Let’s Party Like It’s 1919

Josef Albers’ photographs of a Valentine’s Day Ball

Josef Albers, Portrait of Josef Albers in costume for Valentine’s Day Ball, Black Mountain College, 1940, Kodak Kodachrome 35mm colour positive film. Courtesy: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2019

Mention the Bauhaus – which, unless you live under a rock will know was founded 100 years ago – and what springs to mind is usually sleek, minimal, supremely modern design. But good design is far from the whole story of this revolutionary place of learning: this was a school where community was everything, and what greater glue than a good party? The Bauhaus’s canny founder, Walter Gropius, knew this all too well. He concluded his manifesto of 1919 with the words: ‘Finally, friendly relations are fostered between masters and students outside the work by means of theatre parties, lectures, poetry readings, concerts and fancy-dress balls.’ Young and old spent weeks transforming everyday objects into wild and wonderful costumes for the masquerade balls that were held every month: themes included Moustache-Nose-Heart and the Metal party of 1929, for which costumes were created from tin foil, cutlery and cooking pans. (You had to enter via a chute into a room filled with silver balls.) In 1925, the Hungarian architect Farkas Molnár remembered the scenes: 

Kandinsky prefers to appear decked out as an antenna, Itten as an amorphous monster, Feininger as two right triangles, Moholy-Nagy as a segment transpierced by a cross, Gropius as Le Corbusier, Muche as an apostle of Mazdaznan, Klee as the song of the blue tree. 

Josef Albers, Portrait of Anni Albers in costume for Valentine’s Day Ball, Black Mountain College, 1940, Kodak Kodachrome 35mm colour positive film. Courtesy: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2019

A young weaving student, Annelise Fleischmann, had met the older painter and professor Josef Albers at the school; they were married in 1925 and, when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, they emigrated to the US to teach at the newly opened interdisciplinary, non-hierarchical Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Like the dadaists thumbing their collective noses at World War I with a howling absurdity, the Bauhaus émigrés countered the horror wrecking Europe with art and music, masked balls, poetry, theatre and performance. We have Josef to thank for the 21 photographs taken at the college Valentine’s Day ball in 1940, which are currently on show in ‘bauhaus imaginista’ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. In the two seen here, the great colour theorist is resplendent in an elegant white suite, a sponge beard and glasses made from pierced spoons; Anni, delicate in black lace with silver tinsel hair, looks like a figure from Francisco de Goya. Neither are smiling but I have a feeling that laughter – the sound that Nazis hated more than anything – wasn’t far away. Useful art, indeed.

Jennifer Higgie is the editorial director of frieze.

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