Alan Powers

Rootstock of radicalism

London is about to experience two exhibitions about early 20th-century Modernism. The V&A is mounting a substantial themed display of design, art, film and life, based primarily on France and Germany before 1930. Tate Modern will exhibit jointly the work of two faculty members of the Bauhaus, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In anticipation, two exhibitions outside London demonstrate outgrowths from this core of experience, supposedly the rootstock of radicalism in the past 100 years of art and design.

At Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933–57 shows how the European modernist diaspora improbably made one of its significant early landfalls in North Carolina, in a small, underfunded independent arts college. The potter and poet M.C. Richards wrote of its founder, John Andrew Rice, ‘He knew that imagination, intuition, inspiration, are basic to the psyche … A philosophy of education began to form: imagination as fundamental to all learning; artistic making as a model of integrating vision, materials and imagery.’

Albers arrived in 1933, with his wife Anni, a weaver who also made elegant Dadaist jewellery from found objects like hairgrips and paper clips. These are on show (you can even buy a do-it-yourself kit), along with samples of her weaves and paintings by Josef, rarely seen in Britain. Can such objects ever recapture the excitement that they generated when they formed part of a teaching programme in a highly specific time and place? It is a challenge that any exhibition has difficulty in meeting. A few quotes and filmed interviews with former students are the most compelling evidence.

Black Mountain was most alive during the few post-war years when summer programmes were held, involving Buckminster Fuller, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, for all of whom these were crucial times, interlocking with the full-time courses at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where the Bauhaus spirit was undergoing its most creative reworking under Moholy-Nagy’s successor, Serge Chermayeff.

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