Like all museums and galleries, the Barbican Art Gallery is keen to promote its latest show in superlative terms. Bauhaus: Art as Life is – as its publicity tells us – the largest and most significant exhibition in Britain on the German design school since 1968, when the Royal Academy welcomed the straight edge heroes of modernism through its hallowed and ornate doors. Whilst this may be true, the Bauhaus has been put under the spotlight repeatedly in recent years. In 2006, the V&A’s blockbuster, Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939, put many Bauhaus stars in the company of other, less well-known, satellites of modernism. Tate Modern organised a twin-header featuring the art of Bauhaus masters Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy in the same year. Some of the exhibits from these shows have come back to London to the roughcast concrete galleries of the Barbican.
But all this Bauhauserie is no problem. As the large number of incontestably brilliant works on display testify, the Bauhaus was an extraordinarily prolific machine during its short life. It attracted some of Europe’s most intellectually ambitious and free-ranging artists, architects and designers – both as staff and students. And in this hothouse, they gave form to innovative designs – hovering tubular steel furniture, prefabricated architectural schemes, sans-serif machine-age alphabets and multi-media environments that they called ‘total theatre’. Much Bauhaus thinking and design is still with us today. But most readers of Creative Review will know this already. The Bauhaus story, from its origins as arts and crafts workshops established by Walter Gropius in 1919, to its closure at the beginning of the Third Reich, is a standard chapter in most design histories today.
The challenge facing any curator or researcher is to tell a new Bauhaus story. In recent years, the story of women at the school has been written, reasserting the place of marginalised workshops like the textile studios. There have been attempts to champion the school’s many Hungarians (not just Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy but forgotten figures like Stefan Sebök who died in Stalin’s Russia). Others have concentrated on the story of the Bauhaus exiles: Tel Aviv has branded itself as a ‘Bauhaus city’ to capture the role played by refugees from Nazism in shaping the dazzling cityscape of white walls and flat-roof buildings in the sand.
So what new stories are being told at the Barbican? Well, somewhat surprisingly, the key Bauhaus message here is play. This is unexpected because the leading Bauhausler are often represented as rather austere characters. And they played up to the image. Moholy-Nagy used to dress like a engineer to emphasise his faith in function and industry. In fact, the Barbican displays one of his abstract paintings which was ordered over the phone from a sign factory. Moholy read out a set of coordinates and selected the colours from a chart. A few weeks later the enamel painting on a panel was delivered.
The Bauhaus’s Maschinenrausch – a peculiarly German word which translates as ‘machine-intoxication’ – is confounded by a large number of playful, funny and even absurd works in the Barbican gallery. In fact, the opening work in the show is not, as might be expected, Lyonel Feininger’s iconic woodcut image of an angular cathedral, which was on the cover of the School’s inaugural programme. Instead, it is a little altar with a nativity scene by the expressionist artist Gerhard Marcks. A folksy crib, it looks like a child’s toy. By the mid 1920s whimsy was replaced by geometry but toys were still a mainstay of Bauhaus production. The core units of Bauhaus master Wassily Kandinsky’s colour theory – yellow triangles, red squares and blue circles – were being turned out as children’s building blocks.
Amongst the most striking exhibits on display are a set of grotesque puppets which the painter Paul Klee made for his son Felix. Created with found materials and the childlike glee that Klee brought to his paintings, some are probably caricatures of Bauhaus luminaries. Klee himself features as a hand-puppet. The Swiss painter was at the heart of another Bauhaus festivity: to mark his 50th birthday, students from the weaving workshop hired a Junkers airplane and dive-bombed the painter’s house, dropping gifts including a Marianne Brandt metal teapot. Klee recalled that the presents crashed through the roof.
Gift-giving and play were not diversions from the hard work of making a new world. They served an ideological purpose. Johannes Itten, best known as a colour theorist, once said, “Play becomes celebration: celebration becomes work: work becomes play.” This was an expression of a kind of utopian dream in which the man or woman of the future would not be a cog in some kind of enormous machine but a creative individual who would find equal satisfaction in work and play. In this way, the division between art and life would be dissolved. Improvised jewellery formed from bands of metal and ball bearings for a Bauhaus party, or a costume shaped like a spinning top for Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet were encouragement for adults to play.
Of course, the world beyond the doors of the school, first in Weimar and then in the famous Gropius-designed building in Dessau, was far from happy. Over the course of the 1920s Germany lurched from hyper-inflation and unemployment to near civil war as the communists and fascists fought in the streets. Knowing this makes a playful utopia seem like a decadent proposition. In fact, that seems to have been the view of the second director of the Bauhaus, the functionalist architect Hannes Meyer. Taking office in 1928, he set a new course, putting far more emphasis on social housing, industrial production and Marxist politics. When in 1930 he was given the sack by the city authorities in Dessau for his political activism, he wrote, “As head of the Bauhaus, I fought the Bauhaus style.”
The Bauhaus style – if not the radical politics of many of its staff and students – emerges strongly in this exhibition. But viewed as play, many of the familiar icons of the school look different. Erich Consemüller’s much-reproduced photo of a woman (perhaps Walter Gropius’s wife, Ise) sitting on a B3 club chair wearing a Schlemmer papier-maché mask does not look quite as menacing as perhaps it once did.
David Crowley is the Head of the Critical Writing in Art and Design MA programme at the Royal College of Art in London. Bauhaus: Art as Life is at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS until August 12. Further details on the exhibition at barbican.org.uk