The word Bauhaus is no longer just the name of an art school. It implies a stylistic movement, a genre in the art world, and a way of life. In Western history, it is perhaps the movement that is most synonymous with modernity. It represents a shift in approach towards the arts, a new mentality of totality and uniformity.
The Bauhaus was started in 1919 as a school that combined fine arts with craft in its totalitarian approach to design education. This exhibition is the largest on the subject to be held in Britain in forty years. Its scope, though logistically and spatially immense, is pleasantly simple. It seeks to uncover the basic trends that underlined the ethos of the Bauhaus teaching, in a linear and composed manner.
The show is constructed chronologically so that visitors are able to grasp the transitory styles that moved through the school’s existence. It is unfortunate, however, that there is little direction in terms of signage for the viewer as to which room (or floor) to take as a starting point. You are given a free gallery guide with which to construct your journey; however, having to refer to the guide does pose a restriction on the viewing flow, and perhaps a marriage of signage and the guide might have functioned more effectively.
Curator Catherine Ince noted that the chronological arrangement was set up in order to exhibit the entire "ambition of the school," from its beginnings in Weimar where its influences derived from the craft-oriented and the Expressionist schools. In fact, the first rooms in the show succinctly illustrate the Bauhaus craftsperson through beautiful weaved pieces ranging from the 1920s to remakes from the 1980s; as well as wonderfully crafted ceramics which move away from the strictly non-organic nature of the Bauhaus, and delight the viewer through their volumetric quirkiness.
The curators have tried to focus on key moments in the life of the school, drawing out those instances where it seemed as though the Bauhaus had shifted from one visual language to another. The exhibition quickly moves from its Expressionist origins to more characteristically Bauhaus objects. It marks the moment in 1923 when the school shed its craft-oriented roots and embraced a more rational aesthetic, which was influenced by mechanical production processes as well as the Constructivist movement and De Stijl. It is from this point on that staple design objects such as the Wilhelm Wagenfeld table lamp became recognizable ambassadors for the movement. Pieces such as the Marianne Brandt teapot are also delightful inclusions for Bauhaus enthusiasts.
With over four hundred works, the viewer is fed with a vast array of visual data. The information is not too dense in its presentation, however: it is carefully curated in a manner that allows for contemplation of the school's various stages growth. The displays, in true Modernist form, are uniform in their spatiality and mass, making the journey through each individual space a light and easy one, despite being populated by some of the most influential design pieces of the twentieth century.
The show is teeming with Modernist masterpieces, from paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, cantilevered chairs by Mies van der Rohe, letterpress works by Walter Gropius, and furniture by Josef Albers, amongst hundreds of other holdings. It is enriching to view these side by side as opposed to the way they are usually assimilated into contemporary design landscapes.
Bauhaus: Art as Life is a exhibition which has been laid out with consideration. It is a well-mannered show, allowing its viewer full opportunity to grasp the context of the Bauhaus age, and its visual legacy. What it lacks, however, is a tribute to the show’s name. The idea of Bauhaus as a way of life, and the spirit of the Bauhaus designer seems to be absent. One comes away from the show knowing more about the formal influences of the Bauhaus creator, but less about the intellectual manifestations of its character. If you are looking for a Bauhaus exhibition with soul, this show may disappoint.