Bauhaus is probably the most famous of all architectural design movements of the 20th century. It’s also one of the most interesting for socialists. This exhibition has the biggest collection of Bauhaus objects seen in Britain for over 40 years and was put together with help from the Berlin Bauhaus Archive.
This exhibition has its strengths, but one problem is that it hides the politics of the movement – a trend found in most exhibitions about architecture – but with the Bauhaus it is particularly ridiculous. The Bauhaus was formed during the German Revolution and Weimar days of 1920s and 30s Germany. Its development, arguments and debates make no sense unless seen against the political context of the time. The debates in the Bauhaus were not abstract artistic ones but part of the politics of the day.
The Bauhaus was trying to start afresh by looking back to the ideas of the arts and crafts movement it thought could be put into practice. The Kaiser had been overthrown and a new kind of society, the Weimar Republic, was being built and designed around them. This exhibition brings out these wider aims of the Bauhaus very well. It shows their educational ideas, their attempts to relate to materials and art in fresh new ways. The Bauhaus wanted to do away with clutter and tradition and put in their place rationalism and clear, clean lines.
The exhibition presents this history as the development of different ideas. One director, who happened to be a communist, is replaced by another, who was not. When politics are mentioned they are portrayed as external forces like the weather.
Another problem with this exhibition is the gallery itself. Of all the galleries in all the world this is the least appropriate to show Bauhaus work.
The Bauhaus championed light and openness. Though this gallery is on the third floor, it has almost no natural light. Though you are high up it feels as if you are in a deep underground bunker – a converted nuclear shelter perhaps. The whole of the Barbican is rather like this – it has the sensibility of a mole. So you go from one low-ceiling, dark, cave-like room to another through dimly-lit low-ceiling corridors. With most exhibitions this would not matter very much but here it is at odds with Bauhaus principles.
The show does have some strong points. Most importantly, the exhibition clearly shows that Bauhaus was not an early and failed attempt to open Ikea-like shops in Germany. It was not simply about style, but was an attempt to renew the relationship of humans to materials – to bring art to life, to see anew everyday objects and to break students away from their bourgeois tastes.
The exhibition also has some fantastic everyday objects showing the full range of Bauhaus design.
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