Bauhaus: Art as Life, Barbican Gallery, London

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This useful show leads us through Bauhauser paintings, furniture, even puppets, all forged in the years between the darkness of two world wars

Such are the turns of history that we tend to see the Bauhaus as having sprung to life fully formed, a launch pad for Modernism that owed nothing to what had gone before except the burning desire to negate it. Common sense says that this cannot be so, and so does Bauhaus: Art as Life at the Barbican.

The first object in the show's first vitrine is not a chromium chair or an abstract canvas but an altarpiece, carved by the school's meister, or master, Gerhard Marcks. Nearby are works on paper, also by Marcks, with titles such as The Three Valkyries and The Wieland Saga – subjects whose traditional German-ness is underlined by the artist's having printed them in woodblock. There is another woodblock print around the corner, this time by another of the school's Masters, the German-American painter, Lyonel Feiniger. It is of a cathedral. Across the gallery's central well is a nativity scene collaged in tracing paper by an anonymous Bauhaus artist, and next to it a trio of crucifixes in watercolour on paper by the one of the most famous of all the school's teachers. His name was Paul Klee.

There is not much whiff of revolution here, nor, initially at least, in the art school's social and academic organisation. Set up in Weimar in 1919 under the architect Walter Gropius, the Land of Thuringia's Staatliches Bauhaus – roughly, State Construction School – called for artists to return to the crafts, and for art, architecture and design to be integrated. There was a strong streak of spirituality behind all of this (Klee and Kandinsky were Theosophists), combined with a faith in athleticism that would not go down well in an art school today. These things were not revolutionary, either. The session of compulsory gymnastics with which Johannes Itten began each of his classes dated back to Friedrich Fröbel; Itten's Farbenkugel, or colour-wheel, is clearly taken from Goethe.

As in Britain, the local arts and crafts movement, the Vereinigte Werkstätten für Kunst im Handwerk (United Workshops for Art in Craft, or VWKH), had preached much the same gospel before the Great War – the setting-up of a collegiate Gesamtschule aimed at turning out a whole range of integrated, aesthetically charged objects for a commercial market. The first Bauhaus – there were to be three, in Weimar (until 1925), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33) – was, in many ways, a continuation of the VWKH. Its ideals thus dated back to, among others, that great German educationist, Prince Albert. Why is it, then, if we close our eyes and murmur the word "Bauhaus", we are taken to a Modern place of steel-and-glass walls, socialist politics and free love?

In part, we have to thank Adolf Hitler for this. His attack on Modernism forced the closure of the third and last Bauhaus, run by Mies van der Rohe, in 1933. Much of the art made at the school found itself under the Nazi heading of "degenerate". Sixty-one of its teachers and students were arrested; at least two, the textile artists Frederika Dicker and Otti Berger, died at Auschwitz. The school had been born out of the darkness of one dreadful war, and died in the darkness of another. The interval must, by definition, have been a place of light.

And so it was, although that light was by no means uniform. It was emitted by three different schools in three different places and with three very different directors. It also existed for 14 of the most febrile years in European art history, with teachers and students who came to it not just from Germany but from Switzerland (Klee, Itten), America (Feininger), the Soviet Union (Kandinsky), Hungary (Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy) and elsewhere. The architecture of the schools' buildings tells it own story, from the pared-down Classicism of the first to Gropius's famously factory-like building for the second. The idea of a homogenised Bauhaus – of a Bauhaus – is simply a misunderstanding.

This makes the hang of the Barbican's exhibition particularly useful. Visitors navigate the show in a descending figure-of-eight, taking in the various Bauhauser paintings, puppets, lamps, teapots, typefaces – as they go. I'll just mention Moholy-Nagy's Construction in Enamel (EM1), the instructions for which were dictated to a sign-making factory by telephone. But there are also historical changes, culminating in the work of Josef and Anni Albers – resolutely Modern in including paintings, furniture and weavings, in an integrated, rational style. With the closure of the last Bauhaus in 1933, the Alberses left for America, as Mies and Moholy-Nagy would, too. Modernism went with them, thank goodness.

 

To 12 Aug (020-7638 8891)

Critic's choice

Couldn't get a ticket for the Leonardo da Vinci show? Here's a chance to see a different side to his genius, with an exhibition of his anatomical drawings, at the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace (till 7 Oct). Catch the gorgeous Turner and the Elements at Margate's Turner Contemporary gallery and get swept away by all those stormy scenes – but hurry, it closes 13 May.

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