Exhibition Review: ‘Pioneers – William Morris & the Bauhaus’

The William Morris Gallery’s compact but eye-opening exhibitions in their temporary gallery space never disappoint – and Pioneers: William Morris and the Bauhaus is no exception. 

The exhibition seeks to constellate the influence of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement with the utopian utilitarianism of the Bauhaus. Although these movements may be separated by decades there are many overlapping themes, which form a guide around the space exploring topics such as ‘Unity’, ‘Craft’, ‘Simplicity’ and ‘Community’. It is a pleasure to explore the exhibition thematically (curated as such ‘in recognition of the fact that history does not always move in [a] neat linear path’) and to see how the placement of works side by side can generate dialogues beyond the object’s intended use and time period. 

The exhibition brings together over 60 objects, some of which have never been displayed in the UK before, offering a unique chance to get up close and personal with key items of both movements – and to expand the worlds of what could be two rather insular groups into a wider conversation.

Exhibition View

Medieval Modernity  

The first port of call is to open up the importance of the craft guild in both movements. Bauhaus evokes the medieval craft guilds, or ‘Bauhütte’. Coined by Goethe in ‘ Art and Antiquity on the Rhine and Mayn’ (1816) the word ‘Bauhütte’ referred to the workshops that developed the Gothic cathedral and incorporated many different styles and skills to create the finished product. Morris was similarly excited and inspired by the concept of the British medieval guild, made up of different artisans, architects and craftspeople and which regulated trade, maintained high standards of craft and protected workers rights. Drawing a direct link between the guild and the ‘Bauhütte’, the exhibition allows for a thread to poke out and pulled; that our ‘modern’ design sensibilities have historic roots. 

Looking backwards creates an important lens with which to view the Bauhaus. Innovation isn’t created in a vacuum. Where other Bauhaus exhibitions might hammer home the importance of the ‘new’ elements of the movement, in looking backwards towards the past trajectory of craft making means Roisin Inglesby’s curation allows the exhibition to simmer and reflect forwards and backwards. 

For example, there is a focus on wood printing as a technique. Pairing Gerhard Marcks’s ‘The Owl’ with Morris’s ‘Cupid Leaving Pysche’ allows for a simple note to be made: some techniques are honed over centuries and deployed in each ‘modern’ moment as a way of exploring and exhuming hard learnt skills passed down.

Gerhard Marcks, ‘The Owl’ (1921)
Credit: Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982

For Morris, craft was political. In opposition to mass production he equated quality with dignity. Bauhaus’s de facto founder, Walter Gropius, also saw this equation add up. Hand training craftspeople meant creating long lasting and quality work. Yet, although the main aim of both the Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus movement was to eventually be able to mass produce their work, many objects remained one offs.

Simple Sit Down

In ‘Simplicity’, the exhibition also notes how Morris’s vision of pared-down aestheticism anticipated modernism’s own love of minimalism, direct form and authentic materials. This is most notable in the display of chairs that line one wall of the exhibition. The wall text suggests: ‘Chairs – the most functional of household objects – repeatedly served as manifestos of new design ideas’. The chair as a place to dwell, sit, think and form seems the perfect object to hold the weight of a ‘manifesto’ in its bones. 

Exhibition View

Philip Webb’s ‘Sussex Chair’ (1870s) is displayed next to Marcel Breuer’s cherrywood armchair (1922-4). Webb’s aim was to imbue the ebonised beech wood with principles of honesty, simplicity and authenticity. To show the way in which the chair is made, the rushes bent and bowed, the back polished to shine. Although it may look functional, the decorative elements come from the impeccable craft and high quality of the materials – a vision of an inexpensive, everyday purchase. Similarly, Marcel Breuer’s armchair is a pared-down vision of everyday use. Inspired by the De Stijl movement the boxy design and angular arms suggest experimentation can occur within the strict formula of furniture design. Like Webb, Breuer pores over the shapes and structure of the chair in order to develop the most impressive version of an object for all. The structure and work that has gone into in both chairs is on display. What might look ‘simple’ has a wealth of ideas and ideals upholstered within. 

Weaving Women’s Stories

A small section of the exhibition is gifted to weaving – showing Benita Koch-Otte’s ‘Half-gobelin’ (1924) as a stand out piece. Given room to breathe, two of her works bookend the flow of the exhibition and, in their  various hues of reds, purples, blues interspersed with geometric patterns, literally pop out at the viewer. 

Benita Koch-Otte, ‘Textile design for a half-goblin’, 1922 -1924
© v. Bodelschwinghsche Bethel Foundations
Photo: Bauhaus Archive / Museum of Design, Berlin
Close up of finished weave.

The wall text tells us the weaving workshop was first built up from ‘various old ladies in Weimar’ donating their old scraps of materials. Just as Morris and Gropius were inspired by the past in this glimmer of information we also see an alternative women’s history peek through. There are also matrilineal craft skills offered down through the centuries: sewing, knitting, weaving. The old ladies of Weimar offering their materials suggests that the weaving workshop was founded on principles of kinship and community; a different type of guild. From humble beginnings the weaving workshop became one of the most standout segments of Bauhaus, launching the long careers of Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and Otti Berger to name but three. 

Turning to the furniture making – perhaps the strongest link between both movements – women feature but in the background. Although only in small glimmers, it is still heartening to see the work done to bring women’s voices further into the Bauhaus fold and used to frame the work by men (rather than the other way around). The exhibition brings presents Marianne Brandt’s gauche paper pasted on paper (1923-4) alongside Gertrud Preiswerk’s gouache on paper (1926-33) to illuminate the Bauhaus commitment to experimentation. The wall text notes that Brandt became the director of the metal workshop in 1928. These are small moments but they help to show the extended influence of women in the Bauhaus beyond their innovative weaving.

Women in Morris’s sphere could have been more radically brought out into the exhibition – especially in comparison to work by Koch-Otte – but again we do get some glimpses. In the woodcutting for ‘Cupid Leaving Psyche’ the collective nature of the woodcutting process is highlighted through crediting not only the design by the artist, Edward Burne-Jones, but also highlighting Morris’s role in drawing this onto the wood block and Lucy Faulkner’s role in cutting the piece. Removing the onus of the ‘sole genius’ – anathema to the overall aims of both Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus – this simple gesture restores some of the collaborative efforts that went into making the work. It would have been even more interesting to see some of Faulkner’s own work – she produced the woodblocks for Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market (a comparative link to Koch-Otte’s ‘Half-Gobelin’ perhaps) and she cut at least one of the wood blocks for Morris’s Earthly Paradise (c.1865). Overall, though, it felt like a gender balance was struck.

A Contemporary Take 

The contemporary take on the Bauhaus on the upper floor of the gallery continues the conversation beyond the past and into the present. Following techniques of Medieval craftspeople, through to Morris’s revival and the Bauhaus modern twist, we ended with a simple but effective tribute to both movements by designer Mary Katrantzou. Her dresses amalgamate the two different aesthetics into three dresses. Morris’s famous florals sit strangely, although not unpleasantly, next to the primary colours and typography inspired by Bauhaus. It’s a reminder that for all their shared values and similarities, aesthetically these movements also had their own voice. These dresses remind us that the two movements are in conversation, not imitation. 

Katrantzou’s dresses also remind us of continuing contemporary craft practices and their connection to political and social struggle. The dresses call upon echoes of political strife that come down the line from Morris’s flawed socialism to the Bauhaus’s persecution under the Nazis. In times of strife, and especially in our own troubles times, the themes of this exhibition (Unity, Craft, Simplicity, Community) ring true. Craft has the capacity to heal and help, to generate communities where none existed before. In the failed utopias of Morris & Co and the Bauhaus represent Katrantzou’s dresses offer us a reminder that failure doesn’t mean we should stop trying to craft a vision of the future. 

Words: Jade French