If you hold what you think you know about Bauhaus up to the very illuminating light of the Barbican’s new exhibition, Bauhaus: Art as Life, the effect is pretty spectacular. Preconceptions in the shape of a yellow triangle, blue circle and red square are split in a contextual kaleidoscope that plays the disciplines and their histories off of each other. The result is broad and one that you could never achieve in a classroom. This is perhaps the crowning achievement of this exhibition – and to put an end to this trite metaphor – it sheds a renewing light on the most influential design movement of the twentieth century so that a whole new generation might experience it first hand.
Since 1933, when the school closed, countless other institutes have sharpened themselves up against the Bauhaus tenets for education, that is to say, a way of life based on doing. The values and principles created by the school – encompassing everything from curation to colour – would present themselves to the show’s designers (A Practice For Everyday Life) and architects (Carmody Groarke) as an exhibition model and, for co-founder of APFEL, Kirsty Carter, a “re-education.”
You see what you would expect to see in an exhibition that promises to be the biggest of its kind in the UK for the last 40 years; like Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel Club Chair, Anni Alber’s textiles, Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings, Oskar Schlemmer’s costumes and Walter Gropius’ buildings. These key pieces sourced from institutes across the globe – in particular from the three cornerstone collections of Bauhaus; Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin and Stiftung Bauhuas Dessau – as well as every area of thought and practice from the school is represented.
The show starts where Bauhaus was founded, in Weimar by Walter Gropius in 1919 – the year in which he published what has become known as the Bauhaus manifesto, Programme of the State Bauhaus Weimar. Developed from “romantic socialist and utopian aspirations,” the pamphlet called for artists to return to the crafts.
From impressionistic beginnings to the rational aesthetic that dominates collective memory, the inimitable essence of the education was the experience of living it. “Masters of form” and “workshop masters” would instil formal and theoretical instruction and the technical skills in which to realise them. The products of these workshops would eschew distinction as either art or craft and instead realise something far greater, a term that resonates with today’s multidisciplinary ambitions, to unite the arts in Gesamtkunstwerk or, “total work of art.”
As the name suggests, the masters were an accomplished lot and have a huge presence in the exhibition. Not only their works – though very notable is the extraordinary weaving of the only female master Gunta Stölz and the wild theatre design of Oskar Schlemmer – but photographs, taken by students and the masters’ children (occasionally the same thing). These portraits are both intimate and wonderfully revealing about how they lived, which was essentially in and on everything they made – “friendly relations between masters and students outside of work” was actually in their manifesto and it’s one of the show’s big successes that it is communicated so vividly.
The school that championed “visual analysis, study of nature and materials, and colour and form” would move another two times and be designated an institute of design before it closed.
The fact that the radical vocabulary they devised to make work and live by is the language this exhibition uses is both testament to its legacy and one huge question mark over the inadequacies of education today as even more art schools are crippled by cuts.