The Bauhaus, Puppets and Play
The Bauhaus had a prodigious, varied output in its short lifespan including architecture, textiles, fine art, theatre and furniture. The clean lines of Bauhaus Modernism became the foundation of twentieth century design and live on today.
Visit the current exhibition at the Barbican and you will more than likely find an item of furniture that, in all but name, resides in your own home. For me it was a small square child’s table whose spirit lives on in my mass produced Ikea coffee table. It’s not just furniture – Bauhaus design permeates the totality of my life from the chrome shelves in my bathroom to the straight lines of the tower block I can see from my window.
Theatre and puppetry are aspects of the Bauhaus that are less well known. Puppetry in particular was only flirted with by a few members, very briefly. The inclusion, therefore, of a whole room of puppets in the current exhibition at the Barbican is testament to the diverse interests of the school, as well as the curators’ desire to explore the entire span of the Bauhaus experiment.
Puppetry and play
Bauhaus teachers became interested in puppetry partly due to the latent influence of Jugendstil and its focus on the vernacular, but also because puppetry afforded another way to experiment creatively. Puppets offered the opportunity to play. Getting back to a childlike idea of playing was seen as a way of stimulating the imagination and creativity.
As one Bauhaus teacher Johanes Itten, an expressionist painter put it: “I suggested that we should make toys for the next few weeks. So I struck a powerful blow to the old academic tradition of the nude and drawing from nature and I am leading all creative activity back to its roots, to play.”
But the puppets made in the Bauhaus were not just toys. They were made for performance and several plays were created in the early years of the school. The display in the Barbican includes seven marionettes made for 'The Adventures of the Little Hunchback' performed at the Bauhaus in 1923.
They were designed by Kurt Schmidt, made by Toni Hergt and the show directed by Oskar Schlemmer. They’re simple puppets. More effort was put into their aesthetic than the construction of their joints or controls. Schmidt’s design draws both on vernacular, childish idioms as well as more Modernist notions. These puppets are a reminder that simple and effective design can trump a whole host of mechanical trickery.
Puppet master Paul Klee
Not all the puppets in the current exhibition were designed with the Bauhaus in mind. The most famous Bauhaus related puppets are those of Paul Klee, who made fifty hand puppets for his son Felix from 1919-1925. Although these puppets were designed for a child’s play, their association with Klee have made them objects of great interest for art historians. Klee produced a negligible amount of sculpture so the surviving thirty puppets are his greatest body of sculptural work.
Klee’s puppets were clearly loved by Felix, who played with them and the small theatre his father built him frequently. But these puppets also made their way into the Bauhaus, not as part of any official course but as purveyors of satire, as Felix Klee recalls. “Some hilarious performances were held at the Weimar Bauhaus, during which various confidential matters were aired in an unsparing and sarcastic way, vexing to those concerned and highly amusing to the others.”
Klee’s puppets seemed to have inherited the anarchic jibes of Kaspar (the German Mr Punch) and indeed the first puppets Klee made were the standard Kaspar characters. He soon moved on to other subjects including a self-portrait (featured in the current exhibition) and more politically charged characters representing the bourgeois and political class of Weimar Germany.
Formally the puppets are simple and constructed: a collage of materials including scraps of material, bits of animal bone and a lot of plaster. Klee seems to have made the puppets from whatever he had lying around and they are painted in his bold painterly style. They are puppets full of character and examples of simple but character filled design.
While the puppet output of the Bauhaus was limited, the school’s broader theatrical experiments were much more extensive. They included dance, masks, costume, play writing and architectural theatre design. Prominently on display in the current exhibition are designs and costumes from Oskar Schlemmer’s 'Triadic Ballet' (1922), a blend of contemporary dance and bizarre costume design whose spirit lives on today in work such as Vaseline-obsessed artist Matthew Barney’s 'Cremaster Cycle'.
The large bulbous suits of Schlemmer’s ballet are very puppet-like in their movement and design. It seems highly probably that his experiments with marionettes in 'The Adventures of the Little Hunchback' influenced his theatrical work more than is generally acknowledged. 'Triadic Ballet' was a true blend of dance, music, theatre and fine art and, as such, espoused the early beginnings of a ‘total theatre’. This was explored both practically on stage and theoretically through architectural design.
In 1926-7 Walter Gropius, director of the second incarnation of the Bauahaus in Dessau, produced a design for what he termed a total theatre: a theatre machine with the ability to adapt its performance space into multiple configurations to accommodate all forms of theatrical expression.
The ‘gesamkunstwerk’ that many at the Bauhaus saw as the ideal of artistic creation is a hard prize and necessitates an almost fascistic unity of design. As theatre makers perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the Bauhaus Exhibition at the Barbican is this: that whole is only as strong as the individual parts.
Photos by Jane Hobson