German Artists Found the Bauhaus Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite opposition from the Nazis—or perhaps because of it—the Bauhaus achieved international fame as the most innovative and progressive art school of its time.

Summary of Event

On April 1, 1919, the architect Walter Gropius accepted the directorship of the Weimar Academy of Art with the understanding that it would be combined with the Weimar Arts and Crafts School, which had been closed since 1915. When Gropius arrived in Weimar, he already had in mind a name—Das Staatliche Bauhaus—and a well-conceived program for the new school, which he outlined in a four-page proclamation. Art movements;Bauhaus Bauhaus Architecture;Bauhaus [kw]German Artists Found the Bauhaus (1919) [kw]Artists Found the Bauhaus, German (1919) [kw]Bauhaus, German Artists Found the (1919) Art movements;Bauhaus Bauhaus Architecture;Bauhaus [g]Germany;1919: German Artists Found the Bauhaus[04600] [g]United States;1919: German Artists Found the Bauhaus[04600] [c]Architecture;1919: German Artists Found the Bauhaus[04600] [c]Arts;1919: German Artists Found the Bauhaus[04600] Gropius, Walter Itten, Johannes Moholy-Nagy, László Kandinsky, Wassily Klee, Paul Feininger, Lyonel Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig

Like many others before him, Gropius believed in the necessity of uniting the fine arts (architecture, painting, and sculpture) with the crafts, thus he was working within the traditions of the English Arts and Crafts movement and the German Werkbunds (workshops). Gropius contributed to these traditions his own conviction that architects, painters, and sculptors must not merely work with craftspeople but must be craftspeople themselves. When he declared that there is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsperson—that the artist is an exalted craftsperson—he was advocating a revolutionary new principle of learning by doing, of developing an aesthetic based on sound craftsmanship.

Walter Gropius.

(Library of Congress)

Gropius’s ideas not only gave a new direction to aesthetics but also revolutionized the actual practice of teaching. The basis of the Bauhaus program was a foundation course designed to free the student from past experiences and prejudices. This course, developed by Johannes Itten, was a six-month introduction to materials and techniques, utilizing basic practical experiments as well as the exact depiction of actual materials. Students were also encouraged to avoid classical traditions in favor of studying non-Western philosophies and mystical religions. In the beginning, almost no thought was given to the machine or to art’s role in an industrialized world. The curriculum, however, was constantly changing and developing. By 1923, for example, the emphasis was on training designers for industry; later, Gropius increased the accent on architecture, declaring his intention to create an architecture adapted to the world of machines, radios, and fast motorcars—an architecture the function of which would be clearly recognizable in its form.

The history of the Bauhaus can be divided into three periods: the Weimar period of 1919-1925, the Dessau period of 1925-1932, and the Berlin period of 1932-1933. The Weimar period, although marked by financial difficulties for the school, was an exciting time, characterized by enthusiasm for new experiments and new beginnings. Gropius appointed some of the leading artists of the day to the faculty: Lyonel Feininger (the first American at the Bauhaus), Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, George Muche, and Oskar Schlemmer taught painting, graphic arts, and stage design; Johannes Itten and László Moholy-Nagy gave the foundation course; and Gerhard Marcks taught pottery, sculpture, and graphics.

The antispecialist emphasis of the Bauhaus appealed to Kandinsky, who had always been interested in a synthesis of the various arts. Earlier, he had searched for ways in which music, painting, theater, and dance could be combined into one great, complete work of art; Gesamtkunstwerk he believed, as did Gropius, that the artist’s ultimate goal was the production of a unified work of art in which no distinction between monumental and decorative art remained. At the Bauhaus, Kandinsky continued his search. He would, for example, create a painting and then ask a musician to use the painting as inspiration for a composition. A dancer would then be asked to devise choreography in keeping with the music.

Klee, on the other hand, was strongly influenced by the constructivist atmosphere of the Bauhaus and experimented with his own personal forms of geometric abstraction. During the 1920’s, he painted works of fantasy created out of abstract elements, with the total effect being organic rather than geometric. To achieve an effect of fluidity and a sense of form produced by growth and change, he worked mostly with combinations of ink and watercolor.

While the faculty and students at the Bauhaus were busily involved with their own experimental forms of art, opposition to them was growing stronger in the city of Weimar. From the very beginning, some citizens had objected to Gropius’s restructuring of the Weimar Academy of Art; for example, one poster circulated in 1920 had declared that “our old and famous Art School is in danger . . . all to whom the abodes of our art and culture are sacred are requested to attend a public demonstration.” Part of the opposition came from people who simply clung to the past and refused to accept that the prewar world was dead. Additionally, the members of the old art academies and their bourgeois patrons resented and rejected changes in any form. From all these factions, there was much talk of the “art Bolshevism” of the Bauhaus.

In 1925, hostile Weimar city officials finally forced the Bauhaus to close, but shortly after, supported by liberal civic leaders, it reopened in the larger industrial city of Dessau in new buildings designed by Gropius. The first excitement of breaking new ground that had characterized the Weimar Bauhaus was past; the Dessau Bauhaus was marked by an attitude of self-confidence, sobriety, and sense of purpose. The school became a center for the development of industrial design, creating prototypes for mass production while maintaining a balance between the aesthetic and the functional. Students were encouraged to experiment within the context of artistic expression.

Several former students joined the faculty, including the architects and designers Marcel Breuer and Herbert Bayer and the painter Josef Albers. In 1928, Gropius resigned as director and was replaced by Hannes Meyer, Meyer, Hannes a Swiss architect who had little understanding of Gropius’s concept of the integration of the arts. Meyer’s narrow technological leanings and his Marxist political beliefs made many enemies, and he was replaced in April, 1930, by another architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Although Mies van der Rohe was a more capable administrator, he was unable to cope with the volatile political tension that had come to pervade German society. In 1932, the Nazis gained control of the Dessau parliament and forced the Bauhaus to close.

In the fall of 1932 in Berlin, Mies van der Rohe established the Bauhaus as a privately funded institution with no government subsidy. Soon after the school reopened, however, the Nazis Nazi Germany;art took control of the country, with Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Declaring that the Bauhaus was one of the most obvious refuges of “the Jewish-Marxist conception of degenerate art,” the Nazis invaded the school in April of 1933 with one hundred well-armed storm troopers and Berlin policemen, who checked everyone’s credentials, arrested some faculty and students, and then padlocked the building.

Significance

Shortly after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, most of the faculty and many students left Germany in search of more liberal climates of thought. Kandinsky went to Paris and Klee went to Berne; both continued to paint until their deaths. Itten settled first in Switzerland, where, from 1938 to 1954, he served as director of the Arts and Crafts School and Museum in Zurich. Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, and Gropius fled first to London and then, in 1937, to the United States. Gropius and Breuer joined the architecture faculty at Harvard University, where Gropius became chairman of the department in 1938. Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago (later the Institute of Design) and served as its director until 1946. Feininger settled in New York City in 1936 and continued to paint; Bayer arrived there in 1938 and became a corporate director of art and design. Albers served as a professor of art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1933 to 1949. In 1950, he became chairman of the department of design at Yale University.

As the Allied countries welcomed these emigrants from the Bauhaus, word of the school’s fate at the hands of the Nazis ensured its fame throughout the world, and its reputation and influence quickly grew. The activities of Gropius and Breuer at Harvard, Moholy-Nagy in Chicago, Albers at Black Mountain College and Yale, and Bayer and Feininger in New York were the most obvious results of that influence.

Less obvious, but perhaps even more important, is the continuation of Bauhaus ideas in countless art schools that offer well-planned foundation courses and carefully designed projects of one kind or another as a stimulus to creativity. Art educators continue to place a great deal of faith in Bauhaus teaching methods, recognizing the value of individual differences. Both Klee and Kandinsky were good teachers, for example, but Klee gave his students almost unlimited freedom to explore on their own, whereas Kandinsky tended to be more dogmatic and demanding. Because the Bauhaus was revolutionizing both teaching and art theory, no appropriate textbooks were available, so many of the faculty wrote their own—Kandinsky’s Punkt und Linie zu Fläche (1926; Point and Line to Plane, 1947) and Klee’s Pädagogisches Skizzenabuch (1925; Pedagogical Sketchbook, 1953) remained in use in art schools for decades.

In spite of the many talented painters who taught at the Bauhaus, few painters of distinction actually emerged from among the school’s students. The faculty painters had their greatest influence on young painters in the countries to which they fled after 1933. The works of the Bauhaus painters were already well known in most of these countries, as they had exhibited outside Germany throughout the 1920’s. Feininger, Klee, and Kandinsky had participated in many American exhibitions, especially the Société Anonyme and the Blue Four exhibitions in New York. In 1930 and 1931, exhibitions of Bauhaus art were organized by the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, by the John Becker Gallery in New York, and by the Arts Club of Chicago.

Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, moreover, continued to be recognized as leading architects. Both exerted profound influence on the evolution of the International Style, International Style perhaps the century’s most important architectural development.

The Bauhaus changed the modern environment by transforming and reshaping interior, product, and graphic design. The effects of this transformation have become an accepted part of the environment, to such an extent that virtually anything “modern,” functional, and geometric can be identified as being in “the Bauhaus style.” Gropius, however, vehemently denied the existence of a Bauhaus style in anything, pointing out that the school’s purpose was not the development of a uniform visual identity but the promotion of an attitude toward creativity that would result in variety. Nevertheless, many of Breuer’s furniture designs became classics (for example, his first tubular steel chair and his basic table and cabinet designs), as did Gropius’s designs for standard-unit furniture. Many other successful designs for stacking chairs, stools, dinnerware, lighting fixtures, and textiles came from the Bauhaus design studios and workshops. Moholy-Nagy, Bayer, and others revolutionized typographic design, and Moholy-Nagy’s experiments in abstract film and photography began a new era in those media.

Any discussion of the impact of the Bauhaus on culture and society calls to mind an observation made by Mies van der Rohe in 1953. He stated that the widespread influence of the Bauhaus on progressive art schools came from the fact that the Bauhaus was never an institution with a clear program; rather, it was an idea. He declared that such enormous influence cannot be achieved through organization or propaganda—only an idea can spread so far. Art movements;Bauhaus Bauhaus Architecture;Bauhaus

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bayer, Herbert, Walter Gropius, and Ise Gropius, eds. Bauhaus, 1919-1928. 1938. Reprint. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1975. Still one of the most valuable accounts available of the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. Contains the texts of many proclamations, articles, and course notes written by Gropius and other faculty. Well illustrated with black-and-white photographs, drawings, and diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dearstyne, Howard. Inside the Bauhaus. New York: Rizzoli, 1986. Written by one of the few American students at the Bauhaus, based on his own letters to family members during his years at the school. Includes a history of the school, detailed descriptions of the studios and workshops, and personal recollections of faculty and other students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Droste, Magdalena. Bauhaus, 1919-1933. Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1998. Focuses on the collection of the Bauhaus Archiv Museum of Design in Berlin in examining the progression of the Bauhaus movement. Extensively illustrated. Includes artist and architect biographies, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kentgens-Craig, Margret. The Bauhaus and America: First Contacts, 1919-1936. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Scholarly examination of the reception of the Bauhaus in the United States and the reasons for American reactions to the movement’s concepts. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poling, Clark V. Bauhaus Color. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1975. Published in conjunction with an exhibition illustrating the stylistic and theoretical characteristics shared by Bauhaus artists, with major emphasis on the use of color. Discusses the principles of color theory and their application. Contains many good illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roters, Eberhard. Painters of the Bauhaus. Translated by Anna Rose Cooper. New York: Praeger, 1969. Stresses both the influence painters had on the Bauhaus and how their associations with the school shaped their own work. Devotes a chapter to each of the ten most talented and influential painters at the Bauhaus. Well illustrated, with both black-and-white and color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitford, Frank. Bauhaus. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984. A complete introduction to the Bauhaus. Discusses ideas and philosophies, teaching methods, activities of the faculty, the daily lives of the students, and the social, economic, and political unrest of the times. Thoroughly documented and well illustrated.

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