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‘I suppose I’m glad I’m on this train..’ – John Cale; Half Past France

ART AS LIFE; BAUHAUS at the BARBICAN

Sunday the 10th of June

I have a terrible head for dates. The roughly fifteen-year period between leaving St. Vincent’s Christian Brothers School in Dublin in 1989 and arriving in England in 2005 is a lost time for me in some ways.
(Although I know that I arrived in England on the 1st of January 2005- not because it was New Year’s Day but because I used the date as the code for my bicycle lock for a long time. )

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Walter Benjamin observed that history decomposes into images and not stories and this is as true for individuals as it is for countries. Trying to remember what happened/when in those years just doesn’t work for me. It feels like I was on a train that whole time; making stops in places as far apart as Tokyo and New York but mostly sitting at the window watching the world pass by under glass like a David Cronenberg movie or at the open door of a slow train at night looking out at the world going by with a Marlboro Lite on the go, or a local cigarette if I was feeling adventurous. I slid over the surface of time, didn’t dive in. Nearly fifteen years go by as a series of loosely edited together images; suggesting but not insisting upon any kind of meaning.

Somewhere in there I visited Berlin. I was both alone and lonely. It may have been 1994 or 1995 but I can’t swear to it.

The week I was there included May the 1st though. I know that because I got caught between the police, anarchists and fascists near the Brandenberg Gate during the annual Labour Day Riots.

I learned how difficult it is to answer questions- and not sound suspicious -when an aggressive German, German Shepherd is straining at the end of its very short leash hoping to break free and tear you to pieces. The riots themselves all seemed strangely friendly and well organised. You could imagine all parties clocking off at the end of the day and saying: ‘well, see you next year’, like those old cartoons with the sheep dog and the wolf.

Anyway, Riot Tourism, I’m sure people pay good money for that.

May Day was the last thing on my mind when I went.

What WAS on my mind was Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Einsturzende Neubauten. I honestly can’t remember where I was living or working then but I remember packing a CD Walkman and the collected Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith. I think I was reading ‘The Boy Who Followed Ripley” – the one that’s pure angst and doesn’t even have one murder in it. The one, I guess, where Highsmith had paid her dues and could write whatever the hell she wanted to, the last one.

So I get to Berlin on my own. I’m already well into that transit state of mind that would hold me til along about 2003 (but that’s another story). I’m living in a pretty harmless spy novel in my head, maybe one where no one gets killed… And I’m frightened.

I’ve learned some German which I am surprised to find I’m quite good at. I have my Ripley stories, my music and with only a little trouble I find my way to my hostel. If you’re going to have trouble it’s always on the way from the airport to the hostel on the first day. That’s when you make mistakes or it turns out Berlin bus drivers are just as grumbly as Dublin bus drivers.

So I feel right from the beginning that I’m out of life and into fiction and that’s exactly where I want to be. The breakfast is buffet and INCLUDED so I eat up and make a sandwich from the rolls and meats to get me through the rest of the day. Then I walk the city.

At this time I’m afraid of only two things: People and Life. I’m afraid to get buses, I’m afraid to engage people in conversation. I walk, I listen to music, I smoke cigarettes and I drink. I find that the area I’m staying in has a lot of street prostitution which is strangely comforting as it reminds me of Benburb Street and the general area I grew up in. I find the Turkish Quarter and love it. I go to Checkpoint Charlie. I get lost in the old East amoung the Soviet Era tower blocks with their surprisingly well kept little gardens and have a drink in a cellar bar full of skin heads who don’t seem to mind me as long as I sit at the counter.

I go to Kreuzberg and Under den Linden listening to Blixa Bargeld singing in words I don’t understand about flying over the city of Berlin filled with melancholy and love. I read the phrase ‘nothing is impossible’ in what seemed like hundreds of languages in graffiti on building after building. I discovered the joy of being able to buy cheap brandy from kiosks on the street and wander into a church one of the nights, very warm with brandy to find a free concert of religious music that was beautiful. I walked all around the Tiergarten, thinking what a great idea it was to have a park at the very centre of the city and how the Phoenix Park was too large. I walked up and down the river Spree.

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On the banks of the river was where I found the Bauhaus Museum. I thought then and I still think now that you find good things along the river in a city. Rivers are the reasons the cities got started and you find the life of the place down there. At the river’s bank the horizon is narrow as it should be in a city. Big skies in an urban environment make me very uncomfortable.

At the time I didn’t know a thing about Bauhaus. Bauhaus was a band to me; the word was more associated with Terror Couples killing Colonels than with art. Still the day I found the Bauhaus Museum was the day I realised why design is interesting and important- and just how I’d like the built environment to be. That week I went back several times to surround myself with that beauty and to sit drinking coffee.

So, sit down here beside me- not opposite me -I want us to have the same view. Close your eyes and look down the sunlit grassy slope to the river. Have a cup of coffee.

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It’s got to be black coffee. Milk is for baby cows. Light a cigarette. If you would, please listen to this song.

I don’t think that song had been released at the time but it doesn’t matter. We are playing with time like an accordion here. We can expand or contract it at will to suit our mood.

Have another coffee. One just won’t cut it. The second one above was for me.

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What struck me most then was how the Bauhaus School encouraged everyone and anyone to take their own desire for aesthetic sense seriously. There was a gentle, rigorous and democratic respect for beauty and for thought.

Growing up in Stoneybatter where heroin was already king by the mid-eighties despite or because of the willful ignorance of politicians and those at the top in the police the most obviously poverty was the poverty of Beauty. This was a new world and I wanted in.

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The objects were gorgeous but the idea was even more so.

I was utterly unaware at the time of any irony involved in listening to a band called Destroying New Buildings in a school of building- and I still am.

The day I left Berlin the Bauhaus Museum was my last stop. I looked around the shop for a souvenir I could afford but came away empty handed.

A long time passed. It’s May again but late May and it’s raining hard, part of this new monsoon season we seem to have developed. I’m in Egham station to get the train to Waterloo to smash some backs at the Tokei and what do I see.

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I’m very excited. When I get home to my hovel in the park that evening I take my mobile phone outside to get a signal and book tickets. This is part of my ‘making the most out of living nearish to London for a year’ campaign.

I’m like a child waiting for Christmas for the week.

Sunday arrives and after a morning of work I walk over Tower Bridge on my way to the Barbican. I don’t like walking in London if I have somewhere to be. I have a record of almost always getting lost. Also, the area form Tower Bridge through Monument and Bank to the Barbican is the worst kind of city landscape. It’s flat and wide and rich and dead.

I don’t feel comfortable here. I’m staring to feel nervous, tickets for half two and I don’t want to be late. I’m starting to feel chippy and aggressive.

Maybe it’s just me.

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..and maybe it’s not.

I get my first sight of the Barbican Complex at about five minutes to two. It’s a great big concrete block and quite intimidating.

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As usual I’m early so I spend some time in the Garden Room. This is what a horticulturalist would call a Temperate House, the temperature is never allowed to get below about six degrees. It has a jungle type feeling about it and I can’t help thinking of Werner Herzog describing the jungle where they shot Fitzcarraldo as a horror show where everything is feeding on everything else and everything is rotting and growing at an obscenely accelerated rate.

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It’s definitely time to see the show.

I’m not an art or design expert or historian but now is the time for me to fill you in a little and to best of my ability on the Bauhaus Movement, or School. Apologies for any over simplification, no apology for simplification.

The School of Building, Staatliches Bauhaus, was set in motion by Walter Grobius in 1919. He was influenced by the recent war, by Socialist ideals and by his own ideas. The basic aim was to create a kind of Total Art which was fully integrated into life in every sphere.

I’d like to emphasis two things here: it really was a movement. It had a written Manifesto- Programme of the State Bauhaus in Weimar. People were issued with ID cards that were like a passport to the state of Bauhaus. There was even a word for them- Bauhauslers.
As the movement lasted well into the thirties and was home to such diverse and no doubt opinionated figures as Paul Klee, Wassily Kadinsky, Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer etc it needed a strong sense of purpose to keep it together.

Also, when I say every sphere of life, I mean it. Architecture, stage design, lettering, cookware, puppets (the Ghost of A Scarecrow by Paul Klee is one of my favourite items in this show), fine art, textiles, photomontage, film, book design, lighting, graphic design, humour, even advertising and bell making. Bauhaus attempted to make good it’s promises.

It went through ups and downs, it had to compromise with commence (check the Nivea advert) but it worked hard and long at nothing less than changing the world and it did just that. In its roughly fourteen year history it moved from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin to the world.

It’s pretty much impossible to imagine what the western world would look like or feel like today without Bauhaus. Yes there were innovators in abstract art working in Russian pre Bauhaus or at the same time (Kasimir Malevich shouldn’t be neglected in any discussion of post WW1 leftist abstract art and there were exciting movements like the Constructivists, Objectivists, Productivists and Suprematists all working in abstract art in the very early Soviet Period). Yes you can buy furniture in Ikea that’s just like Marcel Breuer designs, yes some of their ideas watered down can be held responsible for the concert brutalism of the sixties (and of the Barbican maybe), yes if they hadn’t done it someone else probably would. But none of this matters- they did it! Through sheer passion, talent and hard work these are the people who built the modern world and it’s more than nice to know, however things have turned out, that they had wonderful intentions.

It’s no surprise that one of the major reasons for the demise of the movement in its centralised form in its final staging post in Berlin was the rise to power of the National Socialists. Although it must be noted that there was internal pressure throughout and that by the time Mies van der Rohe was appointed the schools third director it was becoming something more akin to a conventional school of architecture, less political. Although clearly too inherently democratic for the Nazi’s to tolerant.

It’s note-worthy that the comparable abstract art movement to the east in Russia which I mentioned previously ran into similar problems with Stalinism. You can see the two most important flowerings of 20th century art being suppressed almost simultaneously my the two great tyrannies which would dominate that century.

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There is a clear general difficulty in staging any exhibition of Bauhaus works today. It feels wrong that the artefacts of a culture dedicated to integrating art into all parts of daily life should be put behind glass and up on plinths. The sight of a Breuer chair with a sign on the seat reading ‘Do not sit on the chair’ is a little sad. This situation is not so difficult to understand though and it’s an easy enough bridge to cross in your appreciation of the works.

Specifically at the Barbican I did find the attitude and atmosphere slightly stuffy. We were followed around by a army of staff who watched us like we were known shop-lifters in Primark. While I might be tempted to try to get a beautifully painted child’s table and chairs under my jumper I still think they went overboard on the security.

But that’s all small stuff. The exhibition is well laid out and the opportunity to see more than four hundred works of the Bauhaus movement is one not to be missed. I really loved the kitchenware. The coffee pots, teapots and beakers have an air both of the modern and the primal about them. If one was dug up from a prehistoric site it would not look out of place and it is still functional and beautiful today.

I still couldn’t afford anything from the gift shop though. Oh well, I bought the idea years ago.

BAUHAUS ART AS LIFE is at the BARBICAN until the 12th of August.

The BAUHAUS MUSEUM is at Klingelhoferstrasse 14, D- 10785 Berlin.
And at http://www.bauhaus.de

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