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The seeds of the outsider

10 Sep 2019

The seeds of the outsider Image

By Rhonda Dredge

The Bauhaus movement in Germany has been one of the world’s most influential, particularly in the way it taught students how to combine logic and intuition in their artwork.

You can still visit the original school in Weimar and see the design experiments set by Master Kandinsky.

Students were required to combine two formal elements with one informal.

Kandinsky colour coded geometric shapes but these were just the starting points for students’ own experiments.

Buxton Contemporary has staged an exhibition for the centennial of the movement’s inception in 1919 called Bauhaus Now! that revisits this point in history.

The exhibition, which includes contemporary responses and historical works, attempts to be both formal and informal in line with the ideology. First a phenomenon was analysed logically in terms of its distinct qualities then it was synthesised widely with other phenomena.

“An exhibition inevitably simplifies a complex story,” said director Ryan Johnston, but this is one of the pleasures of the Buxton experience. Curators are not afraid to take a position.

One moving aspect of the story told, by Sydney curator Ann Stephen, is that of the thistle.

The story goes that Walter Gropius, head of the Bauhaus school, likened their principles to the thistle; a plant that is present when everything else has died back. The marginalised thistle resists when seasons pass.

Students were encouraged to feel the prick of a thistle on their skin before imagining its dispersal. The thistle was a metaphor for how the ideas of the Bauhaus would travel and what a successful concept it turned out to be.

Gropius’s collaboration with industry, beginning with the construction of modular houses near the school, led to a revolution in architecture and design based on materials, functionality and repeatability.

The argument was that everyone should benefit from the new way of thinking and clean, functional housing units were one of the most pervasive responses.

Stephen has chosen to ignore the dominant strand of the Bauhaus in this exhibition and has returned to history. Before Gropius’s collaboration with industry, the school had a more mystical bent with theatrical performances related to the moon and the occult.

Master Itten, now known for his canonical book on colour, was a sorcerer and the large contemporary ceremonial figures of Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams, with their amusing lights, whistles and buckets, connect to the spiritual world.

Was the more informal, intuitive aspect of art suppressed by the architectural model that eventually led to the concrete uniformity we now know today? Is it too late to go back?

Included in the exhibition is a moving essay by Pam Hanford about the original meaning of technology.

“In the popular imagination technology is associated with change and moving forward into the future, the digital age and space travel come to mind. But in his famous essay on the subject Heidegger says that its purpose was the opposite of that,” she said.

Technology in the old days protected humans from change by freeing the human dependency on nature, place, accident and fate with things that harnessed sun, water and so on.

Paul Klee’s original thistle painting is on display at Buxton and is apparently the only Klee work in Australia. It was bought by the NGV in 1953. Beside it is a watercolour and monotype by Ludwig Hirschfield Mack, who was deported here in 1940 as an enemy alien.

Mack did the rendition of a thistle seed in Australia in 1960 almost 30 years after Klee painted his thistle, a fusion between a fairytale and the plant’s life cycle, providing a moving tribute to the school which was eventually closed down by the Nazis in 1933.

“It appears to be a response,” writes Stephen. “As the seeds of the outsider are scattered.”

Bauhaus Now! Is on at Buxton Contemporary until 20 October.

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