Bauhaus: Art as Life
Barbican Art Gallery, London
Until August 12
With a range of interesting new material on show, the Barbican’s Bauhaus show sees beyond the battles over modernism
While the first world war was still being fought, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar was already discussing with his adviser Henry van de Velde the possibility of Walter Gropius becoming dir-ector of the Weimar Art Academy. Although still serving in the army, Gropius accepted and succ-essfully counter-proposed an amalgamation of that academy with the Weimar Arts and Crafts School, and branded his new institution with the untranslat-able “Bauhaus”.
The name indicated his intentions, announced in his inaugural Proclamation of 1919, that “The complete building is the final aim of the visual arts… Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.” This is recognisable as the architectural variant, 40 years after Parsifal, of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, and the proclamation was appropriately accompanied by Lyonel Feininger’s aspirational, mystical woodcut of a fractured cathedral, each of its three spires surmounted by a radiating star.
So the now-hoary story, that the Bauhaus emerged fully formed under its charismatic director from the devastation of the first world war, developed a singular “modern style” in architecture and design which was propagated around the world, subsequently to cause misery and inconvenience to all right-thinking people, is tired and a-historical. It is one thankfully neither explicitly repeated nor encouraged by the curators of the wonderfully disparate material in the Barbican’s current show.
Its predecessor, the Royal Academy’s exhibition of 1968, was large but its organisers were only able to draw on material from Berlin’s Bauhaus-Archiv. Since then, and after the German unification in 1990, the collections of two further institutions in the former GDR, the Museum für Gestaltung, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau and the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, have become accessible. At the Barbican, over 400 works, paintings, drawings, photographs, items of furniture and tableware (some still in production today), clothes and typography (Akzidenz a favourite, and still with us) are displayed in a handsome, rather dry installation designed by architect Carmody Groarke and graphic designer Apfel and absent currently over-excited tropes of interpretation.
The exhibition’s broadly chronological and then thematic arrangement startlingly demonstrates the sudden change in 1922-3 in the school’s approach to architecture from the earlier manner of, for example, Gropius and Meyer’s log cabin Sommerfeld House with its axial organisation and craft-based jazzy decoration, to the pinwheel composition of the Dessau Bauhaus building and the extraordinarily assured serenity of the masters’ houses of 1926. That replacing Johannes Itten by László Moholy-Nagy, or the monomaniac “insurgency” of 1921 engineered by the visiting Theo van Doesburg could alone have been responsible is indicated but inadequately examined.
While the catalogue’s essays do supply some background, the exhibition’s material is only lightly embedded in two antithetical historical threads. The Grand Duke was only the final titled patron to foster attempts to reconcile the products of industry with the canons of the decorative crafts and the fine arts, a tradition that emerged in Prussia in the 1820s when Karl Friedrich Schinkel was required to do just that. The 20th century’s heir of this tradition, the Deutscher Werkbund, of which both Peter Behrens and Gropius were founder members, was established in 1907 and was to supplant the craft-based Werkstätten and the utopian inclinations which inform Gropius’s inaugural address. The lurid events of which the Germany of the 1920s had a surfeit are mentioned only when the Bauhaus students’ partying, to which rather too much space is devoted, had to stop.
The show’s final, sparsely populated room is dour. The opposition that the Bauhaus had repeatedly provoked has finally trapped it: Life (events, history) has crushed Art. The last item, a photograph, shows the 23 remaining students, the boys all wearing ties, sitting in the sun outside the factory where the school’s final director Mies van der Rohe had established his Bauhaus Berlin. On display is his brief notice of its dissolution on August 10 1933 — two months after the book-burnings and five after the first concentration camp was opened at Dachau.
Source: Markus Hawl