Last Updated:Jul 16, 2008

Send You Back to Schoolin’

Bauhaus exhibit Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music brings it back to the basics.

Not since the Beaux-arts school has there been a school of architectural thought as influential as that of the Bauhaus. While the beaux-arts set a curriculum based on classical arts and ideals and its opposite, an institute of technology or polytechnic, (Illinois Institute of Technology, which Mies directed from 1938 to 1959) consists of an engineering or technology-based education, the Bauhaus combined the two approaches into a synthesis of technics and the arts that has influenced nearly every modern architectural curriculum that has followed.

Many Bauhaus exhibitions focus on one designer, or one genre (furniture, architecture or graphics) or focus only on one historical chronology. Typical monographic exhibitions are informational and occasionally inspirational, but are seldom provocative and fail to describe a larger social setting or implication. The current exhibit “BAUHAUS experience, dessau” avoids these pitfalls and exhibits the work of the Bauhaus in a refreshing and holistic manner. Although the wall text is in Japanese, the labels for individual works are in both Japanese and English.

As the exhibition poster advertises, one gets what one would expect upon entering the gallery – a series of works by the masters: Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Marcel Breuer, Josef Albers, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Not much new here.

However, the second floor changes the convention, and it becomes fitting that the University Art Museum & Chinretsukan Gallery at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music is the venue for the retrospective “BAUHAUS experience, dessau.” Befitting a university setting, work is divided by each masters’ coursework: material studies are collected under Albers’ course, color studies under Kandinsky, and architecture under Gropius. But rather than works by the masters, the work shown is primarily that of students, giving a full representation of the work of the Bauhaus the school. One excellent student was Karl Marx, not to be confused the political writer, who showed good painting skills, hand drawings, and color studies. The student work even includes a beam structural analysis with a precision in graphics, equations, and hand lettering that is a well-crafted design in itself.

Following a recent trend in full-sized replicas, there is a full-scale room of the Director’s Office (1926) as designed by Hinnerk Scheper, whose other work graces the exhibition with color plans and isometrics. Director’s Office deftly shows materials, furniture and use of color, but the room fails to give a lived-in reality – no strewn papers on the desk, no mismatched heights and colors in the bookshelves, no framed works on the walls. Nonetheless we are presented with a masterful control of spatial organization and proportion hard to grasp from the usual historical grainy black and white photographs that accompany publications and exhibitions, this one included.

One aspect that is often overlooked in Bauhaus exhibits, which may be due in part to the temporal aspect, is the performative. Thus the crown jewel of “BAUHAUS experience, dessau” is the work of Oskar Schlemmer. His workshops taught students to explore their bodies in space, using their body’s resistance, proportion, and mobility. His workshops were not a theoretical discourse contained in dusty tomes and sparkling manifestos, but were contained in the reality of experience, which was true of much of the work of the Bauhaus. The culmination of these workshops is shown in film and video recordings of Schlemmer’s performances, including a video of a 1993 restaging of his body-space studies.

Plagued by politics, both internal and external, the school was continually in flux under three directors at three locations at various times. Walter Gropius founded the school in 1919 in Weimar and led the school until 1927. However in 1925 the school moved to Dessau and in 1927 changed hands to Hannes Meyer, who was fired in 1930 amidst political radicalism and sexual scandals– never a dull moment. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe then became director, and the school moved to Berlin in 1932. In 1933 the Nazi regime disbanded the school with many constituents fleeing to England, North America and Israel.

The Bauhaus’ influence permeates art, architecture, interior design, industrial design, graphic design and typography (the crispness of Herbert Bayer and company’s graphic design for the school) – providing a discourse between various fields, and continuing Wagner’s idea of the gesamtkunstwerk (synthesis of art forms). While the Bauhaus’ influence today may seem to repose only in the slick stylings of Ikea, design boutiques and expensive design districts, it did have its basis in something more profound. The Bauhaus was a school and a school of thought that instigated a radical exploration of materials, form and space, and ultimately experience. Experience it yourself.

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James Way

James Way

James has worked in a variety of roles within the design profession, including exhibition designer and marketing coordinator in international architecture offices and museums. He was previously assistant editor at the <i>Architect's Newspaper</i> in New York City and editor of the <i>Cornell Journal of Architecture</i>. He is an exhibition designer at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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