Discussing the Barbican’s 'Bauhaus: Art as Life' Exhibition with Curator Corina Gardner
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
This post was first published on the Russian Art and Culture blog in July 2012.
From May to August 2012, the Barbican Centre is showcasing the best of the Bauhaus in a comprehensive exhibition. Charting the rise and fall of this posthumously influential institution, the display fitts perfectly within the modernist aesthetics of the gallery itself. Grey concrete, cavernous utilitarian spaces and angular shapes surround the visitor, as well as being present amongst the exhibits.
Inside the Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition. Photo by Jane Hobson 2012. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.
I meet assistant curator Corinna Gardner on a sunny day in the Barbican’s courtyard. She is keen to discuss the synergy between the ideals of the Bauhaus and those of the Barbican. ‘We are in effect a cross-arts platform, as well as an educative body. For instance, we are increasingly forging links with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. One of our ambitions for this exhibition was to take it outside the gallery walls and to our other art forms, so we had tie-ins such as a film season and a summer school co-ordinated by our Creative Learning Department. This was a pilot project taking its inspiration from the Bauhaus and it had a broad focus, so we invited Cory Doctorow for instance to speak about the internet within the remit of an art school format.’
I ask Corinna about the aesthetics of the exhibition itself. To my mind, the Barbican and the Bauhaus are a match made in heaven, but it seems this apparent synergy was hard won.
‘We worked with Carmody Groarke, a young architectural practice’ Corinna reveals. ‘They did an exceptional job to transform our very brutalist spaces into something that feels like a modernist interior, creating proportion and light. The structure of the gallery has been very well incorporated into the broader exhibition aesthetic. The use of colour is also very beautiful, which Carmody Groarke did in collaboration with APEL, our graphic designers. This is one of the real strengths of our exhibition, even though it appears deceivingly simple!’ The modernism of the Barbican is characteristic of the late 1960s, eschewing the white lines of early modernism in favour of rusticated concrete.
The Early Years: Expressionism at the Bauhaus
One of the most fascinating aspects of this comprehensive exhibition is the exploration of the early days of the Bauhaus, before the development of its modernist credo. When it was created in Weimar in 1919, the school belonged more to the twilight of the nineteenth century than to the brave new world of the twentieth. Its director, the architect Walter Gropius, pursued a revival of traditional arts and crafts teaching. These romantic aspirations were matched by a strong spiritual slant and even the school’s official seal, designed by one of the students, featured cosmic elements such as the sun and a star, alongside the Chinese symbols of yin and yang.
The exhibit that greets us on entering is a delicate jewel-coloured altarpiece created by Gerhard Marks and Alfred Partikel in 1920. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast to the later rational designs. This was one if the points that the curators sought to address. ‘It was a challenge’ Corinna admits ‘but it was also very enjoyable. We were thinking about the British context and the British audience. Recently there have been large shows about the Bauhaus in New York and Berlin, but the last Bauhaus show in the UK was 40 years ago. So the British understanding of the Bauhaus is very different, it is understood to be purely a style. This is why it became important not only to show the iconic designs, but also the context within which they were created. So we dedicated about half the exhibition space to the early Weimar years and the very early expressionistic and arts and crafts influences. William Morris for example was a huge influence, and so were the German expressionists.’
The Arrival of Constructivism
The Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition. Photo by Jane Hobson 2012. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.
The chronological format of the exhibition highlights the rapid change that took place in the aesthetics of the Bauhaus from its creation in 1919 to the 1923 exhibition that showcased their modernist designs. I ask Corinna about the reasons for this progression. ‘It was a very new place, so change was fairly rapid. Gropius had a very particular idea of what his school should be, but after the founding of the Bauhaus, the next challenge was to prove that its teaching had merit. 1923 sees the arrival of Theo van Doesburg and László Moholy-Nagy, the constructivists, who bring in the international modernist aesthetic to a greater extent. Van Doesburg wanted to teach at the school but Gropius was against this, so he set up his own classes in Weimar that many Bauhauslers attended. By 1923 the government, who was funding the school, wanted to see what they were producing. So that year the Bauhaus had to put on an exhibition of their work and this really brought about that change, the drive towards more standard types and machine-made production. So the reasons were financial but also cultural, plus the increased international influence.’
Kandinsky at the Bauhaus
Naturally, Wassily Kandinsky is the Russian presence in this exhibition. He joined the school in 1922 and his art followed the same trajectory, forgoing its Expressionist looseness for geometric severity. The 1922 Small Worldsprint portfolio still belongs in the former category, but by the following year the painting Circles in a Circle reveals a much stricter composition.
‘Kandinsky was already a very established artist when he came’ Corinna reveals, ‘so he brought a lot of kudos and academic weight to the school. His other contributions were his love of colour and also his ability to make money from art, as was the case with the Small Worlds portfolio. He used the technologies in the school and in Weimar to produce this set of lithographs to be sold. Kandinsky’s approach to his own work changed at the Bauhaus, so it’s a great example of how artistic exchanges between the masters, the school and the students occurred in many directions.’
Kandinsky’s research on the effects of colour is well-known, so it is fascinating to examine the questionnaire he distributed to his students. Filled in by an anonymous Bauhausler, the form matches primary colours to geometric forms, corroborating Kandinsky’s hypothesis. The exhibition’s intent is to throw some light the minutia of daily life at the school and it does so successfully. Aside from the scribbled questionnaire, we see snapshots of Kandinsky teaching in a crown of students or taking tea with Paul Klee and we see Kandinsky being celebrated on his sixtieth birthday in a poster that advertises a retrospective of his works. ‘Interaction between the students and the teachers was really critical for us’ Corinna tells me. ‘It was part of our desire to show the Bauhaus as much more than just an art movement. Kandinsky was clearly an influential teacher, but he kept to himself in comparison to other teachers. Paul Klee was hugely loved and taken into the hearts of the students in a way that Kandinsky perhaps was not.’
Graphic design at the Bauhaus. Photo by Jane Hobson 2012. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.
One issue that is not closely addressed in the exhibition is that of outside influence, probably because the mammoth task of documenting the entire life of the Bauhaus was already a complex endeavour. I ask Corinna about this. ‘Art circles at the time, though constricted by geography and practicality, were pretty international in their outlook. The influence of the Russian constructivists cannot be underestimated. Some of them were invited to speak at the Bauhaus, some came to visit, books and articles were produced. We do have a room in the exhibition entitled Salute to the square. But in no way were they in competition, it was more about how they influenced each other and of course the Russian avant-garde occurred earlier historically, so there was also some sense of progression.’
The international dimension is apparent in the Bauhaus’ publications, such as the New European Graphics series of 1922-4. The fourth such portfolio was dedicated to Russian and Italian works, one of which was a print by Natalia Goncharova that can be admired in the exhibition. Corinna adds: ‘The students in the preliminary course were encouraged to look at art in the broadest sense, so not only did they look at Russian constructivists, but also at other Russian art. Aside from the New European Graphics portfolio, they were also looking at old master paintings from the seventeenth century. There was a desire to liberate the students from convention and to derive creativity from a wealth of sources, including Russian art which was one of the most avant-garde at the time.’
The many theatrical performances produced by the Bauhauslers were surely indebted to Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company that had first encapsulated the ethos of Gesamtkunstwerk or the total work of art. The movement-obstructing costumes of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet or the colour-light show of Kurt Schwerdtfeger were anticipated by Kazimir Malevich’s play Victory over the Sun, staged in Saint Petersburg in 1913. Corinna agrees.
‘Theatre was seen as a place of experimentation so I think there was definitely a degree of influence. Schlemmer must have been aware of the Ballets Russes, and his own designs for ballet costumes show that.’
Bauhaus theatre costumes. Photo by: Jane Hobson 2012. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.
Another Russian presence at the Bauhaus was Chagall, who at one point was drafted in as a member of the Governing Board. ‘The Bauhaus was always short of money’ Corinna explains. ‘We already spoke about Kandinsky’s Small Worlds portfolio, which was created for commercial reasons. Drafting in a circle of artist friends was a way of attracting support from a wider variety of sources. Chagall and other leading avant-garde circles were interested in what the Bauhaus was doing and they sought to help if they could. In fact, the Bauhaus had lots of parties and one of the means of raising funds was through lotteries. The masters and their friends donated items of their own work, so you could go to a Bauhaus party and leave with a Picasso sketch. The Bauhaus, though it seems astounding now, was struggling to gain recognition and stature as a school.’ As a result of this, there were certain constraints.
Women at the Bauhaus
Even though institutions such as the VKhutemas in Russia had paved the way for women artists as teachers, the Bauhaus did not have a female master until 1927 when Gunta Stölzl’s appointment occurred. ‘When Gropius started the school the intake was to be equally split between men and women’ Corinna tells me, ‘but through the history of the school the number of women attending decreased. Although there was never an official change of policy, the number of females accepted became less and less, and that was in part because the school needed to be recognised by other institutions and the number of women students was undermining that. So yes, 1927 was very late, but the masters were not all as egalitarian as they purported to be. In fact, I think Kandinsky was against Stölzl becoming a master. The Bauhaus was very idealistic, very utopian in many ways, and the harsh realities of life impinged upon that’, Corinna concludes. ‘After all, the dissolution of the school in 1933 was brought about by political pressures.’
Bauhaus textiles. Photo by Jane Hobson 2012. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.
Although the exhibition ends with the disbanding of the Bauhaus in 1933, the lasting influence of this institution is clear throughout. It is a fascinating display, with over 400 exhibits crammed in the two storey art gallery. So head to the Barbican and enjoy the cool and calm concrete spaces. They are even better in the company of the Bauhaus.