As the opening event of the Barbican’s Bauhaus film season (accompanying the exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life) , The Radical Screen presents a series of abstract animated films many of which were put together retrospectively by Bauhaus students Werner Graeff, Kurt Kranz , Heinrich Blocksieper Flachen, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling. The films are presented with live improvised piano accompaniment by Neil Brand, whose accomplished musical response to the on screen visual rhythms allows the viewer to experience these rare films in an entirely unique performance environment.
Opened in Weimar Germany by Walter Groupius in 1919, the Bauhaus school aimed, as Groupius wrote in its manifesto, ‘to embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity’. A collaborative approach was encouraged and this gave birth to new art forms. The abstract animated films allowed elements from paintings and drawings to be linked together with modern technology, giving birth to a creative medium with a distinct aesthetic vocabulary.
The school’s first head teacher was Johannes Itten who was employed at Weimar to run the art foundation course. Itten was greatly inspired by Der Blaue Reiter Expressionism and brought with him painters such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, both of whom continued to work as teachers at the Bauhaus until the early 1930’s and whose influence can be seen in the animations. Interestingly the Bauhaus’ architectural department was not opened until 1924 when László Moholy- Nagy took over as head teacher and re-focused the school to the original aims of Groupius towards a more functional, socially engaged workshop of design.
The Bauhaus never included film on the curriculum and the abstract animation films generated from the school have not been celebrated at the forefront of the Bauhaus legacy – indeed this is the first time that many of these films have been seen in the UK. The story behind these works makes it even more astounding that we are able to see them at all; both Krantz and Graeff first conceived their ideas in the early 1920s, but due to their lack of funds and the high cost of film making at that time, they were unable to realise their films until 30 years later. The building that housed Bocksieper’s films was destroyed during the war and what remains of his films wre retrieved by his son from the wreckage. With the help of the Bauhaus film specialist Thomas Tode, many of the films were located in the posession of families of former Bauhaus students rather than archives.
In this context, viewing these films for the first time is a moving and thrilling experience. Recognisable earlier motifs such as coloured boxes reminiscent of the forms of De Stijl group are reflected in Graeff’s works where the boxes appear, disappear and reconfigure as moving images. Richter’s Rythem films develop these forms into a more sophisticated exploration as the squares appear to jump towards the viewer, layering, dividing and splitting the screen. Bocksieper’s film reflects more surreal ideas – an image of a vase morphs into a bird; scissors, buttons and safety pins turn into animated faces.
Kranz’s colour films show compositions of Kandinsky-esque blots of water colour, elements of which he uses to focus in and create a new image on the screen. The art works created by Kranz in the 1920s were largely on vertically orientated media which caused a visual problem when they were later translated to a horizontal configuration. Kranz therefore developed the technique of using details of his works to create a different image, so that his original paintings could still be used. This creates a softer, hallucinogenic quality to these works that contrasts with his more dynamic black and white films, where he builds the images with layers of lines until the screen is filled, then picks out shapes from within the linear mass creating softer and more organic forms, demonstrating greater kinetic energy between the scenes.
The evening concludes with Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony, sadly his only film – he died young before it was ever screened. This film is one of the best known of the Bauhaus animated films and is a masterpiece of abstraction in its smooth, hypnotic simplicity.
To the 21st century eye these films reflect on the animated world that surrounds us today – many of the techniques and visual effects used in these types of animations were adopted by the advertising industry and continue to be used in contemporary graphics.
The presentation of these rare films provides an opportunity to reflect on the dedication of the artists whose ideas were formed ninety years ago and were held in the minds of their creators until they could be brought to life by modern technology many years later. That these works first conceived at the Bauhaus can now be presented in conjunction with its art and design at a multi-platform venue such as the Barbican, is a testament to the avant-garde ethos of the Bauhaus itself.
Bauhaus: Art as Life is at the Barbican from 3rd May – 12 August 2012