12 June 2012

Bauhaus at the Barbican

Over 30 years ago, just as postmodernism got going, Tom Wolfe wrote his critique of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House,. He observed:
Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness of it all. They became desperate for an antidote, such as coziness & color. They tried to bury the obligatory white sofas under Thai-silk throw pillows of every rebellious, iridescent shade of magenta, pink, and tropical green imaginable. But the architect returned, as he always does, like the conscience of a Calvinist, and he lectured them and hectored them and chucked the shimmering little sweet things out.
Not many of ‘Our Houses’ in Britain are truly modernist, although one of the first was at Dartington in SW England (top, right) and a post here earlier this month mentioned a more recent Mies van der Rohe-style home in Wilmslow. But whether they find it a homely style or not, anyone who wants to learn more about one of the sources of modernism should visit Bauhaus: Art as Life at the Barbican Art Gallery, a show which mostly lives up to its official description:
The biggest Bauhaus exhibition in the UK in over 40 years presents the modern world’s most famous art school. From expressionist beginnings to a pioneering model uniting art and technology, this London exhibition presents the Bauhaus’ utopian vision to change society in the aftermath of the First World War. Bauhaus: Art as Life explores the diverse artistic production that made up its turbulent fourteen-year history and delves into the subjects at the heart of the school: art, culture, life, politics and society, and the changing technology of the age.
Carpingly, I thought that an exhibition in London might have described the influence of the English Arts and Crafts movement on the Deutsche Werkstätte and Werkbund which preceded the Bauhaus. (I couldn’t see an explanation of the word bauhaus – construction house, literally, I think.) Also, among the later influences, there was enough information to deduce something about that between De Stijl and the Bauhaus, but the links to Constructivism weren’t at all clear. The large model of the Dessau building (top, left) lacked any indication of the direction of north – relevant to natural light in studios. I would have liked to have seen more Bauhaus-influenced objects, even if that meant showing fewer photographs. Finally, there was no rationale for the omission of the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exposition and its famous chair, although their co-designer, Mies van der Rohe, was the Bauhaus director of architecture at the time. However, there is much of interest and the show provides an opportunity, rare in the UK, to see works by Wassily Kandinsky (Circles in a Circle (1923) below, right) and Paul Klee, as well as Paul Citroën’s Metropolis (1923) (below, left), apparently the inspiration for Fritz Lang’s film.

The exhibition concludes at the point when the Bauhaus was in effect closed down by the Nazis in 1933. The subsequent achievements of its leading lights, Gropius, van der Rohe and others, many of whom emigrated, are well-known. But it would have been interesting to learn about the careers of its young graduates, whose student days feature in so many of the photographs (‘young people come to the bauhaus’). One imagines that from 1933 to 1945 having trained at the Bauhaus would hardly have enhanced a CV. But presumably those graduates who survived the war, particularly the Holocaust or the Eastern Front, would have played a role in German post-war reconstruction and the Wirtschaftswunder. Was it their influence that we still see in the clean lines and typefaces associated with German products like Bosch, Braun and Neff, and extending to the modernist showrooms favoured by BMW, and VAG? What happened to the Villa Sommerfeld? And very oddly, why is there no mention of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation which preserves the buildings and has restarted the bauhaus magazine?

Railing against exorbitantly-priced exhibition catalogues, I can only advise anyone who has to buy a copy to look for it on Amazon where, at £24.50, at least it’s 30% off. For most of us, Magdalene Droste’s Bauhaus 1919-1933 (a Taschen 25th anniversary bargain) will be more than adequate – just make sure you get it in English! In his review in the London Evening Standard (far more worth reading than anything I’ve got to say), Brian Sewell remarked that:
I have only one adverse criticism, and this is of the catalogue: thirty-eight essays are all very well, but the newcomer to the Bauhaus needs the more basic instruction of a chronology, not only of the Bauhaus itself, but of related or parallel movements and the German politics of the day; he also needs brief biographies of the participants; and with the catalogue in its present form he needs, above all, an index.
If nothing else, the Barbican’s Learning Resource for the exhibition provides brief biographies and can be downloaded for free.

Bauhaus: Art as Life continues until 12 August. Despite some of the remarks above, my 'Anticipointment Index' mark out of 5 is 2, pretty good – the higher the mark, the worse the anticipointment.


1926 footage of Wassily Kandinsky at work filmed in Berlin.

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