Empty Vessels for Soulful Expression: Fine Art and Mies Van Der Rohe

Klee-Relapse of a Converted Woman-1939- From the collection of MVDR

When Franz Shulze asked Mies Van Der Rohe why he never collected works of art that were geometric abstractions he seemed to elude the subject by declaring; “ You don’t have to have everything.”    Like Andy Warhol, Mies was being willfully simple in spite of overwhelming evidence that there was a strong intentionality to his decisions.   Mies art collection is fascinating in that it consists almost primarily of expressionist works of art, namely the works of Paul Klee, Early Kandinsky, and the Dadaist collages of Kurt Schwitters.   The works are playful, colorful and messy.  These are all words one would never think of using when discussing his architecture.  This duality between what he created and what paintings he collected speak volumes about his feelings towards decorum in the differing arts.

Kandinsky-Winter II- 1911- From the collection of MVDR

Art to Mies was not held down by the constraints of structure and program in the way that architecture was; it was limited only by the canvas it was painted on.  Fine art gives total freedom to the expression of the artist.  Architecture as artistic expression is diluted by the needs of; the client, structural demands, the requirements of function, environmental comfort and contextual considerations.  Architecture exists in reality. It is an expression of the constraints and technology of our time.   The work of Mies seems to be telling us that he does not believe that architecture necessarily functions as artistic expression.  Architecture is appropriate only when it purely addresses the problems of its creation.  Forced expression in architecture is often imposed at an early stage in the design as a whim of the architects mind.  As the building progresses, the architect as artist must neglect practical solutions to problems he encounters along the way to impose artistic will.  This is architecture that does not act like architecture.  The decorum of architecture is ignored. Only when architects approach a building with the acknowledgement that it is a result of constraints, does a building emerge in a purer form.  Let’s not fool ourselves by declaring that the work of Mies is nothing but the sum of constraints and technology.  Mies had a keen sense for aesthetic proportion.  Even if his buildings were not pure expressions of architectural constraint, they expressed the idea that they were.  Mies was an Expressive
. This resulted in hyper-honesty in his architecture.

Schwitters-HE-1922. From the collection of MVDR

A great debate in the art world was happening at the time of Mies Van Der Rohe’s early professional career. There was a battle between art as pure undiluted expression and art as a vessel for pure objective truth.  Kandinsky Klee and Picasso all believed in a visceral expression of art.  The sloppy colorful moodiness of their work attempted to break the walls of formality and constraint in modern art.  Conversely, the works of Mondrian and Theo Van  Doesburg (among others) believed that feelings got in the way of a pure expression of a timeless truth.  Expressionism is concerned with the moment and the precious nature of the piece, whereas the works of Mondrian are suggestive of a small piece in the puzzle of infinity; a matrix of eternal logic and sound reasoning.  Based on the description of these two opposing movements, one would be inclined to infer that Mies Van Der Rohe probably aligned himself with the likes of the geometric abstractions of the De Stilj.  However, the work that he collected reveals that he preferred expressionist art.  This is the opposite of what one would initially expect.   The reason for his artistic eye leaning this way is perhaps evidence of his philosophy on art  (as opposed to his philosophy on architecture.)  Mies believed that it was unnecessary for art to concern itself with ideas of objective truth.  Perhaps he believed that the constraints imposed by Mondrian etc.  were self imposed and not there in reality.  Art does not serve the same function as architecture; art is less tangible.  It does not need to interact with reality in order to be effective.  It can be a pure expression of soul if it wants to be.  Architecture, no matter how hard Frank Gehry tries, can never be a pure expression of soul.  It must make too many consolations on the way to its manifestation.  Perhaps Mies envied the freedom afforded to the fine artist.  Or perhaps it bolstered his belief that his approach to architecture was in the right direction for the simple fact that it did not function on the same level as fine art.

The duality between freedom and constraint in these two arts is best represented in the collage work of Mies Van Der Rohe.  These collages generally consisted of black simple line drawings of a building in one point perspective with large blocks devoted to colorful paintings.  These bold explosions of color and pure emotional expression are in high contrast to their subdued, almost invisible surroundings.  Indeed, the buildings in these collages do essentially disappear when a painting is applied to them.  In fact, in the collage for a Museum for a Small City, there is no architecture at all.  The placement of the art and the nature behind the windows evoke space.   Art steals the show.   Mies was telling us something about the appropriate expression of architecture and fine art, chiefly, that they are not the same. They serve different purposes.

To illustrate this effectively, I have doctored up some of Mies’ collages.  Instead of including works by Kandinsky or Picasso, I’ve inserted works by Mondrian and Frank Stella.  In this environment we see that the opposing relationship between the two arts is attenuated.  Architecture and art tend to blend into one another.  They are not effective counterpoints. Now, in the opposite realm, these works of geometric abstraction would work better in a gallery by Frank Gehry, but like I have stated in an earlier post, this would be an ironic statement.  The decorum would be flipped around, undermining honesty of expression in the arts.

MVDR- Collage for a Small Art Museum-1941. With painting by Kandinsky.

Same Collage as above with Mondrian painting "Yellow Patch" inserted. (Argitect)

MVDR: Museum for a Small City. 1937. With PIcasso's Guernica.

Same collage as above substituted with Frank Stella's "Delphine and HIppolyte" 1967 (Argitect)

As a final note, I am not suggesting that there is one true way that art and architecture should be created.  As long as expression is true to itself and addresses constraints or lack of constraints it becomes good art.  This is merely a basis for critique.

Klee-Soulful Expression-1938-Collection of MVDR


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2 Responses to Empty Vessels for Soulful Expression: Fine Art and Mies Van Der Rohe

  1. RTA says:

    Very effective support of your idea using photoshop images! The relative roles of art and architecture was a big issue for German thinkers for many years before Mies adopted their ideas.

    Mies also made a similarly strong distinction between nature and the man-made building. His favorite trees (Honey locust, crabapples, hawthorns) were irregular and wispy, arranged informally rather than in geometric rows. That is why he chose the Jensen-trained landscape architect Alfred Caldwell for his projects. He carefully arranged the location of his plantings in portions of a plaza where pavers appear to be removed and nature sprouted. That was an elaborate artifice, since a recessed planter is very difficult to build over a basement, but it conveys his intended idea about the contrasting relationship between nature and the man-made urban environment.

    Seagram is perhaps the best example, although Mies didnt get along too well with that local landscape architect, who did previous work for Philip Johnson. He did manage to find Ginko tree cultivars that were as irregular in branching pattern as the Honey Locust.

  2. argitect says:

    Thanks! I wonder if he liked or encouraged the ivy that grew on some of his buildings at IIT. Stay tuned, I’m planning on posting several more of these photoshopped collages with artists throughout history.

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