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Bauhaus at the Barbican

Joseph Rykwert visits the lively new exhibition at the Barbican and is reminded of the fun and frolics of the Dessau school

Can the Bauhaus be news again? The exhibition which has just opened at the Barbican will show you that it certainly can. I had expected an opening party full of over-60s, but it was crowded by the under-40s. I belong to the first lot (more’s the pity) and am a veteran of Bauhaus exhibitions – Stuttgart in 1968 and its reincarnation at the Royal Academy later that year, and MoMA in New York in 2010. This last – and much the biggest – started in the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, the old Arts and Crafts museum which stood close by the Berlin Wall and was called after its designer, the great-uncle of the Walter who founded the Bauhaus. The MoMA/Berlin show was huge and the most complete, yet the poorer Barbican one is the most exhilarating, in part because the designers, Carmody Groarke, have managed to make sense of it in the intractable exhibition space.

That New York show garnered all that the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall now allowed access to: the two Bauhaus ‘capitals’, Dessau and Weimar, as well as the archives in East Germany. And it promoted a review of the Bauhaus myth. For a bit of a myth it was, first foisted on us by a much earlier New York MoMA show of 1939, which did rather suggest that the thing had sprung fully-formed from Walter Gropius’ fertile but systematic head. ‘Bauhaus’ had become a stylistic label, the trade mark of a rational and ‘functional’ approach to all design problems. The New York catalogue, a brilliant production by Herbert Bayer, who was one of the Bauhaus’ most illustrious pupils, became the main source of information about the Bauhaus for artists and historians and the source-book of the myth.

Dissenting opinions were unwelcome, and a rounded picture could not be had during the war. Nor was there any taste for a revision in the 1940s and ’50s. The elementary design course, which seemed to have originated in the Bauhaus, had by then become the staple of art-and-design education all over the Anglo-Saxon world, and the MoMA volume gave a linear account of its origins and rationale. A more complex picture only appeared gradually. 

It had all started when that most fertile deviser of Art Nouveau ornament, Henri van de Velde, was appointed director of the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar in 1906. After 1914, as a Belgian (enemy) alien he could not operate there, so he recommended the rather younger Walter Gropius, by then a serving, decorated officer, as his successor. Gropius’ life was dominated at the time by his jittery marriage to Alma Mahler, widow of the great Gustav and femme fatale of European arts and letters (the Tom Lehrer song about her may still be remembered). Alma introduced him to a friend of hers, Johannes Itten, a Swiss painter and teacher who was then running a highly idiosyncratic private art school in Vienna. Gropius was very taken with Itten and his methods and engaged him to initiate and direct a new teaching course. What he had not quite reckoned with was that Itten would bring a group of disciples with him and make his instruction dependent on his occult beliefs – he was an enthusiastic adept of Mazdaznan, a cult funded by a German-American magus who claimed to been initiated in Tibet, in his case into ancient Mazdean beliefs and practices, which required elaborate breathing exercises as well as purges (both emetic and colonic), de-toxification by skin-piercing and a strict vegetarian, garlic-dominated diet.

The end of the First World War was much more confusing than that of the Second. The world was not handily divided into two blocks and revolutions from left and right were an everyday threat, while the sense of despair at the useless slaughter hung over everything. Western civilisation, many thought, had lost its bearings by surrendering to dominant reason and the Orient
(a rather vague notion) seemed to have forgotten wisdom to offer. Madame Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Krishnamurti all purveyed that wisdom to the decadent West, so that some of those gurus demanded such physical disciplines as Itten imposed on his pupils. However, the working method he taught had not been imparted by any mystagogue, but learnt from his drawing and painting teacher, Adolf Hölzel in Stuttgart, arguably the first abstract painter, even before Kandinsky. He had made breathing and rhythmic exercises part of his training, including the control of bodily movement as a preliminary to drawing. This was very much part of Itten’s teaching, as was a passionate interest in colour theory and proportion. Mystic lore was Itten’s gloss on it. In Hölzel’s class, Itten met Oskar Schlemmer, who, as one of his closest associates, would follow him to Weimar. They formed one part >> of the original Bauhaus team. In Berlin, Gropius’ first recruit was Lyonel Feininger, a German-American much published as a cartoonist in Germany and the USA and an active member of the several left-wing artists’ action groups in Berlin, as well as an exhibitor in the Expressionist Der Sturm gallery. Gropius wrote the stirring appeal-manifesto of the new institute, and Feininger illustrated it with an Expressionist woodcut of the ‘cathedral’, which this Bauhaus would construct.

The name was paradoxical, since the school was at first dominated by artists. Bauhaus literally means ‘the house about building’, but it was certainly intended to evoke Bauhütte (German for the medieval masons’ lodge). For all this insistence on building, and even though the director was well-known as a practising architect, the school would not have an architecture department until 1926-27. In those early years, building was an aspiration and an ideal, rather than a part of the programme, and so the first Bauhaus seal referred to it: in the lettered circle was a stick-man holding up the triangle of a roof.

Gropius had famous buildings to his credit already, even industrial work for the railway. These were all prior to his war service, as was his partnership with Adolf Meyer, which would last until Meyer’s removal to the Frankfurt planning office in 1926. Gropius moved his own office to Weimar and would continue to employ Bauhaus students as assistants. His very first commission was the product of an emergency: a memorial to the dead who fell in Weimar during the protests at the right-wing putsch of March 1920. Alma Mahler, who was in Weimar during the demonstrations, tried to persuade Gropius not to take part, and he later said that the nickname ‘lightning’, which was popularly attached to the Monument to the March Dead, was inappropriate and claimed the local government which commissioned it was social-democratic, nothing extreme. At any rate, the Nazis would destroy that Expressionist concrete sculpture in the Weimar cemetery when they took power.

A more important commission followed: Blockhaus Sommerfeld in a Berlin suburb was a large private house for a wholesale timber merchant, whose position gave him access to the well-seasoned woods from warships de-commissioned after the Versailles treaty. Unlike Gropius’ pre-war schemes, it had something ‘primitive’ about it, as well as echoes of Wright, and he made it an early attempt at a collective work: the main staircase hall had a large stained-glass window by Josef Albers, then Itten’s star pupil (he would become an important figure at Black Mountain College and at Yale during and after the last war). All the metal and wood reliefs, as well as the ironmongery, were the work of Joost Schmidt (affectionately known as ‘Schmidtchen’), who was running the sculpture workshop and who, born in Weimar, would remain at the Bauhaus until it closed.

In recruiting more staff, Gropius’ inclination was to employ such Berlin expressionists as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, but Itten insisted – or so he maintained – on the appointment of Kandinsky and Klee in 1921. A change of direction was effected from outside. Theo van Doesburg, a founder of Dutch de Stijl and part-time Dadaist, was invited (his version) or invited himself (the Bauhaus official version) to Weimar. With his flair for publicity, he held a protest class teaching de Stijl principles, which some Bauhäusler preferred to the official teaching. He also summoned a Dada/Constructivist conference in Weimar during the summer recess of 1922, which was attended by Tristan Tzara, El Lissitzky, Hans Richter, Werner Graeff, Hans and Sophie Arp, as well as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, with his wife Lucia.

By then the breaking point with Itten had come. In October 1922 he resigned. Moholy Nagy gave the school its new direction and the consequences were immediately and publicly evident. The local government, which held the purse-strings, had insisted the Bauhaus pay its way by undertaking design and industrial work, marketing its products and showing itself to the public. The first of all the Bauhaus exhibitions was held in Weimar in the summer of 1923, and it became an avant-garde showpiece. There were concerts: Hindemith, Krenek, Schoenberg were involved. There was even a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, as well as dances, notably Schlemmer’s The Triadic Ballet, and one of the prize pieces at the Barbican are three of the elaborate costumes he created for it. 

Herbert Bayer and Moholy collaborated on the catalogue. A group of illustrious supporters (including Albert Einstein) was also organised. But the Thuringian government was increasingly hostile and Gropius managed to negotiate a deal with the nearby industrial city of Dessau, much closer to Berlin and not so overweight with cultural baggage. In 1926 the new buildings of the school opened there, with a ‘settlement’ of semi-detached staff houses. Gropius was also commissioned to design a labour exchange and an estate of municipal housing, which, according to his ideas, was partly prefabricated. And Moholy collaborated with Gropius on a publishing enterprise: 14 Bauhausbücherwere published, as well as a broadsheet, and all proved popular.

It really is hard to believe that, in spite of all its troubles, for all the constant internal dissensions and the sheer quantity of productive work, how many of Kandinsky’s and Klee’s masterpieces were >> produced there (and some are on show in the Barbican), while the school continued an almost carnivalesque existence. Parties, particularly fancy-dress ones, were a constant feature and the school formed its own jazz band. The Barbican exhibition recreates, as well as any exhibition can, the sheer fun of being at the Bauhaus. But the troubles continued. At the end of his first decade Gropius resigned because of the pressure of his own practice and he was followed by the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer (no relation to Adolf) who wanted to move the school into a more pragmatic building mode. As an active Communist party member, he came into conflict with some of the old-timers. He lasted about 18 months, when he moved to the Soviet Union, where he arrived in time to earn the disapproval of the rising advocates of Social Realism.

There was a late moment of triumph when the 1930 Werkbund Pavilion in the Salon des Arts Décoratifs in Paris was handed to the Bauhaus and it provided wonderful publicity. Meanwhile Gropius recommended Mies van der Rohe as his successor, and he concentrated on transforming the building workshops into a Miesian studio. But in any case, the clouds were thickening. Dessau gave itself a right-wing administration and the Bauhaus moved to an industrial building in Berlin. As a bastion of Kulturbolschevismusand ‘Degenerate’ art it could not continue. Before the Nazis intervened, Mies called a staff meeting in which they declared the Bauhaus closed. The letter to the students announcing the decision is one of the more moving documents in the Barbican show.

A number of Bauhäusler tried their luck in Britain; several settled for a while in the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead. Moholy took various jobs, including window-dressing at Simpson’s, Piccadilly, though his most successful project were the sets for the Korda/HG Wells Shape of Things to Comefilm. Gropius would eventually move to Harvard (in Britain he left Impington Village College, which he designed with Maxwell Fry). Mies came to dominate Chicago and much American building.

But the Bauhaus influence is everywhere in our environment: A-size stationery, the iPad (Steve Jobs was an indirect Bayer disciple), our traffic signs. But above all much of our building and its furnishing owes something to the Bauhaus’ impact. It seems to me important to remember that it was not all the by-product of a method myth and a devotion to machine production, but the lively outgrowth of intuitive, almost ‘feely’ devotion to materiality onto which the excitement about the new machine production could be so fruitfully grafted.

What we have lost was its fierce devotion to the common good, and the passionate, often joyous atmosphere in which its discoveries were forged. Sadly, we have forgotten what fun it all was. The Barbican exhibition, which is the liveliest of the shows I have seen to date, is a reminder of what we owe to it, but also what it is that we miss as we reduce its gains to our commonplace.n

Joseph Rykwert is an architectural historian and author of many influential critical studies

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