Mies van der Rohe’s materiality comes to the fore in an exhibition of his montages
We are familiar with Mies the master of universal space, Mies the utterer of gnomic statements, and Mies in exile, the gin-soaked, tuxedo-clad monolith. But Mies as pop artist is something new, as is his alter ego, Mies van der Frankenstein.
The latter, sinister apparition confronts viewers immediately on entering the exhibition of Mies’s montages currently on show in Schweinfurt, Germany. Just inside the door, the architect’s 1910 project for a monument to Bismarck – one of his earliest designs – is pinned behind glass, its several components straining against one another in a way that is simply invisible in reproduction. Larger than I’d expected, the image is composed of a blown-up photo of a model looming over a blown-up photograph of a hillside, with another, painted portion sutured into the patchwork creature.
The zombie quality of the object accords pretty well with the nature of the project: a skeletal classicism in the service of an imperialism that would shortly plunge Europe over the precipice. As in all good horror movies, however, this was not the end, and the creature soon re-emerged from its supposed tomb.
In the intervening period, Mies’s projects – represented in the show by montages from MoMA’s collection – follow a familiar trajectory, taking in the Friedrichstrasse glass tower, collaborations with members of the post-Constructivist avant-garde, and the courtyard house typology that was a mainstay of his pedagogy at the Bauhaus and in Chicago.
Interspersed among these is a selection of objects from Mies’s art collection. He was a big fan of Paul Klee and Kurt Schwitters, but not, surprisingly, of his collaborator El Lissitzky, whose works are conspicuous by their absence. Schwitters’ images – the montage titled Cottage is particularly pleasing – contribute to the success of the exhibition in convincing the visitor of the pre-eminence of montage among Mies’s techniques, and therefore of the justification in seeing his buildings as montages in space.
Source: Nationalgalerie Berlin
This was also one of the recurring themes of a conference held to accompany the exhibition’s previous installation at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Mies’s birthplace. Discussing Mies’s 1947 design for a theatre, in which section and elevation are combined in the same image, historian Edward Dimendberg referred to the duck/rabbit drawing beloved of gestalt psychologists, and it is hard not to see Mies’s spatial strategy in these terms: a case of either/or, not of both/and.
This is where Mies differs from Lissitzky, explorer of axonometry and of simultaneous space. Mies on the other hand rarely if ever used axonometric projections, favouring montage instead, and the blockages in vision created by such material imbrications are essential to his project. Mies establishes transparency only to obscure and obstruct: the flowing space of the Tugendhat house is cauterised by the onyx wall and the curved wooden enclosure of the dining area. One can see the duck or the rabbit alternately, but not both at the same time, and in the interstices certain things may linger unobserved – like something out of a story by MR James.
Mies’s images retained this schizoid, cratered quality into his long American exile; indeed, he was one of the last members of the diasporic avant-garde to maintain his montage practice, long after it had fallen out of favour everywhere else. And as the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and ’60s were resurrecting the techniques of the pre-war generation, Mies was still going.
The beginnings of his American odyssey are marked by his unrealised project for the Resors, which resulted in his first visit to the States in 1937. The images of the Resor House introduce new strategies to his montage repertoire: the widescreen Wyoming landscape – a film still from a Western – is spliced together with a sketch of the building, a rectangle of wood veneer and a Klee painting owned by the Resors to create a union of nature, art and technology, a utopian vision of the American West moulded by Wright and Karl May. The building itself is reduced to a simple frame producing this complex montage.
In several projects for galleries, including an unrealised design for the one hosting this exhibition, art punctuates Mies’s boundless space (‘vacuum-cleaner Mies’, Dimendberg calls it, referring to the grid that flows beneath the viewer’s feet sucking us into the image). As well as sculptures by Georg Kolbe – a favourite of Mies’s who made the statue in the pool court of the Barcelona Pavilion – paintings float in space as freestanding walls, following the precedent set by the Resor House. Several of the objects reproduced in Mies’s images, including two Kolbe statues and Kandinsky’s Large Study of 1914, have been assembled here, making for an impressive demonstration of the tricks of scale employed in the architect’s montages.
Source: Ludwig Forum / Carl Brunn
The most striking intrusion of the real into the exhibition takes place in Mies’s 1954 proposal for a Chicago Convention Hall. The building’s roof is represented by a photographed model resembling the then-modish technology of the space frame, creating an enormous uncolumned interior with walls of green marble (these are slices of marbled paper). The floor of the hall is invisible beneath a sea of people holding placards. Closer inspection reveals this mass to be composed of several reiterations of the same image, a photo taken from a Life magazine story on a Republican Party convention. The flag hanging from the ceiling, meanwhile, is a real piece of fabric printed with the stars and stripes.
This intriguing image stands at a junction in American visual culture; Jasper Johns’ famous painting Flag dates from the same year, while Warhol’s repeated prints of news images (I am thinking in particular of the Race Riot paintings) still lay 10 years ahead. The interplay of the solitary ‘real’ element of the flag and the unreal crowd of repeated, non-individual elements, all situated in an impossibly expansive room – a duck/rabbit of irreconcilable objects that nevertheless occupy the same space – raises unsettling questions about American democracy and nationalism as viewed from the Archimedean perspective of the German exile. It need hardly be added that these questions have a special poignancy today. If, as Claire Zimmerman argued in her conference paper, Mies’s montages are ‘promissory notes’, what exactly is this one promising? It does not seem to be something pleasant.
Mies van der Rohe: The MoMA Collages is on show at the Georg Schäfer Museum, Schweinfurt, from 26 February to 28 May 2017. It was previously at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen.