Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop.

Moholy-Nagy wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach, focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. The director, Walter Gropius, had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. When it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time it ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147). What a catastrophe.

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

Whitford quotes from the letters which Gropius sent out to his colleagues in which he explained that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that, Gropius realised that it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as a higher education administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, which lasted for two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, for example explorations of how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But it was during Meyer’s time that the school had its biggest-ever commercial success. Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper, a challenge which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and helped set up a Communist Party cell among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course, looming behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich – after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)

Impact

After being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. In particular Germany’s loss was America’s gain. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

As to the Bauhaus’s general influence, Whitford opened the book with a summary. The Bauhaus influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche, which Bauhaus architects and designers built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included: the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

Whitworth also points out that the Bauhaus legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s journalists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this was misleading; it certainly hadn’t been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)

Summary

By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.


Related links

Related reviews

Kandinsky by Hajo Düchting (1993)

The German publisher Taschen launched its inexpensive ‘Basic Art’ series back in 1985 with a volume on Picasso. 33 years later, it has nearly 200 titles in the series and recently relaunched them as tall, slim hardbacks at a standard price of £10. Decades ago I picked up a clutch of titles about the Expressionist painters when they were in their cheaper, paperback incarnation.

This one, about the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, is 96 pages long. It has about 80 illustrations, mostly in full colour, which give you an excellent overview of Kandinsky’s development from late-Victorian figurative work, through the Expressionist years – which saw his accelerated movement into abstraction around 1910 – his 7-year spell back in Moscow, before he moved back to Germany to teaching at the famous Bauhaus school of art and design, before his final years in exile in Paris.

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Kandinsky’s life in six chapters

The chapter titles give a good overview:

  • Mother Moscow 1866-1896
  • Kandinsky in Munich 1896-1911
  • Breakthrough to the abstract: Der Blaue Reiter 1911-1914
  • Russian Intermezzo 1914-1921
  • Point and Line to Plane: Kandinsky at the Bauhaus 1922-1933
  • Biomorphic abstraction: Kandinsky in Paris 1933-1944

The pioneer of abstract painting

A picture paints a thousand words, so here’s an overview of his evolving style:

Moscow

Born and educated in Moscow, Kandinsky’s parents divorced when he was young and he was brought up by his aunt who gave him a lifelong love of Russian legend and fairy tales. He studied law, and had a sideline in anthropology – in fact he was made a member of the Society for Anthropology and Ethnography for a study he made of rural peasant culture. But by the mid-1890s Kandinsky’s thinking had moved on. He had decided he wanted to be an artist. Recently married, in 1896 he persuaded his new wife that he was going to abandon his law studies and that they should move to Munich.

Munich

Munich had already experienced a ‘secession’ of progressive young artists from the official art school in 1892 and, as Kandinsky arrived, was just becoming the German centre of Art Nouveau (in Germany dubbed the Jugendstil) which advocated the rejection of Victorian mass-produced clutter, and a return to clarity of line and design.

Kandinsky applied to various art schools, took life and painting classes but he also proved to be a good organiser. In 1901 he was instrumental in setting up the ‘Phalanx’ group of painters and organising a series of exhibitions. For the next 14 years he was a leading light in a whole succession of movements and organisations in southern Germany.

In 1908 Kandinsky settled in the small Bavarian town of Murnau, where he lived and worked with his second wife-to-be, the painter Gabriele Münter. He joined the Theosophical Society, a promoter of arcane spiritual knowledge. We know from his letters that he was studying the abstruse teachings of the 13th century writer, Joachim of Fiore. In other words, Kandinsky was soaked in arcane and hermetic spiritualist teachings, convinced that the world stood on the brink of a new era and that his painting would help to usher it in.

In 1909 he began to divide his works into three categories:

  • Impressions which still have elements of naturalistic representation
  • Improvisations designed to convey spontaneous emotional reactions
  • Compositions the most serious category, only created after substantial preliminary work

Note how all three names are taken from the language of music, indicative of the era’s interest in ‘synaesthesia’, in the combination of music and art which had been fashionable since Whistler’s ‘nocturnes’ and ‘compositions’ of the 1870s.

The Blue Rider

In 1911 Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider group, which he led with Franz Marc. Both men wrote extensively on the importance of the ‘spiritual’ in the new art, indeed that’s the title of Kandinsky’s major theoretical work, On the Spiritual in Art (1913).

Together he and Marc compiled the ‘Blue Rider almanac’, designed to include a wealth of illustrations, not only of contemporary art but primitive, folk, and children’s art, with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, Russian folk art, and Bavarian religious art painted on glass. It included nine major essays, not only about art but on contemporary music and included the scores of pieces by the new group of ‘Second Vienna’ composers, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

In both the selection of essays and its innovative interplay of word and image, The Blaue Reiter Almanac remains one of our most critically important works of literature on the art theory and culture of the twentieth century.

The almanac was a call for spiritual renewal across all the arts, which would unite, in particular, music and painting, an idea which remained an inspiration for Kandinsky all his life.

Very quickly he now moved through increasingly abstract depictions of the subject to his first utterly abstract work, painted in 1910 (when he was 50 years old). Kandinsky spent the next four years experimenting with the new idea of ‘subjectless’ painting and was still exploring this new approach when war broke out in 1914 and he was forced to flee Germany to Switzerland. In 1915 he moved back to Mother Russia.

Back in Moscow

Düchting explains how Kandinsky the organiser and networker had also developed quite a career as an art journalist and critic. He had been working for Russian art journals throughout the 1900s, reporting on developments in Germany’s avant-garde. Through his contacts with Russian art journals he had been associated with successive post-Symbolist art movements in Russia such as ‘the World of Art’, ‘the Blue Rose’ and the ‘Karo Bube’ groups – so Kandinsky had plenty of contacts to look up when he reappeared in Moscow in 1915.

But he was to be disappointed. Kandinsky found his extreme spiritual attitudes and wispy abstraction out of tune with the times. The 1912 Futurist manifesto, ‘A slap in the fact to public taste’, had been popular with the new generation of iconoclasts in Russia. Constructivism had been founded in 1913, Suprematism in 1915 – and both were fiercely anti-spiritual, interested in very hard edges and geometric abstraction.

The coming young artists were Rodchenko, Malevich and El Lissitzky, artists who were to flourish in the extreme avant-garde environment created by the Bolshevik revolution, a world away from the nature worship and spiritual ideals of his colleagues in Germany.

Nonetheless, Moscow was a big city, with many artistic strands, and so Kandinsky found employment. He helped to organise a series of exhibitions, found teaching and journalism work – but felt unwanted. He managed to navigate the chaos of the early years of the Russian Revolution. He even found work in the early versions of a State Cultural Institute. It wasn’t Soviet pressure that led him to feel increasingly alienated as the 1920s dawned – it was the opposition of the leading figures in new Russian art. The times were changing.

The Bauhaus 1922-33

In 1921 he returned to Germany – wise move as it turned out. His key compadres in the Blue Rider (Marc, Macke) had been killed in the war and Berlin was now dominated by the bitterly satirical mode soon to be named ‘the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’).

So Kandinsky was relieved to be invited to join the new Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar, where some of his former colleagues – Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger – were already working. It looked to be a more congenial environment.

Kandinsky began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1922. He taught students in the new Introductory Course where he could involve them in his ongoing investigations of pictorial elements. A few years later he published a summary of his discoveries in ‘Point and Line to Plane’ (1926).

Kandinsky’s teaching was highly schematic, with courses on the meaning and nature of the different colours, their relative positions on colour wheels, their warmth or coldness etc – as well as technical teaching about the effectiveness of different binding media for painting canvas, glass, walls and murals. Paralleling these were lessons on lines, curves, circles and other shapes, exploring their effect on the eye and mind.

(It all sounds technical and impressive, but it’s important to emphasise that all these teachings, thorough and systematic though they were, were essentially subjective, based on his own knowledge of colour and line. If you’re looking for a truly scientific understanding of the impact of colour and line, you have to look elsewhere.)

In 1923 the Bauhaus underwent a reorganisation, with the departure of Johannes Itten, a precursor of the hippies, who valued intuition, held meditation and controlled breathing classes, and was a follower of the obscure fire-breathing cult of Mazdaznan – and his replacement with the Hungarian polymath, committed communist and devotee of industrial design and functionalism, László Moholy-Nagy.

Under the influence of the Bauhaus new emphasis on unifying the arts in the practical cause of building affordable houses for the masses, Kandinsky’s art entered a new, ‘cool’ phase, exploring the interplay of much more clearly defined, geometric shapes.

The Bauhaus went through a number of iterations, the original Weimar incarnation closing in 1925 and moving to purpose-built buildings at Dessau. By the end of the 1930s the leadership and some of the students were becoming politicised by the deteriorating situation in Germany. Hannes Meyer, director from 1928 to 1930, was a communist and encouraged students to criticise Klee and Kandinsky’s ‘ivory tower painting’.

It’s worth stopping and pondering the enormous social and cultural changes Kandinsky had seen since he arrived in Germany in 1901.

The Bauhaus was harassed by the Nazis before they even came to power and once Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 the intimidation intensified. Its final director, the architect Mies van der Rohe declared it officially closed in August 1933. By that time many of the faculty had left the country. Once more Kandinsky had to flee, this time heading west to France.

Paris 1933-1944

Kandinsky’s output from this last decade in Paris is characterised by wonderfully light, even humorous, zoomorphic and biomorphic abstractions. They often look like a fantasy of bacteria seen under a microscope.

He was, as always, involved in the politics of the art world, finding himself rejected by the dominant school of Constructivist artists as well as remaining traditionalists. Believe it or not, he flirted with the Surrealists and met their leader, André Breton who in the 1920s bought some paintings off him. But by the mid-1930s Breton had hardened his approach, politically and aesthetically: for the Surrealists the unconscious was everything, but Kandinsky’s post-war output had been the opposite – extremely carefully planned and organised using his elaborate theories about colour and shape – the opposite of ‘automatic painting’.

Most interesting to me is that, although they all came from different roots, and from different countries, Kandinsky’s art ranks alongside that of Klee, Miro and Arp in a generation which fully established abstract art as a profound and varied visual universe. It’s an odd social phenomenon, the convergence of so many artists on such a similar approach.

And with regard to Kandinsky in particular, it is lovely to finish the book and discover that, even as the world situation deteriorated through the later 1930s, and even as a new World War broke out, he continued to produce work of unparalleled calm, clarity and beauty.

What a colourful journey! What a wonderful life!

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)


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Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


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Adventures of the Black Square @ Whitechapel Art Gallery

I wrote about the big retrospective of Malevich at Tate Modern in August last year. This is rather like the sequel: Malevich II – The Square Goes Global.

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) was a Russian avant-garde artist, architect, designer and writer. From early naturalistic paintings of peasants, farm scenes etc he evolved quickly towards the legendary exhibition – titled The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 – in 1915 which exhibited 39 paintings of black squares, rectangles and other geometric shapes on a pale cream background.

Up in the corner of the room, where the Russian icon was traditionally situated, was placed the famous black square painting. Famous because it declared the end of four or five centuries of Western art struggling to create and exploit the idea of depth and perspective in an oil painting. Malevich tore up the entire notion that a painting is a realistic window onto the world. Painting is shapes on a flat plane. Shapes, colours, whatever you want. They can do anything. There is infinite scope. Painting set free. He called his version of the new, geometric art, Suprematism.

(The work below isn’t the black square, but one of Malevich’s other black and white geometric works which featured in the famous show.)

Kazimir Malevich Black and White. Suprematist Composition 1915 Oil on canvas 80 x 80 cm Moderna Museet, Stockholm Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

Kazimir Malevich – Black and White. Suprematist Composition (1915)
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Oil on canvas
Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

This exhibition at the lovely, airy Whitechapel Gallery, right next to Aldgate East tube, takes Malevich’s iconic square and tracks its influence through the hundred years since its début, right up to the present day. 1915-2015. The catalogue says the show is divided into four themes:

  • ‘Utopia’ – the black square as founder of new aesthetic and political horizons
  • ‘Architectonics’ – floating geometries that suggest new social spaces as imagined by Lyubov Popova or Piet Mondrian
  • ‘Communication’ – the flood of early 20th century manifestos and avant-garde graphics
  • The ‘Everyday’ – the square around us, for example in textiles by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in abstract motifs painted on Peruvian lorries, in random white squares photographed in cities around the world etc

In practice the show consists of one or two works each by over a hundred artists. A hundred! From the past hundred years. From all around the world (Europe, America, Brazil, China). That’s a lot of names, a lot of countries, a lot of styles, to get anywhere near grasping.

Therefore, I found it easier to manage – and I found the division of four rooms fell easily into – a simpler, binary schema: the first room shows the Early Modernism of Malevich and his generation of likeminded experimenters, in painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, ballet and music, in Europe (and Russia).

The other three rooms show geometric art from The Rest of the Twentieth Century, from around the world, in all its bewildering variety.

Part 1. Early Modernism

Malevich’s name is one among a flood of other innovators from the period just before the Great War to the mid-1930s. Other pioneers given passing mention or featured by one choice work here include El Lissitsky and the Hungarian-born Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (who took up a post at the Bauhaus when it was formed in 1919) and Wassily Kandinsky – breath-taking experimenters, as well as the often overlooked woman artist Lyubov Popova.

Lyubov Popova Painterly Architectonic 1916 Oil on board 59.4 × 39.4 cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Lyubov Popova – Painterly Architectonic (1916)
Oil on board
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Gustav Klutsis produced a number of designs and images which make clear the avant-garde’s association with revolutionary politics, with the wish to use new ways of seeing, building and designing to create a new society, whose socialist mechanistic schemas have been revived periodically ever since, in posters, and album covers, and other art school-inspired media.

Gustav Klutsis Design for Loudspeaker No.5 1922 Coloured ink and pencil on paper 26.6 × 14.7 cm Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki © ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Gustav Klutsis – Design for Loudspeaker No.5 (1922)
Coloured ink and pencil on paper
Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki
© ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Surprisingly, maybe, alongside the German and Russian avant-garde was a thriving Dutch one, epitomised in De Stijl, founded in 1917. Its most famous member was indubitably Piet Mondrian, who developed the grid paintings of rectangles of white, yellow, red or blue which are one of Modernism’s most immediately recognisable achievements.

Piet Mondrian Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42 Oil paint on canvas 72.7 × 69.2 cm © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014 Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964

Piet Mondrian – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red (1937–42)
Oil paint on canvas
© DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014
Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964

Modernist magazines

The show features quite an array of magazines from Germany, Russia, France, Britain, from the Modernist moment during the Great War until well into the 1930s, including Ezra Pound’s Blast, which I reverenced at school in the 1970s; the Little Review, home to Eliot and Pound; transition, containing another instalment of the long experimental work by James Joyce which became Finnegan’s Wake – these I know from their literary associations – but also on display were a lot of others I’d never heard of from across Europe, featuring the trademark experimental typefaces, designs and layouts of the period.

Modernist photos

As well as paintings and magazines, the exhibition has a fine selection of photos pinned to the wall as well as a large video screen showing a large slideshow selection of early modernist pioneers at work. the visitor can spend a happy 6 or 7 minutes just standing watching the procession of wonderful black and white photos from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. Most memorable from the slideshow were shots of Piet Mondrian’s apartment-cum-studio and Wassily Kandinsky supervising students at the Bauhaus painting sets for a theatrical production.

But it also made me think all over again (like the Malevich exhibition, like the Bauhaus exhibition did) that whereas a lot of these super-famous paintings turn out to be quite small and quite amateurish, and a lot of the buildings were never built or are crumbling Art Deco ruins that you’d walk past without a second look, and all the magazines seem surprisingly small, plain and dusty – the photographs of the period still pack a tremendous punch and are maybe the best medium for conveying the unbridled energy and experimentalism of the 1920s and 1930s.

I especially liked three by Werner Mantz, who I’d never heard of before. ‘During the 1920s and ’30s Mantz photographed functionalist architecture such as houses, factories, bridge constructions and motorways. The pictures are extremely detailed with .. bold cropping and angles.’ Wonderful.

Photos like this made architecture far more exciting than it could possibly be in real life, and helped to encourage the notion that architecture could create new societies, new politics, new human nature. All of which turned out to be desperately wrong.

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Part 2. The rest of the century

So far the show is a highly enjoyable refresher course in Modernist Art. You could leave now, pick up a book on the subject in the airy bookshop, and spend the rest of the day reminding yourself of the glories of European Modernist art.

But the real point of the show is the remaining rooms, which contain a bewildering smörgåsbord of styles and approaches and media and artists, old and young, male and female, from Europe, the Middle East, South America, from schools and movements I had never heard of, from the 60 plethoric years since the end of World War Two.

Quite overwhelmed and spoilt for choice, I could only give them each a fair crack of the whip and see what made an impact, what lingered. I’ve placed the following in chronological order:

Hélio Oiticica Metaesquema 464 1958 Gouache on board 29.8 x 33cm Courtesy of Catherine & Franck Petitgas Photo: Todd White Photography © the Artist. All rights reserved

Hélio Oiticica – Metaesquema 464 (1958)
Gouache on board
Courtesy of Catherine & Franck Petitgas
Photo: Todd White Photography
© The Artist. All rights reserved

  • Swatch of Snap Fasteners by Běla Kolářová (1964) Very funny, very striking, very light and imaginative and visual.
  • Third Syntagmatic by Jeffrey Steele (1965) – his career has been spent creating geometric images according to complex mathematical formulae. BBC slideshow of Jeffrey Steele paintings
  • Poem by Saloua Raouda Choucair (1965) – Simple. Brilliant. Yes. A rounded geometry.
  • Homage to the Square by Joseph Albers – Albers appears to have done quite a few homages to the square, the one exhibited here being in shades of orange.
  • Roberto Burle Marx – never heard of him before, and why not, when he appears to have made wonderfully colourful paintings of abstract but sinuous and organic shapes, very life-full, very Brazilian.
  • 10 x 10 by Carl André (1967) – slender square slate tiles laid out in a square and which we are allowed to walk on (unless we are wearing stilletos). Minimalism. Flat. Open. There. No secrets.
  • Monument for Tatlin (1969) by Dan Flavin – a tribute to the famous ideal Russian avant-garde plan for a vast building-cum-radio transmitter for the new Soviet state, cast in Flavin’s trademark ‘minimalist’ fluorescent tubing. Though a properly trained art student might be able to argue this is subversive of something, from our perspective in 2015 it looks a lot like the real political threat of Tatlin’s building (broadcasting revolutionary propaganda to Europe) has been completely subsumed into the fluorescent department store and office lighting of consumer capitalism.
Dóra Maurer Seven Rotations 1–6 1979 Six gelatin silver prints 20 × 20 cm each Collection of Zsolt Somlói and Katalin Spengler © Dóra Maurer

Dóra Maurer – Seven Rotations 1–6 (1979)
Six gelatin silver prints
Collection of Zsolt Somlói and Katalin Spengler
© Dóra Maurer

This striking image from the eminent Hungarian artist Dóra Maurer consists of seven iterations of her holding a large photo in front of her face, and in each iteration it has become populated by versions of the photo, increasing in number and density. So striking it is used for the poster of the entire exhibition, not Malevich’s square. Another reminder of the power of black and white photography.

  • Dmitri Prigov – locked up in an insane asylum in 1986, Prigov was a post-War dissident Russian artist, represented here by images of books in the cold Russian snow, an image I can’t find on Google.
  • Shrunk by Angela de la Cruz – experiments with breaking up the wooden frames which hold canvases in a rigid rectangle, preserving and sometimes painting the resultant wreckage of the traditional mechanism of Western art.
  • Sceaux Gardens Estate by Keith Coventry (1995) One of less well-known of the 1997 Sensation artists, Coventry has made paintings out of the architect’s designs for big housing estates in London, implicitly satirising the utopian hopes of the early Modernist architects who intended to make Ideals For Living and socialist paradises for the workers with their concrete and steel tower blocks.
Gabriel Orozco Light Signs #1 (Korea) 1995 Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box 100 × 100 × 19.7 cm Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © the Artist

Gabriel Orozco – Light Signs #1 (Korea) (1995)
Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
© the Artist

  • I Don’t Remember by Clay Ketter (2006) There appear to be numerous works with this title, so I’ve linked to a bunch of them on Google Images: I always like painting which is rough-finished, the canvas frayed round the edges like Paul Klee’s, or the readymade painting surfaces of Alfred Wallis, which featured the St Ives exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, or Jasper John’s works with stencils and bits of flag or crate or found material stuck to the surface. Ketter’s are large photographs of the walls of derelict or half-demolished buildings with panels of real world materials stuck on, to create a mix of naturalism and collage. Big. Striking.
  • Rings by Sarah Morris (2008) Now I google it I find Morris seems to have done numerous works featuring rings and titled rings. To be honest, I didn’t like the shiny Duluz gloss finish of what could, possibly, be 1960s Pop Art paintings, but there’s no denying their vigour and impact.
  • Top Secret 32 by Jenny Holzer (2010) a satire on the numerous ‘redacted’ documents which have featured in public life in recent years, from dodgy Iraq dossiers to the Edward Snowden revelations, as well as vast troves of documents involved in bank scandals
  • Leadlight by Adrian Esparza (2012) Esparza appears to have created a mode of art from disassembling woven tapestries and displaying the constituent threads into shapes, squares and so on, displayed across whole walls of galleries.
Zhao Yao Spirit Above All 1-93A 2012 Acrylic on denim 200 × 222 × 8 cm Private Collection © Zhao Yao Courtesy Pace London

Zhao Yao – Spirit Above All 1-93A (2012)
Acrylic on denim
Private Collection
© Zhao Yao
Courtesy Pace London

  • October Colouring-In Book by David Batchelor (2012) The art magazine October has been published since 1976 but never featured an illustration in colour. To take ‘revenge’, British artist David Batchelor dismantled an edition of the magazine and coloured every page with different shapes and outlines and colours, and the 20 or so separate framed pages take up one wall of a room, and are lovely and bright and inventive and unthreatening and funny.
Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz.<br /> Photo Stephen White

Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz.
Photo Stephen White

Thoughts and reflections

1. Stepping out into the gritty diesel sunlight of Commercial Road and then strolling along the backstreets to Petticoat Lane and so between the forest of tall, commercial buildings towards Liverpool Street Station, made me notice how modern architecture, in particular, is made up of squares and rectangles, whether of glass or concrete slabs, squares and rectangles everywhere. How so much of the hard-edged geometry of the vision of Modernist architecture has been completely assimilated into the buildings that surround us.

2. BUT – as in Hannah Starkey’s large photos of women alienated in the stark steel and glass atriums and waiting rooms of modern commercial buildings – how that Modernist vision of soaring glass and steel buildings, far from offering the liberation from bourgeois convention and society which the early Modernists envisioned, turned out to be the perfect style for fascism, communism or, in our time, corporate capitalism. In all its guises, a style equated with power and control. Sure it successfully replaced the fussy decorativeness of Victorian and Edwardian architecture – with a new brutalism, a physical setting for the worship of youth, power, money, control.

3. One of the last items was a video by Karthik Pandian, bang up to date as it was completed this very year. Reversal Red Square Video (2015) is a highly finished sequence of photos of cool looking dudes in darkened bars or studio spaces, across which float red rectangles of varying sizes and shapes with a minimal humming soundtrack. Simple idea, but with production values much higher than your usual art video, and calmingly mesmeric in effect.

As I sat watching these red shapes drift across the screen I thought, What about the biggest and most blindingly obvious embedding of the black square in our lives today – the screen? Most of us spend most of our day looking at the screens of desktop computers, laptops, ipads, ipods, or our smart phones (as I am as I write this, as you are as you read this).

I was surprised there didn’t appear to be a single work reflecting on the omnipresence of the rectangular screen in every aspect of modern life, and all the issues of power, control, connectivity, superficiality versus depth, speed versus reflection, and so on which we are all having to engage with whether we want to or not.

Related links

Picasso and Modern British Art @ Tate Britain

To Tate Britain to see Picasso and Modern British Art before it closes (15 July). The exhibition comprises a few rooms of works Picasso exhibited in England before and after the Great War, before dedicating a room each to British artists he strongly influenced and/or met and knew – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, David Hockney. Lots to enjoy and have opinions about.

My son wasn’t impressed by Picasso. I agree: there’s very little of Picasso’s work that excites me. His scope and variety seem to me insidious, too farflung and overstretched. I don’t like the sentimentalism of the Blue period. I don’t like the hundreds of muddy brown cubist works. (I like fabrics and bits of everyday life stuck onto canvas, but done better by lots of others.) I don’t like the small-headed fat women running along beaches of his 1920s neo-classical period.

Pablo Picasso – Two Women Running on the Beach The Race (1922)

I don’t like Guernica. (I like the idea, I sympathise with the intent, I just don’t enjoy looking at it.) I quite like the line drawings from the 40s and 50s, the dove etc.

Picasso’s Three Dancers, one of his two favourite paintings

Picasso, through all his mutations of style, remains wedded to figurative art, to representation. This strikes me as immensely limiting, constraining. Compare and contrast him with the real revolutionaries, the spearheads of abstraction – Kandinsky, Malevich or Klee or Mondrian – who, to my mind, discovered and invented an abstract art suitable for the 20th century. (1)

In those early years around the Great War, Wyndham Lewis criticised Picasso for his passivity, for being so studio-bound, especially in the mud-brown cubist pictures. In his notorious avant-garde magazine, Blast, published on the eve of the Great War, Lewis lambasted Picasso for his limited subject matter and lack of formal energy. Does Picasso ever paint the city, trains and cars and planes, factories, crowds? No. Lewis attacks

‘… the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive personality of Picasso.’

I agree. Whereas everything Wyndham Lewis ever did lights my candle! I am excited by the fierce angularity, the satirical bite of his Vorticist paintings (and writings). It may be less ambitious and he didn’t keep reinventing his style – but what he did do he did vividly and excitingly.

In contrast to this European avant-garde stuff, Graham Sutherland has always seemed to me to be dull. His religious works, various altarpieces from after the second war (he converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1920s) are sub-Francis Bacon. His twisted landscapes, well, are an acquired taste maybe. (2)

Workshop by Wyndham Lewis (1915)

Workshop by Wyndham Lewis (1915)

Ben Nicholson was more interesting than I remembered. I’ve always liked his small white reliefs from the 30s.

Henry Moore is an undoubted genius but I’m not the only one who wonders whether he didn’t produce too much and take too many public commissions with the result that his sculpture is too ubiquitous, making them strangely invisible (I wrote that before googling the idea and finding this Guardian article).

David Hockney (apparently) took from Picasso the imperative to paint, paint, paint, not to worry whether things were finished or perfect or whether he had a consistent ‘style’. Which explains Hockney’s huge output as captured in the recent Royal Academy exhibition, and his fearlessness in technical experiments, from his cubist montages of Polaroid photos to the latest ipad art. The colour and vibrancy and scope of Hockney’s work is so refreshing after the dingy pessimism of someone like Sutherland or the Home Counties tupperware-and-modernism of Ben Nicholson.

A few rooms were dedicated to Picasso’s reception in Britain. Suffice to say he was embraced by a tiny élite of Bloomsburyites and ridiculed by everyone else, including the so-called Art Establishment. Until well into the 1960s Picasso was being lampooned in newspapers and beyond. The British just don’t really get modern art. It’s not a modern country. It is dominated by people educated in private schools themselves designed to train people to run a Victorian Empire, with a bluff, no-nonsense, philistine attitude to anything which doesn’t involve hitting a ball. A superficial enthusiasm for the Young British Artists doesn’t mask the brute philistinism of the great mass of the population.

Every other country’s twentieth century involved revolution, invasion and devastation. Modernism in art and music expressed real, actual experiences of extremity, desolation, and the burning need to create new forms and new ways of thinking after the old ones were burned to the ground. Only England wasn’t invaded in either of the World Wars, allowing our elites and their subjects to go on thinking the old ways were best. The Germans had Mahler or Schoenberg; the French Debussy and Ravel; we had Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The continentals had Kandinsky and Malevich and Braques and Mondrian. We had Duncan Bell.


Related links

(1)  Picasso reminds me of Stravinsky (who he worked with and who dedicated his shortest piece to him). Stravinsky is the dominating figure of 20th music, as Picasso to art, and yet he, also, didn’t really break away from the western tradition and returned to it in his neo-classical period in the 20s and 30s exactly as Picasso did in art. Throughout all his stylistic twists and turns Stravinsky is at heart a conservative unlike the real revolutionaries Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and all who followed them. Schoenberg famously caricatured Igor as ‘Little Modernski’ and I think that nails him.

(2) “Sutherland is the hollow man of British art whose artistic integrity was subsumed in Picasso’s powerful personality.” – Richard Dorment

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Bauhaus: Art as Life @ the Barbican

1 July 2012

To the Barbican for their Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition, biggest one for a generation, apparently, including artefacts from the former East Germany. A detailed chronological account of the development of the institution from the amalgamation of pre-existing art schools in 1919 – ceramics, prints, painting, fabrics, photography, sculpture – to its last phase, 1930-33, when Mies van der Rohe turned it more or less into an architecture school. From Arts & Crafts to Modernism.

The German word Bau means building or construction, so the word Bauhaus literally means construction house, building house. More loosely, House of building, House of construction. You can see why it’s generally left in the original German.

The Bauhaus is famous and important because the principles it developed, its approach to design, went on to influence the design of almost everything in all industrialised countries, for the rest of the 20th century, having a particularly huge impact on modern architecture:

“The Bauhaus was based on the principles of the 19th-century English designer William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement that art should meet the needs of society and that no distinction should be made between fine arts and practical crafts. It also depended on the more forward-looking principles that

1. modern art and architecture must be responsive to the needs and influences of the modern industrial world and that

2. good designs must pass the test of both aesthetic standards and sound engineering.

(Iconic interiors)

All skyscrapers, all office furniture, all Habitat/Ikea style simplicity of design, with clean straight lines, all this derives from Bauhaus principles.

But the exhibition itself has nothing about Bauhaus’s impact, instead focusing in great detail on the actual artefacts produced by the classes through the years, and so is very small scale, with rooms dedicated to early woodcuts, experiments in typography, a room of puppets from the puppet theatre they built, and so on. My son thought a lot of it looked like the paintings and woodcuts and fabrics and pottery produced in his school art department, and it reminded me of school, too.

But a number of more finished things stood out. I liked the paintings by Kandinsky and Moholy-Nagy. I love geometric, abstract shapes, but with asymmetries, unexpectednesses. Kandinsky is a fascinating artist; his experiments with shape and colour directly mirror Schoenberg’s experiments with music and they knew each other and corresponded.

Circle in a Circle, Kandinsky

In 1925 the school moved from Weimar to Dessau where the mayor gave them land to build an institute based on their design principles. The strikingly modern result is captured in umpteen photos and films, along with recreations of the furniture they designed for themselves, and even a recreated view from the Director’s room.

Photo of the Bauhaus, Dessau, as it looks today

Most striking were the costumes students and staff made for their regular parties and theatre productions. The ‘Metal Party’ where all the outfits had to be entirely made of metal looked amazing. The theatrical productions were an opportunity to experiment with abstract design, costumes, movements combined with experimental light affects.

Contemporary photo of experimental Bauhaus dance costumes

But eventually the party had to end. The school had moved to Berlin in 1932 where, under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it concentrated on revolutionary new architectural styles, but struggled for funding. The exhibition stops dead in its tracks on the July day in 1933 when the Bauhaus dissolved itself under pressure from the new Nazi regime. Most of its teachers and students made their way to America where they influenced a generation of graphic designers and architects.

Having reviewed in detail a lot of the output of the school, including a lot of juvenile or practice work, it would have been good to be given some sense of the final Impact or Influence of the Bauhaus. Doubtless that’s the subject of a trillion books and monographs, but it would have been handy to have it summarised or even referred to.

See this excellent review of the exhibition in the London Review of Books.

The exhibition ends 12 August.

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