Rarely seen Herbert Bayer photographs on view at Aspen Institute
When he left the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, in 1928, a 28-year-old Herbert Bayer embarked on a creative journey across Europe with his camera in tow.
Bayer, the Bauhaus master and cross-disciplinary artist who would later design and build much of modern Aspen after World War II, was finding his way of looking at the world as he traveled through Italy, Greece and France.
A new exhibition at the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Gallery displays his photographs from this period, shining a light on a lesser known — and rarely seen — body of work that aims to give viewers a deeper understanding of this Aspen icon as the town begins celebrating the Bauhaus centennial.
These 22 pieces are straightforward travel photographs, architectural and landscape shots and still-life compositions. The young Bayer used them to develop his visual language and to put Bauhaus principles to work.
“His goal was to see — out of an academic and sheltered environment of the Dessau Bauhaus school — how would these principles survive in the real world?” curator Lissa Ballinger said.
He traveled extensively around Europe during this period, including trips through the south of France with fellow Bauhauslers Marcel Breuer and Xanti Schawinsky.
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“This is him figuring it out,” Ballinger said during a recent walk through the gallery.
We get Bayer’s view of the Pantheon, of piazzas in Venice, of a pastoral windmill, of a desert flower.
“You can see the range of places that he traveled and get a sense of his perspective and his eye,” Ballinger said.
A designated master of typography and design at the Bauhaus, he was still an amateur with a camera in 1928. He learned how to develop and print from his wife at the time, Irene Hecht Bayer, an accomplished photographer, and was influenced by the ideas of fellow Bauhaus master Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, whose New Vision Photography prized experimentation and new technology.
“He always felt clumsy with a camera,” Ballinger said.
We see him find a creepy, shadowy vision of children’s dolls for sale at a 1928 flea market. We see him playing with shadow and geometric patters in photos of lined-up spoons and clay pots.
“He was taking everyday objects and turning them into objets d’art because of the perspective,” Ballinger said.
Little is known about many of the photo locations. An image of a snowy mountain landscape covered in ski tracks, for instance, may be the French Alps or may be elsewhere. A portrait of a farmer threshing wheat on a mesa with a cattle-drawn plow may be Greece or anywhere.
The photographs span from 1928 through 1934. The exhibition opened quietly in September, and will run through June as the Bauhaus centennial celebration takes over the Roaring Fork Valley in a massive collaboration of arts organizations.
The show serves as a complement to the more comprehensive Bayer exhibition “Mountains & Convolutions” running concurrently across the Institute campus and to “bayer and bauhas: how design shaped aspen” opening next month at the Aspen Historical Society.
While those other exhibitions are pure Bauhaus in terms of aesthetics, this more idiosyncratic show is something of a prequel — a first glimpse through Bayer’s eyes after leaving the creative haven of the Bauhaus school and a first flowering for Bayer as he attempted to apply the Bauhaus ideal of integrating art into all aspects of life.
The photos are out of the ordinary for Bayer because of how seemingly ordinary they are — they weren’t manipulated in the darkroom, weren’t cut and glued and manipulated as his better-known later photographs were. You might call it the original #nofilter.
The most famous of Bayer’s photographic images aren’t included here, such as his “fotomontagen” and “fotoplastiken” series, which used innovative developing and collage techniques to create optical illusions and surreal imagery. Two familiar to Bayer fans: “The Lonely Metropolitan,” a pair of eyes in the palms of two hands against an urban backdrop; and “Humanly Impossible,” a self-portrait in which he appears to be removing a cylindrical hunk of his arm while looking eye-poppingly into a mirror.
“Those are the photographs he’s really known for, because they informed his advertising work and his design work,” Ballinger said.
Instead, this photo show is something like a rarities and b-sides collection — a small but integral part of understanding the whole of Bayer and of Bauhaus. A photo of a mannequin arm on the ground, for instance, nods at where he’s going (“You start to see his fascination with that plastic image,” Ballinger said) and his series of symmetrical overhead photos of the Pont Transbordeur in Marseilles and of Italian piazzas presage the cross-media obsession with geometry and angularity that would later dominate Bayer’s work.
There are few images of people in these photos.
“That’s not what he was focused on,” Ballinger said. “He wasn’t interested in portraits of people — it was about deconstructing objects and architecture.”
The show does, however, include an apropos self-portrait: a close-up of Bayer’s hand holding a drafting pencil. (There is also a playful photo of his foot on stone pebbles.)
These 22 photos come from two Denver-based private collections. They are owned by Andrew Sirotnak and Jamie White and by Paul Harbaugh. Sirotnak and White, who have lent countless holdings to the Institute for Bayer exhibitions in recent years, have promised eight of these photos as gifts to the Institute’s permanent collection.
The exhibition is a low-key beginning to the yearlong celebration of the Bauhaus centennial in Aspen, which will include exhibitions and events spanning the first eight months of 2019 produced by the Institute, the Aspen Skiing Co., Maker & Place, the Art Base, Pitkin County Library, Anderson Ranch, Aspen Film, Aspen Historical Society, Carbondale Arts, The Arts Campus at Willits, Colorado Mountain College, Red Brick Center for the Arts, Aspen Music Festival and School and the Aspen Art Museum.
Other upcoming events include a full-day Bauhaus-themed art camp for kids at the Red Brick today and a walking tour of the Bayer-designed Aspen Institute campus with Ballinger on Nov. 14.
IF YOU GO …
What: Herbert Bayer Photographs, 1928-1934
Where: Paepcke Gallery, Aspen Institute
When: Through June 10, 2019
How much: Free
More info: Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (call 970-925-7940 to check if the gallery is closed for a private event); aspeninstitute.org; For more on Bauhaus 100 events in Aspen, visit bauhaus100aspen.org