By forcing the Bauhaus to close in 1933, driving its students and teachers into exile across the world, the Nazis inadvertently transmitted the art and design school’s influence globally – to Israel, Japan, South America and the US. It would be easy to assume that Britain, given its traditional reticence to embracing continental European movements, remained immune to the school’s charms. Yet we find, throughout the meticulously curated and inspiring ‘Still Undead’ exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, that the Bauhaus had a deep and lasting influence here – often in eclectic ways that defy and expand conventional ideas of legacy.
One of the curious characteristics of the Bauhaus is its apparent inexhaustibility. Given that the school was only in existence from 1919 until 1933 (with many of those years fraught by opposition and austerity), and the fact that there have been so many retrospectives from so many angles in this centennial year, it is a continual surprise to find new dimensions to the work that emerged from it. Yet, as ‘Still Undead’ deftly illustrates, although no longer in creative existence, the Bauhaus is very much still out there.
Take, for example, the ‘Reflecting Colour-Light Games’ created by the likes of Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Kurt Kranz and Kurt Schwerdtfeger in the 1920s. In sculpting light, colour, shadow and movement, these works not only run parallel to the pioneering experimental films of Walter Ruttmann and Hans Richter, they also anticipate developments in light art and, ultimately, contemporary VR/AR art projects.
There are, of course, intrinsic Bauhaus signatures: the idea of creating artworks that are not merely representational but are worlds in themselves, which was central to the philosophies of Bauhaus masters Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee; the social value and scope of art, witnessed in Oskar Schlemmer’s surreal performances and outlandish parties such as the Lantern Festival; the collaborative discipline-hopping that was so crucial to the ethos of the Bauhaus’s founder, Walter Gropius; and the combination of art and technology spearheaded by the visionary László Moholy-Nagy.
When Bauhaus exiles made it to Britain, however, they found opportunities were limited. Some moved on. Others gradually carved out a space to call their own. ‘Still Undead’ goes some way to giving a more complex appreciation of the lives and careers of Bauhauslers in Britain than the long-assumed view that they met only with hostility and indifference. It is a real delight, for example, to see the Bauhaus appearing in the Tube via Moholy-Nagy’s London Underground posters of the 1930s (as well as his inventive window displays for the department store Simpsons of Piccadilly).
The exhibition’s focus on the Isokon building in Hampstead – a 1934 block of minimalist flats, whose residents included Marcel Breuer, Gropius and Moholy-Nagy – shows that modernist footholds were possible, while the show’s inclusion of photographer Edith Tudor-Hart and textile designer Margaret Leischner leads us to realize that the Bauhaus’s influence could permeate down the decades through, respectively, politics and teaching as much as design. Yet, it is hard not to be struck by a colossal sense of waste at the casual cruelty exhibited upon truly exceptional talents, such as the multimedia pioneer Hirschfeld-Mack, who was deported to Australia as an ‘enemy alien’, or the textile designer Otti Berger, who, having struggled to find work in London, returned to Croatia to care for her sick mother, leading to her eventual murder at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
While ‘Still Undead’ may be at its most authoritative documenting the impact of Bauhaus teachings on educational institutions across Britain, it comes alive in the sections where it shows how the art school’s ethos permeated wider UK culture. At the very heart of the Bauhaus was a rejection of the interiority and obscurantism of academia. ‘Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair,’ Gropius noted, ‘but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.’ This sense of egalitarian experimentalism is evident in the exhibition’s focus on some of the leading British designers of the 1960s: Terence Conran, Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon. Inciting a sense of refined disorder, of playful menace, the Bauhaus offered the building blocks of something new, liberating rather than didactic, which would eventually inspire forces as distinct as the legendary music label Factory Records and performance artist Leigh Bowery. Here is a map, it suggested; now, go.
Often misrepresented as coldly rationalist, the school remains too experimental and idiosyncratic to be entirely assimilated – or fossilized – by any of its descendants. It was not modernism’s temple; it was its kindergarten. My own earliest encounter with the Bauhaus was in the form of Philippe Decouflé’s video for New Order’s ‘True Faith’ (1987), inspired by Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet, 1922). It continues many of the Bauhaus’s fixations – movement and repetition, deceptively simple plays of geometry and colour, the merging of disciplines – in a way that was both childlike yet alien. Watching it as a boy, I was puzzled, unsettled and mesmerized. ‘Still Undead’ shows that the Bauhaus’s legacy is a vibrant, unfinished one because of these unreconciled qualities. It was not an answer but, rather, a series of questions, and those questions remain open.
Main image: Robyn Beeche, Bauhaus (Spirals), 1986. Inspired by Oskar Schlemmer. Hair by Mitch Barry at Vidal Sassoon, make-up by Phyllis Cohen. Courtesy: Robyn Beeche Foundation