‘He was a workaholic, but he was also a womaniser,’ Dr Angela Thomas Schmid recalls – not without affection – speaking of her late husband, the Swiss artist, architect, and designer Max Bill. The art historian is the president of Bill’s estate, and the curator of a small but insightful new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, exploring his ongoing exchanges with the masters of the Bauhaus.
Trained as a silversmith and an insatiable autodidact, Bill was only 16 when he had his first break abroad, thanks to Sophie Taeuber-Arp who spotted his talent at the design school in Zurich and presented his functional works in Paris for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925. And it was the Parisian gallerist and patron Jeanne Bucher – whom Bill met later – who would push him to find his own style.
His participation in the exhibition at the Grand Palais and a trip with Taeuber-Arp to Paris instilled a great sense of confidence in Bill and inspired him to study modernist architecture. The following year, hearing that a new Bauhaus school was opening in Dessau, Bill applied and was accepted, aged 18, enrolling with the first cohort of students to attend in 1926.
He was taught by Josef Albers, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, and László Moholy-Nagy (the latter is concurrently subject of an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery). Though he would continue to engage with the Bauhaus way of thinking, Bill later rejected an opportunity to join the teaching staff at the Bauhaus school in Chicago. Instead he founded, designed and built his own school in 1953, the Hoschschule fur Gestaltung, in Ulm.
Although these leading men of the Bauhaus undoubtedly had a major impact on Bill’s practice and thinking, his path was shaped just as much by the strong female students he met at the school. In the two years he would spend there, he ‘fell in love four times’, Schmid notes. But his fascination with women wasn’t only sexual interest. Impressed by the ideas of group of left wing, emancipated women with bobbed haircuts smoking cigarettes in the weaving workshops, it was their uninhibited dancing, reportedly, that encouraged Bill to unearth his own erotic energy.
Bill’s friendships with Katt Both and Hilde Rantzsch in particular are celebrated in a 1927 portrait he drew of the pair, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. His love of feminine forms is playfully commemorated in a photograph of Bill dressed up with breasts for a theatre performance at Dessau. Seen in parallel to the curving, swirling, circuitous forms of two resplendent metal sculptures, one of which is presented in public for the first time, his appreciation seems formal and deeper rooted.
As Schmid shooed away two men standing in front of a vitrine to make room to explain examples of Bill’s work better, it was also clear that the artist’s legacy in the future will continue to be carefully guided by female forces.
Hauser & Wirth
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Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.
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