Art of the Ordinary

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Review of 'From the Bauhaus to the New World, Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy', Tate Modern, London.

Anyone using the London Underground this month cannot fail to notice the striking posters advertising the latest mega-exhibition at the Tate Modern. The show brings together two great figures of modernist art, the German-born Josef Albers (1888-1976) and the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).

The careers of the two artists overlapped during the 1920s when they both taught at the Bauhaus, the German school of art and design that pretty much invented "modernism" as we now know it - pioneering everything from anglepoise lamps to sans serif fonts.

But the Bauhaus in the 1920s was not simply an artistic endeavour - it was also deeply embroiled in the politics of the time. Europe was convulsed in revolution and counter-revolution, and the "constructivist" current of modernism cultivated by the Bauhaus was firmly associated with the far left. Moholy fled his native Hungary to Germany after the defeat of the short lived Hungarian workers' revolution of 1919.

Throughout the 1920s the Bauhaus was hounded by the Nazis, who despised its artistic vision as much as its politics. The school was forced to move from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin, before finally being shut down by Hitler in 1933.

Albers and Moholy both ended up in the US, where Albers settled into a comfortable teaching job and became a highly influential theorist of colour. Moholy remained more politically committed - his luminous final works deal with the aftermath of Hiroshima - but he died of leukemia in 1946.

Several critics have questioned the decision to exhibit Albers and Moholy together. Both worked at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, both were pioneers of modernism in their own right, and they undoubtedly share certain preoccupations and inspirations. But are the two really equal representatives of something called modernism?

The exhibition is marked by a glaring asymmetry. Of the two artists, Moholy is undoubtedly the more radical, politically and artistically. Albers' experiments in colour and form are fascinating, but there's something rather static about them. Moholy, in contrast, sets all this formalism in motion. Even something as simple as circles crossing diagonal lines takes on a dynamic, dialectical quality.

All this has led some reviewers to be quite scathing about poor old Albers. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian dismissed him as an "also-ran" and a "mediocrity", compared to Moholy the "genius" and "incendiary hero of modernism".

The Tate exhibition, for its part, answers these charges by rather lamely claiming that it is trying to create a "posthumous dialogue" between the two artists. One could, of course, justify exhibiting any two randomly chosen artists in this manner.

And there's something rather suspect about the notion that artworks can or should engage in "dialogue" with anyone - as if art could somehow be reduced to a matter of individual artists trying to say something. This notion of art as a passive medium for communicating the artist's ideas is just the sort of thing the Bauhaus railed against.

Mathematical metaphor

In fact it would be more accurate to say the Tate exhibition juxtaposes Albers and Moholoy to interesting effect. That is certainly the case with the exhibition's poster, which places side by side crops of two abstract paintings, A19 by Moholy (1927) and Repetition Against Blue by Albers (1943). The crops are superficially similar and work well together. But the illusion disappears once you see the full paintings - they are in fact quite different.

Yet despite all this the exhibition does curiously seem to work. This is not due to any kind of "dialogue" going on, but rather because Albers' low-key formal craftsmanship acts as a valuable counterpoint to Moholy's breathtaking virtuoso performance. Or to use a more mathematical metaphor, it's as if the trajectories of the two artists form two different lines cutting through the history of early 20th century art and politics - Moholoy as the major axis, Albers as the minor, intersecting at the Bauhaus during the 1920s.

In particular, seeing the two side by side sheds light on how much modernism relied on a patient, systematic exploration of a distinctly materialist attitude to art. Far from being some aesthetic flight of fancy, it was built on a minute study of how we go about seeing, how colours work, and so on - a thoroughgoing examination of every aspect of our perception that cuts straight across the traditional (and false) opposition between science and art.

And this attitude wasn't confined to paintings. Albers and Moholy both experimented with the new technology of photography, and with new materials, design and sculpture. In fact, the undoubted highlight of the exhibition is not a painting, but Moholy's 1928 piece Light Prop for an Electric Stage - an extraordinary contraption of metal, mirrors and levers that rotates around reflecting light patches around the room, hypnotising anyone who sees it.

Beauty and function

There are also touches of comedy. After fleeing the Nazis in 1935, Moholy set up in Britain and designed posters for the London Underground. The techno-utopian spirit of modernism shines through in these works - "Quickly Away, Thanks to Pneumatic Doors" reads one of them, complete with fascinating diagrams explaining how the new sliding doors on tube trains worked. Another extols the virtues of... escalators.

Of course, 70 years later the day to day experience of London tube trains is a world away from this naive celebration of Clever Mechanical Stuff. Moholy's pioneering poster designs have been shamelessly pilfered and debased into Transport for London's creepy obsessional posters promoting CCTV and smartcards.

All this points to a serious flaw with modernism's utopianism. While touring the exhibition, a Bauhaus fanatic friend of mine angrily muttered under his breath, "This stuff isn't meant to be in a gallery!" The early modernists wanted to tear down the barriers between art and everyday life, between beauty and function, and create a new scientific art for the masses.

But today they have been thoroughly reabsorbed into the very system they railed against. Consider the fate of Albers' set of brightly coloured stacking tables, designed for mass production.

On leaving the Tate exhibition you walk straight into the Tate shop - which sells you limited edition reproductions of the Albers tables for £999 a set (not including delivery). Capitalism does not consider it "rational" to mass produce beauty, because you can make more money if you charge a premium on such items by concocting a pointless exclusivity.

The shop similarly sells Moholy mugs (£8.50) and Albers mouse mats (£6). There's something quite ridiculous about this, but also deeply frustrating and tragic. All that thought, all that craft, all that commitment to a new rational world that could synthesise artistic avant gardism, scientific insight and political egalitarianism... and what does it come to? Crap overpriced trinkets that encapsulate consumer capitalism at its most stupid.

I sighed - and bought the mug.

Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World is at the Tate Modern, London, from now until 4 June 2006. Nearest tube: Southwark