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Bauhaus

1. Weimar period, 1919–c 1925

Source: Oxford University Press

In April 1919 Gropius founded the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, incorporating the former Kunstschule and the Kunstgewerbeschule, which had been directed by Van de Velde. Although Van de Velde had originally proposed Gropius as a possible successor in 1915, the issue was not settled until four years later, after the end of World War I. The allusion in the Bauhaus’s name to medieval masons’ lodges was emphasized by Lyonel Feininger’s Expressionist and Cubist-inspired woodcut of a Gothic cathedral, which was used for the title page of the founding manifesto of the Bauhaus in 1919. Gropius’s manifesto ran (Gropius, 1919):The ultimate aim of all artistic activity is building! … Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all get back to craft! … The artist is a heightened manifestation of the craftsman. … Let us form … a new guild of craftsmen without the class divisions that set out to raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! … Let us together create the new building of the future which will be all in one: architecture and sculpture and painting.

The reversion to the ideal of the medieval craftsman contrasted with the cooperation between art, industry and commerce that Gropius had advocated before World War I, and which was to dominate the Bauhaus after 1922. This change of direction can easily be explained against the background of the specific circumstances of the period. The devastation of the war and the immediate post-war period caused Gropius to have grave doubts about the machine and the expectations of progress associated with it. Like many of his contemporaries, he was borne along by the romantic utopian hope that by turning back to the Middle Ages with its deep spirituality and communal ideals, meaning and direction could be given to one’s actions. Similar ideas were also circulating at that time in the Berlin Arbeitsrat für Kunst, to which Gropius belonged, and which had a significant influence on the early days of the Bauhaus.

Gropius began to gather an unrivalled array of avant-garde artists. In 1919 he first appointed the painters Lyonel Feininger and Johannes Itten and the sculptor Gerhard Marcks as teachers at the Bauhaus. In the period up to 1922 they were followed by Georg Muche and Lothar Schreyer (1886–1966), both of whom, like Itten, emanated from the circle centred on the Expressionist Sturm-Galerie in Berlin, run by Herwarth Walden. They were also joined by Oskar Schlemmer, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky. The structure of the Bauhaus curriculum was represented by Gropius in a wheel-like diagram startend, in which the outer edge of the wheel signifies the six-month preliminary course (the Vorkurs), while the two middle rings stand for the three-year courses (the Formlehre and Werklehre), including the materials that were used. The hub of the wheel refers to the building construction and engineering with which the Bauhaus was also concerned.

One of the most influential personalities on early Bauhaus was undoubtedly Johannes Itten, who established the celebrated preliminary course, derived from his experiences as a student at Adolf Hölzel’s academy in Stuttgart. This compulsory course was designed to purge novices of residual academic tendencies and to activate their individual artistic potential. It was also intended to impart basic qualifications in creativity to serve as a foundation for the subsequent workshop training. The basis of the course was Itten’s general precept about the artistic value of contrasting effects, whether of light and dark, materials and textures, forms, colours and rhythms. A prominent place was reserved in Itten’s teaching for ‘analyses of Old Masters’. These had the objectives of establishing either the rationally perceptible picture-structures based on geometry and construction, or the essential meaning expressed in the work, which should be identified through empathy. Feeling and thinking, intuition and intellect, expression and construction belonged inextricably together in Itten’s holistically conceived educational and teaching programme.

The educational and teaching structure enabled those studying to qualify doubly as artists and craftsmen. The ‘dual system’ involved, on the one hand, artistic instruction known as Formlehre, in which the artist–teachers invested their full powers of innovation. Klee’s lectures on basic problems of form, and Kandinsky’s ‘Colour Seminar’, his ‘Introduction to the Abstract Elements of Form’ and his course on ‘Analytical Drawing’ were particularly noteworthy.

The other component of the syllabus was ‘practical instruction’ (Werklehre), in which the students attended regular classes in the Bauhaus workshops. The strong emphasis on craft was expressed in the fact that in the early days of the Bauhaus people spoke not of professors and students but of masters and apprentices. Each workshop was run by two masters, an artist and a craftsman or technician, or in the terminology of the Bauhaus a Meister der Form and a Meister des Handwerks. Each master specialized in one or more forms of art, although in the early phase people’s spheres of activity were not always definitely established, and they altered frequently as a result of staffing changes. The form masters included Gropius, whose carpentry workshop made furniture characterized by strictly cubic tectonics and to some extent influenced by followers of De Stijl, in particular Gerrit Rietveld. Modernist styles also influenced the abstract work of Kandinsky in his mural painting workshop, while folklore inspired the individual craft textiles from Muche’s weaving room.

The workshop training was aimed at the acquisition of specific technical and craft skills as well as artistic and design skills, based on the fundamental principle of learning through doing, of practical work on concrete tasks. Here the private aesthetic languages of the form masters were transformed into ‘a public institutional language’ resulting from the ‘technically orientated attempts at problem-solving’. This attempt to achieve communication between art and craft was extremely progressive, at that time matched only in revolutionary Russia at Vkhutemas in Moscow. The Bauhaus’s integration of different art and craft forms was exemplified by the avant-garde theatre workshop run first by Schreyer and then by Schlemmer. As well as producing paintings, Schlemmer designed costumes for his ballets that resembled coloured metallic sculpture (e.g. The Abstract, 1922; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.; for illustration see Schlemmer, Oskar).

Despite such attempts to combine different arts in one piece of work, the Bauhaus in its early phase was in general far from realizing the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk under the ‘wings of architecture’. In the first years there was no department of architecture, even though, according to the original concept, it should have been the cornerstone of the Bauhaus. Moreover, there was no effective coordination between the individual workshops, although there were exceptions, for example the collaboration of several workshops in furnishing and decorating the Expressionist Haus Sommerfeld (1920–21) in Dahlem, Berlin, designed by Gropius. The various workshop products from this Expressionist phase of the Bauhaus show the influence of Johannes Itten: with all their formal strictness they are in fact single pieces made by a craft process, some with ornamental surfaces. They show a sharp contrast with the principles of the pre-war Werkbund directed towards industrial mass production. Another interesting contradiction relates to the role of women in the Bauhaus. Although at the outset the school took women as students on the same basis as men, by 1920 Gropius was attempting to force women from the Vorkurs to the weaving, pottery or bookbinding workshops, and he prevented their admission to study architecture.

In its first years the Bauhaus was severely tested by the conflict between Gropius and Itten. Apart from personal differences, this was a conflict of principles that arose from the incompatibility between Itten’s emphasis on autonomous artistic creation and Gropius’s interest in socially committed design. Itten’s primary orientation towards fine art was accompanied by Bohemian attitudes and quasi-religious activities in the Mazdaznan movement. In contrast, Gropius’s basic inclination was directed towards finding a new place in society for the artist who had lost his roots in the 19th century, to enable him to collaborate in a socially constructive way on the shaping of reality. As a result, from c. 1922 Gropius supported a move in the Bauhaus towards industrial design, based on the following now famous formula: ‘Art and technology, a new unity: technology does not need art, but art does need technology.’ This tendency was strengthened as the widespread pathos of the immediate post-war period soon gave way to a general disenchantment that led people to seek what was socially necessary and practicable. The move away from craft towards industry also coincided in time with the decline of Expressionist influences and the penetration of Russian Constructivist ideas into the Bauhaus through the appointment of Kandinsky and the participation of El Lissitzky at the Dadaist–Constructivist conference in Weimar, both in 1922. In 1921–2 Theo van Doesburg took up residence in Weimar, giving his private seminars based on Constructivism in opposition to the Expressionist Bauhaus: these met with an enthusiastic response, particularly from opponents of Itten. As Itten was not prepared to associate himself with the Bauhaus’s new direction he left the school in the spring of 1923.

With the appointment in 1923 of László Moholy-Nagy as Itten’s replacement, Functionalism started to become the determining factor in the development of the school. In contrast to Itten, Moholy-Nagy had a quite untroubled relationship with machines and industry, claiming that technology was a reality of the 20th century. Moholy-Nagy ran the preliminary course from 1923 to 1928. His teaching was pervaded with scientific content, concentrating on constructive problem-solving far more than had been the case in Itten’s day. Technical reproducibility became the guiding principle governing Bauhaus activity, and Moholy-Nagy’s repertory of formally extremely reduced images had a crucial impact on design work in the workshops as well. In particular he worked as a form master in the metal workshop, training such designers as Marianne Brandtstartend.

These new trends were presented publicly for the first time in the context of a large Bauhaus exhibition in 1923. It included a review of international architecture including designs by J. J. P. Oud, Le Corbusier and Gropius, and a show house by Georg Muche, on which several Bauhaus workshops had collaborated in the furnishing and interior decoration. Murals by Joost Schmidt (1893–1948), Herbert Bayer and Oskar Schlemmer were also exhibited in areas throughout the school’s premises. There was also a display of items produced in the workshops, which demonstrated the development from craft-produced individual works to industrial assembly-line products. From the beginning the Bauhaus had been exposed to persistent criticism from politically conservative forces. In spite of the positive reception accorded to the exhibition in the German and international press, the funds allocated by the state of Thüringen were so sharply reduced after the victory of right-wing parties in 1924 that on 31 March 1925 the Bauhaus at Weimar decided to close.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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