Small objects, big story at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Grete Marks' pottery marked a rare business success of Bauhaus ideals, but economic upheaval and Nazi oppression put an end to it.
Great architecture, sculpture and painting dominate art history and its pantheon.
But most of us, most of the time, interact with art more intimately, with the vases that hold our flowers, the pots in which we brew our tea and the cups in which we serve it. We go to the museum to meditate on the high art. High-level craft on the cusp of art we live with every day.
The curator, Mel Buchanan, put the modest show in two snug rooms in the museum’s Chipstone Gallery. The space fits the scale of the objects and feels right. We walked through Wednesday, while ladders still cluttered the room and workers put on the finishing touches.
Buchanan sets the context at the entrance, with a quick primer/refresher on the Bauhaus, where Marks spent a crucial year of her education.
“The Bauhaus had its analytical, rigorous side,” Buchanan said, “but it also had a more expressive side. They taught movement classes to free the mind and body. Gertrude Grunau would tell her students to do things like ‘Dance the color blue.'”
A looped film of Wassily Kandinsky at work on one of his epigrammatic paintings demonstrates the intuitive side of the Bauhaus in this show. Buchanan noted that Kandinsky doesn’t merely brush on a stream of consciousness. He had thoroughly absorbed Bauhaus theories of proportion and form, and that rigor guided his intuition.
The progressive school of art, design and rational, harmonious living made a big impact on the young Grete, though she attended only in the academic year 1920-21. She was also a contentious sort unwilling to go along with the sexist aspects of the Bauhaus. She fell out with Walter Gropius and other big Bauhaus names.
Buchanan pointed out how the ideas of Bauhaus color theorist Johannes Itten directly influenced the gorgeous colors and groupings of color in Marks’ pottery. An Itten color chart hangs just a few feet from pottery that took theory into practice.
“Those colors are not accidental,” Buchanan said. “Itten believed that color could make you happy, and that you could derive rules for the harmony of color. You see Itten’s theory in Marks’ pottery. And you can see the Bauhaus interest in reducing objects to their simplest elements, in the emphasis on the primary shapes, the cone, the sphere, triangle and circle.”
What you don’t see: Pots thrown on the wheel. Marks did not fare well in her ceramics class at the Bauhaus. Traditional forms and techniques did not appeal to her.
“Most of her work is molded,” Buchanan said. “She treats pottery more like metal work.”
In that, her work aligned with Bauhaus theory. The school was all about new industrial materials shaped aesthetically and brought to the masses through mass production. A handmade prototype aluminum lounge chair, made at the Bauhaus by Marcel Breuer, graces the entry of the exhibition. The theory is beautiful in its elegance, but it rarely worked out in the real world.
“Marks [full name: Margarete Heymann-Löbenstein-Marks, 1899–1990] was a rare Bauhaus success story,” Buchanan said. Marks left the Bauhaus in 1921 and spent a year as a designer in a ceramics firm and another teaching. In 1923, she and her new husband, Gustav Löbenstein, bought an old stove-tile factory outside Berlin and started mass-producing her designs. They sold internationally; the business peaked at 120 employees.
But she ran into trouble for personal, political and economic reasons. The difficulties piled up after her husband and brother in law, both of whom helped run the business, died in a car crash in 1928, just as Nazi fervor began to sweep through Germany.
“We’re showing these pieces as fine art, but we’ve also arranged it as a showroom,” Buchanan set, noting the ad-shoot ready setting of a full tea service. Pages from the company’s catalog are also on display. “You could order these things. You can still buy them on E-bay.” [Author’s note: Of course I checked Ebay immediately. Found nothing but an inferior English-period Marks piece.]
Grete Marks’ art was a business. Buchanan even included one bland little teapot, which she believes to be an example of aiming down to sell to unsophisticated buyers, as the German economy sputtered and inflation took off during the late 1920s.
Marks’ cups and teapots juxtapose the geometric severity of their basins with unlikely, lobed-ear handles in an almost comic way. She bathed her wit in beguiling colors that pleasure the eye. Her pieces charm without cloying. They balance Bauhaus’ Apollonian and Dionysian elements elements perfectly.
What’s not to like here? You’d think that objects as charming and apolitical as Marks’ cups and teapots would have escaped Nazi censure, but no. The Nazis set their sights on the Bauhaus and everyone associated with it. Buchanan placed a display of Nazi propaganda declaring Marks’ work “degenerate” at the corner of the exhibition’s two rooms.
“She was a single Jewish woman, with a young son, running an avant-garde design company in Berlin,” Buchanan said. “Hitler came to power in January of 1933, and the first boycott of Jewish businesses came in April. In July, Marks stopped production at the factory.”
In 1935, Marks sold her business under duress to the Reich’s Secretary for German Crafts, a Nazi named Heinrich Schild, for a price that at the time came to about half the value of the land under the factory. Schild’s girlfriend ran the business into the 1990s. Apparently, a good deal of opportunism mingled with Nazi ideology in Marks’ case.
“They actually kept producing work from some of Grete’s molds,” Buchanan said.
Marks was well-connected and managed to flee to England, with the help of Ambrose Heal, whose Heal’s Department Store had stocked Marks’ wares. Marks moved to Stoke, where she taught for a year, worked as a designer with a British pottery firm, and had her own small company for a while. In 1938, she married a British educator, Harold Marks. They eventually moved to London, where Grete had a small career as a painter.
Her work in Britain never approached the quality and daring of the pottery she produced in Germany; the few British works that Buchanan placed in the show attest to that. The move to England surely saved her life, but it also isolated her. The Bauhaus elite fled to the U.S., not the U.K., and no one in that elite was inclined to promote Marks in any case. Marks was largely forgotten, as Marianne Brandt became the leading New Woman of the Bauhaus.
She had a good life in England, but a thwarted life. Marks’ career is a tragedy of what might and should have been, and that story makes this Milwaukee Art Museum show as poignant as it is beautiful.
Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate runs through Jan. 1 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
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