Blasé Bauhaus at the Barbican: Thoughts on Being Underwhelmed by ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ and What I Like In Museums
Summer in the United Kingdom, it seems, has already come and gone. After a brief, riotous interval of four or five days of warm weather in late May, between Oxford and the occasional trip to London, it’s been almost nothing but overcast skies and rain. But no matter: I write this present post above said skies, on my way home to California to spend a few weeks with family, relax, read, and continue to plug away at dissertation writing.
There’s much to do: I’m working through some of the older chapters I had published as articles, sprucing them up and cutting them down where appropriate. One chapter on Soviet Komsomol advisers in Eastern Afghanistan needs wholesale revision, so I’m seeking inspiration in work on borderlands that scholars like Richard White and Jeremy Adelman have done for North American history. In my ideal world, when I’m not recovering from British ‘spring’ and ‘summer’ by the poolside in Palm Springs, or picking berries in cool-but-dryish Northern California groves, I’ll have made some serious progress on it all before heading out to Dushanbe, for the beginning of a mega-research trip, at the beginning of July.
Before mentally departing this country completely, however, I wanted to offer a few reflections on the new exhibition at the Barbican in London, ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life.’ The exhibit, which is running until August 12, is one of the major art shows around this summer as visitors flood into London for the Olympics, and I happened to be catching up with a dear friend in London before my departure, so we needed an event to attend before shifting into coffee-and-catchup mode. As a huge fan of design history and a pilgrim to the various actual former Bauhaus institutions in Germany – located in Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin – I was excited to see how the Barbican’s curators had collected, curated, and presented the materials from one of the twentieth century’s most compelling design schools.
Before jumping into my take on the exhibit, a bit of background on my own engagement with the Bauhaus, as well as my paradigm for evaluating the exhibit and similar exhibitions in general. While I was vaguely familiar with Bauhaus design from college days onward – one of my good friends had a snazzy Marcel Breuer chair in his Brown Hall common room long before I could name it for what it was – I really only began to develop a semi-serious interest in the movement once I became a German major at Princeton, started taking courses in German intellectual history, and spending more time in Germany itself. A Princeton alumni reunion in Weimar (famous as the base for Schiller and Goethe in the 19th century, but also the first home of the Bauhaus) introduced me passingly to the location of the original school as well as iconic early 1920s designs like the Haus am Horn.
As a senior, I had the good fortune to take a course on the intellectual history of Weimar Germany with Devin Fore, a professor in the Princeton German Department. In the week we devoted to the Bauhaus and 1920s design, we were exposed to what one might call the standard narrative, or really two standard narratives, of the Bauhaus: on the one hand, this is the story of an abortive liberal German modernity that gets stuffed by Nazism; and on the other hand, this is the story of a shift from the Expressionism of the school’s early teachers, like Johannes Itten, to the more familiar clean, modern, industrial, functional look that we know and love today.
At the same time, we also became aware of how different the Bauhaus story looks when certain periodizations, or methodologies, get imposed on it. If, for example, one says that the Bauhaus story is one that runs from 1919-1933 (the date of the school’s opening to the closure of its Berlin site), the ‘rise of Nazism’ story makes a lot of sense. Break down the periodization according to the tenure of various directors, and it becomes more of an institutional history rather than a metaphor for 20th century German history. Look beyond 1933, however, and the story becomes arguably more interesting. Many of the Bauhaus’ top designers didn’t just stop producing art after 1933, of course; many of them moved on to art and design schools in the United States – notably Chicago but also Los Angeles – and influenced generations of American industrial and commercial designers. It becomes, in short, less a story about the downfall of Weimar liberalism (where the Breuer chair is a stand-in for the Weimar Constitution) and more a story of how ‘design’ becomes a key commodity that’s part of the value-add in, for example, the Johnny Ive Macbook Pro that I’m typing this on right now.
More ambitiously, if we try – as historians like Emily Thompson have suggested – to be more specific about what we mean by ‘intellectual history’, we might have a stimulating conversation about the touch, the acoustics, the smell, and so on, of Bauhaus. Bobos who can’t get enough of ‘design’ (imagine someone in skinny jeans reading a Dieter Rahms book while eating an avocado sandwich at a free-trade café) might revile the brutalist Barbican residential towers while praising Walter Gropius’ residential designs.
But this appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of residential design over, say, whether a residence has thin walls or whether it’s well-heated in winter or whether it’s a comfortable place to raise a family in, limits the terms on which we can appreciate design history. Understanding a movement like the Bauhaus demands, rather than a vague and slavish enthusiasm about modernism, an understanding of the tactile and sensory feel of what it meant to be in these houses, live surrounded by these wallpapers, and so on. Often times – particularly in the 20th century – designers so valued what was beautiful over what was useful or comfortable – that consumers or audiences suffered in the name of some ill-defined beauty: think of the notorious incident when the aluminum case of iPhones caused calls to be dropped because of an engineering problem.
The final paper I wrote for Fore’s course, meanwhile, inspired by Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity (which I was reading at the time), highlighted how Gropius and colleagues often adopted a cavalier attitude towards the comfort and, more specifically, hearing of the inhabitants of their houses and auditoriums. In this sense, Bauhaus might be seen less as a friendly pre-figuration of IKEA, and more a reflection of what James C. Scott has seen as an authoritarian modern moment throughout the 20th century. Whether we’re resettling your family to a model village or designing the chairs and lighting that you will spend close to half your waking hours in, we know better. We’ll tell you how to live.
What’s the point of these vignettes about my own engagement with the Bauhaus, and what do they suggest about how I want my ideal curated collection – whether it’s a museum, an essay collection, or a Pinterest board – to look? For one, I’m really excited by exhibits (again, the term is broadly conceived) that explicitly seek to overturn or modify the standard narrative we’ve been given. True, if the exhibition is on something I am less familiar with than Bauhaus, some factual and historical framing is helpful. But important to me is that exhibitions offer an argument, or at least group together works to frame a historical moment differently than we might have thought of before. Rather than simply ‘consuming’ the works that are on display before shuffling into the gift shop, the viewer is offered a distinct interpretation – the germs of a conversation that carry on into the coffee shop or pub afterwards.
Second, though, I’m a fan of curators not being afraid to nerd out in their exhibitions. In exhibitions as in writing, I find, going more specific and bracketing off certain portions of a topic as not relevant to your specific interest at this moment, often leads to more interesting arguments and discussions. Going into technical depth, rather than being stultifying, often gives the viewer an insight into the accounting end or business end of a moment like, for example, the Bauhaus (which was troubled by relations between the cities that granted it land and appropriations throughout its existence).
On this point, I think of two museums which superficially cover similar topics but vary enormously in quality: the ‘Terror House’ in Budapest, Hungry, and the museum to the Nuremberg Party Rallies in (obviously) Nuremberg. The former attempts (badly, since there’s just too much to cover) to be a comprehensive history of both Nazism and Stalinism, at the same time that it tries to explore the relationship that Hungary had with fascism and Communism from more or less 1918 onwards. Doing this in any compelling way without getting hopelessly jumbled would require a hell of a lot of focus – maybe case studies of individual years or towns would work – but when all of this Magyar history is jumbled in with five-minute narratives about the rise of Nazism and the October Revolution, it’s just too much to take in.
Meanwhile, while the Nuremberg museums are admittedly dealing with a much more constrained topic, I recall how the curators there actually placed less emphasis on a ‘rise of Nazism!’ story to place more of an emphasis on how (logistically) and why (ideologically) individuals and group of young NSDAP supporters came to Nuremberg. The former might not sound interesting, but given that such a major point of the myth of Nuremberg was to demonstrate that Nazism was a mass political party capable of simply mobilizing tens of thousands of people, housing them, etc., making sure that you actually got enough people from around Germany to a provincial capital was actually a crucial part of creating and staging a Nuremberg myth. Otherwise banal stories about provisioning enough pea soup, or who would agree to pay for some kid’s ticket from the Saarland to Nuremberg, became parts of a bigger story – personal history and macro history at the same time.
The same applies to people’s motivations: rather than a fancy computer-animated map of a ‘Greater German Reich’ getting bigger and bigger across Central and Eastern Europe from 1933 onwards, the Nuremberg exhibit focused more on individuals’ reasons for making what was at the time a big journey to a city many of them had never visited before. This approach has the weakness of eliding, for example, issues of geopolitics and economics that motivated the Nazi élite – but then again, I think the Nuremberg exhibit’s curators might have just had the wisdom of not trying to do too much at once.
In other words, I like small, constrained, and modest – but also argumentative and contentious. How did the Bauhaus exhibit stand up?
Not well, in my view. While many of the commentators and reviews of the exhibit have noted how the exhibit manages to not get overwhelmed by the Barbican’s exhibition space that it’s located in, the real issue for me was less one of location or even materials (the curators did a great job with getting Bauhaus material, including some of the rare costumes that students wore during drama plays at the school) than interpretation and periodization.
What are some of the problems of interpretation? While I grant that the exhibit may be explicitly playing to viewers with almost no background in the history of design or the Bauhaus specifically, what we get is very much the standard narrative I described above: Bauhaus as a journey from ecstatic Expressionism to a more restrained industrial, functionalist, modernist ethos. That’s all fine, and the curators did a fine job with presenting that story. But this focus on Bauhaus as a genesis of modernist design then crowds out other potential storylines that could have elucidated bigger themes, even if one were to remain entirely within the 1919-1933 periodization. As noted above, finances and accounting was a perpetual problem for the Bauhaus. As cool as some of Itten’s earlier designs were, and as much as I love some of the posters and postcards that students produced for the 1923 exhibition in Weimar, the Bauhaus’ administrators and teachers were still pretty bad at making the case in the early 1920s that there was a reason why industrial firms should be interested in hiring their students, or producing goods that would sell to a mass market. City councils in Weimar and Dessau, increasingly dominated by budget hawks unsympathetic to avant-garde or even ‘degenerate’ art, wondered why their tax dollars should be used to support a lycée for exotic Eastern European art teachers producing design of questionable market value.
Still, as the Barbican exhibit highlighted in a few cases tucked towards the end of the exhibit, by the end of the 1920s, the Bauhaus’ designers had made considerable strides in adapting towards the German mass market of the day. But it wasn’t the snazzy Breuer chairs than attracted attention. Rather, it was the more restrained wallpaper that students and teachers teamed up to produce that became the school’s most popular product.
Now, without going so far as to demand more histories of wallpaper … I’m interested. What was the intellectual background or assumptions of the teachers who produced Bauhaus’ wallpaper, and what was it about the mix of marketing, design, and the needs of the German market at the time that caused consumers to respond so enthusiastically? If every product that Bauhaus designed were as popular as the wallpaper, would the city councils’ objections to the art have been so spirited? And, looking across the 1933 divide, what was the fate of such putatively ‘degenerate’ or ‘Bolshevik’ wallpaper? The Barbican exhibit doesn’t help us out on these questions, any of which would have allowed one to use the Bauhaus experience as a lens into bigger – in my view, more interesting questions.
This gets back to the issue of periodization, something that notoriously animates historians. Put simply, a historical phenomenon looks different depending on the way we bound it temporally. Thinking about recent American history, for example, was ‘the age of Reagan’ merely 1980-1988, the years of his Presidency? How about 1980-1992, given that George H.W. Bush was his Vice-President? Or can one speak of a myth of Reagan taking over the GOP from, more or less, 1976 to today? Regardless of your political affiliation, you can agree that these are sensible questions to ask. Correspondingly, a museum exhibit devoted to Reagan that solely touched on the Presidential years would be missing something.
Unfortunately, ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ fell into this trap of adopting the strictest periodization possible and, in doing so, missing potentially bigger themes. Again, a plaque at the end of the exhibition highlighted paths not taken. While an NSDAP government effectively shut down the Bauhaus in Berlin in the spring of 1933, a placard in one of ‘Art as Life’s’ final cases noted that much of Nazi-era design – from typography to railway station design to, in some cases, residential design, was far from restrained. It wasn’t as if from 1933-1945 modernist design was banned from Berlin’s realms. A more ambitious, intellectual creative exhibition could have sought to bridge this gap, or even to highlight the persistence of certain themes in German design across some of the gaps of 1918, 1933, 1945, 1949, and 1989.
Instead, however, ‘Art as Life’ picks up swiftly in 1919 – little to no discussion of existing design trends in Central Europe other than the encounters some Bauhaus teachers had with artists and designers in centers like Vitebsk and Moscow – and ends just as swiftly in 1933. Frustratingly, in the gift shop books on 20th century German design abounded. But instead of searching for any way to integrate Bauhaus into this bigger story, the exhibition book was primarily a catalogue of the usual Bauhaus pieces: too much celebration of modernist design, not enough of an attempt to grapple with the bigger European and North American story that produced some of the pieces we know and love.
Perhaps I’m spoiled for museums, or my standards are just too high after Fore’s class. Maybe I should count my blessings: after all, I’ll be in the lands (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) of museums that are interesting and deadly boring for totally different reasons than those in London or Los Angeles after this July. Maybe then I’ll look back on ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ with more fondness. Maybe for someone with no background in the Bauhaus, design history, or – as I suspect the museum’s curators thought – the visitor to the Olympics this summer, it might be worth it if you aren’t busy enough, or want to look at shiny chairs for an hour or two. But why do that? Berlin – from which both Weimar as well as Dessau are doable day trips – calls, only a two-hour flight away. The collections may have been partly raided by the Barbican, but go for a stroll in Weimar’s wonderful parks or tour the Bauhaus itself in Dessau – all under un-English, sunny German skies – and you’ll get a better, bigger sense of the story that Bauhaus fits into.