Evelyn Waugh, Walter Gropius and Prof Otto Silenus

Fiona MacCarthy, biographer and art historian, has written a biography of architect Walter Gropius. At least two reviewers have noted his contribution to the character of Prof Otto Silenus in Waugh’s debut novel Decline and Fall. Novelist Philip Hensher, writing in The Spectator, offers these comments:

The most important episode in his career, rightly given prominence in MacCarthy’s title, was his founding of the Bauhaus in 1919, unifying two Weimar institutions. In its short 14-year history, the school managed to draw an extraordinary range of aesthetic approaches into a unified project. There was a place in it, at different times, for mystics, poetic fantasists, hard Marxist ideologues, industrial fetishists and dedicated William Morris-type craftsmen. Gropius somehow kept it together, despite its incompatibilities, and in the face of bitter hostility from politicians and the public. After four years it had to move from Weimar to Dessau, where Gropius created the single most persuasive argument for the Bauhaus idea. The school and the idyllic line of masters’ houses in a pine grove must be visited: they embody a compelling vision of a life where work, communal existence, private spaces, creativity and natural beauty can exist harmoniously and concisely.

Gropius left the Bauhaus after a reorganization in 1928 and moved to England before settling in America. In England, according to Hensher, “he formed connections with advanced opinion, including the founders of Dartington in Devon and the Isokon project of communal living in Belsize Park, and built a couple of important things.” Hensher goes on to describe how Waugh constructed a character out of Gropius, overcoming difficulties which defeated Hensher’s own attempts to do so in a recent novel inspired by the Bauhaus movement:

…Gropius, despite all MacCarthy’s care, remains an untextured sort of personality. When I wrote a novel about the Bauhaus, The Emperor Waltz, I could do nothing at all with him, and in the end left him out entirely. Most of the expressions of enthusiasm by friends for Gropius in person fall back on his undoubted greatness as an architect. His conduct in his romantic affairs was brisk and time-saving […]

The chilly rationality of this approach to romance makes you think that Evelyn Waugh got his caricature of Gropius as Professor Silenus in Decline and Fall exactly right. When Paul Pennyfeather asks him whether he doesn’t think Mrs Beste-Chetwynde the most wonderful woman in the world, the professor replies:

“If you compare her with other women of her age you will see that the particulars in which she differs from them are infinitesimal compared with the points of similarity. A few millimetres here and a few millimetres there, such variations are inevitable in the human reproductive system.”

Waugh also got right the fact that Gropius was clearly very attractive to women, for reasons beyond the excavations of any biographer.

Hensher’s 2014 novel on the Bauhaus movement (linked above) failed to receive the attention it deserved. It was never published in the US. It can only be hoped that interest inspired by the latest biography will rectify this.

The other review mentioning the Waugh connection is by Prof John Carey and appeared in this week’s Sunday Times:

Gropius, who had been harassed by the Gestapo, sought refuge in England, but complained that it was an inartistic country, with unsalted vegetables, bony women and freezing draughts. Not that he was well placed to judge, since he spoke no English and met no ordinary English people. Admirers lodged him in the Lawn Road Flats, a modernist haven for wealthy intellectuals in Belsize Park. His dislike of the English was reciprocated. Evelyn Waugh caricatured him as Professor Silenus in Decline and Fall, and Osbert Lancaster dismissed his beliefs as “Bauhaus balls”. So Gropius left for America and built a house in the Massachusetts countryside where he and Ise spent the war years.

The author of the book, Fiona MacCarthy, writing about it in the Guardian, offers this comment, which apparently reflects the book’s contents:

Another of the myths I’ve needed to demolish is that Gropius was humourlessly Germanic in his functionalist views. This grim view emanates from Evelyn Waugh’s satiric Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus in Decline and Fall (1928), the architect brought in to design for the fashionable Mrs Beste-Chetwynde “something clean and square”. For many English readers Silenus personified Gropius. This view of Gropius was patently unfair – he was someone who loved the unpredictable: Gropius is never quite what you expect.

As portrayed brilliantly by actor Anatole Taubman in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Waugh’s novel, Otto was one on the most memorable characters in that production. Based on the descriptions of Gropius in these articles, he (like Waugh) probably got Otto just about right, albeit (according to MacCarthy) perhaps a bit overstated.

UPDATE (1 March 2019): Reference to Fiona MacCarthy’s article in the Guardian was added.



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