All too frequently the presentation and packaging of the Bauhaus to audiences has been to focus on the leading male quartet of Gropius, van der Rohe, Breuer and Meyer as the pioneers of a cold, precise, machine-driven sect whose tubular chairs and avant-garde works became stereotypical hallmarks of a ‘bourgeois’ European formalism.
Barbican’s ‘Bauhaus: Art as life’ aims to inject the forgotten human endeavour and encounters that took place at Weimar and Dessau, back at the centre of the school’s success and its innovative ‘utopian vision to change society’ - rather than product, which has so overtaken the understanding of the Bauhaus.
Putting the tutors back into their faculty places and exploring the school’s set-up and output as a whole, this is a display which re-focuses on the methods and innovations of the movement as a learning institution, with notable inclusion of student output and who they were.
Emphasis on exploring craft and developing new techniques is shone on the ample material left behind from the school such as works on paper, woodwork, ceramics, textiles, metalwork, costume design, photography, film, and sculpture. Painting has been distilled into a few key pieces by Kandinsky, Klee, and Albers - which had otherwise been pushed to the forefront as the leading examples of the Bauhaus along with architecture.
Divided over two levels, the Barbican analyses and engages with the 'turbulent fourteen-year history' through ten succinctly-titled, but packed, sections. Starting with ‘New Beginnings’ and ‘Return to Craft’, it leads the visitor through areas such as ‘Instruments of Communication’, ‘Designing the Modern World’, and the little-known wild side of the Bauhaus students and staff alike, in the ‘Our Play, Our Party, Our Work’ section, which reassuringly upholds the classic premise that art school types are obvious party animals.
Each section is well-interpreted, presenting the visitor with intelligent, meaningful, and rare encounters with objects and recordings - the simple and the innovative – of the leading and lesser known Bauhauslers. The fundamental practice that was at the 'heart of the school' forms the core of each section: the workshops led by a ‘Master of Form’ – an artist appointed by Gropius, Meyer, or van der Rohe to impart theory and formal instruction - and a ‘Workshop Master’ who taught technical skills to the student body who then developed, presented, and tested their works to their tutors as if in laboratory.
The overlooked gallery format of a series of connected rooms all on the same level would have much improved the viewing experience; ironically, the one essential characteristic that embodies the principles the exhibit vaunts, but works against this well-sourced display is the Modernist space itself.
Due to the Barbican’s (otherwise fabulous) architecture, internally the location and division of the exhibition space does not lend itself to a comfortable perusal – focus is disturbed and fatigue sets in from encountering the wide, dark attic like spaces. In the penultimate sections, it starts to feel as if you are being confronted by your great uncle’s stashed treasure of ‘classic pieces’ – with every corner clamouring with spoils of achingly avant-garde furniture and twenties and thirties memorabilia.
However, in bringing such a wide selection to London despite the spatial challenges, the Barbican is successful in presenting ‘the inside’ of an otherwise familiar subject: of a true working collective of theory, design, and craft, which is central to the show’s proposition and understanding of the correlation between theory and object when confronted with such a rich display.
The ending of the exhibit is poignant but lacklustre in material – although it points beyond the quarters inhibited - that the Bauhaus did travel, disseminate, and continue in renewed, sometimes, diluted terms, in various forms and locations abroad, it would have been beneficial to provide visual examples of this continuation of the Bauhaus form beyond Germany.
Despite this anti-climax, the exhibition does well in bringing other Bauhaus practitioners further into the spotlight such as Johannes Itten, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl and Oskar Schlemmer.
Given it is the largest summary presented of the Bauhaus in over forty years, the Barbican has delivered a fine perceptive analysis and reworked definition of the tenets and output of the movement with a new take on areas such as ceramics, textiles and metalwork - which rightly deserve to be seen and given context alongside the well-hashed story and famous works of the Bauhaus.