On bauhaus stories, we dive into the unpacking events’ topics with interviews, essays and features, thus providing a deeper understanding of the exhibition and key questions of museum collection practices.
To this day I haven’t figured out why the childless couple Jakob R. and Marianne Maier bequeathed their estate to the Bauhaus-Archiv. I would have loved to talk to them about it, but we never had contact with each other, and they never attempted to reach out to us before. The phone call from Lutz von Pufendorf came as a huge surprise. The Berlin attorney and former State Secretary for Cultural Affairs had been commissioned by a testamentary executor to oversee the fulfilment of a testament. What did this have to do with us? Jakob R. Maier? The name was completely unfamiliar to me. Mr von Pufendorf explained that the artist Jak R. Maier had died several years earlier and now his wife had just passed away. In their testament, the couple left everything they owned to the Bauhaus-Archiv. I took a deep breath. What did this mean? Did we have time to sleep on it? Were there documents? It was the first time in the history of the Bauhaus-Archive, and in my own life, that I ever had to deal with something like this.
I asked around at the Bauhaus-Archiv whether anyone had known or heard of Jakob or Marianne Maier. We initially assumed that that they had been members of the Bauhaus-Archiv’s association of friends – but that wasn’t the case. A quick search on the Internet pulled up an image of a sculpture in public space and mentions of Tailfingen in Baden-Württemberg, Jakob Maier’s birthplace. Why did the couple entrust their estate to us? In their testament, it only said that Jakob Maier felt a deep devotion to the Bauhaus. He had begun his career as an artisanal apprentice and subsequently earned a degree in the fine arts. His works are characterised by primary colours in brilliant blues, reds and yellows, their design and execution are rendered in elementary forms, clearly at home in the 1960s and 1970s – authentic for their time. The fact that he and his wife decided to leave their entire estate to an institution dedicated to cultivating the philosophy and material legacy of the Bauhaus is extraordinary and remarkable. But it was also a very lonely decision.
Together with Sibylle Hoiman, then-curator at the Bauhaus-Archiv responsible for the architectural collection, we drove to the outskirts of Berlin where the Maiers’ house was located to learn more about the people behind the inheritance. We had already heard that Jakob Maier was a Porsche fan with a penchant for fast cars and beautiful design. We were looking forward to what we would discover! To our disappointment and dismay, the house was already empty. There were no valuable design classics for our collection anywhere to be found. At least the testamentary executor assured us the house had only contained ordinary furniture and household goods.
So we walked through the empty house until we found a room where Maier’s artistic legacy was stored. We noticed that even here a pre-selection had been made regarding which items supposedly belonged to his artistic estate. We looked around and did a precursory inspection. Aside from graphics cabinets containing all sorts of works on paper, documents and photographs, we discovered a shelf with small, but truly impressive and magical-looking models of Maier’s sculptures. We then ventured outside. In the front yard, we had already encountered a metal sculpture and we suspected that more of them were concealed in the heavily overgrown property. Indeed, we discovered a gravestone for Marianna Maier’s mother, which had probably been designed by Jakob Maier.
We were torn between joy and disbelief. Should we accept the inheritance, and if so, what would it mean for the museum? We asked ourselves: Would we consider ever displaying Maier’s works? These are matters of conscience for a museum. To discard the pieces was no option. The quality of Maier’s works is simply too exquisite. The estate is a piece of Berlin art history with a distinct affinity for the Bauhaus. In discussions with the board of the Bauhaus-Archiv e.V., we sought the best solution and – despite concerns – eventually decided to accept the inheritance.
In their testament, the Maiers stipulated that their estate should be used to establish a foundation. The objective of the foundation is to cultivate the works of Jakob Maier and support the activities of the Bauhaus-Archiv – a dual-purpose, so to speak. Thanks to the efforts of our research associates and other project participants, both purposes come together brilliantly in the exhibition Unpacking Jak R. Maier.
With every new acquisition or donation, I always ask myself the same question: Am I and my team doing the right thing? Our place and time in this world are finite, and we do not collect for the sake of collecting, but rather for a purpose. The objects place demands on an institution and its employees. One must store them appropriately and take care of them. What will future directors, curators, archivists, educators and visitors have to say about it? Are the things we’ve acquired going to be viewed someday as a burden, or will they inspire new impulses?
It’s a consideration which has institutional consequences, but also very personal ones, since I, as head of the archive, am responsible for the direction of our institution during my term in office. I must assess the matter carefully and arrive at a clear-eyed decision – not knowing how future generations will respond or think about it. One can only speculate at the potential hidden within certain objects. I can only guess what the future will gain from these objects with its own, entirely fresh perspective. At the same time, I am delighted when the actions taken by our predecessors spark interest and shed light on the issues of today – this is how we keep our collection alive.