Despite its relatively short lifespan, Bauhaus’ intellectual and artistic legacy remains undiminished. This year marks a century since the founding of the Bauhaus school by Walter Gropius and many exhibitions around the world are paying tribute to the school’s singular vision.
Bauhaus: Utopia in Crisis is an exhibition that brings together a select number of contemporary artists who critically re-think its legacy. Curated with sharp intelligence by Daniel Sturgis, an artist and educator, professor of painting at Camberwell College of Art, the exhibition brings to the surface the school’s complexities and contradictions.
The Bauhaus desired to break from the values and aesthetics of the bourgeoisie and propose something both radical and functional, and abstraction was its new liberating language. The paintings of David Diao explore the abstract model from the early avant-garde to a graphic pop reiteration and re-present it in such a way that universal references can become personal and vice-versa. By combining graphic design with Malevich’s modernism, Diao underwrites painting as collective idea.
The school saw no boundaries between fine and applied arts. Similarly, the exhibition brings together different disciplines: painting, textiles, music, photography, video and dance. Yet, although the Bauhaus professed a break with the past, it looked back to the Arts and Crafts Movement and incorporated the politics of modernity with mysticism. Sadie Murdoch’s photograph of an African chair is an example of the primitive that was an enigma and an inspiration.
Murdoch’s works question the gender politics of the era, when designs by talented women were often credited to their male counterparts. This is why the artist appears to be hiding her face with a mirror that is hitting our gaze. She is sitting on the African chair that was designed by Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stölzl, but its authorship was until recently credited to Breuer only.
Gender politics are also explored in the work of Helen Robertson who choreographs the structure and sensuality of Eileen Gray’s Villa E.1027. (Gray’s building has also been occasionally credited to Le Corbusier). Ad Miloniti’s humorous Abstract Porn, 2001 shows a hand fondling a rigid modernist structure. Intimately conversing with a low-tech queer feminism, Minoliti questions power and patriarchal structures in a playful manner.
In a country modelled as a Soviet-type republic, the Bauhaus had a socialist agenda that encompassed the city and its architecture. Let us not forget that the actual meaning of the word “bauhaus” is “to build house”, and to Walter Gropius, architecture was the highest manifestation of art. It was supposed to serve people’s needs, but it often confused the idea of harmonious living with that of an imposed “people’s architecture”. Here Liam Gillick projects parts of Thamesmead, a new modernist town overwhelmingly associated with Stanley Kubrick’s dystopic film A Clockwork Orange, where it was chosen as a location. Gillick’s projection of one of the housing estates, accompanied by a soundtrack composed by the artist himself, hints at the flaws of social architecture.
The manner in which this collective vision was diluted into an elitist artistic vision is highlighted in Judith Raum’s The Curtain, 2019, a cotton-gauze curtain and a film which weaves the narratives of Lilly Reich, who had led the textile workshop at the late stage of the school and Otti Berger, who was in charge of the curtain project. The two women had very different views on art, creativity and politics.
When individuality is eclipsed and different voices are repressed, there is increased danger of authoritarianism. When elitism takes over collectivism, the danger of social injustice looms high. In the political climate of 1932, these questions were pressing: the rise of the Nationalist Socialist Party saw the Bauhaus as a school of communist intellectualism, and therefore a threat, and the directors of the Bauhaus did not want to embark on a political confrontation (Walter Gropius, the first director, had claimed the school was non-political, although clearly many of its ideas had political leanings). As a result, Mies van der Rohe closed the school soon after he moved it to its final location in Berlin.
Former Bauhaus student Max Gebhard designed the logo for Antifaschistische Aktion in 1932. The German design collective Schroeter und Berger consider it an emblem of the Bauhaus, one of the most representative symbols and one of the most well-known works by a student. The logo has become associated with politics and is being used in protests against the resurgence of the alt-right in different parts of the world. The duo have created an ingenious presentation of it in different languages, which resonates well with today’s world in which we are experiencing a resurgence of nationalism and extremist rhetoric. In fact, this was the topic of the Curatorial Summit organised by the CAS yesterday at Frieze Art Fair, which we will be publishing a report from very soon.
The exhibition Bauhaus: Utopia in Crisis at Camberwell Space is refreshingly undidactic and incredibly inspiring. It is accompanied by a series of talks and a conference. Do not miss!
Curator of Programmes
Camberwell Space, 45 – 65 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UF. Open Monday-Friday 10.00-18.00, Saturday 12.00-16.00. Exhibition continues until 9 November 2019. www.arts.ac.uk