Though operational for a relatively brief period, emerging from a chaotic post-WW1 Germany in 1919 and surviving until its Nazi-mandated closure in 1933, Germany’s Bauhaus stands as arguably the most influential and mythologised art and design school of the 20th century. This major new exhibition at the Barbican, the first on this scale since a Royal Academy retrospective in the 1960s, examines what made it so important.
The assembled collection of Bauhaus alumni work, including material from key artists and practitioners who taught at the school such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, is impressive and detailed, but what sets the exhibition apart is the decision to fashion the show around the experience of living and studying at the school. The emphasis, dictated by founder Walter Gropius, was on a kind of professional playfulness, with students engaging in cross-discipline work and encouraged to experiment. What they produced was usually irreverent, often plain silly, and, occasionally, mould-breaking. In revealing the humanity behind what is often seen as an archly serious, cerebral movement, the show succeeds.
The Bauhaus was forced from its purpose-built Dessau campus in 1933 and, after a year in Berlin, it was closed for good, with many of the teachers and academics fleeing to Britain and the United States. The Bauhaus legend and influence grew from that point, but that’s not the focus of this show, which is far more interesting in bringing to life the quotidian concerns and playful spirit of life spent in this hothouse of idea and invention.