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Bauhaus: Art as Life

Following the current trend of fascination with Bauhaus, the Barbican offers its own take on the contentious movement

The Bauhaus is everywhere these days. I don’t mean that we all live in white voids surrounded (as the familiar truism has it) by the late fruits of Modernism: we haven’t gone from the torture chairs of Teutonic socialists to IKEA’s kookily-named trinkets without losing much along the way. Rather, it seems we are increasingly obsessed with the Bauhaus as a historical object. There was a prodigious show on the school in Berlin in 2009, which travelled to MoMA the following year, and now the Barbican has got in on the act. As ever, when it comes to the Bauhaus, London is comparatively slow on the uptake. Convincing though the revisionist account of Alan Powers might be in its details, the wider picture remains the same: the Brits didn’t really twig Modernism until quite late (our first exhibition dedicated to the Bauhaus was staged at the Royal Academy in 1968). The ideas of the Bauhaus’s leading figures had begun to percolate sometime before the war, not least through the advocacy of the AR’s own P Morton Shand, but they met with limited interest at best. This exhibition provides a welcome opportunity to catch up.

So what were the ideas of the Bauhaus? Where did they come from, and why have they come to stand for Modernism en bloc? The Barbican show leaves us to make our own conclusions. Without an explicit curatorial argument, the kaleidoscopic diversity of the artefacts might defy comprehension. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge: textiles, for example, form an intriguing subplot – it is telling that the earlier examples are handwoven and crafty, whereas a later swatch is patterned with typewritten text. The dark subconscious of the school’s ludic pedagogy is well represented with puppets by Paul Klee, among others: a revelatory discovery, their creepiness perfectly counterbalances Klee’s annoying whimsicality. The social life of the Bauhaus is another persistent theme, but although the boho parties and zany happenings are certainly engaging, they are given too much space. Perhaps the curators thought they illustrated the slightly undercooked thesis of the show’s title: ‘art as life’. But is this all the idealism of the Bauhauslern amounted to: the opportunity to dress up in tin foil and silly hats? Conversely, the architecture of the Bauhaus tends to disappear. There is only one architectural model on display, of the Dessau building, with other projects represented by photos and contemporary plans.

Bauhaus Dessau photograph by Iwao Yamawaki

Student Iwao Yamawaki’s photo of the Dessau Bauhaus reveals the influence of the ‘New Vision’ pioneered by Rodchenko and filtered to the school through Moholy-Nagy

How to deal with the ruptures and discontinuities of the Bauhaus’s history is another big curatorial challenge. The school’s major physical transition is marked by a change in level: from the Weimar Bauhaus upstairs to its Dessau reincarnation below. A more significant change is announced by a simple postcard. In 1921, Theo van Doesburg – who had set up a kind of pirate academy on the Bauhaus’s doorstep – sent a picture of the school building to a friend, the words ‘De Stijl’ scrawled across its facade, curiously presaging the building at Dessau where the word emblazoned on the facade would instead be ‘Bauhaus’ (like Herbert Bayer’s design for a news kiosk, this was a commercialised version of Constructivist information architecture). Doesburg’s proximity coincided with a rejection of Expressionism in favour of Constructivist ideas, a rethink marked by the replacement of master Johannes Itten – with his shaved head, robes and vegetarianism – with Lázsló Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian ex-revolutionary who affected workers’ overalls (no less theatrical, in their way, than Itten’s get-up). Moholy-Nagy’s arrival is announced here by one of his famous ‘telephone paintings’, abstract compositions owing much to El Lissitzky. Moholy-Nagy, so the story goes, directed a sign painter to create these works by telephone, transforming the role of the artist from creative genius to detached administrator: a Constructivist gambit refreshed by the interposition of communication technology. But the truth is that Moholy-Nagy lied: these paintings were not produced by distant technicians but in his own studio, the myth of telephony concocted to give them a new spin. No matter, the story is a good one and doesn’t lose much from being untrue. What is more significant is that these supposedly dehumanised paintings with their numerical titles were created by hand, like everything else in the Bauhaus. For all the technophilic rhetoric (‘art and technology: a new unity’, as Gropius put it), at this stage the Bauhaus was still struggling with the same problems that had beset its English predecessor, Morris & Co. You can’t change the modern world by making handcrafted objects too expensive to reach a mass market, and consequently the Modernists were in this period – just like Morris before them – ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich, even if by now swinish luxury looked more like the home of a vegetarian bacteriologist than some vegetal nightmare of medievalist psychedelia.

Indeed, it was not until Gropius left that the school first turned a profit. Cowed by accusations of ‘cultural bolshevism’, he departed in 1928 to pursue his own architectural practice. He was replaced by vocal Marxist Hannes Meyer, and ironically it was under Meyer that Bauhaus wallpaper (the catalogue for which is included in the show), fully mass-produced, finally began to rake in the cash. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that a Marxist should have a firmer grasp of economic realities than his romantic anti-capitalist predecessor. But Meyer’s stewardship – which also produced the most interesting Bauhaus building, the trade union school in Bernau – is underplayed here. Yes, it was brief (he was thrown out for political reasons and replaced by the opportunistic Mies), but Meyer came up with the school’s most successful answer to the question posed by this show’s title: art can only merge with life when it’s available to everyone. Tragically, his tenure also coincided with the crisis of the Bauhaus – the real reason we are still talking about the school today. For it was the political assault on the school in those last terrible years of the Weimar Republic that led to the dispersal of its members, and with them, its ideas.

Bauhaus: Art as Life

Venue: The Barbican

City: London

Dates: Until 12 August 2012

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