15 September 2012

Bauhaus at the Barbican 2012

The Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre (May-August 2012) was set up to feature a comprehensive display of the school's archit­ecture, paint­ing, sculpture, ceramics, design, film, photography, textiles and theatre art. This is exactly what you would have expect­ed from an art and design academy set up in Germany in 1919. No art form was omit­ted; no well known designer was excluded. The curators of course tried to select and include important works from the Bauhaus stars who I loved the most: Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, Wassily Kand­insky, Paul Klee and Hannes Meyer. And they also included the people who became even more famous in the USA post-1933 than they had been in Germany: Josef and Anni Albers, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, Gunta Stölzl and Marianne Brandt.

But we have all seen the Bauhaus’ theatre costumes, its cafeteria stools and its silver teapots in the past. So what did the Barbican’s Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition add to world knowledge?

Ned Hercock (History Today June 2012) cited Gropius’ vision of Europe’s future, and it was this vision that set a clear direction for post-WW1 industrial design in Germany. Gropius established a utopian art school specifically as a response to the economic situation following the destructive tragedy of World War One. War, peace, national recon­struction, economic growth and modern design education were his goals, not smart wall hangings and innovative teapots.

Marianne Brandt, silver-ebony tea service. Bauhaus design, 1924. 

The Bauhaus political content was legible even in the most ordinary of the school’s internal documents. The look of the printed text that emerged from Bauhaus proclaimed its values and aspirations: democratic, egalitarian and internationalist.

So only by reading Gropius’ a] original 1919 manifesto and b] his instructions to the masters can we see how his functionalism was to be expressed. It was this community of teachers, artists and designers whose fulfilled Gropius' dream and made Bauhaus the most celebrated art and design academy in the world (until 1933).

Did Gropius succeed with his own Bauhaus Retrospective, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938? Herbert Bayer created a bulletin called "Bauhaus 1919-1928", illustrated with 16 black and white photographs. The exhibition gave the first comprehensive review of the first decade of Bauhaus’ development under Gropius. In 1938, I think Americans were prepared to learn about modern design education, but were not very interested in war, national recon­struction, egalitarianism and internationalism. So Gropius' goals for the New York exhibition were only half met.

Did the Barbican succeed with the Bauhaus: Art as Life Exhibition in 2012? Yes, I think enough time has elapsed to allow viewers to consider Gropius’ philosophical and ideological priorities with admiration and cool analysis. Modern European viewers probably found Gropius’ views neither politically radical nor austerely modern.

Josef Albers, oak and lacquered nesting tables. Bauhaus design, 1927.

British newspaper reviews in 2012 tended to focus examining Bauhaus through the personal lives of its young community. There was plenty of material in the Barbican Exhibition to examine teaching exercises that Bauhaus students had to share, experiments with materials in the craft studios, musical and drama performances, sports, parties and students’ life in the residential facilities. I imagine that having lots and lots of undergraduate-aged students in an academy, far away from their parents, led to heaps of fun. But for me, the ideological elements of the Bauhaus experience were more important.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
This does sound to have been a very comprehension and well considered exhibition. We have been absent from the UK for so long that we have missed London and its marvellous museums greatly and this is surely something that we should have wanted to see.

The Bauhaus influence is reasonably strongly felt in Budapest too and we have been to several exhibitions and have toured several houses where Bauhaus details are evident.

However, it is most interesting what you have to say about the ideologies which influenced this work. They may not appear radical or, even particularly modern from a 2012 perspective but they certainly were so in their day. And, for that, we feel that it deserves special consideration.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

Because so many of the Bauhaus staff and students were from countries east of Germany, we would expect the biggest influence in places like Vienna, Budapest, Prague etc? I just have to think of Moholy Nagy, Breuer and at least 20 Hungarian students who moved to Bauhaus up until 1933. Regardless of where they ended up after 1933, their impact was radical..and beloved.

You are right about the 2012 perspective. The New York Bauhaus Exhibition in 1938 was just as comprehensive but not nearly as successful.

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Hels said...


Thank you. Have you been to the Bauhaus sites in Berlin, Weimar etc? How did Barbican exhibition compare?