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.”

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