February 26, 2024

Bauhaus at the Barbican

‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ is on at the Barbican Centre, London until 12th August 2012

The Barbican in focusing on European modernism this summer has chosen to sidestep the current celebratory tone of Britishness. Rather it produces a show relevant to our current context by looking at the idea of art and social responsibility.

As Bauhaus produced pieces that consciously crystallised the group’s aesthetics within them, it is a movement in many ways most suited to the gallery setting. Pieces from pitchers to posters, wooden carvings to bookcases, can all stand alone in expressing  Bauhaus’ concern with craft, design and function.

Object and interior

The Barbican lends its focus here on Bauhaus as collection of objects, negotiating the tension between their roles within interiors and their placement in a gallery space. This attitude to ‘Bauhaus’ artefacts’ draws attention to that particularly appealing aspect of the movement, the aesthetic significance of objects that were also conceived as having specific functional uses.

One of the most interesting curatorial moments is a collection of teapots and pitchers placed parallel to Kandinsky’s ‘Small Worlds’ series. Kandinksy’s brightly coloured explorations of the arrangement of form, are esoteric cosmologies that place the globular shapes of the teapots opposite as planetary structures. Thus Naum Slutzky’s ‘Spherical Box’ which is embossed with overlapping circular forms, can be re-read in this context as having a terrestrial surface. In this thoughtful method of displaying the multitude of objects produced by Bauhaus teapots are translated from containers of liquid to a cosmological collective.

Fluidity and function

From Bauhaus’ spiritual beginnings the exhibition moves through a variety of mediums and genres including painting, typography and carpentry, showing the fluidity of the school’s aims and aesthetic. In this journey, Bauhaus moves from a spiritually infused version of Futurism, through to its distinctive modernist architecture, to finally explore photomontage as a means of critiquing society values.

With the show containing many objects produced by students of the Bauhaus school, rightful dialogues are placed between the work of pupils and their more well re-knowned tutors (such as Paul Klee and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy). The Barbican’s Bauhaus is an evolving school and the most interesting dialogues are reserved for the transitions between objects within different moments of the movement.

For example, Theobald Muller-Hummel’s Pillar with Cosmic Visions (1919-20) is an intriguing piece of post-war craft. Out of a wooden aeroplane propeller, swirls of coloured movement have been carved in. The new visual aesthetics are re-appropriation of a physical movement the object once possessed. The title which designates this object now as a ‘pillar’ evoking ‘cosmic visions’ combines a celebration of dynamism on spiritual terms, and this is a very different tone from the later Bauhaus we encounter further into the exhibition.

When we get to Gunta Stolz’s rugs, we seem to reach a Bauhaus epoch. Composed of rows and grids of gradated colours, Stolz’s rugs are a site of enforced geometry and explorations of colour theory. With titles such as ‘Five Choirs’ the rugs can become musical scores and visual rhythms. Such show that Bauhaus at its most innovative used the surfaces of it objects to push the boundaries of aesthetic consideration.

In this expansive and large scale look at the Bauhaus movement there is much that looks beyond Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, the two figures often conflated with Bauhaus movement as a whole. It is not however the coherency of the movement that emerges from the exhibition, but the interesting, challenging aesthetic moments that the work of its students produced.

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