Putting their Bauhaus in order - Bauhaus Dessau is at the Design Museum

February 2002

Publication: The Times

Nothing could have been more ecstatic than the cover of the first Bauhaus Manifesto in 1919. Lyonel Feininger's jagged woodcut shows a cathedral surging into the sky with irresistible dynamism. Beams of light thrust outwards from the stars above three spires symbolising the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. Their unity would be proclaimed in this, the most influential art school of the 20th century. And its founder, Walter Gropius, was not afraid to couch its aims in the most rousing language. "Let us together create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one form," he declared, promising his prospective students that it "will one day ascend towards heaven as a crystal symbol of a new faith that is to come".

Excited by the visionary words, about 150 students soon enrolled. Almost half were women, and many came to the Bauhaus straight from active service. Exhausted and demoralised by the savagery of war, not to mention Germany's humiliating defeat, they responded eagerly to this clarion-call for renewal. A new world had to emerge from the devastation, and optimism prevails at the beginning of the Design Museum's Bauhaus exhibition.

At Weimar, where the first Bauhaus began, an astonishingly talented team of teachers was appointed. Apart from Feininger, already a celebrated Expressionist painter, they included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer. All three were at the forefront of modern art at its most innovative and liberated. But they agreed to work for a school led by the firm views of an architect, who insisted in his 1919 manifesto that "the ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building".

From the outset, then, a creative tension can be detected at the Bauhaus. Both Klee and Kandinsky were happy to involve themselves in an idealistic enterprise bent on placing visual experiment at the centre of everyday life. But their own paintings were robustly individual, and could not easily be reconciled with Gropius's determination to "raze the arrogant wall between artist and artisan".

Against the odds, though, Klee managed to play an important role at the Bauhaus. His nimble drawings and watercolours are wonderfully unpredictable, and cannot be fitted into the programme Gropius envisaged. No grand theory about the unity of the visual arts is detectable in Klee's little drawing called The Protector, where a screaming man tugs at the leash attached to a ferocious dog whose jaws stretch wide in a predatory bark. But he was a valued teacher, and when the school moved to Dessau in 1925, Gropius made sure that artists continued to assert their presence. 

The Weimar years had ended in turmoil: right-wing politicians came to power and demanded the closure of a school they associated with communist and Bolshevist tendencies. But Gropius found generous support at Dessau, a small industrial city more attuned to his progressive aims than tradition-haunted Weimar, where the memory of Goethe and Schiller still held sway. The Dessau Bauhaus, erected in a surprisingly short time to Gropius's designs, had an enormous impact when it opened in December 1926. Gropius believed that the "spirit of our own times rejects the imposing model of the symmetrical faade". So visitors were encouraged to walk right round the building's wings and appreciate the function of its different areas. But the most spectacular section was undoubtedly the street-facing frontage, an immense wall of luminous glass through which the staff and students could clearly be seen at work.

The lack of privacy did not suit everyone. Kandinsky lived in one of the Gropius-designed Masters' Houses, all built to impressive specifications in a small nearby pine wood. "Anyone could look into the house from the street," recalled his wife Nina. "That bothered Kandinsky, who would have preferred his private sphere to be private. He painted the glass wall white on the inside."

On the whole, the artists entered into the functionalist spirit of the main Bauhaus building. The mural-painting class decorated the classrooms and library, employing an uncompromisingly abstract disposition of colours. Marcel Breuer directed the joinery workshop in the production of stripped furnishings for the canteen, the studios and, most strikingly, the auditorium, where rank upon rank of his trademark tubular steel seats were displayed to a wide public for the first time.

They were rapidly hailed as a breakthrough in furniture technology, just as the purged lamps designed by Marianne Brandt and Max Krajewski were pioneering classics in their field. Everything on view at the new Bauhaus was in tune with the collaborative principle. It all amounted to a defining moment in the development of a bold, specifically 20th-century language.

Not all the exhibits lent to the Design Museum show have lasted well. Some look doggedly utilitarian, and suffer from the proliferation of cheaper, later versions that turned vigorous innovation into tiresome clichs. But the best Bauhaus designs retain their freshness intact. Brandt's small teapot, a miracle of exquisitely pared-down refinement, stands out. The lid seems to be suspended on the flat, highly reflective surface of the pot, and the entire object gives off a serenity wellattuned to the whole relaxing notion of sipping tea. Mies van der Rohe's armchair is equally outstanding, and far more comfortable than the sterner, bare-board furniture designed by other, more puritanical designers.

To judge by a group photograph of the 13 Bauhaus masters in their bow-ties and sober suits, they could be formidably severe. Overwhelmingly male - Gunta Stolzl is the only woman there - they look stern and pedagogic. So I was relieved to learn that life at the Bauhaus was enjoyable as well. Its themed parties became legendary, and Brandt caught the spirit of fun by photographing herself, on the way to the Metallic Party, sporting a bizarre, robot-like contraption clamped on her head. It recalls the geometric costumes devised by Schlemmer for his renowned Triadic Ballet, where performers' bodies are encased in sculptural shells like automata in a science-fiction fantasy.

All the same, internal conflicts at the Bauhaus could infuriate even its most dedicated supporters. Gropius's wife Ise, who described it in an exasperated moment as "this eternal seething boiler", complained that "spending a whole day with Bauhaus people gets on your nerves". Gropius himself resigned in 1928 to devote more energy to his own architecture. His departure caused bewilderment, and the increasingly hard-line politics of his successor, Hannes Meyer, led to chronic unrest. Schlemmer, disenchanted with the new agit-prop direction of the stage workshop, left in 1929 after gloomily predicting that "the Bauhaus will reorient itself in the direction of architecture, industrial production, and the intellectual aspect of technology. The painters are merely tolerated as a necessary evil now."

Meyer himself was forced to resign only a year later. The growing opposition to his militant stance had been led by Kandinsky, whose experience in his native Russia left him with a deep mistrust of Communism. Mies van der Rohe's appointment as the new director promised to correct the imbalance, but he went too far the other way, depoliticising the Bauhaus and turning it into a narrow school of architecture.

Not even the tenacious Mies could shut out the impact of larger social forces, however. The Nazis condemned the Bauhaus for fostering sinister "cosmopolitanism", and Fascist disapproval focused in particular on the school's advocacy of flat roofs. They were regarded as a poisonous heresy, originating in eastern countries and therefore suspiciously Semitic. After a doomed attempt to restart the Bauhaus in Berlin, it was finally forced to close by the Nazis in 1933, and Iwao Yamawaki's bitter collage shows jackbooted thugs marching over Gropius's collapsed flagship buildings.

The Bauhaus had the last laugh, though. As the ousted masters fled abroad, its influence spread across the world. And Unesco has now declared the original Dessau school a World Heritage site, in definitive acknowledgement of its far-reaching contribution to everyone's ideas about the shape of things to come.

 

Bauhaus Dessau is at the Design Museum (0171-378 6055) until June 4