By Patrick Rössler
336 pages, hardcover, $115
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
While his watercolors would be called degenerate by Third Reich standards during the 1930s, graphic designer Herbert Bayer (1900–1985) became
one of the most successful commercial artists in Germany. Known for his work at the renowned Bauhaus art school and an advocate of modernism’s geometric aesthetic, Bayer advanced the modernist influence throughout his career with his design, typography and experimental photography.
Author and curator Patrick Rössler focuses on advertising graphics and magazine covers Bayer produced before immigrating to the United States. With access to never-before-seen materials, he includes documents, diaries and intimate letters from both Bayer’s first wife, Irene Bayer-Hecht, and his lover, Ise Gropius, who was also his mentor’s wife. Rössler portrays an ambitious, prolific designer with conflicted desires whose deep bonds of friendship with architect Marcel Breuer and fellow Bauhauslers were as strong as his tumultuous relationships with women.
As Bayer’s colleagues leave Nazi Germany with Hitler’s rise to power, Rössler finds discrepancies in the details of Bayer’s work with the authoritarian regime. He uncovers Nazi propaganda statements within the archived material, dates changed and designs altered that compromise Bayer’s apolitical stance. Particularly troubling are biographies asserting that Bayer fled Nazi persecution to the United States. According to the author, the departure was “less a desperate escape into exile than a carefully planned exit with a comparatively soft landing.” Rather than a sweeping indictment of Bayer’s pragmatism, Rössler takes a nuanced approach to an artist’s dilemma and the choices made for survival in a turbulent political landscape. —Ruth Hagopian