A friend of mine, the artist David Batchelor, had an exhibition in Edinburgh this summer called My Own Private Bauhaus. His title made me smile. I liked how it plays off Gus van Sant’s 1991 indie film, but with a tribute to the most influential art and design school of the last century – and possibly ever. It seemed to say something about influence and intimacy, about deeply personal journeys. Perhaps everyone has their own private Bauhaus, I thought.
This year is the centenary of the school founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar. Amid a slew of celebratory articles, it has often been forgotten that the Bauhaus was neither a movement nor a coherent style, but a strikingly varied art school. It encompassed craft and mysticism, teapots and mechanical ballets, parties and polemics. It was also extremely short-lived, closing under Nazi pressure after less than 15 years. As an inspiration, though, the Bauhaus has been exceptionally potent and portable. A hundred years later, it lives on in unexpected ways.
As a curator, I came to making exhibitions by way of experimental music rather than art history. In the early 2000s, to be a music-obsessed teenager in Suffolk meant scouring the racks of record shops and the back pages of The Wire magazine, rather than Spotify. This kind of fandom means, I think, supporting what dwells on the fringes of established canons. It also means becoming besotted by unlikely connections between art and music and design, where an album cover or something hidden deep in the liner notes puts you on to something completely new.
I’ve spent the last couple of years researching an exhibition that explores the Bauhaus’s many afterlives in Britain. It is titled Still Undead, a nod to a line from the 1982 song Bela Lugosi’s Dead, by the Northampton goth band Bauhaus. Not only did they borrow their name from the school, but also their logo and typeface.
After the school closed in 1933, its masters and students – at least, those fortunate enough to be able to leave Germany – scattered around the world. A number came to Britain, a jarring introduction to the class system and mostly unenthusiastic cultural institutions. But this indifference pushed them into surprising places.
László Moholy-Nagy, ever energetic, spent an almost impossibly prolific couple of years in London, where he designed everything from sci-fi special effects to shop-window displays. Lucia Moholy – László’s first wife, who remains under-recognised – took portraits of counts and countesses. Another Bauhaus-trained photographer, Edith Tudor-Hart, captured arresting documentary images of interwar street life. The barely known Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack made fantastical musical instruments with school kids in Peckham, southeast London, and coal miners in Wales. The list goes on.
Terence Conran once said something to the effect that the British are completely allergic to modernism. The only way he thought it could be smuggled in was under the cover of pop culture. And it is true that the Bauhaus can be detected everywhere from Factory Records to Liberty fabrics, from Kraftwerk to James Bond. The title sequences for both From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964), for example, involve films and animated typefaces projected on to dancing figures. These were devised by the American graphic designer Robert Brownjohn, a former protege of Moholy-Nagy. Brownjohn was drawing on experiments in movement and projected light that can be traced all the way back to the props devised by Bauhaus students for parties in the 1920s.
You can even trace a line between the Bauhaus and Vidal Sassoon, another fixture of Swinging London. In the early 60s, around the time that Conran was setting up Habitat, Sassoon crossed paths with the architect Marcel Breuer (whose tubular steel furniture today encapsulates one popular image of the Bauhaus). This meeting was crucial for the hairstylist, who credited his invention of the five-point bob to the Bauhaus focus on structure and geometry. A decade on, when styles had shifted from clean-lined bobs to mohawks, Sassoon turned to the Bauhaus once again. This time, he created a series of vivid dye jobs with a palette borrowed from the colour theory of Johannes Itten, the Swiss painter-mystic who cast a spell over the Bauhaus’s early years.
Models with shocks of pink Sassoon-styled hair were shot by the Australian photographer Robyn Beeche, who documented the denizens of nightclubs such as Blitz in Covent Garden and the Alternative Miss World contests in the 1980s. One muse was her countryman Leigh Bowery. Many of the more fantastical costumes captured by Beeche, and worn by Bowery, feel directly sampled from Bauhaus ballets. And many of the designs of this early 80s crucible of pop, performance and mass culture are a cut-and-paste collage of 1920s reference points: Weimar cabaret, constructivist angles, De Stijl colours.
Maybe we construct these webs of correspondence, these chains of influence, to distract ourselves from the present. Because, a century on from when Gropius first opened the doors of the Bauhaus, art education in the UK feels in crisis. The arts are being stripped out of school curriculums. Ideas that for 100 years have been fundamental to art schools – experimentation, failure – are being replaced by the language of tech start-ups: innovation, disruption, entrepreneurship. Students are no longer artists and dreamers, but customers. Call me an idealist, but in the midst of this, I still imagine art school as a place of experiment not just employability, of collaboration rather than debt. That’s my own private Bauhaus.
Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary. Still Undead opens at Nottingham Contemporary on 21 September, and is co-curated by Marion von Osten and Grant Watson, as part of the Bauhaus Imaginista initiative.