‘Bauhaus’ – literally ‘School of Building’ – has become one of the most meaning-clustered words in the history of art and design, signifying perhaps the greatest creative peak in the Modernist tradition of Utopian applied arts. During its relatively brief fourteen year history, this school of art and design – founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919, and shut down by the Nazis in 1933 – represented a sustained effort to create a new, Modern way of living in the aftermath of World War I through the collision of visual avant-gardism and radical social theory.
The Barbican’s exhibition ‘Bauhaus: Art Is Life’ is the UK’s largest exhibition devoted to the Bauhaus school since the Royal Academy staged its 1968 exhibition ‘50 years Bauhaus’ – now some 44 years ago. It is also the first UK exhibition to benefit from the fruits of a reunified Germany, having been achieved through collaboration of all three, hitherto divided, key German Bauhaus collections – in Weimar, in Dessau, and in Berlin.
More than 400 works have been brought together to provide visitors with a whirlwind tour though Bauhaus life and times, from its original call for artists to apply their creative expertise to the functional realm, to the embracing of a rationalised visual language of geometric and typographic forms. Besides the iconic tubular steel furniture of Marcel Breuer, and a neat set of coyly coloured stacking tables by Josef Albers, one piece that stands out as exemplary of the Bauhaus marriage of form and function – of the artistic with the pragmatic – is Herbert Bayer’s 1924 design for a cigarette pavilion. With bright primary colours, and monolithic cuboidism – the cigarette itself erected as a spire – this retail outlet becomes a cathedral to artistic innovation, a newsstand of modernist pornography.
While this exhibition inevitably inspires the awed silence of a reliquary, the Bauhaus output does tend to feel a little quaint in the present-day – seminal, but out of touch. Like your grandfather. But, argues Director of the Barbican Kate Bush, here precisely lies its relevance, as an epoch necessarily remembered at a time when ‘the ideals of the early 20th century avant-garde have been subsumed by the demands of money and the marketplace’. And, what’s more, beyond its role at the genesis of contemporary design, the international community of artists at the Bauhaus has an added contemporary significance – as a ‘monument to internationalism on the eve of the world arriving in London for the 2012 Olympic Games’. Look what can be achieved when we work together, says the voice of History… before it chokes on World War Two.
Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2012 ArtLyst
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