An excerpt from ‘A Subversive Gleam: Max Bill and His Time. 1908–1939’
Max Bill (1908–1994) was a Swiss polymath bridging the worlds of art, design and architecture. In ‘A Subversive Gleam: Max Bill and His Time. 1908–1939,’ now available from Hauser & Wirth Publishers, Dr. Angela Thomas, art historian and widow of the artist, retraces Bill’s biography, from his childhood to his training at the Bauhaus, his return to Zurich, and on through the 1930s.
In this excerpt, an 18-year-old Bill arrives at the Bauhaus, plunging into the artistic milieu that would prove so formative for him and many others. Recounting Bill’s preliminary coursework with Josef Albers and the vibrant scene of the live-work quarters at the Walter Gropius–designed Prellerhaus, this passage sketches out the intense collaboration and radical innovative thinking that characterized the storied school’s environment. Thomas’s web-like narrative is presented in two registers: the main story of Bill’s life, complemented by annotations that shed additional light on individuals, their relationships and their creations—here, as in the book, reproduced in gray text.
Max Bill’s arrival in Dessau, April 1927
Max Bill always remembered that morning when, coming from the station in Dessau, he was suddenly confronted by the Bauhaus—he had never seen anything like it: white walls and large, dark glass façades and a student residence with balconies and ‘minium-red doors.’ Max’s folio submission had been accepted and he was able to enroll for the summer semester, which began on 20 April 1927, a few days after Malevich’s visit. His matriculation number was 151. 
Looking back at his early days at the Bauhaus, Bill wrote (in a curriculum vitae from around 1930): ‘Bauhaus in Dessau. Initially keen study of mathematics, structures, etc. Theoretical exercises with Kandinski, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Albers.’  Much later on, looking back in 1978, he wrote: ‘Teaching at the Bauhaus, particularly in the preliminary course led by Josef Albers, largely consisted of questioning everything known and replacing it with new problematics. Above all in Albers’s classes, and later on in Moholy-Nagy’s classes, each person tried to produce something that was unlike anything that had ever been done before, which he then had to justify and discuss in a group situation. . . . In addition to these experiments we had elementary design theory with Wassily Kandinsky and then with Paul Klee. . . . So at the Bauhaus theory, experimentation, and practice always interconnected dialectically, and what’s more, this all took place in a community of students, masters, and guests, the like of which has scarcely been seen since.’ 
‘Insight through Experience’—Josef Albers
Although Max Bill had almost completed an apprenticeship at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, he first had to take a foundation class at the Bauhaus, since that was obligatory for everyone in their first semester. So he had to start from the basics again. The preliminary course director was Josef Albers, who was just twenty years older than Bill. Having studied painting in the class of Franz von Stuck in Munich—like Kandinsky and Klee in the mid-1890s—Albers had enrolled as a student at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1920, where he took the preliminary course led by Johannes Itten. Albers immediately set off to the ‘town’s rubbish dumps with a hammer and a rucksack, looking for pieces of colored glass and bottles. All the other students in his class constructed objects from combinations of materials, but Albers wanted just one single material—colored glass—in different thicknesses, with different shapes, colors, patterns, and translucencies; he mounted these bits of glass on sheets of metal and evolved a whole new way of creating compositions from non-transparent, colored glass.’  The Bauhaus masters’ council, having taken note of his experiments with shards of glass, wrote to him and invited him to set up a glass workshop at the Bauhaus.
Albers became a full master after the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, although initially he was a young master, which meant that he of course earned less than a master.
‘Since glass painting had [hitherto] been restricted to certain motifs used in sacred settings, there were no craftsmen able to develop the designs needed for the new approach to architecture.
The glass windows were to serve the new architectural concept of more open interiors and planar walls. Thus Albers not only became the first head of the workshop, but also the first practicing head: skills master and master of design in one. The official master of design, Paul Klee, paid little attention to this realm, even if Albers’s designs may have been influenced by Klee’s checkerboard sequences. The commissions Albers mentioned initially came from the Bauhaus itself: a large window for Haus Sommerfeld in Berlin, designed by Gropius in Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style and with furniture and fixtures designed by all the various Bauhaus workshops . . .’ 
‘At the Bauhaus theory, experimentation, and practice always interconnected dialectically, and what’s more, this all took place in a community of students, masters, and guests, the like of which has scarcely been seen since’—Max Bill
In Dessau, he and his wife, Anni, moved into the Prellerhaus, designed by Walter Gropius and unofficially named after the painter Friedrich Preller: ‘on the four upper floors there were 28 studio flats with a kitchenette on each level. These studios were allocated to students according to merit. The remaining students found private lodgings.’
Around eight per cent of the students in Dessau were married. ‘As to marriages between staff and students before or after graduation: ten . . . masters and seven young masters married Bauhaus students.’  On the same floor as Albers in the Prellerhaus were Marcel ‘Lajko’ Breuer, Herbert Bayer, and the student Alexander ‘Xanti’ Schawinsky.
The young masters married to Bauhaus students were Josef Albers (to Anneliese ‘Anni,’ née Fleischmann), Alfred Arndt, Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, Joost Schmidt, Hinnerk Scheper (to Louise ‘Lou,’ née Berenkamp). And the only female ‘young master,’ Gunta Stölzl, married a Bauhaus student, Arieh Sharon. In addition, ‘there are 57 documented cases of marriages between Bauhaus students. Regarding the age distribution in these marriages, in 24 out of these 64 marriages the husbands were younger than their wives.’ The same study reports that on average 150 students signed up for the courses in Dessau each semester. 
‘. . . ideal communication stations’
The Prellerhaus had a very international feel; the languages spoken there ranged from Hungarian, Polish, Italian, German, Swiss German, Russian, and Yiddish to Japanese and Hindi. ‘The studios on the east side had balconies . . . just big enough for a table for three. . . . Those balconies were ideal communication stations; you could make contact with your neighbors just by calling out. . . . Whenever Albers had a new joke he wanted to tell, he just needed to shout out the names of the others on his floor— Lajko, Herbert, Xanti—and they could ‘meet’ on their little balconies. People could also look into each other’s studios from their balconies, through the big glass walls, unless, of course, the curtains were drawn. That ‘transparency’ was part of daily life, a very positive aspect of it. . . At the Bauhaus complex the Prellerhaus stood out like a symbolic fulfillment of modern life and needs. It had a lower ground floor with baths and showers; above that was a canteen with a large kitchen. There were also terraces on every floor, a roof terrace, a kitchen on each of the four studio floors, and several toilets. . . . Internally, each studio had built-in cupboards, a sofa niche, a sink, tubular steel chairs, stools, small tables, and a big work table designed by Breuer.’ 
When Max Bill arrived in Dessau in April 1927 and all the studios in the Prellerhaus were already allocated, he found lodgings elsewhere: an attic room about two kilometers away from the Bauhaus, at Fichtenbreite 32, in an area where most of the residents worked at the nearby Junkers factory. Although he had been very impressed by the look of Le Corbusier’s model of modern living two years earlier in Paris, his full-length ‘loft’ was not at all furnished in a rational, modern style. It was more of a second-hand hodgepodge, with a hanging bookcase, two divan beds, easels and tables, and a huge blue velvet curtain concealing the kitchen area. He took everything over from the previous occupant—including the velvet curtain—and just left it as it was. When Hanns Fischli arrived from Switzerland a year later to enroll at the Bauhaus in April 1928, and went home one day with Bill to his loft, Max had clearly still not made any changes to the furnishings—neither adding a personal touch nor seeking to create a Bauhaus-worthy ambience.
Was that purely for financial reasons? Could it be that in those days he just had no interest whatsoever in the look of his surroundings? His seeming indifference is perhaps all the more perplexing given that, as Fischli recalled, Bill himself was always turned out ‘like a new edition of Ferdinand Hodler.’ 
‘In architectural terms the whole thing [the Prellerhaus]—inside and out—was all of a piece: logical, functional, uplifting.’—Alexander Schawinsky
To judge by Fischli’s eyewitness account, at this point in the spring of 1928 Max had not yet developed his own personal style—neither in his dress nor in his décor. Was this a form of regression? Did he miss a mother’s touch? Apart from the time when he had been sent away from home to the Waldheim in Oetwil am See, as a form of punishment, Marie Geiger had been a constant presence in his life, that is, until she filed a petition for divorce and decided during the divorce proceedings that, from April 1927 onward, she would only have custody of Max’s younger brother Hugo, leaving Erwin Bill to take custody of Max. Max Bill would certainly have seen the very different, modern Breuer furniture in the Prellerhaus when he went to visit friends there, such as Xanti Schawinsky and Clemens Röseler. However, living in lodgings some distance away from the Bauhaus did have at least one advantage, namely that Max could avoid some of the social constraints that prevailed at the Prellerhaus, despite its otherwise progressive ethos. Away from other Bauhauslers, as they called themselves, he could explore and enjoy that taste for ‘vagabonding’ that he had acquired on his trip to Italy.
One aspect of the Prellerhaus that certainly appealed to his architectural instincts—besides the striking shadows cast by the balconies (captured in numerous photographs)—was the light that flooded the stairwells and corridors. ‘In architectural terms the whole thing—inside and out—was all of a piece: logical, functional, uplifting.’ It was not only the light streaming in during the day that played a big part in the Prellerhaus, in the evenings it was the music that filled the building. ‘Anyone who had a new record to share would put his gramophone out on the balcony in the evening. That was the signal for others to join in—and that could turn into a whole musical evening.’ 
Angela Thomas met Max Bill when she was an art history student. In 1974 the two became a couple and beginning in 1988 they lived together in Zumikon. They married in 1991. During the twenty years they shared, until he passed away on 9 December 1994, she took numerous photographs and made notes recording their conversations as well as the events and activities they experienced together—from installing exhibitions to visiting many people and places. While these documents form the basis of certain sections in ‘A Subversive Gleam,’ the narrative predominantly draws on the extensive, exacting research that Angela Thomas has conducted as a PhD in art history since the death of Max Bill at Tegel Airport in Berlin. In 1998 Angela Thomas married the Swiss film director Erich Schmid (director of the feature-length documentary, ‘max bill – the master’s vision’ ). They live in Zumikon near Zurich in the villa-plus-studio designed by Max Bill.
‘A Subversive Gleam: Max Bill and His Time. 1908–1939’ is now available from Hauser & Wirth Publishers.
Originally published in German by Scheidegger & Spiess in 2008, the English edition of ‘A Subversive Gleam’ has been translated by Fiona Elliott.
‘max bill & georges vantongerloo. crossover’ is on view 27 January – 26 March 2022 at Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th street.