BAUHAUS : ART AS LIFE (exhibition at The Barbican)

Gunta Stolzi, a student at the Bauhaus school of art wrote in her diary during OCtober 1919, “ …oh, I’d like to give myself … but I know that I have to wait, look into myself, all of myself. My little garret is just right for that; you cannot see outside, it envelops you and does not permit you to gaze into the distance – but into the depths – I need to look deep inside in the coming months.

The Barbican Centre – the gallery is to the right in this photograph

I had read an announcement of this exhibition last year; it seemed to me imperative to attend since the school is mentioned in photography modules and “Bauhaus” exercises are part of the course. However, this day is for fine artists not for photographers though we are allowed to attend. Another day with stroppy artists sounding out could be fun.

The first review I read is in The Times. Like many reviews of the arts by this newspaper, it is rather negative although extremely informative mentioning for instance, the “hygiene of the optical” proposed by Maholy-Nagy, the modernist approach and the general air of celebration of perhaps the greatest art school ever certainly of the twentieth century although this is something this exhibition apparently does not convey.The article ends by quoting Mies Van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus, who said “The Bauhaus is not a school, but an idea.” Surely, the Bauhaus was more than an idea but according to this review this is not evident here.

legs outside the Barbican Centre

I learnt a lot from doing Bauhaus exercises particularly in understanding colour; the work of artists like Mondrian and Kandinsky now makes sense even Damien Hurst’s work with his multiple coloured dots seems comprehensible. Itten’s books are not too difficult to understand. He wrote, “Play becomes celebration; celebration becomes work; work becomes play” The Guardian review describes him as a “nightmare person” owing to his beliefs that involved strange diets (for instance, a large consumption of garlic), head shaving and the wearing of monastic robes. His writing is fascinating; here he is commenting on another Bauhaus member, Kandinsky who “began painting non-objective pictures about 1908. He contended that every color has its proper expressionist value, and that it is therefore possible to create meaningful realities without representing objects.

I order a copy of the catalogue before visiting and it is interesting to read some of the documentation (The Times review mentions that the documentation is good). My main interest is photography and it is strange to hear that photography students at that time also needed to know algebra; the emphasis was much more on the technical rather than the artistic side yet owing to rapid advances in photographic technology a more creative approach is possible today.

The Guardian review is more positive describing the exhibition is a superb collection of Bauhaus art works … “It was the last thoroughgoing attempt to apply a consistent idea to modern living, and we still live with and among its ideas and artefacts. At the time, everyone involved was feeling the way forward. There is a sense here of the genuinely exploratory.

Adrian Searle, writer of the Guardian review, says something that seems apt … “one feels a sense of optimism but also disquiet of a whole world about to be dismantled.” This does tend to be my overall impression although I realise the school at the time was quite different for as Searle says, “Innovation and pleasure went hand in hand at the Bauhaus.” A reader comments “The Bauhaus aesthetic is sometimes too austere for me but some wonderful things came out of its desire to break down barriers between the art-forms.

A review in The Telegraph mentions that this exhibition does something to challenge the reductionist concept of modernism. The exhibition is as much about the school as it’s products. The exhibition helps to brings this complex body of art to life.

Catherine Ince, co-curator of the exhibition, writes that the Bauhaus means many things to different people. It was the modernist’s most ambitious attempt to change the world.

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.

Lighted ceiling at The Barbican Centre

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.

OCA tutor Jim Cowan

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 irreverent, helped to stimulate one’s interest in the exhibition.

This is a very big exhibition and not easy to view as a result. We visit the upper floor which focuses on the first Bauhaus building, 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 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. Gropius wrote the Bauhaus manifesto …

The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination.”

Already mentioned, one of it’s more colourful characters was Itten, himself a colour theorist who was also the member of a Zorastrian based sect called Mazdaznan that resulted in him wearng 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.

The return to making crafted objects, an attempt to reunite art and industry, was not that new as William Morris had done something similar during the previous century. Apart from experimenting with different materials, 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.

fountain @ The Barbican Centre

If there is something missing in this exhibition, it is perhaps colour. For instance, there is an impressive staircase window by Albers; there is a maze of different shapes and forms within it but this black and white photograph from 1923 can tell us nothing about what it looked like as the intricate display 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 whichh ultimately lead to an aspict of modesnism 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 happily in.

Another member of the school was Kandinsky whose initial work was highly intuitive but later became 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 to his place). Fonts were developed during this early period with thicker fonts being used for more emphatic even angry matters and thinner fonts for “sweeter” matters.

fountain composition

In 1923, 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 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. Gropius wrote …

I would consider it a mistake if the Bauhaus were not to face the realities of the world and were to look upon itself as an isolated institution.”

Looking at the Bauhaus from a more historical perspective, one might consider the effect of rapid inflation had on it’s development but it was the rise of right-wing politics that sealed it’s fate. The students were not all from more well to do backgrounds with some being sponsored. 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 stylish ball bearing 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 but are now taken for granted. Titled “How do we live in a healthy and economic way?” it was first shown in 1926 and gives a good idea of the ergonomic approach to living that has become so important in today’s world.

building meets water @ The Barbican

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 aspect of the photograph that was to be developed in America largely by Ansel Adams.

Although Walter Peterhans was the official photographer employed by the Bauhaus, 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. His writing is of interest as he sought to define the uniqueness of the medium … “Until now, all the essays and commentaries about the paths and aims of photography have been following a false trail … photography does not gain or diminish in value according to whether it is classified as a method of recording reality or as a medium of scientific investigation or as a way of preserving vanished events, or as basis for the process of reproduction, or as ‘art’ … when photography relies on it’s own possibilities, its results, too, are without precedent … the range of infinitely subtle gradations of light and dark that capture the phenomena of light in what seems to be an almost immaterial radiance … only after a more or less exact photographic language has been developed will a truly gifted photographer be able to elevate it to an ‘artistic’ level … No ancient or contemporary painting can match the singular effectiveness available to photography.”

These words are from “Unprecedented Photography” a piece written by Maholy-Nagy in 1927; in it he mentions seven essential facets of photography which encompass making unfamiliar views with the camera, experimenting with different lenses, encircling the object, using different kinds of camera, X-ray effects, cameraless photography and true colour sensitivity. Photography has done a lot to explore these avenues since this time.

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 from 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.

An OCA student in the penultimate gallery

The penultimate room is devoted to photography. Photography 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 the works it produced are 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. It was left to Ansel Adams in America to develop the science of exposure.

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