Monday, March 20, 2006

Right Up My Strasse

At the risk of this blog turning into a general arts review and recipe collection (which wasn't my intention when I started it) I have to get all over-excited and evangelical about the László Maholy-Nagy and Josef Albers show which has just opened at the Tate Modern.

Disclaimer - I am unabashed modernist, and as a product of the UK art education system which, especially at foundation level, is so closely modeled on the ideas and principles taught at the Bauhaus, I feel a very close affinity with what they were trying to achieve.

It is so refreshing to see artists who explore every medium, especially new ones, to develop and push their ideas and creativity. From typography, to furniture design, from glass-ware to painting this show has it all, and it all still seems so refreshingly new, especially the Weimar era work. There is a palpable sense of a new generation throwing off the shackles of what has gone before both artistically and more generally in an effort to consciously create something new and better. The Bauhaus era work (1925-1933) is so clean, so full of energy that it is almost impossible to walk through it without a spring in your step. It is uplifting and if you are artistically inclined, enormously inspirational. There is a continual playful experimentation that I, in the middle of a bit of a creative rut at the moment, found very liberating.

The later rooms focus on the artists' post-Bauhaus work, mainly in the USA, and these pictures seem much less free and optimistic than their forebears, especially Maholy-Nagy's paintings. If his earlier work seems to be part of an attempt to make a new society, a pro-active art if you will, the latter work is reactive and more passive, commenting upon what is going on in the world rather than trying to shape it. Perhaps the optimism of youth faded; perhaps it was the Weimar dream that was so utterly crushed by the Nazis and led to a War ended by the atomic bomb that put paid to the idea that the arts and culture could in some way lead society to a new and better place. Post Hiroshima it certainly seemed that hard-science was the leading force in shaping society and that I think continues to this day. It is almost sad that Maholy-Nagy's work is in purely chronological order as I find it a little depressing to see the exuberance of the 1920s crushed and replaced by the later introverted reactionism.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. Albers' later work showed a continuing experimentation with ideas of form and especially colour that is fascinating in its almost scientific approach both in terms of experimentalism and empiricism. The book resulting from his investigations, "Interaction of Colour" is a classic work on colour theory. So it is perhaps fitting that the show ends with Albers' later "Homage to the Square" paintings (Maholy-Nagy died in 1946 and so never saw the post-war world) where his artistic experimentation has taken on the ideas of scientific inquiry to probe the meaning of colour. It is perhaps the only way he could reconcile the position of the modern artist in his post-nuclear industrial world.


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