BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 01 SEP 12
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Issue 149

Bauhaus: Art as Life

BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 01 SEP 12

László Moholy-Nagy, Prospectus cover for 14 Bauhaus books, 1928

As the exhibition’s title and catalogue preface suggested, the Barbican’s ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ tried to break with the popular yet limiting understanding of the Bauhaus as a Modernist and functional style in architecture and design. Instead, as many of the individually-themed room display titles – ‘Young People Come to the Bauhaus!’, ‘Instruments of Communication’, ‘Our Play, Our Party, Our Work’ – implied, the curators Catherine Ince and Lydia Yee tried to bring out the often neglected yet radical aspects of Bauhaus modernity, as it emerged socially and pedagogically in the school’s progressive and experimental embrace of collectivity: for example, its foregrounding of communal living; manifestoes on overcoming any social division between masters and students; shared housing and child care; canteens; parties, festivals, theatre and bands.

However, like all Bauhaus exhibitions, the burden of also providing a general survey-like introduction to one of the most significant movements in international Modernism weighed a little too heavily. This sort of schizophrenic agenda meant that instead of focusing exclusively on Bauhaus visual culture in relation to the school’s progressive experiments in social life and its communal values (which could have made for a riveting exhibition in itself), many of the works ended up being displayed as exactly the rarefied objects their producers were aiming to replace with functional things capable of initiating collective activities and new modes of communication. This curatorial responsibility to provide a coherent and chronological introduction has much to do with the fact that, despite exhibitions like ‘Bauhaus Dessau’ (staged at the Design Museum in London in 2000), ‘Art as Life’ was the biggest and most comprehensive show on the Bauhaus in the UK for 40 years, and many of the works on display were being shown for the first time in the UK. That there hasn’t been a major Bauhaus show for almost half a century might appear to say something odd about British museum programming, but MoMA’s 2009–10 show ‘Workshops for Modernity’ – which toured from Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, where it had the slightly less populist title ‘Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model’ – was the institution’s first Bauhaus survey since 1938, and also brought most of its works to the USA for the first time.

Like the Berlin-New York exhibitions, ‘Art as Life’ was the result of a close collaboration between the three main Bauhaus institutions in Berlin, Dessau and Weimar (a venture only properly possible post-Cold War, with the reunification of Germany). This partnership was clear in the brilliant range of more than 400 objects on display, as well as the contributions from many German experts associated with these institutions in the catalogue. Another similarity between ‘Art as Life’ and the 2009–10 surveys was the very deliberate emphasis placed on the interdisciplinary approach of the Bauhaus, as well as displaying the work of famous Bauhaus masters and protégés in conjunction with less well-known students and practitioners. For example, alongside paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and teapots by Marianne Brandt, there were collages by the Bauhaus textiles master Gunta Stölz, photographs by the students Iwao Yamawaki and Erich Consemüller (commissioned by the Bauhaus to document the school with some 300 photographs), and inked drawings by Hilde Rantzsch. There were also nice surprises in the form of less familiar works by big names, such as serial photographic portraits taken by Josef Albers – kind of cinematic biographies of his colleagues – from the late 1920s and early 1930s. As well as the photomontages and typographical designs Herbert Bayer is well known for, there were also designs for newspaper kiosks and cigarette pavilions, which brought to mind the Soviet semi-portable multimedia agitprop kiosks of Gustav Klutsis and, like Albers’ portraits, the fascinating parallels and differences between Bauhaus and Constructivist Modernism.

In places, particularly the rooms which focused on more ephemeral objects – such as postcards, invitations, books, magazines, films, student ID cards and brochures – ‘Art as Life’ did an excellent job of drawing out aspects of the experimental pedagogy and communal social life that underlined life at the school. Although normally presented as a mystical colour theorist and strict follower of Mazdanan (a fire cult and religious health movement founded at the end of the 19th century), we saw another side of the Swiss Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten in his intriguing manifesto ‘Analysen alter Meister’ (Analysis of Old Masters). This was displayed as reproduced in the first of volume of Bruno Adler’s peculiar almanac Utopia: Dokumente der Wirklichkeit (‘Utopia: Documents of Reality’, 1921). Adler, a German art historian and writer who lectured at the Bauhaus, also translated Flaubert and, as a Jewish émigré in England during World War II, worked for BBC radio’s German service airing anti-Nazi programmes in Germany. Whilst at the Bauhaus, he produced only two parts of his planned seven-part series which was published by the Utopia Publishing House in Weimar. Itten’s pages consisted of a kind of sketchbook printed as lithographs, involving elaborate, spidery doodles, typographical designs and diagrams overlapping reproductions of old masterpieces, and suggested an early and confusing attempt to work out Modernism’s relations to much earlier historical epochs, in high contrast to the clean industrial design usually associated with the school.

As well as the popular hand-puppets made by Paul Klee for his son, other enthralling objects were the personalized diplomas made by fellow students. Stözl’s certificate for Margaret Leischner of 1930 shows an inked woman with Leichner’s collaged head, dipping dyes into a giant cauldron with golden stars jostling above. The inseparable nature of the school’s social and visual culture was also evident in the memorabilia from events such as the annual lantern parties, the ‘Metal Party’ of 1927 (photographs show its merry tin-foiled participants), or the ‘Beard Nose Heart’ party the year later, which made clear just how much the Bauhaus was built around festivity, and an ethos based on the inseparability of work and play. The role played by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius in directing this Utopian and collective approach to art and design, and the love felt towards him by the school’s members, was also clear in Herbert Bayer’s Prospectus: The Mouth, 44 Caresses in DIN (1927), a collective gift to Gropius for his 44th birthday. It comprises the prints of painted stained lips of Bauhaus masters – arranged in neat grids – and a jumbled, frenzied mess of kisses from students, all in cobalt blue and pink, adorned with collaged strips of gothic script from newspapers.

Gropius resigned a year later, and his successor, the Marxist architect Hannes Meyer, encouraged students to adopt an even more utilitarian approach, designing for the masses. But Meyer also continued the social experiment in communal living. Perhaps the greatest success of ‘Art as Life’ in conveying this experiment was the framing of theatre (under the lead of Oskar Schlemmer) alongside architecture, which brought out the fact that it was the collective social life and new forms of agency that the iconic Bauhaus buildings were designed to serve. The only major issue with the exhibition was that the school’s failings and contradictions – as well as the complicated relationship between art, technology, commerce, progressive politics and Utopian thought, which defined its programme – could have been conveyed more forcefully. But the kind of revisionist history that seeks to undercut the layers of mythologization surrounding the Bauhaus – like that undertaken by one of the catalogue contributors Kathleen James-Chakraborty, in her edited collection Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War (2006) – just isn’t possible in an introductory survey show. Maybe the next major Bauhaus exhibition will manage that.

Sarah E. James is an art historian and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her next book Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde, is forthcoming from the MIT Press.