The Bauhaus, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago
Painting, Photography, Film
Principles of Neo-Plastic Art
Graphic Work from the Bauhaus
Painters of the Bauhaus
Hans Wingler’s magnificent book The Bauhaus begins with two illustrated flyleaves. Both are nearly blank. On the left, just slightly off center and near the bottom, is a sketchy drawing by Paul Klee in facsimile. It illustrates the “Idea and Structure” of the Bauhaus, the pioneering school of design founded by Gropius in 1919. In the middle with a circle around them are the words Bau und Bühne—Building and Theater. Round this circle is a seven-pointed star with each of the crafts or media taught in the various workshops. Circumscribing this star is another circle in which is placed the famous Foundation Course or “Vorkurs” which was the Bauhaus’s distinctive contribution to art pedagogy. An elaborate, perhaps a little overformalized, symbol. At the bottom however (which we had not noticed as we read the Bauhaus program) a small pedestal is drawn. From here a dotted axis goes through the circles to two small pennants placed on top. Klee’s device turns a diagram (to be read like a map) into an illusionistic rendering of a globe. The Bauhaus becomes more than a curriculum of study but at once a work of art and a world in itself.
The other flyleaf is even whiter. Near the bottom margin is a text or motto by Mies van der Rohe: “THE BAUHAUS WAS AN IDEA.”
The Bauhaus was not an institution with a clear program; it was an idea, and Gropius formulated this idea with great precision. The fact that it was an idea, I think, is the cause of this enormous influence the Bauhaus had on every progressive school around the globe. You cannot do that with organization, you cannot do that with propaganda, only an idea spreads so far.
The two flysheets, whose casualness and modesty are of course a typographic luxury of considerable refinement, illustrate in a nutshell the difficulties facing anyone who wants to understand the Bauhaus as it is today, a self-perpetuating legend with an “organization” and “propaganda” apparatus unparalleled in art education. One is overwhelmed by the sheer style of the 50th anniversary exhibition1 where the reality of the disparate and fragile relationship between students and teachers disappears behind the façade of an immaculate presentation. The present volume of documents is a vast anthology from the Darmstadt archive, with everything from the Foundation Manifesto down almost to the petty cash record all woven together into a sophisticated and unbroken visual graphic layout—a veritable “gesamtkunstwerk” of the book.
All these manifestations are typically “Bauhaus”: Klee’s shifting focus between symbol and illusion, Mies van der Rohe’s metaphysical claims behind the resounding phrase, and everywhere the widest possible stylistic integration of diverse material. Nowhere is the power of this rhetorical technique better displayed in action than in the books they themselves published, the series of Bauhausbücher. The blank page was considered as an artistic arena in its own right and not simply as a tabula rasa for a stream of (intellectual) ideas. The present English translations have been set up to simulate as closely as possible the devastating effect of the layout of the originals. Huge black headings break across the copy to emphasize points, sweeping (often unsupported) assertions are carried along by breathlessly urgent paragraphing, ideas are developed by montage rather than by inference.
Moholy-Nagy goes furthest with a dazzling assembly of every kind of layout trick and photographic device. He has been cited as the true father of Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that the “medium is the message.” This may be so—what is certain is that the effects are not benign. This confusion of “medium” and “message,” “matter” and “manner,” makes good advertising display and persuasive polemic but it is not well-adapted to detached study. The Bauhaus may have been an “IDEA” but at the present moment it is extraordinarily difficult to deduce just what this idea was.
The present set of books takes us nearer to finding out about the Bauhaus than ever before. Wingler’s book contains the essential corpus of photographic records and documents. Read the “Bauhaus books” (and Roter’s useful introduction to the paintings done at the Bauhaus) in conjunction with Wingler’s volume and you have most of the material needed for your own appraisal. (Other texts by Gropius, Klee, Kandinsky, and Moholy-Nagy are already in print.) But really you have to catch the Bauhaus off its guard to sense its unique atmosphere or get its general intellectual drift.
Last year (as it turned out, sadly, the last before he died) Walter Gropius recorded some unrehearsed, relaxed reminiscences of the Bauhaus. Although it lasted only fourteen years, and had to move three times before finally being closed by the Nazis, it had revolutionized the teaching of art and design everywhere. In men like Kandinsky, Klee, Itten, Moholy-Nagy, Schlemmer, Albers, Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius recruited a staff of international distinction. At Dessau he built for the school a building that was itself epoch-making and of world renown. Many of the school’s products, prototypes for industry, new typography, and advertising designs became the commonplaces of offices, factories, and homes the world over. They have symbolized since the 1930s a fantasy of modern living that is clean and new. Absence of all external ornament and reference, sleek surfaces of novel synthetic materials on elementary geometric shapes, and a fluid sense of space contrived by interlocking volumes have become the stock in trade even of vernacular building. A pop version of Bauhaus design, “Art-Deco,” or, more descriptively, “juke-box Bauhaus” was perhaps the only truly popular modern style of the century and sprang up overnight in roadside restaurants and suburban movie houses.
But it was not for any of these reasons that Gropius’s “off-the-record” memories were so interesting. For he had managed in the Bauhaus a conspicuous success in the most difficult field of all—the subtle and prickly human relationships involved in teaching and learning art. True, our problems are not those of the Bauhaus and its cultural setting—in part they arise from its very success. Yet any new insight into the school and its methods must be sought amid the current confusion in art education. “After all Gropius did do it once!” Visions of a new “Bauhaus” haunt most people in today’s art schools. What was its secret? Was it a magic moment, a fortuitous collision of people and events never to be repeated? Or was it something of universal meaning, something that we can read as a lesson for today’s problems? Gropius did not doubt that it was the latter. It was a philosophy of life that could, indeed must, be repeated, although of course the details would vary according to circumstances.
Looking back, he distinguished three important factors that prompted the particular Bauhaus structure. First, that art was a cooperative enterprise. The fine arts could have real meaning only as part of a total work of art—the building. On his staff artists and architects worked together and the social relationships were what he called, in his moving Anglo-German, a “team-family.” Secondly, it was his conviction that copying any existing style was destructive to the individual talent.
Imitation was taboo and [the teacher] brought [the student] really down to earth and developed him out of his own qualities. We recognized that every human being is complete and different from the other one so the aim of the whole system which we used was that getting an education which is as individualistic as possible, getting out of that single individual which is given him by nature, but always with a conscience that he cannot do it alone.
Thirdly, Gropius believed that a scientific approach to design was necessary.
We tried to develop so to speak a science of design, all objective things out of the physiological and psychological life of man which are objectively true for you and me and everyone else. These we tried to collect and bring together and make articulate, and that was what we taught the students.2
For Gropius these three central themes were not incompatible but mutually dependent. He evolved the structure of the Bauhaus to implement these notions as directly as possible without regard to previous practice.
Gropius’s manifesto on the foundation of the Bauhaus was a hymn to the building as a total work of art involving artist and craftsman with no barrier between them.
The ultimate aim of all arts is the complete building. To embellish buildings was the noblest function of the fine arts, they were the indispensable components of great architecture…. Together let us desire, conceive and create the structure of the future, which will embrace architecture, and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of the future.
The rhapsodic tone of the document3 indicates that Gropius had in mind for his Bauhaus something deeper than what we might call “an interdisciplinary course designed to avoid the dangers of too early overspecialization.” What he envisaged seems at times no less than an end to the estrangement of the human spirit. Social involvement in this is explicit too. The manifesto is similar to passages in a pamphlet published in November 1918 under the name of the chairman, Bruno Taut, by the “Arbeitsrat für Kunst,” an avant-garde (i.e., expressionist) group of architects which included Gropius, whose political sympathies are clearly expressed in the name “workers council” or “soviet” for Art.
Gropius translated his vision of the “Cathedral of the Future” into practice with a radically new teaching scheme for the Bauhaus. Architectural instruction itself was postponed until later. A team of painters was recruited largely from the younger generation of expressionists associated with the Blaue Reiter Group. Instruction was on the “learning-by-doing” principle in craft workshops. These were directed at first by two masters—a master of “form,” i.e., a painter, and a master of craft, or technician. Later, from the first generation of students, Gropius found individuals with sufficiently broad training to combine both functions. Although this early Bauhaus was dominated by painters, there was no diploma course in painting itself, no Fine Art Department separate from (and superior to) the rest. Architecture as a separate course only commenced in 1927 with the appointment of Hannes Meyer.
An immediate result of this arrangement was the generation of impressive new forms for craft products. The very ignorance of the painters of the refinements of, say, furniture production contributed to a return to very simple formal principles. Early Bauhaus products resulting from this alliance—direct carvings of simple geometric patterns in wood, frank presentations of texture and weave in fabrics, have a strong “folk art” appearance which is charming but not particularly revolutionary in its implications.
Even at this stage there were difficulties. The painters could and did contribute to design of metal work, stained glass, textiles, and so on. Their usefulness diminished where building proper was concerned, whether of the individual building or, beyond that, of planning. Only Muche really managed to do both and then in a schizophrenic way, his paintings differing entirely from his experimental house—the constructional problems for which were handled by Gropius’s own office. Gradually, however, as a result not only of intense pressure from the socially committed among the students and staff, but also of the influence of a powerful polemicist like Van Doesburg, who had moved to Weimar and opened a kind of unofficial theoretical annex, the Bauhaus moved away from arts and crafts, and toward the particular blend of technology and primary geometrical form that characterized Van Doesburg’s Neoplasticism.
The exhibition opened its US tour in Chicago in August.↩
"Walter Gropius in conversation with George Baird," The Listener, October 1969.↩
Printed in Wingler, The Bauhaus, p. 21.↩