Kandinsky’s Small Worlds

‘Allegro’. Mark marking in response to music, art foundation (Kathryn Garner, 1998).

In London a few weeks ago, I managed to get to the ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ exhibition at the Barbican.

The Bauhaus was a school founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, as Germany was undergoing political and social upheaval after World War I. The Bauhaus school combined teaching of the arts and crafts, with architecture a few years later, and photography towards the end of its life. It became revered for its approach to design, being the prominent influence on Modernist architecture and design. Indeed, many of the domestic objects and textiles in the exhibition seem quite ordinary to our eyes, due to their profound impact on modern design.

The exhibition charted the teaching and the students of the school itself, without focusing on a particular type of work or style. In this way there is quite literally something for everyone, and would be a great exhibition to take all your friends and family to on a big day out.

The Bauhaus must have been a fantastic place to learn and to be a part of. It had many impressive teachers, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In testament to the students’ love for their teachers, in celebration of Klee’s 50th birthday, students hired a Junkers plane to drop presents right into his studio. Another series of photographs described Bauhaus parties: to the ‘Metal party’, guests would arrive dressed in tin foil or frying pans and dance to the sound of bells; for the ‘White party’, guests were asked to dress two-thirds in white and one-third spotted, checked or striped. Descendents of these parties survive in art schools today: at Falmouth College of Arts (now University College Falmouth), I attended an ‘S party’, where guests dressed as something beginning with the letter, ‘S’, and fellow Fine Artists held a ‘Rainbow party’.

As well as modern design, the Bauhaus school had a notable influence on teaching in art schools. A small room in the exhibition was dedicated to the preliminary course taught by Johannes Itten. Through this course, Itten aimed to free students of conventions through the study of materials, colour and form. Pieces on display, which had been created by the students, demonstrated clear similarities in teaching style with my own experience of an art foundation course at Bucks College (BTEC Diploma in Art & Design, Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, now Buckinghamshire New University). In one piece, particular holes in a nylon mesh were enlarged to make the material seem more like decorative lace than a strong, durable substance. In another, cardboard and fine metal wire were given strength in a celestial sculpture.

Textile pieces made during a project investigating materials. Recycled materials, including metal & plastic, art foundation course (Kathryn Garner, 1999).

The works that appealed to me most were Kandinsky’s ‘Small Worlds’ (1922) series and ‘Circles in a Circle’ (1923). These pieces, made early in his teaching appointment at the Bauhaus, have a strong sense of geometry and balance. ‘Small Worlds’ is a series of twelve prints comprised of six lithographs (including two transferred from woodcuts), four drypoints and two woodcuts, and serves as examples for each technique. The abstract images, as their name implies, each present themselves as an individual world, described by the association of line, form and colour, as well as the specific properties of each printing technique. Looking at these images, I felt as though I was gazing at a language whose characters I have not seen, or a planet with laws of physics differing from our own. The prints lack a sense of scale or seemingly any point of recognition upon which to hang a meaning.

‘Circles in a Circle’ is somehow more familiar, less ‘other-worldly’ that the ‘Small Worlds’ series. Executed in oil paint on canvas, this work is composed of a large, black circle containing twenty-six smaller, coloured circles. It is perhaps the biologist in me that quickly assigns ‘Petri dish’ to the larger circle, making the smaller circles, growing colonies of micro-organisms. This aside, there is also a strong feeling that every element is in the right place. Every coloured circle has an equal, yet opposing, partner, anchored elsewhere in the large arena. The movement of any one point or intersecting line would throw off the whole dynamic of the piece. In this way it is therefore teetering on the brink of… something. Of movement? Or perhaps of collapse.

The Bauhaus school closed in 1933 following withdrawal of funding after the Great Depression, a move to Berlin and further political unrest.

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