Bauhaus 1919–1933, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, until 17 February
With all the ‘boundary-blurring’ going on in contemporary art, the old distinction between art and craft ought to be history. But snobbism is apparently so hard-wired into our aesthetic psyche that the distinction has managed to survive by appealing to the Wildean doctrine, ‘All art is quite useless.’ If something has a use, the theory seems to go, it isn’t art: if it’s useless, it’s in with a chance.
The new Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art — mima for short — set out with a mission to show arts and crafts under the same roof. Its reasons are historic: its snazzy new glass-fronted building unites the collections of the former Cleveland Crafts Centre and Middlesbrough Art Gallery. So a show about the Bauhaus, not seen in Britain since the Royal Academy’s survey of 1968, seemed an obvious choice for its first year’s exhibition programme.
In Bauhaus 1919–1933, teapots, samovars, vases, lamps, carpets, hangings and chairs mingle with recent photographs of Bauhaus buildings by Hans Engels, and paintings and prints by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer. The multifarious products of an art school founded on the principle expressed in Walter Gropius’s 1919 Manifesto that ‘the artist is an exalted craftsman’, they should serve as cheering proof of the possibility of a successful marriage between art and craft. But marital tensions are already evident in the opening room.
On entering, one is met by a reception committee of Bauhaus chairs, including a version of Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chair of 1925/6 — allegedly inspired by the handlebars on his Adler bike — which first introduced chrome into the home. The walls, meanwhile, are hung with Kandinsky’s print series ‘Small Worlds’ (1922), offering exploded views of free-associating forms suspended skittishly in abstract space. The contrast is glaring, and wasn’t lost on the Nazis. When, a few months after their closure of the school in April 1933, they offered — too late — to reopen it, they made it a condition that ‘Kandinsky is fired, because his ideas are a danger to us’. There were many even in the Bauhaus who believed that form should be more closely tied to function.
The faultlines are never far beneath the surface. While it’s easy to see how Itten’s abstract painting ‘Horizontal-Vertikal’ (1917) might have inspired the woven textiles of Gunta Stolzl, or to imagine how Josef Albers’s gouache study ‘In the Water’ (1931) might translate into glass, it’s hard to divine a practical application for Klee’s abstract noodlings, such as the 1930 drawing ‘Burdened Children’ playfully composed of overlapping satchels. Among his colleagues, observed Schlemmer, Klee’s work appeared ‘to inspire the greatest shaking of heads, as a kind of “l’art pour l’art”, removed from every practical purpose’.
As political and economic pressures drove the Bauhaus from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 and from Dessau to Berlin in 1932, the school’s focus shifted from labour-intensive handmade craft to moneymaking design for mass-production. With the replacement on the teaching staff in 1923 of the mystical Itten by the machine-mad Moholy — represented here by some early Constructivist works on paper and a film of his ‘Light Space Modulator’ in action — the school was dragged kicking and screaming into the machine era. Out went ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; in came prototypes of the Bauhaus globe lamp, now so universal that this show’s designers were able to source replicas through a bathroom supplier.
As well as globe lamps and tubular steel chairs, the Bauhaus gave us prefab housing, fitted kitchens and trendy lower-case typo-graphy, as in ‘mima’ — though in the days of movable type this was an economy measure as much as a fashion statement. It also pioneered the fairground slide as art at its 1929 Carnival party on the theme of metal. What it failed to do was dissolve the distinction between ‘useless’ fine art and ‘useful’ applied art. The modern art foundation course may owe its origin to the Bauhaus, but today’s art schools have reversed its founding principle that art cannot be taught, only craft. The result is a new category of art-cum-craft that one might call, for want of a better term, ‘worse-than-useless’.
Examples can be seen upstairs in Language of Vision, a show of Bauhaus-influenced contemporary art. It includes 3-D works by Andrew Miller embodying the elegant functionalism of Bauhaus design without the function, and a stencilled wall text by Ryan Gander questioning the selflessness of the Bauhaus’s social ideals by reducing a transcript of Gropius’s Manifesto to the dots on the ‘i’s.
Selfless or not, the Bauhaus ideal is one for which we may well feel nostalgia. While its replica lamps still burn in the bathrooms of Britain, its hopes of a socially useful art appear to be dead. The show upstairs might serve as their post-ironic monument.