The exhibition departs from a reflective coloured light game by the Bauhaus student Kurt Schwertfeger, an apparatus he designed for the Bauhaus Lantern Festival in 1922. Experiments of this kind were key elements of Bauhaus party culture, which included music, costume and performance. They fed into the theater workshop, and would go on to find new contexts in commercial design and popular culture. Still Undead opens by locating this light game alongside similar works from the Bauhaus, demonstrating a relationship to experimental film, music and theatre.
In 1935, László Moholy-Nagy whose film black white grey appears in this display, sought to establish himself in Britain along with a group of Bauhaus émigrés including Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Otti Berger, Margaret Leischner and Edith Tudor-Hart. Moholy-Nagy, who celebrated the ‘amateurishness’ of the British, was in particular able to find a commercial reception for his experimental approach to graphic design and shop-window display and in his photographs commenting on the British class system.
In the mid-century, Basic Design training, a radical departure in art education – pioneered by artists including Richard Hamilton, Rita Donagh, Victor Pasmore and Harry Thubron – drew on the Bauhaus preliminary course, in its exploration of abstraction, color, form and materiality. Another conduit for Bauhaus ideas came in the Royal Academy’s 1968 exhibition 50 Years of Bauhaus. This coincided with a widespread transformation of postwar British music, fashion, film and retail. Habitat’s founder Terence Conran, absorbing ideas from the Bauhaus, believed that good design should be for the whole community, and used the school’s platonic sphere, cube and cone for its logo. Mary Quant made op-inspired fashion accessible through mass production, while Vidal Sassoon invented sleek minimal haircuts inspired by the architecture of Mies van der Rohe.
In the late 1970s, Leeds School of Art was considered to be ‘the most influential art school in Europe since the Bauhaus’ with graduates including Soft Cell and Fad Gadget going on to achieve commercial success with electronic music, segues into a larger discussion of British youth culture from the late 1970s and early 80s. Here the turn towards avant-garde movements from the beginning of the 20th century such as Constructivism, Dada and the Bauhaus, took place within the vocabulary of postmodern appropriation, and include examples such as Leigh Bowery, Peter Saville and Bauhaus the band. This section of the show also invokes the spirit of Bauhaus parties, performance and theater, through the work of Gertrud Arndt, Lux Feininger and Oskar Schlemmer.
The exhibition title, Still Undead, reflects how the legacy of the Bauhaus lingers on in unlikely places. Used as a metaphor, it also points to a British relationship to the continental European avant-garde and the Bauhaus in particular. Without the direct genealogies and institutional consolidation that occurred in the United States, the British Bauhaus connection is nevertheless stronger than at first sight, even if routed through commerce and popular culture in ways that this exhibition presents as both playful and fragmented.