‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ at the Barbican

This was the first time I’ve been to the gallery at the Barbican.  I’ve been to the theatre and concert hall many times over the years since it opened, but I still always have to follow the yellow line on the pavement through the confusing buildings from Moorgate.  Even though I think I should know the way by now, as there is so much massive construction work in the area, I’m not confident of it.

That little vestige of doubt, always makes me more alert to my surroundings, and last week, as the weather changed from chilly Spring to full blooded summer overnight, the Barbican looked as extraordinary as I assume its designers could ever have hoped for.  It’s all oppressive, rather brutal concrete, now hemmed in by shinier, curvier newer office blocks, with odd isolated places where a tiny bit of nature touches down.  It is unremittingly urban, and given the density of occupation, curiously quiet; early on a Thursday morning I passed only a couple of other people on my way in.

It felt an appropriately apposite venue for the exhibition on the Bauhaus movement which looked not only at their ideas of architecture and design, but also at their aspiration to create a community of artists, architects and designers whose influence would rub off on each other to achieve even greater creativity.

The show features the artifacts that one might expect, the chairs and tables which predate most of the design in the present day Ikea catalogue, and plans and models of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, but it also displayed toys made for the children of the staff, photos of the many parties they shared, domestic textile designs and fancy dress constumes, showing how much fun they all had experimenting with design and construction.

I am fascinated by patterns.  It wasn’t until I started doing my drawing classes, when this was remarked on by the teacher, that I understood that not everyone is.  But for a pattern appreciator there is a lot to please the eye at this exhibition; asymmetrical and geometric, I could look at it for hours.

S, the friend who came with me, derives the same degree of satisfaction in seeing lines and shapes in harmonious arrangements and it prompted a conversation about how much both of us had enjoyed playing with Cuisenaire Rods as children.  I loved the colours of them, especially the purples and the aquamarines and the endless possibilities of patterns, and how they all fitted together.  And from there, our discussion moved to Tangrams and the hours of concentration making different shapes with the pieces.

The one may not have necessarily led to the others in terms of the history of design, but nonetheless, the exhibition proved what an extraordinary influence the Bauhuas had on contemporary design, graphics and architecture right up to the present.

I did wonder what they would have made of the Barbican gallery itself, an awkward, large space in the centre of a great concrete bunker, with mysterious closed doors cut into nearly every wall, and around each corner.

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