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May 26 2012

The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot – review

British Museum, London

The British Museum is a most distinguished and well-stocked stable. You walk into its Great Court and at once spot the emperor Hadrian, mounted on his stone steed, legs dangling, just beyond the information desk. And this is before you've even set foot in the museum's tremendous exhibition – its first devoted to the horse. It's the perfect moment for a celebration. The idea of the horse show was raised in the 90s but has had to wait for the Olympics to give it an extra leg-up. War Horse, in all its manifestations, has contributed extra enthusiasm, and there is a third and royal reason for equine rejoicing: the exhibition is a diamond jubilee gift to the Queen.

John Curtis, one of the curators, explains that there has been much advance interest in the show. Horses, magnificently wordless in themselves, excite passionate differences of opinion in their admirers and the museum has been petitioned, urging that certain breeds be championed. But the museum has faced a challenge: "Most of our exhibitions are monocultural, whereas the horse exists in all cultures." And so partly to avoid a bewildering miscellany, the decision has been taken to put Arab horses in charge of the narrative.

The domestication of the horse is thought to have taken place on the western Euraisan steppes, probably in Kazakhstan, around 3,500BC (the exhibition includes what may be the earliest depiction of a horse and rider, a terracotta mound from Mesopotamia). But the narrative then advances through Islamic history and showcases the emergence of the Arab horse.

It reveals that the bloodlines of modern thoroughbreds can be traced back to three Arabian stallions imported into England in the 18th century (the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk and the Godolphin Arabian). The journey we take includes astounding Arab rock paintings of horses and then fetches up in Victorian England to consider the horse's influence on society (the horse traffic jams were terrible), before a racy finish at Ascot and in the modern world.

But we begin by putting the cart – or chariot – before the horse. The first room contains a most enigmatic treasure: the Standard of Ur, a tapered box (2600BC Sumerian) inlaid with a beautiful mosaic of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone. No one knows what its purpose was but it seems extraordinary that its donkeys – yoked into service before the horse – with heads of fragile shell have survived and are still pulling unwieldy chariots that look disconcertingly like heavy brown prams.

The same room also contains a stunning black-and-white film of Arab horses placed alongside a fragment of an Assyrian 9th-century BC limestone relief. You look from three proud profiles in stone to the Arab horses on film and time becomes thrillingly fused, measured only by the unchanging outline of the horse.

The museum has been hard at work. There's an incredible reconstruction of an Assyrian chariot horse, its harness assembled in fragments – an academic ransacking of the British Museum's tack room. The stone blinkers appear alarmingly heavy. A second formidable warhorse wears late 15th-century Turkish armour and a third sports cheerful, quilted patchwork from 19th-century Sudan.

The exhibition reminds us that the horse is an object of decoration as well as a subject. A chic Egyptian wig-curler (c 1500-1000BC) features a rider and galloping horse – a touch of serpent in its bronze form. And most decorative of all are the exquisitely dainty and diminutive gold chariots (5th-4th century BC from Persia) with filigree reins – a fairy tale earthed in reality: the horses' tails tied in mud knots. And I also admired the 16th-century Turkish stirrups: black iron garlanded with golden flowers. They seem, centuries later, to be haunted by the riders who once put their feet in them.

There is a marvellous sense throughout of riding being celebrated. There's a captivating Indian watercolour (1650-1750), starring Akbar the Great out hunting, bent forward on his horse, with swirling deer around him, as if an eager gale were blowing through the picture. The poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, quoted in the exhibition's superb catalogue, seems to speak for Akbar and riders like him. In his poem St Valentine's Day he reveals that, for him, riding brought about glorious delusion: "My horse a thing of wings, myself a god."

It is Wilfrid Blunt and his wife, Lady Anne, who serve as a bridging device here, bringing the narrative to 19th-century England. They were a remarkable couple, staunch travellers with a passion for Arabia and a mission to preserve the integrity of the Arab horse. They imported horses to Crabbet Park, their West Sussex stud, and there is a priceless photograph of Lady Anne there, in full Arabian regalia, with her mare Kasida. You would laugh were it not for the fact that the woman and horse have a solemn affinity. The story of the Blunts is fascinating (although too complex to relate here). Suffice it to say, the love affair with the horse went better than the marriage.

Only one horsewoman trumps Lady Anne Blunt: Lady Lade. The exhibition would not be complete without George Stubbs, and there are two stupendous portraits here. Lady Lade, or Laetitia, was the mistress of a highwayman and went on to marry a racehorse owner – perhaps this is how she learned to ride. In Laetitia, Lady Lade (1793), she sits on a rearing horse, comically unmoved, the folds of her long blue dress undisturbed. She seems in another world, with an unruffled, crepuscular park behind her. It's a fantastic glorification of horsewomanship. In Gimcrack With John Pratt Up on Newmarket Heath (c1765), there is a similar stillness to the landscape. Another perfect day, but the jockey is inward, the horse's liquid eye shows apprehension – anything could happen.

Towards the end of the exhibition, Cymbeline's famous cry: "O, for a horse with wings!" is up on one of the walls. Yet the final room persuades us in photographs and films of some of the greatest competitive horses and riders alive, including the Queen's horse Free Agent who won at Ascot in 2008, that wings were never necessary.


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Horniman Museum; Bauhaus Live – review

A Victorian tea trader's eccentric collection is given space to breathe. And the principles of the Bauhaus are alive and well

On a high hill in the southern suburbs of London, where the forms and rules of the city unravel, stands one of the country's most extraordinary museums. It was the creation of Frederick Horniman, Victorian tea trader and voracious collector of almost anything, who eventually put it into a purpose-built structure and donated the museum, plus its contents and an adjoining garden, to the public, on condition it would be free to enter.

The building was designed by the briefly flowering Charles Harrison Townsend, the nearest England came to an art nouveau architect, whose fame rests mostly on three facades of blazing originality, for the Whitechapel Gallery, the Bishopsgate Institute and – his best – the Horniman. Its contents run from an ophicleide and a tárogató (musical instruments, since you ask) to Uzbek wedding robes, an over-stuffed walrus, an apostle clock, living frogs and fish, and a statue of Kali dancing on Shiva, made to float on the Ganges. Most museums aim to divide things into categories; here everything comes promiscuously together, human and natural, living and dead.

Over the past 15 years the museum has been enlarging itself, doing the things necessary for access, education, enhanced exhibition space and retail revenue, with architecture that tries to match Townsend's seriousness but not his ebullience. This process is now essentially complete, with the renovation of the gardens by Land Use Consultants and the building of a pavilion for performances, events and school groups by the architects Walters and Cohen.

The aim is to fulfil Horniman's idea that museum and garden together should be for both pleasure and education. There are areas of plants used to make dye, textiles and medicines, and of different food crops from all over the world. Connections are made with exhibits inside the museum – the reeds in clarinets or the plants used to colour tribal dress. There will be enclosures of animals such as alpacas and llamas and there is a sound garden – not, it must be said, a thing of visual beauty – where you can play large outdoor musical instruments such as a xylophone wall and pipes played with bats.

There is no question of returning the garden to some ideal original state, as it is made up of several additions over the past century, together with a knotted 300-year-old tree left over from when this was farmland. Rather, the idea is to keep the many layers and enhance them and their structures; a rustic Dutch barn imported to the site by Horniman and a Townsend-designed bandstand have been restored.

There is also a view. From here the shards and gherkins of central London look, in the hazy light, as exotic as the totems and ophicleides on show inside the museum. On a closer summit is a twin-peaked stack of 1960s flats known as the castle or the battleship, or (officially) as Dawson Heights, which for some reason is not as famous as its outright remarkable form deserves. The combination of museum and view is fantastical. If city air makes you free, as they said in medieval Germany, here suburban air makes you lightheaded.

Walters and Cohen's pavilion, a well-proportioned, timber-framed glass box, its structure black-clad on the outside, is an instrument for making all this strangeness apparent. It's a considerably more modest version of Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat House, perched like that work above a city view. At one end, alpacas will come up to the glass; at the other, a balcony opens to the panorama. The pavilion, light-filled and made rhythmic by its repeating beams and pillars, is a foil.

The progressive additions to the Horniman have involved a certain levelling or smoothing over of the outright, undiluted bizarreness of the original building and contents. Townsend's entrance, a ritual ascent up stairs, past a mosaic and through a tower, as if on a route of initiation into a shrine, is no longer in use.

But what is there now is a place of which the various communities who live around it can and do readily take possession, which also offers revelation and insight into the extraordinariness of the works of nature and humanity. The latest works cost £2.3m, which would be the tiniest scraping in the giant Marmite jar of, for example, Olympic funding, but which has a more obvious and immediate local benefit.

Meanwhile, the Aram Gallery is holding a show, Bauhaus Live, as a companion to the Barbican's grand presentation of the seminal German design school. It aims to show its enduring influence, in the work of living (mostly British) designers and architects. In some the link is direct, as in Michael Anastassiades's black tube chandelier which is a close relative of the fluorescent fittings installed in the Bauhaus building in Dessau. Also Sophie Smallhorn's screenprints, compositions of coloured rectangles with a debt to the textiles and paintings of the Bauhauslers Anni and Josef Albers.

The exhibition is made more intriguing by the inclusion of works that try to follow Bauhaus principles more than its look of clean lines, simple shapes and modern materials. A patterned tile floor by the architect David Kohn, which changes from green to red, might be unacceptably decorative for the likes of Walter Gropius, but it uses new technology to create a new idea, which was very much what his school was about. Another not so obvious choice, the architect Eric Parry, says that the Bauhaus is "a reminder of the essential importance of a culture of co-operation and of debate and doing", which it is.

There are some grand names – David Chipperfield, John Pawson – and some classics, such as the Thinking Man's Chair, which launched the career of Jasper Morrison – mixed with newer practices such as Carmody Groarke and Piercey & Co. There are one or two odd choices – developers' housing by Make, for example, which lacks either the look or the ethos of the Bauhaus – but the show succeeds in showing that the influence of the short-lived institution is indeed pervasive. It's also a nice way of doing a survey of recent design and architecture in this country.


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May 18 2012

This week's new film events

iD Fest, Derby

"Exploring identity through cinema" is about as broad a remit as you can get away with, but any event featuring Brian Blessed, Mike Hodges and Paddy Considine is always welcome. They'll be talking about their careers and looking back on old favourites. There are new films, including a Kent fruit-picking mystery (Strawberry Fields) and a Korean supernatural thriller (Haunters). But the main draw is an eclectic mix of films such as OSS 117: Cairo Nest Of Spies, Rupert Everett zombie movie Dellamorte Dellamore and Bogart noir classic In A Lonely Place.

QUAD, Thu to 27 May

Bauhaus Film Season, London

They did everything from pottery to architecture, so it was inevitable the Bauhaus would stray into film-making somewhere along the way. Complementing the Barbican's current exhibition on the German design movement (to 12 Aug), this season brings together Bauhaus-related documentaries and rare abstract, animated and projected experiments by Bauhaus students, mostly accompanied by talks and live music. Towering over the Bauhaus film legacy is versatile Hungarian artist/teacher László Moholy-Nagy, whose own short films are augmented by a recreation of the 1929 film festival he curated with Hans Richter (with films by Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Léger, among others), a documentary on his eventful life, and an appearance from his daughter, Hattula.

Barbican Screen, EC2, Fri to 31 May

Showcomotion, Sheffield

There's much here you won't find at grown-up festivals, including homemade sweets, fancy-dress events and workshops on comedy, puppetry and astronomy. The films, too, stray from the predictable, showing what's out there for young audiences beyond the multiplex behemoths – though there are a few of those too (forthcoming Dr Seuss animation The Lorax, for example). In Canada's The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mum, an adopted girl imagines her own parentage; in Belgian fable On The Sly, another little girl runs off to the forest; while Maori Boy Genius follows New Zealand's future Obama (possibly). Closer to home, the team behind poppy CBBC comedy Sadie J share their secrets, and there's a preview of Sky's new Sinbad.

Showroom, Fri to 3 Jun

Cine-Excess, London

Mining the golden years when too much was never enough, Cine-Excess debates issues of censorship and exploitation, reappraises maligned reputations and gives you movies like they don't, won't and can't make any more. Two titans of 1970s Italian cinema are in attendance: Enzo G Castellari and Sergio Martino. The former is best known for Tarantino-influencing The Inglorious Bastards and spaghetti westerns such as Keoma; the latter for florid, satanic giallo movies such as the brilliantly titled Your Vice Is A Locked Door And Only I Have The Key. Also look out for Jack Cardiff's freak horror The Mutations and Aussie shocker Fair Game.

Odeon Covent Garden, WC2 & Italian Cultural Institute, SW1, Thu to 26 May


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May 02 2012

Bauhaus: Art as Life – review

Barbican, London
In pictures: Bauhaus: Art as Life

Tracing the trajectory of the radical German art and design school from its founding in Dessau by Walter Gropius in 1919 to its closure in Berlin in 1933, the exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life is superb. It is filled with fascinating and often beautiful things, from table lamps to ceramic pots, glove puppets to advertising posters for Nivea, school party invitations, dresses, photographic portraiture, gorgeous weaving and much besides.

The Bauhaus tried to encompass both old and emerging technologies and bring a new approach to everything – from stained glass to advertising, theatre design to packaging, furniture to painting and sculpture. It was the last thoroughgoing attempt to apply a consistent idea to modern living, and we still live with and among its ideas and artefacts. At the time, everyone involved was feeling the way forward. There is a sense here of the genuinely exploratory.

What also strikes me is not the uniformity or rationality of the Bauhaus aesthetic but its richness and diversity, its humour and playfulness, whether actual children's toys were being designed (who would have thought the spinning top would be worthy of Bauhaus attention), or chess sets and coffee machines. But the Bauhaus was not without its zealots and excessiveness, its cranks and quirks.

"Play becomes celebration; celebration becomes work; work becomes play," wrote Johannes Itten, Bauhaus teacher, colour theorist and nightmare person. Itten, something of a fanatic, aggressively encouraged students to follow his new age mishmash of Hindu and Christian ideas, which involved shaving your head, strong laxatives and fasts, the wearing of monastic robes and the eating of large quantities of garlic – the pervasive smell of which many, including Gropius, complained against.

Of such things the modern table lamp was not born. But it did lead Paul Citroën to produce a ribald drawing of followers of Itten's Mazdaznan hocus pocus vomiting and defecating across the page. That said, Itten's lithographs and painted colour wheels and charts are extremely lovely and, in their way, useful things.

A whole chapter of the catalogue is devoted to the dietary habits of Bauhaus members, especially focusing on Ittens and Paul Klee. Klee liked nothing better than offal – particularly a nice lung ragout. Times were hard, but at the Bauhaus even the minutiae of the everyday was worthy of examination. But life wasn't all rigour and regularity, and the sense of play is particularly evident in photographs of the Bauhaus parties – which became so popular they were even written about in the press. Encounters with the individuals who came together at the Bauhaus are among the strengths of the show. You get a real sense of time and place – sometimes through a haircut, a party dress, a picture of a terrace lunch, or a snapshot of a studio.

Seriousness and fun, study and play, innovation and infighting, charismatic – sometimes mad – teachers, and cohorts of lively students made the Bauhaus a model for later art schools. Dadaists and constructivists, hard line geometry and expressionism, photomontage and crazy drawing, the rational and the loopy all had their place. Among the terrific period photographs of staff and students – the serious, besuited teachers and tousle-haired students who wouldn't look out of place alongside today's Dalston or Brooklyn hipsters – one feels a sense of optimism but also disquiet of a whole world about to be dismantled.

Innovation and pleasure went hand in hand at the Bauhaus. Klee's paintings, and the glove puppets he made for his son Felix, are a delight. So too are the weavings, particularly by Gunta Stölzl. Anni Albers's wall hangings, and Josef Albers's vibrant sandblasted glass abstractions, could have been made yesterday (or tomorrow). They are a visual and technical jolt, electric and dazzling. There were inklings, too, of where the world was headed. Citroën went on to make the monumental collaged cityscape that directly influenced Fritz Lang's nightmarish film Metropolis, and a late Kandinsky painting shows a grim, brown world encroaching on the light-filled Bauhaus utopia.

Not only do we follow the rise and fall of the school against a backdrop of Germany's hyperinflation and the rise of Nazism but it is also a reminder what art schools could be like. There is a lesson here about much contemporary art education: the lack of common purpose, the overweening bureaucracy, the disillusionment and grasping for fees, the box-ticking lostness of so much of it. The Bauhaus had a sense of common purpose and shared ideas, of arguments that meant something, of making things up as you go along. And so much that it gave us was practical, and a delight to the eye. No wonder the National Socialists wanted it closed. Go see, and never mind the garlic.

Rating: 4/5


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April 27 2012

Art as life

At a time when idealism in design and architecture is in short supply, the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican is a timely reminder of this bold and beautiful experiment

Any mention of the Bauhaus conjures up a sequence of those well-known design objects: a Wagenfeld lamp, a Marianne Brandt teapot, a Marcel Breuer chair. But the Bauhaus was much more than the originator of such now iconic artefacts. It was an idea, a vision of the future, a community of artists and designers whose joie de vivre and dedication made it for a while, until the Nazis killed it, the most celebrated art school in the world.

The concept for the Bauhaus – literally "building house" – came from Walter Gropius, one of the great visionary thinkers of the 20th century and a practising architect himself, from a Berlin dynasty of architects. His famous great uncle Martin Gropius designed the Kunstgewerbe museum, the building now known as Martin Gropius Bau.

The young Gropius's idea for the Bauhaus emerged from his experience of the first world war in which he served as a cavalry officer on the western front for almost the whole four years. His response to the devastating scenes he lived through was a stark determination to "start again from zero". Only a new outlook on design and architecture could provide the means for a shattered civilisation literally to rebuild itself.

His opportunity came in 1919 when he was appointed master of the school of arts and crafts in Weimar that became the Bauhaus. Gropius's vision was for the "unification of the arts under the wings of great architecture". It was a democratic concept of art for the people, art for social betterment in which everyone would share. The Bauhaus aesthetic replaced bourgeois furbelows with a geometry of clarity, sharp angles and straight lines.

The influence of John Ruskin and William Morris, great 19th-century artistic seers, is obvious. But Gropius was too thorough a modernist to put his faith completely in these ancient gods. He was involved as a member or a leader in the myriad small groups of revolutionary artists forming in the European cities of the period. The founding of the Bauhaus took place in the context of a whole movement of European expressionist ardour. The design for the cover of its manifesto, Lyonel Feininger's jagged cathedral with three spires standing for architecture, arts and crafts, is a masterpiece of expressionist graphic art.

In its early years in Weimar, the character of the school was dominated by the Swiss-born painter Johannes Itten. It was Itten who, as Gropius's "master of form", invented the Bauhaus's most lasting contribution to art education, the Vorkurs, the preliminary training course in basic forms, textures and colours for all students entering the school. It was also Itten, a mystic and follower of the esoteric Mazdaznan faith, who established the Bauhaus reputation for crankiness. Students followed him in shaving their heads, wearing loose robes and taking up the Mazdaznan macrobiotic diet consisting of "uncooked mush smothered in garlic". In a fascinating essay on cooking at the Bauhaus, in the catalogue of the new Barbican exhibition, Nicholas Fox Weber quotes Gropius's wife Alma Mahler complaining of all-pervasive "garlic on the breath".

Gropius's marriage to the notoriously fickle Mahler exemplifies the social and sexual networking that underpinned the Bauhaus and was indeed part of its success. Alma was married to the already world-famous composer Gustav Mahler, who was 20 years her senior, when she first met Gropius in 1910. Both were taking a rest cure at Tobelbad in Styria. It was a spa romance in which Alma was overwhelmed by the young architect whose saturnine good looks could, she said, have had him cast as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger.

Their torrid on-off love affair destabilised Mahler to such an extent he consulted Freud about the problems in his marriage. Mahler died in 1911. Alongside her equally turbulent affairs with Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and other cultural celebrities, Alma married Gropius in Berlin in 1915. They divorced in 1920. Gropius made use of his enormous range of contacts, including his wife's lovers, in building up the Bauhaus's reputation.

From the early 1920s there was a change of emphasis. Itten left and the aura of crankiness diminished. "The new unity of art and technology" took over as the Bauhaus became dominated by ideas of standardisation and co-operation with industry. Gropius's genius as director of the school lay in his ability to recruit a line-up of teachers of extraordinary talent. Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Lázsló Moholy-Nagy: all these were Bauhaus masters. Gropius was also adept at publicising the international scope of Bauhaus design and architecture. Through its publications and its exhibitions the Bauhaus pioneered a truly global language in its use of images and typography.

There was, however, growing opposition to the Bauhaus, with its progressive artistic ideals, as rightwing elements took over in the Weimar state government. Financial support was withdrawn from the school. Gropius made the decision to move the Bauhaus further north, to the industrial estate of Dessau, encouraged by support from the local mayor and by the prospect of links between the school and local industry. Gropius designed a new building for the Bauhaus in Dessau, a radiantly inspiring functional design with a great glass curtain-wall rising high above the city. The interior was fitted by the Bauhaus workshops. The building was immediately hugely influential. It's one of the real masterworks of international modernist design.

A short walk from the school, on a pleasant woodland site, was Gropius's own purpose-designed director's house, alongside three pairs of semi-detached houses for Bauhaus masters. Kandinsky and Klee shared one of these white double cubes; Georg Much and Schlemmer shared another; Moholy-Nagy and Feininger the third.

These were the famous Bauhaus years. According to Klee this was "a community to which each one of us gave what we had". The communal life was richly experimental in the areas of theatre and creative play. This was "art as life" with a vengeance, as the Barbican exhibition promises to show. There were wonderful parties, with that element of clowning which was central to Gropius's educational vision. For one fancy dress party Gropius came costumed as his rival modernist Le Corbusier. At the famous Metallic Festival in 1929, Bauhauslers and guests came in metal costumes, jangling, shimmering and glittering, dancing through the night.

The mid-20s saw the evolution in the Bauhaus workshops of such technically sophisticated products as Breuer's tubular steel Wassily armchair, designs which spoke the unmistakable aesthetic language of the modern world. International visitors arrived in Dessau to admire not just the school itself but Gropius's plans for the Törten housing estate on the south edge of the city. This estate, consisting of 300 workers' houses, was his first opportunity for putting into practice his ideas for solving Germany's acute housing shortage by introducing rationalised building components and standardised methods of construction.

As with all experimental ventures, there were problems. The concept of the Bauhaus workshops as laboratories for industrial production failed to make much headway with large scale German manufacturers. Bauhaus products, far from being art for the people, were still in fact exclusive, handmade products for the wealthy. Gropius had not solved the dilemma that had driven William Morris into revolutionary socialism.

In spite of Gropius's theoretic championing of sexual equality within the Bauhaus workshops, in practice female students were directed to the weaving class. Although the best of Bauhaus weaving is sublime, there were evident frustrations in a system in which only one exceptionally determined student, Marianne Brandt, entered the product design workshop, producing that whole sequence of tea and coffee services, lamps and metal ashtrays now viewed as archetypal Bauhaus design.

Given time and a more propitious economic climate, such underlying problems might have been resolved. But time was running out. The internationalist tenets of the Bauhaus told against it as German politics became more crudely nationalistic. By 1928 Gropius saw he had exhausted all possibilities in developing the school and returned to Berlin to refocus on his own architectural practice. The architect Hannes Meyer, a communist and formerly professor of architecture at the Bauhaus, became the new director; he was followed two years later by Mies van der Rohe. Political pressure against the school stepped up as the Nazis took control of Dessau city parliament. In 1932 the Bauhaus in Dessau was forced to close.

Mies van der Rohe reopened the school in the Steglitz suburb of Berlin, taking over a disused telephone factory. This phase did not last long. Soon afterwards the Nazis seized control of Germany and Hitler became chancellor. The Bauhaus was marked out as "one of the most obvious refuges of the Jewish-Marxist conception of 'art'". In April 1933 police arrived with trucks and closed the school, carting off some of the Bauhaus members. The modernist utopia, or what was left of it, was ended by a regime that viewed the whole spirit of the Bauhaus as degenerate. Gropius and his second wife Ise moved to London in 1934.

Gropius was one of many foreign architects, designers and artists taking refuge in London in the 30s. Many of them, unlike Gropius, were Jewish. Others were avant-garde artists who were finding the cultural climate in Germany increasingly hostile to their work. Of the Bauhaus masters Moholy-Nagy and Breuer followed Gropius to England. Gropius and Breuer were found accommodation in Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, one of the few modernist buildings in London at that period, while the constructivist Moholy-Nagy rather improbably lived in Golders Green. The convivial Lawn Road Flats became a social centre for the emigrés, a kind of home-from-home where former Bauhauslers mingled with other Hampstead residents, the artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and leading leftwing intellectuals of the time.

But it was a bitter exile. Life in England was anything but easy for an architect who had once been at the centre of the European avant garde. He was taken into partnership with Maxwell Fry, one of the conditions of his entrée into Britain, but Britain at the time was endemically unsympathetic to the modern. Apart from his still splendidly impressive Impington Village College and some private houses, Gropius found very little work. Schemes for recreating a Bauhaus at Dartington Hall in Devon came to nothing. Attempts to bring Gropius in to restructure design teaching at the Royal College of Art were nervously abandoned. What opportunities we missed.

In 1937 he and Ise left London for the United States. He became director of the department of architecture at Harvard, a post he held for the next 14 years. To some extent he settled into this new environment, becoming a US citizen in 1944. But there were inevitably cruel compromises. In a talk given in London after her husband's death, Ise Gropius described the special problems encountered in America by an architect-idealist who back in Bauhaus days "had always been his own man in a self-created environment", operating his own school with hand-picked staff in a building he had himself designed. A Harvard professorship was quite another thing.

In his own architectural practice, The Architects' Collaborative (known as TAC), Gropius was up against problems of keeping a large office financially viable in a competitive capitalist country. There were some good public buildings, most notably the Graduate Center at Harvard and some beautiful private residences, including Gropius's own house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. But this was a far cry from his original socialist aspirations for low cost mass-produced community housing. The Pan Am building in Park Avenue now seems more than ever indefensible, and Gropius's involvement in the London Park Lane building that became the Playboy Club strikes one as a bitterly satiric joke.

The Bauhaus itself had been more or less forgotten by 1968, the year of the last Bauhaus exhibition held in London, at the Royal Academy. It was there I met Gropius, then 85 years old but still a handsome, upright figure, with an aura of glamorous arrogance. You could see why Klee called him "the silver prince". That exhibition generated a reunion of Bauhauslers, masters and students, as well as a gathering in of Bauhaus objects, scattered since its pre-war closure. At the time it seemed like the exciting rediscovery of a whole lost civilisation.

The visual style of the Bauhaus spoke vividly to people of my 1960s generation, attuned as we were to the hard-edged and the streamlined, the reduction to essentials. The Bauhaus love of simple geometric form mirrored our own desperation to jettison the worn-out design clichés of traditionalist Britain. The first Bauhaus exhibition coincided with the huge expansion of the British art schools and that whole release of anarchic energy. For the students of the time it was surprising to discover that mad clothes and swinging parties were nothing new at all.

That early exhibition was by no means a complete one: in 1968 Germany was divided, with Weimar and Dessau in the eastern block, where attitudes towards the Bauhaus were at best equivocal. Only after German reunification in 1990 did the important Bauhaus art and design collections in Berlin, Weimar and Dessau begin co-operating. What is so exciting about the exhibition at the Barbican is that it draws on all three of them, in depth.

The Bauhaus building in Dessau, badly damaged in the second world war, has been restored immaculately. It is back to being a building full of light and space and hope. Gropius's own house in the pinewoods, almost totally destroyed, is now being reconstructed and will be opening later in the year. The Bauhaus revival could not be more timely. In a world in which idealism in design and architecture is in short supply, it is good to be reminded of this bold and beautiful experiment in bringing creativity alive.


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April 13 2012

Bauhaus: a blueprint for the future

On the eve of a Barbican retrospective, Rowan Moore explores the enduring appeal and influence of the Bauhaus school

Not much united Walter Ulbricht, the Stalinist dictator of East Germany for two decades, and Tom Wolfe, celebrant of the splendours and follies of American capitalist excess. Not much, except a loathing of the Bauhaus and the style of design it inspired. Ulbricht called it "an expression of cosmopolitan building" that was "hostile to the people" and to "the national architectural heritage". Wolfe called it "an architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur or even high spirits and playfulness".

For Ulbricht it was alien to Germany, for Wolfe it was alien to America. Both agreed that it was placeless, soulless and indifferent to ordinary people's needs. And if the Bauhaus attracted such consistent forms of hostility, that is due to the power and coherence of the image it presented to the world, of disciplined and monochrome modernist simplicity, usually involving steel and glass. Given that it was actually a short-lived and semi-nomadic school of design and art with the usual riot of individualists, visionaries, eccentrics, schemers and geniuses that such places attract, this appearance of unity was an achievement.

From May the Barbican is staging an exhibition of 400 of the Bauhaus's works, the first in Britain on this scale for 44 years. It will stress the breadth of its output, including paintings by Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy, furniture by Marcel Breuer, textiles by Gunta Stölzl, architecture by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, photography, film, ceramics, theatre, graphics and product design. It promises to portray the central ideal of the Bauhaus, "to change society in the aftermath of the first world war", as the Barbican puts it, and "to find a new way of living".

When Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 it was with these aspirations for a new life, and for a multiplicity of creative disciplines, together with a stress on the importance of making things as opposed to just theorising about them. But there was not yet a distinct form or direction to these ideas, and almost anything could be considered as a route to a better future, including new spiritualist religions and a strict vegetarian diet which had to be livened up with plenty of garlic. According to Gropius's spectacular wife Alma, whose other husbands and lovers included Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka and the writer Franz Werfel, the most distinctive feature of the Bauhaus in its early days was garlic on the breath.

Certain questions were unresolved and intensely debated. Was craft or mass production more important? Could art and manufacturing be reconciled? Did individual expression impede service to society? In 1925 the school moved to Dessau, between Berlin and Leipzig. At the time it was an industrial boom town, the base of the Junkers aeroplane company. The harder-edged, more technocratic arguments started to prevail. The young Marcel Breuer started collaborating with Junkers on making tubular steel furniture of a kind that would eventually become commonplace in boardrooms and forward-thinking homes. Greater attention was paid to the commercial development and marketing of Bauhaus-designed objects.

In Dessau they built, in the extraordinarily short time of one year, the Gropius-designed building that became as famous as the institution it served. With its glass curtain walls and spare rectilinear forms, it crystallised what would become the dominant type of modernist architecture. It was one of the most prodigiously influential buildings of all time, a prototype that would be followed by office buildings, hotels, schools and hospitals in almost any country you can think of. In Dessau, Gropius and his followers could also try out other architectural ideas on the row of houses built for Bauhaus masters, and on 300 low-cost houses built for industrial workers on the Dessau-Torten estate.

In 1932, however, the school moved on again, to Berlin. The next year it fell victim to the National Socialists – another movement that, after the catastrophic trauma of the first world war, sought a new order and expressed itself through memorable visual imagery. Junkers started making Stuka divebombers, not Breuer chairs, and Dessau was all but flattened by bombing in 1945. The Bauhaus building was severely damaged, and only recently has been fully restored. But its influence spread. The Bauhausler diaspora, of ex-students and teachers building in the style they had learned, extended to Tel Aviv and Tokyo. Gropius migrated via London to the United States, where he became a professor at Harvard and designed the Pan Am building above New York's Grand Central station, much disliked for the way it imposed on the view down Park Avenue. He also designed the Playboy Club in London, prompting a new generation of radicals to denounce him for selling out.

To visit the Bauhaus building now is to be struck again by the extraordinary way in which a single construction in a provincial town could have had so much effect. It is also to see nuances that, inevitably, imitators lost. For years the Bauhaus building was known to the wider world mostly through a few black-and-white photographs that stress its more easily copied details, but miss the point that it was a framework for the creative energy of the school. Its stairs, workshops and balconies were places of display as well as function, and its glass walls made a spectacle of its internal activities. One of the key spaces was an auditorium whose stage is connected to the communal canteen, thereby bringing together performance and life. It also has a subtle colour scheme, contrary to Wolfe's assertions that the Bauhaus was only interested in black, white and grey. If it looked like a factory it also had properties of a commune, a cult centre and a theatre.

Although it was founded by Gropius, architecture was not at first the main point of the Bauhaus, and its vast legacy extends from graphics through product design to art. But architecture came to dominate the public image of the place, and the style of the building proved easier to record than the events that happened there. What Wolfe and Ulbricht railed against was its impact on the built environment. Which, if you only look at its form and not at its content, does indeed look sterile. Hopefully, the Barbican show will put this misconception right.

As for Alma, she tired of the work ethic of her husband and his school. At least if Tom Lehrer is to believed. As "Alma", his tribute to her, has it:

But he would work late at the Bauhaus,

And only came home now and then.

She said, "What am I running? A chow house?

It's time to change partners again."


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Bauhaus: Art as Life – in pictures

Bauhaus's HQ was a single building in a provincial German town, yet its influence on 20th-century architecture, art and design is unparalleled



May 04 2011

4541 a02e

stellavista:

kryz:

Skyscraper project Friedrichstraße, Berlin (unbuilt) by Mies van der Rohe, 1921

 marveled at this (and the model) at bauhaus archiv. If this would have been built, the nazis might have never had a chance. They would have simply exploded!

Reposted fromjhnbrssndn jhnbrssndn

November 19 2010

Pneumatik



László Moholy-Nagy, Pneumatik (1926); Zeichnung und Collage auf Papier, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | Die Wikipedia über den Bauhaus-Lehrer, Maler, Designer und Fotografen László Moholy-Nagy.

(Gefunden bei baubauhaus)



Reposted fromglaserei glaserei
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