Bauhaus: Art as life

  • Update:2012-08-13
  • Penny Sparke,Kingston University, London

Barbican Centre, London, 3rd May –12th August

In response to the fact that the Olympic Games will be held in London this summer the Barbican Centre has chosen to hold an exhibition on the subject of the German Bauhaus, selected because of that latter institution’s inherent internationalism and progressive thinking. The spirit of endeavour, and of commitment to the modern world and to the future, that characterised the life and work at the Bauhaus in the 1920s mirrors, the Bauhaus exhibition organisers believe, the underlying intention of the Olympics. For both a British audience, as well as for foreign visitors to the country this summer, the Bauhaus exhibit, the curators contend, provides a perfect cultural accompaniment to the main attraction of the Games. That underpinning belief apart this is a Bauhaus show with a difference. The last time that an exhibition about this famous art school was held in Britain was in 1968, at the Royal Academy in London. At that time, at the height of the impact of ‘Swinging London’, the concept of design was new and fresh and the show set out to demonstrate the thinking behind its modern incarnation, in particular its fundamental links to fine art and craft. It also placed a strong emphasis upon architecture, claiming the Bauhaus as one of the key progenitors of architectural modernism.

The Barbican show puts much more emphasis upon artistic multi-disciplinarity. This is a Bauhaus that embraced art, design, craft, dance, architecture, film, photography and theatre, a hothouse in which creativity of all kinds was both nurtured and expressed. The co-curators, Catherine Ince and Lydia Yee, have gone to enormous length to demonstrate that sense of diversity, to emphasise that both the creative and the performing arts were
on the agenda and to remind us that the Bauhaus was not just about tubular steel chairs and flat-roofed buildings. Another important difference lies in the fact that this is a post Berlin Wall Bauhaus show. For the first time all three Bauhaus archives – the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, the Stiftung Bauhaus in Dessau and the Klassik Stiftung in Weimar - have been able to work together to create a Bauhaus exhibition that is more complete than any that have come before.

Not only is this a more creatively diverse and a more complete and representative Bauhaus that is on display at the Barbican, it is also one that was inhabited by people. Gone are the austere images of single, minimalist designs boasting their geometric forms. They have been replaced by animated photographs of Bauhaus staff and students working and playing together, having fun, and living a life in which study and communal living and entertainment blended into one. The subtitle, ‘Art as Life’, makes clear this intention. This is an early twenty-first century, postpost-modern view on to the Bauhaus undertaken by people who were too young to have seen the 1968 show and who are discovering it for themselves for the first time.

The exhibition takes its visitor on a chronological journey through the life of the Bauhaus as it was lived out, between 1919 and 1933, in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin. The contribution of the Weimar archive in the planning of the show has enabled a new emphasis to be placed upon its early phase in that German city – 1919-1925–which shows how it was formed, by the architect, Walter Gropius, out of two existing art schools, and developed out of
the German Expressionist work of artists such as Lionel Feininger and......So preoccupied have we been with the Bauhaus of minimalist design that we have almost forgotten that early burst of expressive energy and craft skill. The exuberant, large-scale ceramic work of Otto Lindig, for example, reminds us of the importance of hand-making at the Bauhaus and of the early commitment to the link between art and craft, as exemplified by the famous foundation course at the school, taught by leading artists of the day, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

1925 saw the Bauhaus move to Dessau and the construction of its new building. Architecture takes a back seat in this Bauhaus exhibition, however. Apart from the school itself, and the work of the directors of the last few years of the institution – Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe – architecture does not play a strong role in the life of the Bauhaus and this show properly takes the spotlight off it for the most part. Instead it is the work of the De Stijl painters – Theo van Doesburg in particular – that is seen as having a huge influence upon the emerging aesthetic of the school and the idea of about design that is crystallised by the mid 1920s and demonstrated in the work of Marcel Breuer, Marianne Brandt, Wilhelm Wagenfeld and others.

It is at the Dessau campus that the fusion of art and industry is fully explored and the Barbicon exhibit devotes enough space to this important aspect of the Bauhaus’s development to enable us to re-assess it. This is the period in which the iconic designs that we know and love so well were produced – from Breuer’s tubular steel furniture, in particular his ‘Wassily’ chair of 1925, to Brandt’s little metal teainfuser to Wagenfeld’s MT8 table lamp. So well knows to us are these objects that it is almost impossible to look at them. This exhibition puts them back into context and allows us to see them, not as isolated objects but as contextualised exercises
is material and form emanating from a backcloth of enthusiastic experimentation. These are not final forms but, rather, live projects.

The most visually exciting part of the exhibition is dedicated to the fabric designs that emerged from the Bauhaus. The work of Gunta Stolzl, in particular, brings together Expressionism (especially the work of Klee and Kandinsky) and craft in a context in which art is brought into contact, if not with real live industry, at least with the idea of it. The striking colours and patterns of these complex works bring the rather austere Barbicon galleries to life and demonstrate Bauhaus ideas in action. Stolzl’s two-metre high wall hanging – ‘Five Choirs’ of 1928 – is on show in Britain for the first time. The work of Anni Albers is also hugely impressive in this setting. One of the most vital parts of the Barbican show is the section devoted to photographs of life at the Bauhaus. It is clear from them that life and art did come together. The progressive dress and the stylish haircuts of the students (many on who could be walking on the streets of London today) show how the ideas about
art, craft and design were also absorbed into the identities of the people at the Bauhaus. Their productions of plays and ballets, (Oscar Schlemmer’s dramatic costumes for the ‘Triadic Ballet’ are on display) their communal play and their clear love of life show that the Bauhaus was not all about serious discussions and making prototypes but rather about absorbing the spirit of the new post-war world and re-producing in the visual culture they created. Experimentation, collaboration and play clearly came together into a single experience for both staff and students at the Bauhaus.

The sheer quantity of material available to the curators of this show meant that they had to be highly selective and they have created their own Bauhaus exhibition, one that tells a different story from others that preceded it. Inevitably they could not say all that there is to say and some areas have been somewhat downplayed. The importance of Bauhaus pedagogical thinking at the Bauhaus has, for example,been somewhat downplayed. While it is difficult to make an exciting exhibition out of pedagogical material it is, nonetheless, probably the Bauhaus’s greatest legacy as art and design schools around the globe still base their courses on the ideas developed there. Another area that has been under-emphasised is that of the gender issues at the Bauhaus. Gropius had a quota for female students and wanted most of them to attend the weaving workshop. Much has been written about this aspect of the school but the Barbicon show chose not to foreground it. Many of its key exhibits were produced by women
– from Stolzl’s textiles to Brandt’s designs to Lucia Moholy-Nagy’s photographs – so they are well represented.

Finally, the impression given of the Bauhaus through the Barbican show is of an institution that existed in a bubble. Only at the very end when it is closed down by the Nazis do we get any sense that there was a world outside and political movements that were less than enthusiastic about the level of experimentation being undertaken at the school. The Bauhaus did not exist in a bubble and perhaps a little more about the pressures that were exerted upon it during its lifetime could have been explained. However, minor criticism apart, this is a fresh and inspiring new look at an institution that has had an unprecedented impact on our modern world and it is an essential port of call for anyone travelling to London this summer.


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