By Siobhan Brown
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Pioneers: William Morris and the Bauhaus

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Issue 451

This free, one-room exhibition is the latest in an abundance of programming marking the centenary of the Bauhaus. It brings together over 60 objects to explore the link between the influential design school of Weimar Germany and the Victorian socialist, writer and artist William Morris.

Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius noted the influence of Morris and his contemporaries such as John Ruskin on the school.

One focus of overlap explored here is the Bauhaus coined-term Gesamtkunstwerk, or the “complete work of art”. The front cover of the Bauhaus manifesto was a medieval cathedral; an inspiration for both Gropius and Morris in thinking about how to bring together art, design and architecture in public space.

Morris’s own Red House — still open to visit in south London — represented this concept some 60 years before the Bauhaus. Conceptualised by Morris, it was designed by his friend Philip Webb, and decorated with objects designed and made by the other members of his circle.

Both Gropius and Morris saw craft as a central tenet of art and design. They sought to break down the barriers between traditional (and revered) “high art” and the careful skill of craftspeople.

The exhibition therefore highlights the sculpture, furniture, textiles and architectural designs of both Morris, his collaborators and the Bauhaus artists.

At the Bauhaus, students would select a workshop, or area of craft, in which to specialise once they had completed their foundation studies.

By far the most successful Bauhaus workshop was the weaving studio or “women’s workshop”. As you might expect in the one-time home of Morris, those with an interest in textile art are treated to an interesting selection here. Benita Koch-Otte’s colourful wall hangings are shown in the UK for the first time, alongside the work of prolific Bauhaus weaver Gunta Stölzl.

The exhibition confronts the issue of how, despite the radical intentions of both Morris and the Bauhaus, the role of women did not completely transform under their creative leadership. Many of the talented women artists at Morris & Co continued to make the work of their better-respected male peers rather than present their own designs. At the Bauhaus, women still pursued traditionally female craft despite the radical atmosphere of Weimar Germany.

Marguerite Wildenhain was the only woman at the Bauhaus’s pottery workshop. It was refreshing to see her work so well represented alongside that of Gerhard Marcks, the master of the workshop. His woodcut series shows a connection between art and nature not usually associated with Bauhaus modernism. Morris too looked to the natural world as inspiration for many of his designs.

Both the Bauhaus and Morris grappled with how art and industrial manufacture interacted with one another. Morris designed with simplicity in mind, incorporating basic forms and repeating patterns that could be easily replicated. His linoleum tile — hugely popular in Britain and manufactured on a larger scale — is presented here as a success story in terms of its commercial reach.

This is alongside a chair by Erich Dieckmann, designed to be manufactured from inexpensive modular parts — the original flat pack furniture. Mass manufacture became important for both Morris and the Bauhaus as a way of funding their work, but also because it reflected a belief that good design could make life better for everyone.

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