The German government has spent €70 million on Bauhaus centenary celebrations. The Edinburgh Book Festival budget was a lot more modest, but this was a theme that began and ended my festival. And so to coincide with Berlin Bauhaus Week (31.08-8.9.2019), and because I can’t be there, I’m going to relive the Edinburgh experience on the blog this week. Starting on opening day …
David Batchelor and Grant Watson
Grant Watson was presenting Bauhaus Imaginista, a project researching the Bauhaus legacy in non-European locations. The book, which is the result of 3-years research, took as its starting point 4 objects: the Bauhaus manifesto, Paul Klee’s drawing Teppich 1927, a film showing the evolution of Breuel’s chair design, and Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflecting Colour-Light Play and followed their influence to far-flung corners of the earth. It wasn’t all plain sailing. Bauhaus was banned as bourgeois during the social revolution, but was rehabilitated in the 1990s. Post-independence India brought in modernist expertise but modernism then was considered insufficient for the Indian rural context in the 1970s. Much of the Bauhaus Imaginista research is available online for those who wish to dig deeper.
The discussion between Grant Watson and David Batchelor about the original Bauhaus was fascinating. Why does this art school capture the imagination so? Firstly, it lived and died with The Weimar Republic. Secondly, has there ever been any other institution with such and astounding array of teachers? Breuel, Itten, Klee, Kandinsky, etc. “Bauhaus pedagogy is almost a shadow subject,” said Watson. “The school was almost overtaken by the big names”. It was a dynamic environment with major characters, tangible energy and great creativity. “There was no such thing as Bauhaus style,” said Watson urging the audience to check out the 1938 MoMA Catalogue to verify this.
It was ambitious. The Bauhaus wasn’t about decorating houses: it was about social transformation. It adopted the ideas of equality at the heart of the Weimar constitution …. and then failed to follow through on them, infamously shunting the women into the weaving workshops. (The reason for this was that too many women applied to the school, leaving Gropius to instruct the interviewers to be tougher on the women candidates.)
The Bauhaus was haunted by financial troubles and political pressure from the Reich. Ironically the only workshop to make money was the women’s weaving workshop! The political pressure wasn’t just external though. The Bauhaus wasn’t purely left-wing. There was antagonism between teachers and pupils on political lines. The second director, Hannes Meyer, was a socialist and eventually forced out. And lest we forget, the gates at the Buchenwald concentration camp were designed by a Bauhaus graduate.
Commenting on Bauhaus colour theory in which all circles are blue, all triangles yellow, and all squares are red, David Batchelor said “Interesting, but I don’t buy it. For me, colour is for frustrating the language, rather than being the language.” And I saw what he meant when I visited his My Own Private Bauhaus at the Ingleby Art Galley on the last day of the festival. The colour theorists at the Bauhaus would have a fit!