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Artist digs into Bauhaus history at Harvard

“On the Wall: Elizabeth Corkery” is the first exhibition in Providence College Galleries’ yearlong “Beyond Bauhaus” celebration of the legendary German design school’s centennial.
Scott Alario
“On the Wall: Elizabeth Corkery” is the first exhibition in Providence College Galleries’ yearlong “Beyond Bauhaus” celebration of the legendary German design school’s centennial.

PROVIDENCE — Elizabeth Corkery drills into art history for core samples. For “On the Wall: Elizabeth Corkery,” the first exhibition in Providence College Galleries’ yearlong “Beyond Bauhaus” celebration of the legendary German design school’s centennial, Corkery zeroes in on Harvard in the 1930s, but reaches further back.

If you’ve seen “The Bauhaus and Harvard” at Harvard Art Museums through July 28, you know the material Corkery digs into. In 1937, Joseph Hudnut, architect and dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, brought Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to Harvard to chair the architecture department.

Modernists such as these two spurned the classical lines and ornamentation of the past. In some ways Hudnut attempted to erase what had come before him at Harvard. He did away with GSD’s Hall of Casts, plaster replicas of classical works, and in reproductions of images of the school’s Robinson Hall, he erased the flourishes of the building, designed in 1900 by McKim, Mead, & White.  

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In drawings, Corkery depicts that building with its proper adornment. She makes Bauhaus-style tapestries of its brickwork, honoring its original design.

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Her mural reconciles the schism between the modernists and their predecessors. This artist’s work, in a Bauhaus vein, always conflates art and architecture. Here, she nods to Bauhaus workshops that used painting techniques to mimic architectural elements. She depicts sturdy geometric plinths in perspectival composition.

Atop each plinth, Corkery positions a biomorphic fiberboard cutout, squirmy in the mode of Hans Arp. His mural “Constellations II,” which Gropius commissioned for a Harvard dining hall, is also now at Harvard Art Museums. The plinths, modern as they appear, conjure the old Hall of Casts, because Corkery has applied silkscreened photos of details of classical sculptures and architectural ornaments to the cutouts. 

Corkery aptly fits these fragments into Arp’s 20th-century form; we can only view history through the lens of what has come since. Still, it’s a reclamation, pulling the forebears of Western art history out of the dark basement Hudnut perhaps consigned them to. 

It’s impossible to abandon the past. To attempt to, while sometimes necessary, is often violent. Decades on, Corkery synthesizes a shunted past, and it’s an unexpected balm.

ON THE WALL: ELIZABETH CORKERY

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At Providence College Galleries, 63 Eaton St., Providence, through July 26. 401-865-2400, pcgalleries.providence.edu 

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.