Many of the typical art school tropes that we now take for granted – like boundary-pushing classroom critiques, unorthodox assignments and endless experimentation – were brand new 100 years ago when the Bauhaus school was initiated. The radical pedagogies introduced by the school’s leaders in Dessau, Weimar and Berlin in the 1920s and 30s have today become commonplace, but once represented a profound transformation in the way students were invited to approach art and design. The current exhibition ‘Original Bauhaus’ at Berlinische Galerie uses historical analysis, centred around 14 influential objects from the Bauhaus Archive, to take visitors back to the foundational moment of trial and error that brought us some of the central tenets of contemporary art education.
The title of the exhibition highlights and questions the notion of the “original” in the age of serial production. The Bauhaus school, which took many of its inspirational design materials – like glass and steel – and concepts from Fordist factory production and standardization, didn’t shy away from creating works in reproducible formats. In many ways, their commitment to serial production did away with the cult-like status of the original, and gave their design products an accessible quality.
Between 1928–30, toward the end of the school’s 14-year existence in Germany, Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer created a travelling exhibition to showcase the works of the school’s designers. The exhibition at Berlinische Galerie, while eschewing the option to replicate this curatorial framework, offers visitors an idea of the inventive, modular nature of Meyer’s exhibition design; contemporary designers Tom Hanke and Sebastian Werner have created a 3D animation of the ‘Bauhaus wanderschau,’ a train wagon that carries the foldable exhibition materials, including movable partitions and display boards, to various destinations. Their playful reinterpretation of Meyer’s idea shows how these concepts have been adapted in the digital age.
As Walter Gropius and his fellow teachers at the first Bauhaus school in Dessau believed, Bauhaus represented the dissemination of an idea, an ethos rather than merely a site-specific place of learning. Meyer later referred to Gropius’ tireless PR campaign for the Bauhaus as “propaganda,” but the mission was clear: the school represented a will to engage with all forms of art and craft, in the hopes of creating a borderless, “total” work of art. The preliminary course for Bauhaus students used poetic and absurdist tactics to invite students to engage in creative experimentation. A section of the exhibition at Berlinische Galerie displays around 150 results from this foundational course, based on a series of nonsensical exercises like “ice-skating on paper” and making “colour out of white,” which were designed to push students into unknown creative territory. Visitors are invited to enact their own experimentation in the central hall of the gallery, where a series of interactive projectors are set up with touch-screen “assignments” – like creating your own photogram à la Moholy Nagy – which are then displayed on a wall projection behind the kiosk, for everyone to see.
The exhibition is exceptionally interactive; each of the individual exhibits offers a tangible element, whether an invitation to “please touch” the textiles or metals, or this more advanced design software for creating 3D graphic experiments. A section devoted to the unknown, masked woman in the iconic photo of Marcel Breuer’s tubular metal chair invites visitors to don their own mask and take photos in a Breuer chair, as well. These curatorial gimmicks make the exhibition highly accessible to a mass audience, and hammer home Meyer’s catchy motto for the Bauhaus: “people’s needs over luxury needs.” Meyer’s teaching paradigm focussed on the goal of designing homes for “real people” and everyday objects that were affordable. While, today, many of the famous Bauhaus designs, like Marianne Brandt’s well-known tea infuser, are considered covetable designer pieces, their origin stories are actually quite humble.
‘Original Bauhaus’ showcases seven of the eight tea infusers that were handmade by Brandt in the Bauhaus metal workshop. While they look like a mass producible design, each individual piece took hours of labour, hammering and warping the metals into shapes that appear to have been created through automation. The exhibition critically engages with the role of women in the Bauhaus school, quoting Brandt about her initial treatment in the workshop: “At first I was not accepted with pleasure – there was no place for a woman in a metal workshop, they felt. They admitted this to me later on and meanwhile expressed their displeasure by giving me all sorts of dull, dreary work. How many little hemispheres did I most patiently hammer out of brittle new silver, thinking that was the way it had to be and ‘all beginnings are hard!'”
Though the Bauhaus school was in many ways progressive, most of the women students were relegated to the weaving and textile departments and were not considered eligible for “harder” labour, like metalwork and construction. Nevertheless, Brandt’s tea infuser became one of the best known objects to come out of the school, and undermined the immense physical labour put into it with its incredibly skillful exterior appearance. To highlight this, the exhibition also presents a series of teapots by Peter Behrens opposite Brandt’s infusers, all of which were produced through factory automation, to appear as if handmade. Once again, the notion of what constitutes an “original” is complicated by the archival objects on display.
While the school itself only lasted a short 14 years in Germany, its pedagogical effects have been far reaching. By juxtaposing contemporary designs with the archival objects, ‘Original Bauhaus’ probes the depths of these effects and successfully conveys the extent to which the Bauhaus school has permeated and transformed our contemporary approaches to creative experimentation.