From the rooftop galleries of Brisbane’s City Hall, the Museum of Brisbane (MOB) proudly celebrates the art, culture and history of the city. Led by director Renai Grace, the museum galleries, while modest in scale, consistently deliver an impressive arts program. The current exhibition, Bauhaus Now: Art + Design + Architecture, A Legacy of Migration and Modernism in Brisbane, charts the largely unknown links between Brisbane and the German avantgarde art school in an immersive exhibition curated by professor Andrew Mcnamara and designed by Dirk Yates of Speculative Architecture.
A century since its founding by German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus school has permeated the cultural landscape of Australia. Bauhaus Now tells the story of the Bauhäusler – the students and teachers of the Bauhaus – who fled the school after its closure in 1933 and arrived in Australia as internees, refugees and émigrés during and after World War II. Their influence and legacy is told through historical and contemporary works including furniture, design, paintings, printmaking, film, textiles, photography, sculpture, architectural plans and historical imagery.
The work of Bauhäusler Josef Albers in particular –
4 carrés, bleu gris ochre jaune (1967) [Tapestry, Aubusson no. 1821 executed July 1971] – is central to the experience and spatial design of the retrospective. Exhibition designer Dirk Yates astutely identified Albers’ tapestry from more than 100 artefacts and positioned the work on axis to the long approach to the gallery. Sampling its chromatic brilliance, Yates created a new perspective of the work, framed by portals carved through exhibition walls rendered yellow, grey, blue and green. The arrival sequence establishes the immersive quality of the exhibition, while curating the highly contemporary “Instagrammable moment,” as Yates intended.
Beyond the entry threshold, an iconic Wassily chair designed by Marcel Breuer, a student and later a master craftsman
of the Bauhaus, is raised on a plinth. The chair symbolizes the Bauhaus creed, which sought synergy between art and industry, the hand and machine-made. The furniture piece reminds visitors, who may recognize its tubular steel and leather-clad form from the foyer of Brisbane’s Riverside Centre (circa 1980s), that modernism, in its many guises, has had a commanding presence in Brisbane’s built environment for many decades.
Via a winding pathway through galleries of blue and grey, the ideology of the Bauhaus is further illustrated through an extensive survey of artists. The most notable of these is Ludwig Hirschfeld-mack, who was exiled and interned on arrival in Australia. Despite such unfavourable beginnings, Hirschfeld-mack continued to share the teachings of the Bauhaus, initially with fellow artists at the Hay Prisoner of War camp and eventually as head of art at Geelong Grammar School. Hirschfeld-mack’s colour charts, which were the first of their kind in the Australian art curriculum, are exhibited alongside numerous paintings, prints and woodwork, demonstrating the broad influence of his work and teaching.
The central, yellow galleries of Bauhaus Now advocate for the strong link between art and architecture. Here, Albers’ tapestry, first visible on arrival, can be viewed at close range alongside a scale model of Harry Seidler’s Riparian Plaza, Brisbane. The significance of the tapestry is due in part to its connection to the renowned Austrian-born architect and the position it occupied in the foyer of Harry Seidler’s Sydney offices. Moreover, the artwork represents the relationship of teacher and student – Albers and Seidler – who both strongly extolled the principles of the Bauhaus.
Another important partnership acknowledged in Bauhaus Now is that of seminal Brisbane architect Karl Langer and his wife, art critic Gertrude Langer, who settled in Brisbane from Vienna. Through their practice, they brought a European perspective to the
art, design and architecture of the city. Commemorating Karl Langer’s contribution to developing regional modernism in architecture through his understanding of the needs of a hot, subtropical city, a super-scaled sun path diagram is included at the entry foyer to the exhibition as part of artist’s Paul Bai’s colourful work Sunroom: Between Sunrise and Sunset (2020).
What is commendable about Speculative Architecture’s approach to the Bauhaus Now exhibition is Yates’s thorough understanding of the way visitors approach, move through, linger, absorb and interact with the works on display. Both the chromatic experience and the ever-changing pace of the exhibition are masterfully controlled. Yates’s contemporary design strategy boldly espouses the teachings and techniques of the Bauhaus, borrowing its multidisciplinary approach to practice by deploying graphic design, colour theory and strong audience engagement to create a memorable journey from Bauhaus to Brisbane. A