“A roof terrace, a primary school with a paddling pool, a movie screen made of concrete,” speaks a flat voice in the first moments of Niels Bolbrinker and Thomas Tielsch’s Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus, a documentary celebration of the centennial of the start of one of the last century’s most consistently present art movements. The brutalism it would inform, which the film evidences in its icy introductory narration through one of Le Corbusier’s ville radieuses, would become chic. Its socialist-informed emphasis on social practicality would be rendered a kind of canny effect utilized by designers to camouflage wealth with cool. You don’t have to look far for this version of the Bauhaus, just take Town & Country’s sponcon for Prada’s latest line of expensive bags: “The Italian fashion house’s new Ouverture bag styles embody the Bauhaus spirit. Each is defined by contrasts.”
Bauhaus Spirit presents a different view of the hundred-year-old art movement. Bolbrinker and Tielsch are as eager to move away from the past as they are the ruthlessly material present. They search, instead, to find practitioners who embody a certain idea of its spirit. This task juts them all over the world, most remarkably during an extended sojourn to a barrio in Medellín, Columbia, where they briefly speak to the construction of several escalators and cable cars that had been rendered inaccessible by mountainous terrain. The little carts and shiny metallic strips zig and zag through the low-rise landscape like abstract arrows on a canvas and simultaneously “provide an infrastructure for everyday activities, participation, and gestures of reconciliation.”
It’s nice to imagine these fine people gallivanting the world in pursuit of these stories of social good. More spirit than Bauhaus, there is something nonetheless relieving, if fussy, about their approach. The people they profile have thought a lot about the aesthetically-informed utopia that Walter Gropius dreamed of and, watching them, en masse, has a vaguely inspiring effect.
The story of the movement itself rolls out slowly, anecdote by anecdote, told most often by these latter-day believers, stirred by its noble moments, its self-confidence and self-importance. The germ of this approach can be found in the interest they take in Christian Mio Loclair, a choreographer who adamantly believes that if Oskar Schlemmer were developing his “Triadisches Ballett” today, it would be informed by funk music. Sure, why not. Bolbrinker and Tielsch shoot him dancing ecstatically in a sweater to the bleating brass thumps often only heard on esoteric European jazz labels. Later, he appears in front of a number of computers that make whimsically scientific lights and noises and goes on about Kandinsky.
Bauhaus Spirit betrays an obsession with the practical — a designer of public transit systems here, a builder of new age schools there, even all the computer work Loclair gets to going hints at some greater purpose. This is fitting and speaks to the earnest ambition of Gropius’ project, its desire to create total art that would in some way improve the clutter and thoughtlessness of the industrial world.
Bolbrinker and Tielsch’s dynamism creates the impression of an art movement that has never stopped moving. It is common for the celebration of small and especially geographically-centered art movements to feel uncomfortablly cold and fetishistic, the worshipping of the dirt of the ground where greatness once stood. Bauhaus Spirit creates, instead, a shaky object, imperfect and without gloss and with ambition for miles.