OIL – an exhibition by Edward Burtynsky

The first exhibition at the newly opened Photographer’s Gallery is called Oil and is a series of large landscape style images; the subject is Oil and the landscapes it gives rise to. Not all images are of land however as a massive heap of road tyres demonstrates.

The exhibition is about the “life cycle” of oil from the place where it is extracted and the impact that it has on the environment towards it’s inevitable demise.

Photographs of oilfields such as those from California and Alberta inform one of a phenomena of which most of us are not fully aware.

The images in this exhibition are presumably made with a large format camera; they are excellently printed with attention to detail although the colour seems a little saturated at times.

His subjects are made creatively so that an oil refinery can be represented by a mass of pipes.

Another photo is of a Volkswagen Lot, a massive car park in Houston, Texas where some 1,0000 cars are represented.

Another photo from 2004 is of Nanpu Bridge Interchange, Shanghai in which one can see a number of levels with cars passing by, while in the background there is a cityscape.

Another photo is of a speedway in which the size of the crowd is emphasised.

My impression of the exhibition is really one of a succession of large extremely striking prints covering a range of subjects relating to oil; they are documentary photographs with artistic appeal.

Liz Wells talked extensively on the subject. She points out that his exhibition prints are matt; the images draw in the viewer with their beauty but the subject matter keeps the viewer at a distance. They are seductive yet allow the viewer to contemplate the scenes depicted.

“Epic” is how I might describe this body of work!




Burtynsky is an Eco Hero Award Winner!

“Good art does not have a fixed meaning!”

Suggestion that his work is political – he’s not trying to force a particular view point on people; different people will read the photographs differently. No one way to read his images!

Considers the politicisation of the environment as dangerous

Beyond Documentary – a lecture by Liz Wells

The first talk to be given at the recently refurbished Photographer’s Gallery in London is by Liz Wells. I have read her encyclopaedic “A Critical Introduction to Photography” in which various authors write about the main genres of photography and have just started her “A Photography Reader” which is a series of essays about photography by modern critics.

Her talk is subtitled “currencies of the post-industrial sublime”, a title which reminds one of the complexity of Liz Well’s writing which does however succeed in making the finer points clearer. Without such critics, one would be less able to understand and read a photograph, finding oneself instead rather lost amongst the myriad of photographic images that we constantly come into contact with. Nevertheless, I found her talk which she read from notes, to be difficult to understand even though I made notes.

Her talk was not directly about the Burtinsky exhibition presently showing at The Photographer’s Gallery but it did relate to it’s theme of contemporary landscape; Liz Well’s most recent book is Land Matters that considers the nature of landscape and it’s relation to photography, culture and identity.

She has recently been involved in editing a book about The Antartic entitled Landscapes of Exploration : the role of contemporary art in Antartica through which a sense of the romantic and the sublime are evident; another body of work she has commented on is A Sense of Place : European Landscape Photography which is being exhibited in Bruxelles this year. She also mentions another book Moments Before the Flood by Carl de Keyzer in which photography is being used to capture the disaster before it happens, examining how well Europe is prepared for a probable rise in the sea level.

While these accomplishments help to establish Liz Wells as more than just a compiler of writings suitable for photography graduates, she also talks about the general drift of such work in which the photographer becomes a researcher of place, looks at transformed land as well as toxic landscapes. The viewer may be lured by the beauty of the images into paying some attention to the message inherent in the work which in the case of Burtinsky, is about the massive effect of oil on contemporary civilisation and various issues surrounding it.

There is a sublimity to work such as this and Liz Wells mentions Edmund Burke’s classic work A Philosphical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful and that the sublime causes delight; passions act for self-preservation. Wells also mention Immanuel Kant and his systematic reasoning; for Kant sublimity implies incomprehension. Descartes sees a seperation between the mind and the senses. Liz Wells says that the “sublime is threatened by the possibility of nothing else happening”.

Al Gore has said of Burtinsky’s work that it is “beautiful, insightful, thought provoking”; he is responsible for a number of photographic projects such as the Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtse River as well as Quarries from around the world. topographic work can be very beautiful and the scale and colour plays an important part. Burtinsky searches for subjects that are rich in detail and scale. He is not a teacher merely an artist.

Liz Wells talks about the work of one of her students, Yan Preston who is Chinese and has been photographing around the Yangtse River.

Landscape photography of the American west corresponded with the expansion into that area; a similar event is happening in the photography of the Antartica.

I have not covered all of what Liz Wells says (there is a little more on my experience of the Burtinsky Oil exhibition) but as Gareth points out, she is careful not to give a personal view. The photographs are stunning but what can the individual do to combat the Oil situation that Burtinsky so graphically covers !?

A video of Liz Wells taking is at …


Photography in London

An easy journey up to London and to New Zealand House, a short walk from Piccadily. The event is organised in conjunction with Globalnet 21 who asked for a fee before the day began which made me look into this event a little closer;  the fee requested was not for the day which was free but for Globalnet 21, an organisation that arranges debate platforms.

The organisation running the day is called Photovoice, a charity that concentrates on the way photography can empower people not just in this country but around the world. Here is their statement …

PhotoVoice’s vision is for a world in which no one is denied the opportunity to speak out and be heard.

PhotoVoice’s mission is to build skills within disadvantaged and marginalised communities using innovative participatory photography and digital storytelling methods so that they have the opportunity to represent themselves and create tools for advocacy and communications to achieve positive social change.

However, there is a political edge to this event that puts me off wanting to become involved. For instance, this day was advertised as celebrating the opening of The Photographer’s Gallery yet there is no mention of the new gallery in the Photovoice space.

The first talk I attend is about Visual Literacy, in particular reading photographs, and is given by Jenny Matthews. More about this on my blog about a digital photography course that I am doing.

There is also a talk about text and photographs; I feel the need to understand photography as a medium as well as be working in it.

In the afternoon, there is a “keynote” panel debate with a few distinguished people such as the photographer Simon Norfolk who I saw last thursday. He however does not appear and there is no apology or explanation given for this; I was also looking forward to seeing the film about Norfolk and Burke but the time of this was changed and so I missed it. Instead, there was a collection of photographs projected called “Imaginario Coletivo” which presumably came from one of the projects arranged through Photovoice.

The keynote discussion is entitled, “What role does truth play in photography for social change!?” I am a little wary of discussions with political intentions but thought it would probably be worth listening to. It might have been but I left near the beginning when one of the speakers started talking, saying that she was in the habit of appropriating other people’s photographs to make her own composites. A photograph was also shown of Tony Blair using a mobile phone to photograph himself in front of fire and billowing smoke; this is an interesting photoshopped image but I think it is incorrect to view Blair as someone who got enjoyment out of sending people to war. Photoshop is being used to enforce a prejudiced point of view rather than truth although there might be some psychological justification for this.

One visitor felt he was mislead and commented, “The quality of the photographs at the various stalls was incredibly amateurish. It doesn’t matter how well meaning or radical you are in your outlook, if the quality of your photos is this bad than it is all meaningless. It was embarrassing. The organizers should hang their heads in shame but somehow I feel that these talentless deluded individuals will regard it as a great success.”

Leaving the Photovoice event early means that I have time to visit The Photographer’s Gallery which is staging it’s opening and what actually attracted me to London on this day. It is not a long walk and I find myself entering the gallery through a new door while in front of me is a digital wall showing large animated GIFFs. A staircase leads downstairs to an excellent bookshop while next to this is the print room.

Taking the new lift upstairs, I visit the present exhibition “Oil” by Burtinsky; more of this later. I look forward to seeing more of the new gallery especially the Camera Obscura room.

Simon Norfolk talk @ Q.E.H Bristol

Simon Norfolk is one of the better known war photographers of the present time. I attended this talk at the suggestion of another OCA student and was glad I made the effort because it did turn out to be an excellent occasion and a welcomed departure from the more academic discussions and events the college arranges for us.

Simon Norfolk studied philosophy and sociology at Bristol University and then became a photographer. His reason for taking a large format camera with him to Afghanistan was simply because it was the cheapest camera he owned; he reckoned that there was a chance his camera might be stolen from him. Working in the capital, Kabul, is possible but far from safe and he is concerned that his guide might suffer reprisals for helping him since threats have already been made towards him.

What was refreshing about this talk was the way Norfolk did not focus on himself or try to sell us anything. He began by referencing his work to the paintings of Claude Lorraine which shows similar motifs of ruined monuments, the marks of civilisations that have risen and fallen. In fact, Norfolk talked about Empire in general terms much of it focusing on the British Empire in the days when it occupied a quarter of the world’s land mass and ruled over a third of it’s people, a remarkable accomplishment for such a small country. Yet Norfolk did not gloss over the days of Empire but also exposed it’s inherent racism evident in the many drawings and paintings as well as photographs that show the white man in positions of domination and superiority over the dark man. A member of the audience later commented that he had not come to the talk expecting a history lesson yet Norfolk reminded us of what an excellent historical tool photography can be as long as the photographs are read with insight rather than being used as the exercises in propaganda they often were.

One particular war photographer from the early days is of interest to Norfolk; his name was John Burke and he operated somewhat off limits by not being the official war photographer during the 2’nd Afghan War of the late 19’th century and as a result capturing many realistic scenes that were made with knowledge of the place and his subjects without the need to represent them formally as glorious men of Empire. In fact, in war there are no winners only losers, a point that Norfolk made not directly but by example.

The evening finished with Norfolk showing us a photograph of a group of people in England in which John Burke is said to be featured; he asked whom we thought was Burke among them.Various ideas and suggestions were put forward but not even Norfolk himself knows which Burke is.

Simon Norfolk talked a little about his way of making a living from photography from the various ways his work is communicated; there are exhibitions, the sale of prints,books,use of his work in publications and of course his website where anyone can see his work particularly in Afghanistan.

It was only after the talk, while writing this blog, that I came to know about the book Norfolk has done about John Burke. I had already heard about Norfolk’s book “For most of it I have no words”, an apt title for a book of war photographs yet also an appropriate title for a book about photography in general; a photographer’s images are there to record what words can not.

Leonardo da Vinci @ Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

A chance to meet fellow OCA student, Dorothy Flint, and see some superb drawings from The Royal Collection. In our house, we have at least two copies of Leonardo’s complete works as well as various other publications about him or by him. In the last few years, I have been to a Leonardo exhibition at The Victoria and Albert Museum as well as another exhibition of Italian drawings in which Leonardo was featured at the British Museum while I missed his major exhibition of paintings at The National Gallery last year since it was booked up even though he lived some 500 years ago in another country namely Italy.

Dorothy is an octogenerian student who is doing the Illustration Level 1 module. She had seen the exhibition before and so was able to show me around. There are only 12 drawings, all of which have been exquisitely executed, using a variety of papers and drawing materials such as chalk and ink. The subjects are also varied and include references to war, the human body and the apocalypse.

Perhaps my favourite was of acorns, still in their pods and attached to the branch which still bore leaves. Not only was the detail exquisite, it had been done using a rusty red colour, which belonged to both the chalk used to inscribe it and the paper on which it was made.

I also liked the head of an old man who has a somewhat exaggerated beak-like nose and appears short of teeth. His flowing beard is intricately illustrated and restores any dignity he might have lost in the almost comical representation of his face.

Another striking  drawing is that of a woman’s face, the inherent beauty of which is used to advertise the exhibition. However, the point of this drawing is to be found in the complex arrangement of the hair rather than the face.

After taking tea with Dorothy, I go back to see the exhibition again. This time I am with a group of visually impaired people and the guide rather looses my attention by saying that the drawings were probably acquired by the Royal Family during the reign of Charles 1’st when the writing on the wall of the exhibition says it was Charles 2’nd. She also says one or two other things that seem out of place but it is good to be able to spend almost an hour going around having a closer look at some of the drawings. Another image that strikes me is done on blue paper and shows a rearing horse. This was a design for a statue that was never made because Milan was invaded and the copper which would have been used in the statue was required for cannon fodder while the mould made to cast the statue was used for target practice. The guide mentioned something about the impractical aspirations of the artist Leonardo rather than the reality of the situation at that time.

Roger Ballen – Shadowlands – a retrospective exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery UK

My pre-blog of this event, giving an account of background research and links, is at …


Is it really worth making the long journey north to Manchester, both time consuming and expensive? I decide I feel like an excursion and that the OCA meeting will be worth it. After a night in a local hotel, just outside the city centre in Salford, I trudge my way to the gallery (a lot longer walk than that suggested by the hotel) and arrive to see Gareth greeting everyone and Peter appearing in search of coffee which he was denied in the early morning train ride over from Wales.

Roger Ballen comes from a well established documentary photography badkground yet he has gone beyond the limitations of that tradition to crate his own work that has resulted in controversy, not just because of a departure in style but also because of subject matter. “Shadow Lands” is his first major UK exhibition.

There is also video to watch in this exhibition notably a music video; of this more later but I was amused to see members of the gallery staff dancing to this when it came on. The relaxed atmosphere of the gallery was also reflected in one being free to photograph both in and outside the exhibition space although video was forbidden.

Roger Ballen says all his photographs are self-portraits; to him the question “Who am I!?” can be found only in his images. I find this rationale rather phoney since the koan, the “Who am I?” question can only be truly directed inwards, and photographs are external objects. Ballen’s photographs are about what he is.

There are disturbing elements to Ballen’s work and for me, the treatment of live animals is one. For instance, a goldfish flaps in a bowl of soup and a pig is hung up with a rope around the neck although an image such as Brian with Pet Pig 1998 (from Outland) is much more compassionate in view. One might be better though questioning the status of the people in the photograph.

The lay out of the gallery is interesting since it contains a series of rooms in one big room, each one showing a particular body of work. Nevertheless, it is a bit overpowering to see so much work altogether and the result is an exhibition that is more about Roger Ballen and who he is rather than the subjects he is exploring; surely it is the subjective nature of the work that is worth looking at rather than the photographer. However, the photographs do look a lot better as prints on a gallery wall than rather soft, low contrast images in a book which have presumably been made without the photographer’s co-operation. There is a good balance of tones within the gallery prints so that a balanced chiarusco effect helps emphasise the subject matter. Overall, the exhibition is not so shocking and senseless as the images can suggest.

Diane Arbus is mentioned as an influence. This seems likely though the freakiness did not come till later. Much of Ballen’s early work is quite straightforward although the portraits are usually taken unposed and from a different angle; his first book was called “Boyhood” and is a series of portraits of boys. These earlier images were not however in the exhibition which really focuses on the work that started in South Africa.

The tendency we have to name things is perhaps a desire to control them but through documentation, we are better able to understand them. Similarly, we can apply theory to images yet our theorisation may not be supported by the images we interrogate. Peter Haveland, OCA head tutor for photography and visual culture, mentions John Tagg and Victor Burgin who describe this kind of way of looking at photographs. Peter is bowled over by the work and thinks he may take up knitting instead of photography! I can not help but think these images are of elements “knitted” together as well as containing a few “nits”.

Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, mentions two things to consider; firstly, the use of animals in the photographs (have already discussed my concerns over this but obviously they are not exhaustive since they do not address the significance of such imagery) and secondly, images within the images as there are quite a few of these and they reflect upon the meaning of the photographs as a whole.

One of the first images the group looks at is called “Dressie and Casie, twins, Western Transvaal, 1993” which is striking since the twins are evidently not normal. Seen in a book they can be held at a distance but on the gallery wall almost life size, they loom out at us. This is one of Ballen’s best known images and probably accounts for his work being compared with Diane Arbus although it seems that Kertesz who Ballen knew when much younger was probably a stronger influence. Who had made the decision to print this image larger than the others? The photographer or the curator? It may have been an agreement between both of them as in the exhibition there are a number of photographs made bigger and these are largely ones with a clearer or more obvious meaning. Positioned by this image is the much smaller one of a retired soldier; he looks much smaller now than he might have considered himself and the centre of interest is the expression on his worn face rather than his social stature.

There was not really the time to consider each photograph in depth but I mention a few that struck me. For instance, a smiling woman clutches three puppies; it is a nice image but what really strikes one is the caption that states she is the wife of an abattoir worker. In what way is this relevant to the image? Her husband is an abattoir employee … stating this fact seems rather as if a certain way of looking at the photographs is expected of one.

A disturbing image is “Elias coming out from under John’s bed” since it may simply be the harmless play of a child although he has more likely been told what to do by the photographer, an older male but probably not as old as the man lying on the bed. The presence of younger boys amidst older rather strange looking men is apparent in a number of the photographs and one can not help but think of sexual abuse of youngsters by older males since it is so often in the news these days. Ballen has done a whole book on boys some of whom are rather scantily clad so what is going on in the background to these photographs? It is no longer illegal to be homosexual but to have sex with minors definitely is. Perhaps Ballen is deliberately playing on our senses but alongside the maltreatment of animals, I find this somewhat disturbing.

Another photograph that stands out is called “Tommy, Samson and a mask, 2000 from Outland” (older man and boy again) partly for it’s meaning which is uncertain yet present. Like much of Ballen’s work, there seems to be no meaning that one can grasp hold of. Like all of Ballen’s works, the photograph is carefully constructed, nothing is left to chance as the people represented become actors. Ballen studied psychology and later geology since his photographer mother never wanted him to become a photographer having seen the hardship other photographer’s had suffered in pursuit of his art. His photographic work reflects his interests and references the work of Freud (in particular the fetish) and Jung (the concept of the darker side to the self) might be made from his work. One might draw further parallels such as with Herman Hesse and his book, Daimion.

A touching image, found on the front of his award winning photo book called Outlands, is of a small dog looking as if it has only just been born, peering out between the feet of an unidentified figure who is lying in bed. There is a sensitivity here which Ballen captures.

Peter talks a little more, saying that there is ultimately no such thing as documentary photography as every photograph is part fictional; photographs do not really have the power to say what reality is. Reality … is there such a thing? is it not really a notional concept? This is something Baudrillard has dwelt upon, the lack of ability in defining what reality is. The hype real is something that never existed. Much documentary photography is heading towards art.

I find Ballen a little threatening and so it is good to hear someone else voicing the same impression which meets with assent among others. His book Outland (2001) however, marks the beginning of a more collaborative approach or possibly more shocking since now the meanings of the images have become more intentional. One needs a lot of confidence to make this kind of work which is beyond the snap shot genre. Yet the images in Outland make one work harder to discover their meaning. Artists no longer put something in front of you as a way to inform you, they create something one needs to decipher. Documentary photography appeals because it’s meaning is self-evident and one does not have to think too much.

One image which I do not particularly like, called Twisted Wire it reveals a mass of twisted wire under which a half shrouded figure lurks, is one that resonates with others yet not myself. One can see an illusion is being made but it is one of angst and not a natural state of mind (Ballen says he is contacting the real or at least attempting to.)

Sliced (2007) is another image in which injury appears to have been done to an animal. In this case, a lizard has had it’s tail cut off.

Ballen is said to have made himself unpopular not by his outrageous imagery but because he is presenting a view of South Africa that most people do not want to think about, that of an impoverished white community.

Another image that seems to refer to the weirder side is called Confinement (2003) but might just as well be called Bondage since it sees a prone individual chained to the floor with other chains placed nearby.

Looking at these images, one needs to forget that Ballen is a photographer since he is obviousy so much more, namely a playwright as well as a painter since he actually makes inscriptions on the walls and paints them too. He refers to his work as imaginary realism.

Peter agrees with me when I suggest that one’s response to the images are likely to be determined by one’s conditioning and mental constructs that one has formed.

It is the last image in the show that does mean something to me and I am glad I see it and don’t hurry out as the OCA group make their way to the coffee bar for further discussion.  Called “Deathbed” (2010) it shows what looks like the skeleton of a child covered in sackcloth on a bed with an apparently mummified hand where the feet might be; hieroglyphics can be seen on the wall the bed stands by in the bare room. The uplifting part of this picture is the body of a white dove perched on the skull; one might interpret the bird in different ways such as taking to to be the soul or a symbol of redemption and hope but what it seems to be saying is that amidst all the detritus that Ballen has revealed to us during the exhibition, there is something that transcends it. The bird suggests a kind of freedom, a relief from the confinement implicit in most of the other images. There is light amidst all this darkness since our knowledge of darkness could not exist without light.

The images in the exhibition are often difficult to engage with owing to their subject. Another man’s vomit?

We are asked to see the video and this certainly brings Ballen’s work to life. Initially, his contact with the group called Die Antwerwood was because they were appropriating his images but when they began to work together something quite unique came of it. I find the dance movements very intriguing while the music is good too. One becomes aware of a certain sense of humour to Ballen’s work, an element of celebration.

Ballen does not advise people to do photography unless they are really driven to. Does this mean one has to become an obsessive as he admits to being?

One reason the exhibition is the way it is might be because the gallery has a new director who wants to make an impression and so shows work that is controversial and somewhat in your face. One goes to see art to experience a change in oneself as much art is about self-exploration although to say that art will help one find oneself is probably going a little too far.

To appreciate photography, one needs to stop thinking too much like a photographer by confining oneself to concerns about equipment, grain within the image, film type used etc as this can so easily detract from the actual meaning of photography which is likely to be on a more psychological level.

Are any of these images photoshopped? Apparently not. Photoshop has just been used in the making of high quality prints though.

Bauhaus : Art as Life

Although there is no OCA study day for photographers, there is a day for Fine Art students and so I shall apply to attend this day. The Bauhaus is mentioned at the beginning of the photographic course and one is asked to do a number of assignments with their principles in mind.

I had heard about this exhibition at the Barbican in London last year from perusing the internet and read this week the Times review which gave it 2 stars out of a possible 5, quoting Mies van der Rohe as saying “The Bauhaus is not a school, but an idea” and concluding that the exhibition does not give “the idea” of Bauhaus. Does it need to? The Bauhaus School was surely more than an idea; wild parties were also part of it!

The BBC4 programme Saturday Review also reviewed the exhibition (05-05-2012), this time in a more favourable light with an animated discussion. The Bauhaus began in 1919 in Weimar under the guidance of Walter Gropius, straight after the First World War, and it lasted until 1933 when it ended as a result of Nazi opposition who did not approve it’s association with radical and socialist ideas with it’s idea of achieving a kind of utopia through art and craft rather than racial purity. Regarded as one of the most influential art schools ever, it drew much from past art forms which it attempted to synchronise into a modernist view, and demonstrated a number of arts including photography. This exhibition presents a wide range of Bauhaus work almost as a history. Noted painters such as Klee and Kandinsky taught there. The exhibition explores the social side of the Bauhaus including the playfulness of it’s members evident in their parties which were conducted along Bauhaus lines! The Saturday Review guests are not completely won over by the exhibition (what about the diary entries of some members being shown!?) and mention that the exhibition can be confusing and dehumanising as modernism can be. One positive aspect of the exhibition is about being in the presence of the past with it’s hopes for “us” and engages the viewer in a tangible way, the art works being of substances such as wood. Bauhaus designs come in many forms such as blocks that children can play with and these designs can still be bought today. “Playfulness” is a distinctive characteristic of the Bauhaus. One may have a skeletal view of the Bauhaus but what this exhibition does is give a holistic sense to the movement. The school not only taught Bauhaus it also lived Bauhaus such as in the architecture of the original school building as well as the lives of it’s people; the parties were disciplined along Bauhaus lines which gives a certain Germanic feel as in “We will have fun!” One can see parallels with William Morris and his school of art which drew a great deal from past arts and crafts. There is a sense of hope in this exhibition,it does not pander to the negative views of modernism that have arisen since. There is an odd familiarity to many of the beautiful objects on display as similar designs are still being produced in the market place of today. Not all about German seriousness but also about frivolity. There is work from Kandinsky on display but one wonders whether Kandinsky was overshadowed by the Bauhaus since this work seems to lack some of his originality. Klee’s image of two towers is almost prophetic and hence haunting for what has happened since. Yet the work of these two great painters while at the Bauhaus does seem to bring up the craft versus art debate. There is a surprising amount of colour in this exhibition not something one might expect from the Bauhaus. Curvy lines and mass production! The disappearance of Bauhaus from pre-war Germany and it’s re-emergence in the USA is an encouraging fact.

Leaving home early, about 6.30 a.m., I drive to the station and catch a train to London; it’ll get me there well on time but later trains cost considerably more and I’ll be able to make use of the extra time – such as checking my emails. In fact, I am unable to pay for the parking at Taunton station so need to go online to sort this out.

The “Bauhaus : Art as Life” exhibition is being held at The Barbican which is itself quite modernist in construction. It is also a bit of a maze and although I do eventually find my way to the Barbican Centre, it is only after one or two wrong turns. The artists I am due to meet are nowhere to be found so I head for the exhibition itself and meet them on the way. Although this is a day for fine artists, there are a number of photographers there too such as Catherine and a Mexican woman called Ariadne.

Our tutor for the day was Jim Cowan from the OCA who had already seen the exhibition and gave us something of a guided tour; he also handed us a questionnaire which I shall consider later. His remarks sometimes slightly irreveren,t helped to stimulate one’s interest in the exhibition. At one point, I found myself talking to him about the photographic approach of the school in which mathematics was more important than aesthetic interest; of course, camera technology has come a long way since then and has made a more artistic approach possible but for the Bauhaus students, algebra came in handy.

This is a very big exhibition and not easy to view as a result. We visit the upper floor to begin with, Jim giving a brief commentary on what each room is about; this helps to guide our attention and take in the work. Even with the three hours we spend there, before and after some lunch, there is too much to view in it’s entirety.

The Bauhaus started in 1919, soon after the First World War, and was really a merger between two art schools of the time; it fell under the directorship of Walter Gropius. This was an attempt to build a new world through art and was initially art and craft orientated with emphasis on learning skills. One of it’s more colourful characters was Itten, himself a colour theorist who was also a member of a Zorastrian based sect called Mazdaznan that resulted in him wearing monks robes, eating plenty of garlic and even inducing vomiting as part of a spiritual purification process. There were those that loved him and those that loathed him. (further comment can be read below)

The return to making crafted objects, an attempt to reunite art and industry, was not that new as William Morris had done something similar in England during the previous century. Apart from experimenting with different materials, Bauhaus students were also asked to consider the essence of the triangle, the cube and the circle. One room in the exhibition is solely about the square.

If there is something missing in this exhibition, it is perhaps colour. For instance, there is an impressive staircase window by Albers and while there is a maze of different shapes and forms within it, the black and white photograph of it from 1923 can tell us nothing about what it looked like as the mass of colour it once was. This and other art works were part of the original Bauhaus that was destroyed in the Second World War. There is an interesting early photograph by George Muche that shows an arrangement of blades that foretells a sense of excruciating pain. A reminder perhaps of the more negative forces that this school were to arouse which ultimately lead to an aspect of modernism that was later to be rejected. Housing blocks built in sixties England are perhaps an example since later these have been found not be progressive but rather depressing and impossible to live in.

Another member of the school was Kandinsky whose initial work was highly intuitive but later became more methodical. For him, after a certain amount of research with his students, a triangle became yellow, the square red and the circle blue; however, from an understanding of other cultures such as the Tibetan where the triangle is red, we know that these symbols are not universally understood as Kandinsky imagined. The shift away from expressionism to other approaches such as Cubism and Constructivism (this latter school was not part of the Bauhaus although one of it’s exponents Theo Van Doesberg from Holland set up a school near to the Bauhaus and drew students from there). Fonts were developed during this early period with thicker fonts being used for more emphatic even angry matters and thinner fonts for “sweeter” matters.

In 1921, Itten resigned as a result of differences of view with Gropius who he felt was taking the school in a more commercial direction; in fact, Gropius was being pragmatic and wanted the school to pave it’s way in the world and become financially viable. Other artists joined the school such as Paul Klee and Albers as well as Maholy-Nagy.

Looking at the Bauhaus from a more historical perspective, one might consider the effect rapid inflation had on it’s development if any. The students were probably from more well to do backgrounds, The school itself was famous in it’s time but perhaps developed a more populist approach as fine art became design; was the Bauhaus where design became the important force it is today? At that time, graphic designer was not a profession! The Bauhaus became more left wing while the socialism of Germany became more nationalist in sentiment. In 1925, the Bauhaus had to move because the Weimar government was no longer prepared to grant funding and the school was obliged to set up in Dessau in a less prosperous area of the town. While, the print workshop had started by making art prints, it developed into making posters for government and industry even printing emergency bank notes.


A lot of items that they turned out were of a practical nature. For instance, Marianne Brandt who produced some fine photographs also was the only female metal worker; she produced an amazing array of tea pots while Albers made a fruit bowl that could be pushed across the table thanks to ball bearing style wheels. Wallpaper was the most successful product and yet the Bauhaus never got rich on this. The profit was taken by the corporates who managed to market the Bauhaus products. One can not help but see parallels with Habitat and Ikea today although these businesses are much more holistic in that they are one body rather than another body taking advantage of the original creators. The designers of Ikea and Habitat though wonld not be where they are if not for the Bauhaus.


The Bauhaus produced a series of books. One wonders if any of these 14 books printed in editions of 2 to 3,00 between 1923 – 30 are still in print; perhaps not, since many of the ideas expressed in them have been developed since particularly in photography which has changed so much.


There is a film being projected on a wall of the gallery that was made by Bauhaus students; it looks a bit dated now and some laugh at the demonstration of what were then innovative designs and are now taken for granted. Titled “How do we live in a healthy and economic way?”it was first shown in 1926 and ives a good idea of the ergonomic approach to living that has become so important in today’s world.


TOwards the end of the exhibition, one starts to see more photographs. They are still largely documentary in nature often picturing buildings and groups of people in well produced photographic forms, However, some of the photographs showing sporting activities do not only well to capture movement but also show a sense of composition with mirroring between background and foreground. Photographs were also being used to create montages while different photographs would be placed next to each other in significant ways as in portrait snaps of Josef and Anni Albers. Portaits were made that were not mere mugshots but involved interesting camera angles and also close ups as in a series of photographic images showing someone’s mouth. A striking images is of hands, a number of diptychs being placed together to create a large panel of images. T.Luix Feninger, son of the artist Feninger, produced some good photographs such as one of a line of musicians staged not horizontally but vertically, one agove the other; not only is the composition strong here, the musicians are not strictly posed while the print sees a widening of the tonal range, an aspict of the photograph that was to be developed in America largely by Ansel Adams.


Laszlo Maholy-Nagy did much of the photography and is well known for his contribution to the medium. In a 1930 film called “Lightplay: blcak white grey” he shows a dazzling array of form and light with accompanying music. the effect is a little dizzy but it is a wonderful exposition of Bauhaus made through the medium of film.


Paul Klee was another artist who gave his students exercises described as “purposeful play” described by the curator as “experimentationn under particular constraints to explore inherent and functional and constructive possibilities without stated practical aims” which rather aptly describes the exercises I was asked to do as part of the OCA modules in Level 1 photography.I enjoyed these and became interested in Itten and his ideas but this exhibition has made me more aware of the Bauhaus and it’s influence and it is one I do not particularly like. The nausea I feel while looking at it is perhaps an intended effect by some of the work inspired by a teacher for whom vomiting was encouraged!!


Some of the technical terms used to describe photographic processes are a little hard to understand. One sees what looks like a photo-montage, a group of photographs that have been stuck together on a single sheet of paper described as a photomechanical production.


The penultimate room is devoted to photography. This developed towards the end of the Bauhaus and reveals an innovative approach different angles of view, close ups and different subjects, photographs that are not purely functional. The first head of photography was Walter Peterhans, son of the maker of Zeiss lenses, whose exercises for his students were to help them develop technically superior prints. He achieved this partly through lectures on mathematics yet also through exercises involving lighting, exposure and printing; for example, one of his students made a series of different exposures of a light bulb from one in which only the filament was visible through to a final one where the light bulb was visible as a glowing object. There were close ups of a mouth shown in a series all showing different expressions and a similar group of photographs of hands with wrists in some cases, arranged beside each other in provocative ways. Peterhans himself was a gifted photographer who made work that anticipates much that was to follow in the years to come.


After spending some five hours at The Barbican of which three and a half were spent inside the exhibition space, I made my way to The Tate Modern to meet a friend who is herself an artist and studied the Bauhaus; she helped me to see the school with a little more perspective. The Bauhaus were a little idealistic in their approach and their concern for the straight line and lack of ornamentation did not have a good effect on those who had to live in or alongside some of their constructions. Their altruistic ideas have since been questioned and yet the work they undertook, which has been so vastly influential, remains interesting. They perhaps mark the end of traditional art and the birth of modern art where form becomes function. Photography here however got off to a good start and although it is no longer contemporary, it’s traces can still be seen. Personally I do not care for the high contrast it tended to encourage and see this as due to a lack of understanding in how to use the materials.



Later, after this exhibition was over, I read something on a college forum in which a student wrote about how well the exhibition brought the characters of the Bauhaus to life. I replied with the following comment …

“Jennifer writes, ” It presents the people involved – not just Gropius – as very much key in it all, and works hard to give you a sense of several of them as real people, not just names now in art history books.

I agree with what she says and I think this was a feature of the exhibition. However, I questioned the treatment of Johannes Itten as a religious eccentric; he did after all, write some of the best books of the last century about understanding colour. His emphasis was on not just understanding the theory of it all but also experiencing the effect of, for instance, different colours.

Itten we learn was a member of Mazdaznan which was a Hindu-Christian movement – incorrect, it comes from Zorastrianism which is Persian based rather than Indian. This might seem like a minor error on part of those putting the exhibition together but it is quite significant in real terms. Imagine calling a Muslim a Christian – it might start a riot! Hence, I feel the emphasis on Itten as some kind of religious fanatic to be a little biased.

Itten, one of the first to be employed at the Bauhaus, left after a few years and hence was probably villified for doing so. Anyone who reads his books, still in print unlike a lot of Bauhaus stuff, is going to find a better understanding of the Bauhaus than this exhibition gave although the exhibition in itself was a unique presentation of Bauhaus art and artifacts.”