SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 159 - June 2012

Art as life

Bauhaus: Art as Life

Barbican Art Gallery, London

To 12 August – £10 online, £12 on door

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland

THIS MAJOR new exhibition examines the famous German art school’s beginnings after the first world war until it was shut down by the Nazis in 1933.

Over 14 years, the Bauhaus (‘building house’) brought together diverse artistic production and culture, with the aim of uniting art and technology, which entailed commenting on politics and society. This is all brilliantly brought to life in the Barbican’s extensive galleries, with a rich array of painting, sculpture, design, architecture, film, photography, textiles, ceramics, theatre and installation. It includes works from ‘Bauhaus masters’ such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

The Bauhaus school’s replacement of ‘bourgeois aesthetic’, with simple geometric form, distinctive ‘clean lines’ and modernist aesthetic clarity, exerted far-reaching influence. The offspring of the steel armchairs pioneered by Bauhaus in the mid-1920s can be seen in homes and offices everywhere today. The exhibition depicts very well the lively collaborative character of Bauhaus. Many leading artists of the day, alongside skilled craftsmen, were attracted to work, teach and to take part in ‘creative play’ at Bauhaus. Students were encouraged to discuss and question the problems of form, representation and composition.

In an otherwise excellent exhibition, Bauhaus: Art as Life suffers from a limited political and social context. While the school’s more exotic features are well documented – such as the painter Johannes Itten’s mystic ideas and practices which were emulated by students, by shaving their heads, adorning robes and following a bizarre diet – the strong socialist influence on Bauhaus is not given enough emphasis.

The Bauhaus was established in April 1919 by the radical architect Walter Gropius, in Weimar, in the state of Thuringia. Appalled and radicalised by the first world war – Gropius served as a cavalry officer on the western front – he became a leader of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers’ Council for Art) during the 1918 November revolution in Germany. Like his early influences, John Ruskin and William Morris, the great 19th century artists/craftsmen and radical commentators, the Bauhaus’s first director yearned for a new society and to overcome the separation between the arts and crafts. A radical new approach to architecture and design, Gropius believed, would lead to the "unification of the arts under the wings of great architecture", and art for the people and social progress.

The Bauhaus was established at a time of intense economic and political crisis in Germany and across Europe. The mass slaughter of the imperialist first world war helped usher in the October 1917 Russian revolution. The coming to power of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets in Russia, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, inspired the German 1918 revolution. The Spartacist League, headed by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, led a revolutionary movement of workers and soldiers. But the revolutionary movement and its two outstanding leaders were crushed by the forces of capitalist reaction, aided by the leaders of the Social Democratic Party.

Before the first world war, artistic tendencies displayed more openly political approaches, including the Dada movement, which was a somewhat nihilistic revolt against bourgeois society. The October revolution acted as a powerful impulse to artistic and intellectual development, both in the young Soviet Union and throughout the world. The Bauhaus emerged from this cultural, political and social ferment.

The Barbican exhibition begins with Gropius’s Manifesto of the Bauhaus, which is illustrated with an expressionist woodcut by Lyonel Feininger. This features a three-spires building, beaming light and arching to the sky, which Gropius called a "cathedral of socialism". In the early 1920s, Gropius emphasised ideas of ‘standardisation’ and ‘co-operation’ with industry. Many of the Bauhaus publications on display at the Barbican, promoting new design and architecture, still arrest our attention with their vivid and creative photos, images and typography.

In February 1924, the Social Democrats lost control of the Thuringian state parliament to the right-wing nationalists, who were hostile to the Bauhaus’s progressive artistic ideals. After financial support was withdrawn from the school, Gropius decided to move the Bauhaus to an industrial estate near Dessau in 1926. He designed a new Bauhaus building, an important example of modernist design, which included workshops. Built nearby were Gropius’s director’s house and homes for the Bauhaus masters. During this period, Gropious made plans for an innovative workers’ housing estate at the edge of Dessau.

By 1928, however, Germany’s worsening economic problems and the growing threat to Bauhaus from the far-right, led Gropius to decide to return to his architectural practice in Berlin. Hannes Meyer, a communist and professor of architecture, took over as Bauhaus director for two years, followed by Mie Van der Rohe.

After the Nazis took control of Dessau city parliament and cut off all financial support to the Bauhaus, the school was forced to close in 1932. This was a harbinger of greater disaster to come. A year later, the German working class suffered a huge defeat after the Communist Party, under the influence of Stalin, and the Social Democrats, failed to organise a united front to stop Hitler coming to power.

The Bauhaus relocated to Berlin for a short time until it was finally shut down on 11 April 1933 on the orders of the new Nazi regime. Hitler succeeded in closing the school of "degenerate art" and forcing Gropius and many other former Bauhaus staff and students to flee persecution. Paradoxically, their forced emigration enhanced the spread of Bauhaus’s reputation and influence throughout Europe, the US and internationally. Although the dispersal of the Bauhaus staff and students, their political disorientation, and employment and personal difficulties, led to a marked depreciation of creative accomplishment in many cases, the school had a lasting impact, not least on art education and in architecture.

The current eurozone turmoil and the intensifying economic, social and political crisis in Europe and internationally inevitably draws comparisons with the tumultuous period in which Bauhaus was born. It also begs the question: where is a similarly powerful artistic, cultural and creative response to capitalist crisis and bourgeois cultural decay?


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