Remembering the Bauhaus in Playing by Eye

An image of three cut-out artworks against a dark green wall. They depict a vase, a star or sun, and a trio of hills.
Colour, shape and movement [detail] from Playing by Eye: By Modes of Expression: Emma Hardaker and Bobbi Rae. Photograph: Hardarker and Rae 2018.

Leeds Arts University’s Vernon Street Campus plays a part in the history of the development of art and design education. In the 1950s (a significant point for British Modernism), a model of art and design education was developed that was derived from the Bauhaus 1922 curriculum that places ‘Bau’ or building at the centre of the programme. We find evidence of this in the historical records at the time where Eric Taylor was principal (1956 to 1970), which remain today in the University archive. These ideas continue to be important in contemporary art and design education and practice. Most recently, an exhibition Playing by Eye by Modes of Expression, revisits some of the early ideas about visual language, play and expressionism. The work instils a sense of joy and wonder through the juxtaposition of abstract shape and lyrical colour.

Writers, teachers and practitioners from the 1950s and 1960s like Eric Taylor, Alan Davie and Roger Coleman have remained important and relevant today. Such historical sources also provide a link to earlier Bauhaus models and philosophies of education. The original Bauhaus principles relating to play and experimentation were very influential in developing the Basic Design course at Leeds. Developing a period of time where a student broadly explores visual language and materials before they specialise continues to be valued by art educators. At Leeds Arts University, where I work, it is fundamental to the current Pre-BA Foundation course.

In a document found in the University archives called The Developing Process: Work in Progress, Towards a New Foundation of Art Teaching developed at the department of Fine Art, Kings College, Durham University New Castle Upon Tyne and at Leeds, published in 1959, the foundation year is connected to Bauhaus. The document explains and expands the philosophy of art and design education dominant in the art school and in particular the Foundation Course in Art and Design. In 1959, Coleman said, “As a concept of Art education, basic design has its origins in the Bauhaus particularly in the pedagogic work of [Paul] Klee and [Wassily] Kandinsky and the teaching programme of Johannes Itten”.

In this context, the artist’s own playful exploration of the formal elements of design such as line, form, colour and space was seen as the basis of art and design education. The artist could discover for themselves through experimentation the characteristics of their own visual and tacit knowledge.  One key feature of the philosophy of art education at Leeds in the 1950s was that it sought to eradicate the boundaries between fine and applied art promoting a common language that is the basis of both art and design disciplines.

Alan Davie, Gregory Fellow at the University of Leeds, explained the emphasis on an individual’s creative journey. He wrote in 1959 detail about how he taught drawing and in doing so described a model of experiential learning.

To demonstrate the dynamic of the creative force I usually begin with simple exercises in pure idealess activity: direct putting down of black marks, with no end in view, purposeless and aimless. Strangely enough the student finds that to work without thought requires a great deal of mental discipline and it is some time before he can achieve an image without the intermediary of reasoning.1

Here, the characteristics of the materials were explored without the tutor prescribing what the correct way of using the charcoal was. Rather than imitating though the copying of another artist’s style or mimicking a skill learnt though watching a demonstration, the student was finding his or her own creative method. By working with no end in view, the action of mark-making could be considered almost with a sense of being in the moment.

Hardaker and Rae claim that their recent exhibition is based on the traditions of mural painting and kinetic sculpture, but it is also resonates with a belief that colourful abstract forms can bring delight to the viewer. The exhibition celebrates the creative process based on experimentation and play where their form of expressionism is based on in creating order out of many visual possibilities. Known for their vibrant work sited around Leeds, it is appropriate that Hardaker and Rae chose to install their recent exhibition in the Art School. Their visually harmonic artwork and approach speaks intimately to the rich history of the space.

1Alan Davie, The developing process: work in progress towards a new foundation of art teaching as developed at the Department of Fine Art, King’s College, Durham University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and at Leeds College of Art,  Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Durham University, King’s College (1959). 

Playing by Eye: Modes of Expression, Leeds Arts University, Vernon Street Gallery, 16 November 2018 –14 February 2019.

Samantha Broadhead is Head of Research at Leeds Arts University with a special interest in widening participation.

Published 28.12.2018 by Elspeth Mitchell in Features

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