Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:08 am

Function and frolics

The Bauhaus, that byword for modernist rigour, also knew how to enjoy itself

Paul Klee favoured risotto with steamed calf’s heart, sour liver and lung ragout: in the kitchen, as in his paintings, he was obsessed with innards, interiors, reconfiguring essential forms. Wassily Kandinsky lived in a streamlined white apartment but, incongruously, cooked on a “kamin” – a Russian wood-burning stove made from heavily ornamented black iron. Josef Albers claimed “I paint the way I spread butter on pumpernickel” – robustly and straightforwardly; he called the colour mixes in his “Homage to the Square” series his “recipes”. And Swiss painter and vegetarian zealot Johannes Itten was driven out of Weimar because he hijacked the Bauhaus kitchen and alienated director Walter Gropius by producing only “uncooked mush smothered in garlic”.

The Barbican’s new exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life gives a whole new flavour to the story of the art school long seen to embody sober, purist German modernism. The biggest Bauhaus show in the UK for over 40 years, it is irreverent, anecdotal, unexpected, ranges broadly across documentary material and works of art and design, and looks terrific. Paintings, usually overlooked in accounts of the Bauhaus, play a starring role: indeed, the entire Bauhaus story is summed up by the gulf in emotional tenor and formal composition between Lyonel Feininger’s expressionist “Studio Window” (1919), its surging crystalline planes symbolising Gropius’s founding Utopian vision, and Kandinsky’s sombre, abstract “Development in Brown” (1933), made shortly before the Bauhaus closed under Nazi pressure.

Just as riveting is an array of lesser-known pieces, often by women artists whose Bauhaus connections were unknown to me: a sensuous nude built up from rays of contrasting colour by Natalia Goncharova; Florence Henri’s pioneering commercial photographs such as “Jeanne Lanvin”, where a single scent bottle is multiplied in twinned mirrors to create a string of beads, emphasising both the perfume’s uniqueness and its reproducibility.

This is Bauhaus recreated for the 21st century, with a focus on individuals rather than ideals, images rather than theories. The message the Bauhaus gave the world – that form follows function – is everywhere, but it is dramatised by a showcase of international artists from diverse backgrounds working in fluid, overlapping multimedia. Klee painted luminous, interlocking, architectonic abstractions – “Double Tower”, “Tomb in Three Parts” – that resemble stained glass, but he also directed a puppet theatre with a found-object cast of characters created from electric sockets and buttons. Feininger was a master printmaker whose woodcut of a cathedral was the cover illustration for the first Bauhaus manifesto, but he carved children’s toys too. Paul Citroen’s vast collage “Metropolis”, layering cut-outs of the world’s great buildings in a dizzying, upward thrust, inspired Fritz Lang’s 1927 film.

A seminal Bauhaus figure, László Moholy-Nagy, arrived as a constructivist painter but found himself leading the metal workshop. He promptly created the porcelain enamel on steel geometric abstraction “Construction in Enamel”, also known as “Telephone Picture”. Shiny, brash, optimistic, it marks the moment – 1923 – when Bauhaus interest shifted from expressionism and a craft aesthetic to rationalism and attempts to unite art with technology.

The school’s move from romantic, archaic Weimar to industrial Dessau in 1925 consolidated the trend: new recruits included 23-year-old Marcel Breuer, who worked with engineers from Dessau’s Junkers aircraft factory to pioneer bent-steel tubing as a basic material for making chairs. Breuer’s most famous design was later named the “Wassily” chair because Kandinsky much admired it and Breuer made one for the painter’s apartment.

The Barbican skilfully traces loops of personal and professional interactions and media crossovers. Gropius’s white, flat-roofed buildings with their jutting balconies, block “Bauhaus” lettering and glass-curtain façades built for Dessau achieved iconic status through the dynamic interpretation of their patterning and contrasts in the photographs of Moholy-Nagy. His experiments with photography are a highlight of this show. Manipulating spatial effects and light sources from different angles, he depicts himself in “Self-portrait in Profile” within a crescent moon-shaped composition while other objects are caught at differing degrees of exposure, collaged, then rephotographed, so that the image oscillates between man and moon, light and dark – an unfixed identity.

Moholy-Nagy’s abstracting style underlined, perhaps too much, the severity of the Dessau aesthetic. He rarely included people in his depictions of architecture: what on earth was it like actually living in these buildings? An answer comes here from the joyful, leaping, spontaneous creations of teenager Lux Feininger. Growing up at the Bauhaus as Lyonel Feininger’s son, Lux took the buildings for granted and depicted instead life going on around them – footballers jumping, with the modernist façades mere blurred backcloths; jazz players dancing on the roof on a winter day, in a composition tilted as if even the camera moves to the rhythm of the music.

For Lux – who died last year aged 101 – Bauhaus was lifestyle. He showed too how the glass transparency of the buildings meant that most of what happened inside the Bauhaus could be seen from outside, as if on a three-dimensional screen. Thus, “aware that they were being watched”, suggests Philipp Oswalt in an excellent catalogue essay, “the Bauhauslers staged their appearances as a collective undertaking”.

They organised kite festivals in spring, lantern festivals in autumn and a “metal” dance where artists adorned in metallic costumes entered the building down a giant slide. For Klee’s 50th birthday students hired a Junkers aircraft to drop gifts – a Marianne Brandt lamp, a Feininger print – from the sky, an event commemorated by the artist in his grainy, pink canvas of an angel head with quirky geometric packages, “Gifts for J”, borrowed here from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Steve Jobs famously quoted Bauhaus as a defining influence on Apple – not just for its white minimalism and functionalist aesthetic, but also for its fun. The Barbican’s achievement is to put that playfulness back into the Bauhaus story.

‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’, Barbican Art Gallery, London, to August 12, www.barbican.org.uk

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