2. Bauhaus : Art as Life – June 2012 at The Barbican

Bauhaus  : Art as life : Barbican  Art Gallery

OCA Study Visit on 28th June 2012

When I read the announcement in WeAreOCA

I decided that I really must go – firstly because it would provide an overview of  the ethos and work of a famous art school and, secondly, because this promised to be what I had hoped for from the Postmodernism Exhibition at the V&A (but didn’t get)  – an insight into how a group of people came together with a shared vision.   Another aspect that appealed to me was the linear description of what ensued.

The visit aims from OCA were to:-

  • Gain a personal perspective on the work of the Bauhaus a German School of art that combined fine art and crafts with the idea of creating a school where all the arts including Architecture could be brought together. This Bauhaus style became one of the most important influences in Modern Design influencing Art, Architecture Graphic Design, Interior Design, Industrial Design and Typography.
  • Reflect on the experience of seeing the  modern designs that influenced  the  20th century
  • Network with other students.

As preparation we were asked to read  reviews from The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Creative Review blog

As ever, it was good to meet up with other students especially those from the art and graphic design studies as, again, this added to a more integrated experience. Art tutor, Jim Cowan and Jane Horton, Curriculum Director, OCA, met us.  Jim Cowan had already visited the Exhibition and so was able to provide us with an excellent overview.

The Creative Review blog had informed me that the design agency A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL) worked with architectural studio Carmody Groarke on the exhibition design which was  informed by Bauhaus principles of colour, structure and typography. For me there was an uncluttered feel about the space, with colours that were in more subdued hues than the bright colours I’m accustomed to nowadays (although I do remember the late 60s fashion for more earthy colours.  I’m thinking particularly of the orange-red of Mondrian paintings. Thinking about this now, maybe that’s why it took me a while to ‘get my eye in’ as it were to get a feel for the Bauhaus style.

I’m not going to summarise the story of the Bauhaus movement itself as I think the reviews do it so well and I’d just be repeating that. The free gallery guide was also very useful in providing an overview What came over to me the most was that change from a freer, more organic craft towards something more polished and streamlined in the attempt to make the Bauhaus school pay its way. Jim Cowan’s commentary as we walked around also brought the personalities involved more vividly to life.

We started on the upper Level which portrayed the beginnings of the Bauhaus, founded in Weimar, in 1919,  by Walter Gropius when he merged the Academy of Fine Arts and the School of Arts and Crafts in.  Jim drew our attention to the spiritual aspect of the School – the word Bauhaus meaning a Workshop for Cathedral Workers – and how this was exemplified by the picture of a cathedral on the  ‘Programme of the state Bauhaus in Weimar’ – which came to be called the Bauhaus Manifesto. The spire of the cathedral itself could be a metaphor for the aspirations Gropius had towards a radical, innovative, and integrated approach to the Arts, with an initial emphasis upon drawing, painting and craft . He had stated that he aimed to create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions which raised a barrier between craftsmen and artist but there was still a division in the sense of  workshops being led by a ‘master of form’ an artist who provided formal and theoretical instruction, and a ‘workshop master’ an expert craftsman who taught technical skills (Gallery guide Section 2).

Much has been written about Johannes Itten and his rather eccentric personal beliefs and persona but I think that his leadership as a ‘master of form’ in combination with his preliminary course, led to the production of some beautiful expressionist work.   I found examples of his work on a web-search.  One in particular is a swirl of colour and form.

The first thing I saw was a beautiful wooden miniature altar created by Gerhard Marcks in 1920 with a triptych of pointed panels painted by Alfred Partikel. We weren’t allowed to take photographs of course and the Exhibition book was very expensive, but I have found this altar on this website (second image down).  The curves flowing around the more geometric lines are beautiful (and restful) to see. There were other wooden sculptures as well – organic and flowing as if the glowing wood had transformed itself.  There was a beautiful tapestry in pale colours with, again, the sense of movement being contained by lines.

It went slightly downhill from thereon for me because, gradually, one could trace how geometric lines (and maybe increased structure and financial considerations) began to become more dominant as the Government became more right-wing. Johannes Itten believed that education should be for the individual – not collective and commercial and the resulting internal conflict led to him being replaced by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy who introduced more mechanical processes and simplified forms. There was certainly a diversity of products, including toys. I was intrigued by the puppets. They made me remember how we made them at school and I also wondered about the link between the Bauhaus puppets; what was happening in the world outside and being manipulated into different more constrained/disciplined forms of art and Standard ‘Types’ – guidelines for industrial production.

Completing the tour of the Upper Level of the Exhibition led to a natural break and time for food,  chat and discussion.

It was enjoyable, stimulating and, hopefully this mirrored the atmosphere which became engendered at the Bauhaus when it moved into its second phase and a new home in Dessau with a site provided by the liberal mayor, Fritz Hesse. This second phase was depicted on the lower level of the Exhibition.

This was where the photographs came into play for me depicting as they do the life, work, fun, acting and play of the Bauhaus.  The Bauhaus masters, staff and students photographed each other and experimented with forms such as photomontage. One of  Moholy-Nagy’s main focuses was photography and he coined the term “the New Vision” for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the external world that the human eye could not. In addition to photomontage and photograms he  experimented further with the potential of light as a creative medium and the Exhibition includes a six-minute film – “A Light Play: black, white, grey. I gained the impression of the school as an exciting place to be with a continuing sense of a common vision and purpose (even though the vision had changed somewhat).

I’ve continued to think about the form/nature and purpose of photography there. It seems it was  a means of experimentationdocumentation/record and also advertising. In this sense its purpose wasn’t art as such but, to me, the artistic vision is conveyed in terms of composition, tone, line etc.  those particularly interesting to me included Lucia Moholy (wife of Moholy-Nagy) began a photography apprenticeship at the Bauhaus in 1923; photographed objects  and buildings for publications and also portrait series of  Bauhaus teachers and friends. There are some examples here .  Her portraits are striking – many of them tightly cropped and close-up.  Josef Albers also compiled series of portraits where he juxtaposed multiple images to capture the personalities of the individuals represented

Another compelling photomontage was Paul Citreon’s ‘Metropolis’ 1923 – a cut out and pasted photomechanical reproduction on paper of existing and speculative buildings from different cities around the world. It was meant to represent a ‘dynamic image of urban growth in the modern era” yet it influenced Fritz Lang to create the film ‘Metropolis’ which was set in the year 2026 in a dystopian society where wealthy intellectuals, who lived in towers, oppressed the workers who lived below them in the depths.  A sign of the times, those  to come or how they have usually been?

Walter Peterhans was appointed by Meyer (in Spring 1929) to lead a newly established photography workshop as part of the advertising department. The gallery guide informed me that Meyer was impressed with Peterhans’s ‘emphasis on photography as a science rather than an art’ (Section 9) and the Exhibition included several examples of exercises from his course.


As ever, it was good to meet with other students and tutors. Jim Cowan’s commentary was invaluable in bringing the ethos of the Bauhaus to life for me from its initial, shared creative vision to the gradual separation of ways of the individuals originally involved. Strong personalities, beliefs and temperaments  didn’t seem able to escape the twin pressures of internal conflict and external demands for productivity and revenue.

From examples exhibited it seems clear that, although products were simplified and streamlined, they were still stylish and probably a joy (at that time) to have. Lines and shapes were pleasing to the eye. I’m thinking here of the teapots where the soft appearance of the nickel plate softened the geometric shapes, and also the lamps which were made. I would guess they were also relatively expensive.

Nothing I saw though could match the beauty of the small altar and the wooden sculpture which began the Exhibition.  I hope there always be a place for such individual creativity and vision.

10th July 2012

Website References