By Simon Hall
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Bauhaus 1919-1933

This article is over 16 years, 3 months old
Middlesbrough's bright new MIMA is showing the most extensive exhibition of work from the Bauhaus in Britain since 1968.
Issue 321

Founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus represented one of the most striking examples of attempts to unite industrial production, art and design. It is a cross-over point for various strands of modernist thinking and practice. It was first established in Weimar amid the social turmoil and revolution following the First World War.

In rejecting European academia, Bauhaus students and teachers sought to bridge the gap between artist and craft worker and between art and society.

Originally drawing on the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Expressionism it was increasingly influenced by Constructivist ideas which had been most strongly developed in Russia.

This shift is reflected by the replacement of the mystic Johannes Itten by Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

The Bauhaus produced an incredible range of work including theatre design, typography, painting, furniture, architecture, household goods, stained glass and experimental film, photography, music and dance.

Many significant names in 20th century art, design and architecture studied and taught there including Paul Klee, Kandinsky and Lyonel Feininger – who designed the cover for Gropius’s original manifesto.

Its influence has been enormous: Herbert Bayer’s sans serif typefaces, Gunta Stolzl’s weaving and fabric designs and Marcel Breuer’s famous tubular steel chair, to name a few.

The use of prefabricated construction, flat roofs, glass curtain walls and reliance on modern synthetic materials all owe a great deal to the Bauhaus as well as a rational and scientific approach to the teaching of art and design.

This exhibition certainly conveys some of this and is a striking introduction to these artists and designers.

All this, of course, was anathema to the Nazis for whom Bauhaus modernism represented “the Jewish-Marxist conceptions of ‘art'” and was later condemned as “degenerate”.

Progressive Social Democrats had lost control of the state parliament in 1924 and forced the Bauhaus to move to Dessau in 1925 and to a purpose built complex there in 1926. The move also saw an emphasis on the idea of designing for industrial production and the opening of a school of architecture in 1927 led by the leftist Hannes Meyer who eventually replaced Gropius as head the following year.

In 1930 Meyer was forced to resign while, ironically, the school was achieving some commercial success.

Meyer was replaced by Mies Van der Rohe who made a conscious attempt to depoliticise the school. But the attacks continued on “cosmopolitan” or “un-Germanic” designs and “oriental” flat roofs.

The crunch came when the Nazis took control of Dessau Council – the main source of funding – and eventually shut down the now famous school in September 1932.

After a brief spell in Berlin it closed completely in 1933 when police arrived and started to load students “with the wrong papers” onto trucks to be taken away.

One part of this show displays Hans Engels’s recent photographs of all the remaining Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, many of which have been restored, converted and occasionally forgotten.

Another section, Language of Vision, exhibits the work of six contemporary artists influenced by the Bauhuas.

At its best the Bauhaus represents a creative fusing of art and life. But of course, there are ambiguities and contradictions in modernism, and not least in the work of Bauhaus artists designers and students.

Most people on the left would reject the dehumanised functionalism and mysticism of some projects. For others Bauhaus is no more than a narrow house style represented by what now gets called “minimalism”. The Bauhaus viewed in its proper context represents much more, as this exhibition shows. Come and see it and join the debate.

The exhibition Bauhaus 1919-1933 takes place at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art until 17 February

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