berlin.
Chutzpah was the word Wood used for the reopening of the Bauhaus in Berlin. And chutzpah is a characteristic of Wood’s characters who go with it. Of course, they and the Bauhaus were moving towards their fate ….
What became of them after 1933? This is where Wood’s framework device adds a dimension. Because Paul, one of the six, now a painter in England, is looking back on his Bauhaus days. His memories precipitated by the death of his once close friend, Walter, whose funeral he categorically refuses to attend, as he blames Walter for the death of his lover, Charlotte. But he blames himself just as much. Now why would that be?
I raced through this novel, which I appreciated all the more for its darkness in the conflicts of the characters caught up in extraordinary times. I also enjoyed the portrayal of how the idealistic heart of the Bauhaus was lost, together with the unflinching look at some unpalatable facts. In this, perhaps Wood provides a more truthful assessment of the Bauhaus than either of the non-fiction events mentioned above.