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The impact of the Bauhaus: reflections on a study visit

We had a great study visit last week at the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican. The whole group left the Barbican exhausted, full of insights and more excited about the Bauhaus than we could ever have expected to be. With a mix of Textiles, Graphic Design, Art and Photography students, Jim Cowan did a great job of introducing each section of this enormous and ambitious exhibition.

A rare hot day at the Brbican lakeside last week by Amano Samarpan
With a brief break to enjoy the rare heat and sunshine at the Barbican lakeside, we spent several hours drinking in every aspect of the Bauhaus philosophy. Stephen Powell, OCA art student, reports, and also adds in a few of his drawings on the day.
‘This was a chance to begin to understand this very important art movement. Most publications seem to just look at the Bauhaus in a somewhat superficial way but it was a way of life, a philosophy for living and breathing art… As an institution it was founded on ‘romantic socialists and utopian aspirations’ but with a mission to jointly strike out new paths in the fields of art, architecture and design …. it was a union of artistic idealism and in this sense non-political although had to move from Weimar to Dessau and then to Berlin as it was perceived as a socialist (communist) threat.
sketches by Stephen Powell

On the OCA study visit Jim Cowan posed the question: the teaching of the Bauhaus developed into the International school of Architecture. In the social housing arena why has this proved to be disastrous?
In terms of an architectural style there is absolutely nothing wrong with the aesthetic, the spatial arrangements and relationships nor indeed the densities of the resultant housing. The problem that arose out of this are that the stripped down aesthetic proposed by the designers was regarded as stripped down building fabric by the building providers, the procurers and the paymasters … poor quality materials and poor quality building methods coinciding with economic austerity of the 1930’s, post-war austerity of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. However, the Bauhaus also promoted diversity, building housing, amenities and places of work side by side and far more importantly outdoor amenity spaces … all factors largely ignored in our own housing disasters.’

Andrew Howe also attended the study visit and reflected as follows:
‘I had done some advance reading and knew some of the background history, but nonetheless I was still struck by the diversity of work produced at the Bauhaus and how most of it still looks so fresh today. It is incredible that in only 14 years in the face of such political pressure, funding shortage, enforced moves and eventual closure that the quality and quantity of innovative work was so high. I loved the Moholy-Najy’s short film “Black White Grey” of his revolving metal sculpture. “Mesmerising” and “hypnotic” were the words on everyone’s lips on leaving, and just this one work alone seems to be far ahead of its time.’
Finally, Jim Cowan also asked the question ‘Should Form follow Function; Is Less More or is Less a Bore?’ Just travelling home after the exhibition and looking at the poster styles, the fonts used on the London underground, confirmed our feeling on that question. Form following function has led to universally adopted fonts and design styles that remain as contemporary today as they were in 1930.

Posted by author: Jane Parry
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4 thoughts on “The impact of the Bauhaus: reflections on a study visit

  • One of the things I found very interesting about the exhibition was to see the development from the early Art and Crafts style(e.g.the Sommerfeld house, ceramics and brass/bronze vessels) to the modern designs in architecture, furniture, table ware, fonts etc. A lot of it as desirable, functional and useable today as it was then. What is there left that we, today, can still do that is new?

  • There’s always something new it is just that sometimes the newness only small and sometimes massive. Sometimes a small change in philosophy manifests as a massive visual difference, sometimes a massive philosophical change hardly shows visually. However in both cases the work is new. The point is to make work that is relevant to the time, that comes from being in the world at the moment and see what happens.

  • One thing that interested me in this exhibition was Itten and his involvement in Mazdaznan, said to be a Hindu-Christian cult (a cult being defined by some as a religion you don’t like the sound of!!) Having found Itten’s writings to be quite inspiring I did wonder about what was portrayed as a fanatical streak; there are a series of drawings in the exhibition depicting people vomiting and excreting as a result of Mazdaznan practices. In fact, Mazdaznan has nothing to do with Hinduism rather it comes from Zoroastrianism (Thus spoke Zoroaster is a work by the German philosopher Nietzsche who also seems to have been inspired by this Persian prophet).
    Anyway, my rupees worth can be found here …

  • This is the first time I’ve visited the Barbican and it was slightly disconcerting to experience the rather obvious monitoring by security staff who followed us around quite closely. However, I thought that the exhibition itself gave an excellent overview of the Bauhaus from creation to dissolution and gave me a real sense of people place and time. Given those times and the radical views of its creators it’s surprising how long it actually survived.
    Thanks very much to Jim Cowan whose gentle steering and commentary guided me around the Exhibition and gave life and colour to the personalities involved. They may have had conflicts and disagreements but I also got the sense of a community with a shared vision and belief concerning the nature of Art – particularly at the beginning before the need for revenue took over (as it always does!).
    One thing that did strike me as I went around was that photography was viewed more as a means to an end than art itself – advertising, documentation and images of record alongside portraits of people at play.

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