Billed as The biggest Bauhaus exhibition in the UK in over 40 years, the Barbican Art gallery’s Bauhaus exhibition features a wide range of artefacts from UK, Berlin, New York, San Francisco and Paris. Not only are there works of the Masters (ie teachers) of the Bauhaus school and the students, there are also posters, photographs and printed materials illustrating life in the Bauhaus school.
At last a decent Bauhaus exhibition here in London but it’s a very British selection with few translations for non-German speakers and no “Continental” perspective. I am surprised that London and Britain have ignored Weimar culture and its apogee, the Bauhaus school of art and design, over the past few decades. Their pre-WWII art and design was far in advance of British attempts: Arts and Crafts was a pale and diffuse light compared to the strong clear light of Bauhaus Weimar and Bauhaus Dessau, whose influence has proved enduring.
Habitat and Ikea design style is popularly credited in the UK as being “Scandinavian” but the design prototype was clearly the Bauhaus Prellerhaus, the student block. The exhibition features a silent movie showing the space-saving furniture which converts a day space in to a night space, including technological marvels such as a light which come on when a cupboard door is opened.
The expensive exhibition catalogue book is an off-puttingly dry academic assessment without references to later or contemporary designs or architecture. No mention of Ikea, little mention of later architects influenced by Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus style. Yet step out from the refined garret of the Barbican centre that is its art gallery, and the effect of Bauhaus influence is immediately visible in the internal and external architecture of the Barbican area. Maybe it seems too obvious to mention?
Plenty of flat artwork on show by the high profile names of Bauhaus: Kandinsky, Klee, Gropius; furniture examples from Josef Albers, the famous chair of Breuer and many other artefacts make this a rich and diverse exhibition. The painting Fünfzehnergruppe (Group of Fifteen figures) by Oskar Schlemmer gets a very prominent place on the ground floor and is strikingly different in tone to any reproduction I have seen. There’s a pathos in the ordered design of this painting that hints at the forthcoming disaster of the Third Reich.
And the collages, sculptures, textiles, furniture and household objects can only really be appreciated face to face rather that in photographs. This particularly applies to Wassily Kandinsky’s twelve Small Worlds (Kleine Welten); this sequence of abstract designs explores deconstruction and simplification leading to clarity. It uses purely visual vocabulary and a progression of design plus a progression (regression) of media from full colour back to simple line.
There's no display showing how Bauhaus designs are now commonplace, not even in the section “Designing the modern world”. There’s no assessment of Bauhaus typography beyond a short mention of clear clean glyphs which broke from Old German fonts derived from the font design of the Gutenberg Bible. Except that some of the examples shown (but not reproduced in the catalogue) show incredibly delicate typography, for example the programme for the opening of the Sommerfeld House.
And there's a clear sense of fun that comes through, the photos of the costume designs for the parties and the group photos indicate that life at the Bauhaus was fun. And quite different from Puccini’s impression of scenes from the Bohemian life in Paris, see my review of the Royal Opera's current production of La Bohème.
Compare also with Gemeentemuseum Den Haag's exhibition of works by László Moholy-Nagy.
Bauhaus: Art as Life was well worth the ticket price and currently there are no queues...
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.