'The Hiding Game' by Naomi Wood (Picador)
In a very convincing amalgamation of fact and fiction, the prize-winning author Naomi Wood has created a novel in which the central character is, in fact, an institution – one whose existence has affected all of our lives, whether we are aware of this or not – the Bauhaus.
Her beautifully written book, The Hiding Game
, is of course really about the lives and personalities of students and teachers, some historical and some fictional, who attended classes and taught at this German art institution over the 14 years of its existence – from 1919 to 1933 – until it was forced to close under the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, always present and tangible is the powerful philosophy of the Bauhaus, which influences and encloses them all.
The success of historical fiction depends very much on the creation of an atmosphere and a period, to enable the reader to feel drawn in, to believe in its existence, to be able almost to feel the temperature and sense the texture of daily life. In this, Wood has succeeded admirably.
The Bauhaus was founded in 1919, and this year has seen a number of exhibitions to celebrate its 100th anniversary. As an art school, it was unique, radical even. Its guiding principles, imparted to the students by a group of exceptional teachers from all areas of the arts – including architecture, ceramics, painting, metalwork and weaving – focused on the idea of 'community', plus the belief that absolutely all creative work had validity, and any combination of the arts was possible. Photography might be mixed with performance; tapestry with architecture; metalwork with costume; and construction with such practical application as furniture.
The Bauhaus was visionary and utopian, confident that a world where art and design co-existed would improve the lives of everyone; but it had enemies in the Weimar Republic for whom this smacked of communism, and led ultimately to its closure when the Gestapo sealed off the building and its director closed the school.
Naomi Wood has chosen to examine the lives of a group of six young students who enter the Bauhaus together in 1922 as undergraduates. Their courses were similar to what today would be the invaluable art school foundation course, in which they tried different areas of the arts, searching for the medium that would best suit them, but as the director at the time instructed them, they were there to explore, to imagine, to 'play'. The courses were immersive, and this is what the author captures so well, the hot-house atmosphere of a group of intense students, each desperately wanting to succeed, to make friends, to please their teachers, knowing that the Bauhaus had a reputation they must live up to.
How does a novelist begin a book like this; what inspires the creativity to conjure up a group of individuals, each with their own shape, expression and voice? Wood says: 'I stumbled on a photograph of a group of pals from the "Metal Ball" in 1929 (at the Bauhaus); they looked joyous, like nothing could ever break them apart. But then I began to wonder, what would happen if these young people were corruptible, and human and flawed, and what would happen if their personal misdeeds became part of the grand sweep of terrible history?'
The characters one follows most closely in the book are fictional; the historical figures are mainly the teachers, well-known architects and painters, who eventually found success and spread Modernist aesthetics all over the world after the closure of the Bauhaus. The novel opens in England, well after the war, when Paul, now a very successful painter, is forced to confront, analyse and reflect on his years as part of the group of six, and what role he must now at last acknowledge. The structure of the novel is to move from present to past and to interleave Paul's story, so that from the beginning we know that tragedy and betrayal are ahead.
The students are a diverse group, some from outside Germany, holding different religious beliefs or none; they form rather fluid partnerships, explore their sexuality, clash and compete; one such complex love relationship forms the core of the story – Paul and Charlotte, but also Charlotte and Jenö, or is it Jenö and Walter? – and it becomes an obsession for Paul.
Naomi Wood writes: 'Shove a group of artists, or writers, or film-makers into one place and you will inevitably get drama and tension – partially because the ones most likely to succeed are the ones who are the most obsessive – so that quality is encouraged in the students.'
Indeed, perhaps it is from the author's own experience in a creative writing course a decade ago, that she is able to express so graphically those very tensions and the ensuing drama. Loyalty and love co-exist with suspicion and also fear, not least because the inexorable pressure of politics begins to invade the Bauhaus, which is forced to leave its premises in Weimar, to move first to Dessau, and, finally, to attempt to recreate itself in Berlin.
The art form that The Hiding Game
most vividly describes – with colour and texture – is weaving, and this is the subject in which Charlotte, one of the six, excels. She would have liked to try her hand at other materials but at the time it was felt an especially suitable medium for women. Here, the author brings in as Charlotte's teacher the historic figure of Anni Albers, whose recent exhibition at Tate Modern was so enthusiastically received, and termed 'long overdue'. Her husband was the more famous painter Josef Albers, and both of them explored abstraction, but in different media. Anni Albers also created textiles for mass production, the Bauhaus being very much engaged in finding practical outlets for its art and design: a marriage of creativity and manufacturing. Her work and that of other textile artists has latterly found a more acclaimed position in the art world.
Wood wanted to focus on the art of weaving, having watched her mother do patchwork quilting: 'I always appreciated her eye for colour. She told me that it was never appreciated as an art form because women did it. I knew I wanted, therefore, to concentrate on women's work and the weaving workshop (at the Bauhaus), not just because I admired the astonishing colour and beauty of the wall-hangings, but because I'm sure we've already heard enough about Marcel Breuer or Paul Klee or Walter Gropius. I also think weaving is the perfect metaphor for writing a novel: the novel, a weave of all its narrative threads.'
Charlotte, working now in the Berlin school, is unfortunately from Prague, and as the story moves on to its conclusion – not a surprise as it is stated in the early pages of the novel – Berlin becomes increasingly dangerous to foreigners and to those who represent a 'threat to national purity'. Perhaps most affected are those who fall into this category but retain some of the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus, in which engaging with art to the best of your ability, to create, to seek a better world from the bottom of your heart, is not going to be enough to protect you if you are 'other'. There are beatings in the street and deportations. Paul and old friends from the Bauhaus fail, each for different reasons, to rescue Charlotte, and then each must live with the consequences.
The Hiding Game
is first of all a novel, but it is also a story of creativity and how we value the creative instinct. The Bauhaus was an institution in which students were apprentices to the appreciation of beauty – no wonder the locals looked on it with suspicion and envy – where they were given the chance to behave badly (drink and drugs and fancy dress) at the expense of the state, or some might have seen it that way. However, what we have inherited from this inspired institution can be seen all around us: lighting design, architecture, fabric, typography, industrial design. It began at the Bauhaus. The commitment to learning about materials, then the application of the knowledge, created this legacy.
Naomi Wood comments: 'It strikes me that some degree of this would be a good tonic for a creative writing course; time for idleness, exploration, experimentation, rather than always trying to produce brilliant work to earn a first/a book contract/an advance. Capitalism has reached its tendrils into creativity. It's unavoidable. It gets harder and harder to daydream; in fact daydreaming is probably now a radical act of resistance.'
Naomi Wood won the British Library Writer's Award and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award for her second novel, Mrs Hemingway
, also a tapestry of fact and fiction. A Scottish connection comes through her mother, who is from Glasgow, and her grandmother in Prestwick, and she has fond memories of walking on the beach in Ayrshire. The final word must go to Wood's uncle, who declared that the novel was, however indirectly, a product of the Glasgow comprehensive school system.