Bauhaus: Art as Life

The Bauhaus school is getting a retrospective in London, after a gap of more than 40 years. Alexander Massouras writes

May 3, 2012


Clockwise from top left: Josef Albers/factory A, 1925-26; Eugen Batz/Exercise for colour theory course taught by Kandinsky, 1929-30; Josef Albers/set of four stacking tables, 19

Bauhaus: Art as Life

Barbican Art Gallery, London

Until 12 August

The last major Bauhaus survey in London took place in 1968 at the Royal Academy of Arts. This was somewhat ironic, given how constitutionally opposed the Bauhaus was to academies of fine art, although the fact that it coincided with a famous episode of student unrest at the Hornsey College of Art is an altogether more fitting historical accident.

Bauhaus: Art as Life offers the chance to review the school’s artistic and educational legacy from a greater historical distance. It also has the advantage of coming after German reunification, giving the exhibition wider access to material and archives than its predecessor.

Much has changed since 1968, but the intervening 44 years have done little to diminish the reputation of the Bauhaus, which remains synonymous with High Modernism, internationalism, the embrace of the machine aesthetic and progressive models of creative education. This continuing stature is all the more remarkable given the school’s brief life.

The Bauhaus came into existence in 1919, when the Grand-Ducal Saxon Academy of Fine Arts and the School of Arts and Crafts merged into one institution. The unified school moved into its famous buildings in Dessau, designed by founder-director Walter Gropius, in 1926, and ultimately closed its doors in 1933 - which were, by then, the entrance to a disused Berlin telephone factory into which the Bauhaus had been relegated.

The closest thing England had to a Bauhaus lasted rather longer, and in fact closed only last year. From 1896, the Central School of Arts and Crafts under its founding principal William Richard Lethaby stood in opposition to the institutional gulf between fine art and craft. From 1907 until 2011 it operated under various names from a building on Southampton Row in London. If this building lacked the crisp whiteness of the Bauhaus, the difference was merely visual: like the Bauhaus, it was efficient and suited to its purposes, and those purposes were strikingly similar.

The Arts and Crafts movement, in fact, foreshadowed the Bauhaus. Strange and zealous mysticism, faith in process and craft, socialist politics and an aversion to inessentials permeated Arts and Crafts attitudes at least 20 years before they were adopted by the Bauhaus. The bicycle famously inspired Marcel Breuer’s club chair, an emblem of the Bauhaus now seen in smart offices and waiting rooms the world over. Yet it had been a symbol of good design long before that: in 1911, Lethaby had called for houses to aspire to the bicycle’s efficiency.

The Bauhaus is much better known than any of its predecessors, perhaps because of its very brevity. Not only did its closure scatter proselytising Bauhaus staff and students across the globe, but it also lent a nostalgic lustre to the school’s image. Oskar Schlemmer’s famous 1932 painting Bauhaus Stairway, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is not atypical in this respect. It was painted after Schlemmer had left the school, when the Bauhaus itself had already left its Dessau site and all but shut down. These kinds of images, like Gropius’ building, provided a powerful symbol of the institution. Herbert Bayer’s large lettering on the facade branded the building and helped to ensure that the Bauhaus was not forgotten.

That this new survey takes place at the Barbican is a fitting tribute to the Bauhaus and its architects, and evidence of its continuing influence. The Barbican manifests a vision of modern living socialised around art, music and theatre, bringing art and life closer in a practical sense. Gropius would surely have approved. In British art, by the 1950s and 1960s many artists’ work bore traces of Bauhaus influence. Compare Bayer’s work to that of Antony Donaldson or Robyn Denny, especially Bayer’s gift from teachers and students to Gropius on his 44th birthday, covered in text and kisses from blue lips (Prospectus: the mouth. 44 tokens of affection, 19). The abundance of playful collage to be seen at the Barbican exhibition resonates throughout the work of the Independent Group, and Pop Art after that. More generally, next time you see a sign or brand name all in lower-case lettering, think of Bayer, who in the 1920s zealously opposed upper case at the Bauhaus.

But before it was anything else, the Bauhaus was a school, and its educational legacy is altogether more ambiguous. It is best known for its “preliminary course”, which provided a template for the foundation courses still to be found in British art schools. This was conceived and taught by Johannes Itten, before being passed on to László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers. The fact that Itten arrived at the Bauhaus with 16 students from his previous school gives an indication of his charisma, while the bizarre exercise regimens and diets his adherents followed testify both to his persuasiveness and to his eccentricity.

Itten was in essence an iconoclast: he preached “unlearning” in pursuit of the “blank slate”, and remodelled education as a process of student-led experimentation or discovery. For all its radical spirit, the blank slate was not a new ideal, but this was an early adoption within an educational institution. That attitude of epistemological doubt became popular throughout art education, particularly in the UK in the second half of the 20th century.

The Bauhaus was originally supported by the German province of Thuringia, requiring the school to stage exhibitions to demonstrate its usefulness and value - an exercise the research excellence framework makes familiar to UK universities today. As funding steadily diminished, the Bauhaus mimicked the behaviour of industrial corporations, focusing on patents and products. In some ways this was a natural move for a school whose pedagogy centred around the workshop, but inevitably it diminished the importance of less commercial disciplines.

Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky and Schlemmer all came to notice that painting and sculpture were marginalised under such a model. The academy, for all the toxicity of its “academic” connotations, at least recognised the importance of autonomy and the breathing space it gave these disciplines. By opposing the academy and celebrating the workshop, the Bauhaus emphasised training over education. If the crisp Bauhaus aesthetic is enjoyed and widely accepted, these (equally profound)educational legacies remain troubling and controversial.

To the contemporary eye, one of the more entertaining aspects of the Bauhaus was the inclusion of celebrations and festivals in its curriculum. At one of these, Joost Schmidt (a student and later a teacher) performed a wrestling match with himself. In this piece of absurdist theatre lurks a concluding metaphor for the conflicted institution of the Bauhaus.

These tensions were there from the beginning: the Bauhaus aspired to the collective endeavour of medieval guilds, yet revered the individual expression of artists. It stressed art’s exalted status, distancing it from mere “profession”, while also subjecting it to economic tests and tying it to industry. Neither Arts and Crafts guilds nor the Bauhaus managed to reconcile industrialisation with the image of the spiritually intact artist-craftsman in his workshop. Yet, despite its gloomy historical context and the impossibility of its mission, the playful character of the Bauhaus permeates the Barbican exhibition. Ninety years on, we still have exhibitions about a school that lasted only 14 years. One reason may simply be the joyous quality of its work.

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