Stephen Hitchins looks at the beginnings, highlights and legacy of the Bauhaus, now approaching its centenary year
It’s showtIme! Showtime at the Bauhaus, and the show is going to last a long time. Three years to be precise. Three years in the making of celebrations to mark 100 years since it all began. Three years! Three directors, three cities, three stars hovering over the tip of a cathedral in Feininger’s woodcut that appeared in the founding manifesto and programme of 1919 marking the three arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, their rays symbolically interlaced at the Bauhaus, the place that effectively fixed the agenda and procedures for three if not four generations and more, of designers, artists, architects, critics, and historians.
Despite student newsletters at the time ridiculing Gropius’s denials that he was creating a Bauhaus style, we must hope that all the hoopla surrounding the event takes a sledgehammer to the clichés, particularly the notion that the Bauhaus marched in lockstep to a single vision, On the contrary, the clue is in its employment policy, distinguished by its internationalism, cosmopolitanism and artistic diversity.
The students recorded their life together in numerous photographs. This is one of many sports pictures taken in front of Bauhaus buildings – taken ‘to reflect an embrace of a modern lifestyle that included the whole person – body, mind and soul’
So, come to the cabaret. The gang’s all here. The boys are back in town: Paul and Lyonel, Oskar and Wassily, Marcel and Ludwig, Theo, Josef, Laszlo and Walter. Just possibly this time, the roll-call of female pioneers – Gertrude Arndt and Benita Koch-Otte, Marianne Brandt, Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl, women who certainly helped to create the greatest design school – may get a deserved look in as well. There were lots of girls in the band who came to the aid of the party and seldom get mentioned in despatches, reflecting the prejudices of the time.
Apart from Alma of course. We will always have Alma. Difficult, domineering and drunk (by the end of her life, she was drinking a bottle of Bénédictine a day), Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel lived to ‘conquer men’ and left us her diaries and letters confirming all the stories.
Lyonel Feininger Cathedral woodcut that appeared in the founding manifesto and programme of 1919
As she wrote to Gropius, he must work hard and push his career forwards ‘because the more you accomplish, the more you will be mine!’ Her ‘empire over men extended far beyond those she slept with’, extending, in the opinion of some even into the afterlife.
When the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann told his wife of his desire to be Alma’s lover in the hereafter, she caustically replied that even there he would have to wait his turn.
The word Bauhaus is one of those virtually untranslatable portmanteau German words that compress layers of complex association. Bau, Bauhütte, Bauhütten, it flows from construction to the teams of skilled artists and craftsmen created to build the cathedrals reflected in that Feininger woodcut. The ideals embodied in that image were not new. The 19th-century arts and crafts movement tried to come to terms with industrialisation, complete with similarly medieval inspiration and socialist purpose. Then, in 1904, Das englische Haus by Hermann Muthesius was published, idealising English domestic life in a generalised, exaggerated way that resembled a Punch cartoon, being both acutely observed and essentially true.
In William Morris, Muthesius found ‘an individual with the strength of genius swimming against the tide of his age’ and decided that the Red House, at Bexleyheath, designed for Morris by Philip Webb in 1859, was ‘the first private house of the new artistic culture’. Webb’s first commission thus acquired a mythic status, and was later enshrined at the fountainhead of modernism.
The writer Rosemary Hill has said that the book was ‘a startlingly tendentious narrative – two parts Walter Scott to one part Sturm und Drang’ but that Muthesius did single out architects whose work stood the test of time: Norman Shaw, Baillie Scott, Mackintosh and the very young Lutyens. Muthesius ‘saw how in the buildings, as in the manners of the English, an apparent ease and laissez-faire was made possible only by a rigid underlying discipline’.
Returning to Prussia in 1903, laden with reports about railways, gasworks and art schools as well as the manuscript of his magnum opus, Muthesius was an adviser to the Ministry of Education involved in reforming art and design education in order that more emphasis be put on workshop training. Ever the brilliant talent scout, in 1907 he secured the appointment of Peter Behrens as director of the Düsseldorf Academy, the Kunstgewerbeschule. In the same year, he was instrumental in establishing the Deutsche Werkbund in Munich after publicly criticising the quality of German industrial products.
The Werkbund was committed to design reform, as William Morris had been, but reform that worked with industry not against it and might, therefore, more reasonably hope to bring good architecture and furnishings within the reach of most people. Behrens was a member, as was the Belgian Jugendstil painter, architect and designer, Henry van de Velde, who resented Muthesius’s pre-eminence as an arbiter of taste and attacked him for his views. So did Gropius.
Nevertheless, the architect and critic Dennis Sharp has commented that without Muthesius, Gropius would not have brought Morris’s view of craft to the Bauhaus or that ‘the idea of a utopian cathedral of socialism built on principles of medieval Masonic guilds would have taken hold in Germany’.
Postcard by Paul Klee produced for the exhibition at Weimar 1923
The association with Behrens was key to connecting several of his apprentices before the First World War: as well as Gropius, they numbered Maria Ludwig Michael Mies (who later fabricated a new name – Mies van der Rohe), Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (later Le Corbusier) and Adolf Meyer.
The son of a builder, Muthesius came from Weimar. The little Thuringian town, if it is remembered at all today outside Germany, is the name given to the Republic between 1919 and 1933. With revolution in Berlin, the national assembly sought a safer venue.
Pressed into symbolic service Weimar was chosen as the embodiment of a ‘civilised’ Germany and its geographical centre. Home to Goethe, Herder and Schiller, Cranach and Bach spent time there, and when in 1848 Franz Liszt was engaged as Kapellmeister it was reinstated on the cultural map of Europe. Richard Strauss was there for five years. Arnold Böcklin was one of the first teachers at the new art academy.
Eliot, Smetana, Berlioz and Wagner all visited. Liszt later wrote that he had dreamed of a new era of greatness in Weimar, in which he would be Goethe and Wagner would be Schiller. Plans to build a theatre in which the completed Ring Cycle would be exclusively performed would have seen Weimar become Bayreuth.
The wealthy cosmopolitan Count Harry Kessler moved to Weimar in the opening years of the 20th century. A patron of the avant-garde and an enthusiast for the Ballets Russes, he was friends with Rodin and collected works by Cézanne and Van Gogh. He got on well with the new young Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst and carved out a role for himself. As an unpaid museum director he put together exhibitions of the best contemporary French and German work, and he founded the Deutscher Künstlerbund, an organisation that supported Germany’s secessionist artists.
Kessler left Weimar in 1906 after an exhibition of 14 erotic watercolours Rodin had donated to the grand duke caused a scandal – one of which had a personal message of thanks to Ernst and depicted a naked woman, squatting to relieve herself. But one of Kessler’s achievements in Weimar survived his departure. In 1901 he persuaded the grand duke to hire Belgian Henry van de Velde to advise local craftsmen. Six years later van de Velde became head of a new arts and crafts school, which would be reborn after the First World War as the Bauhaus. Sacked in 1915 because of his nationality, Van de Velde nominated Gropius as his successor, and four years later that proposal was acted on.
Back from the trenches with an Iron Cross to show for his wounds, the new director took up his post in March 1919. The manifesto with Feininger’s woodcut appeared in April and on 1 June the first meeting of the council of masters was held. Thus the Bauhaus started, and would end, with the first German Republic.
Forced to change its location twice (Weimar to Dessau to Berlin), this most modern of institutions was twice located in former princely residences in the small towns.
It began in an art-nouveau building that is still standing today on Geschwister Scholl Strasse.
Marcel Breuer nest of tables 1927
The authoritarian right was always the main danger to creative artists who, radicalised through the horrors of war and the hopes and fury left behind by a lost revolution, became hard-nosed, unsentimental, passionate cabaret-cool of the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ and the Bauhaus. Yet the unbelievably exciting, sophisticated, intellectually and politically explosive Berlin of the Weimar Republic was not replicated in Weimar itself. This small Protestant town with a large, educated, middle class, with plenty of rentiers and conservative artisans, also had a strong radical-right cultural tradition. Small wonder then that the Bauhaus faced so much local opposition.
Gropius gathered an extraordinary group around him: Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Marcel Breuer, Oskar Schlemmer, and Wassily Kandinsky among them, a cast of characters that all but guaranteed internal division, but the six years it was located in Weimar were some of its most successful. Academic requirements for enrolment were dispensed with. Between 150 and 200 students were registered at the Bauhaus Weimar. Between 25 and 50 per cent of the students were women and 17 to 33 per cent were foreign students.
In his glib speed-reading essay from 1982 Tom Wolfe’s polemic on aesthetics, From Bauhaus to Our House, the author set out to demonstrate how élitist designers are responsible for the failings of modern architecture that excited so much public disaffection: it was more Bleak House than Bauhaus. He failed, but he did explain the reception of Gropius and his confrères in Weimar. He likened it to a stock scene from jungle movies of the period, crash landing in a rainforest where savages bow down and prostrate themselves before ‘The White Gods!’
He was correct when he called it ‘a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus’, presumably on the grounds that a symbol of hedonism and detachment outside of Athens in 307 BC was akin to the original messianic ambition of Gropius at Weimar where the Swiss painter Johannes Itten, a self-styled mystic who shaved his head, dressed in robes and was a follower of Mazdaznan, a fusion of a Zoroastrian fire cult and Christianity, was the school’s resident mad priest.
The manifesto attracted the utopian and disaffected with its call for a unity between art and craft that would ‘rise one day towards heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystalline symbol of a new faith’. No wonder Bauhauslers affectionately referred to Gropius as Pius I.
A woman in a mask by Oskar Schlemmer and a skirt made from material designed by Elisabeth Beyer-Vogler, sits in a Marcel Breuer chair
Responsible for a garlic-heavy diet being served in the Bauhaus kitchen, Itten made his students meditate and do breathing exercises to help unlock their creative potential before each class. He encouraged them to follow his own spartan regimen: to sleep on straw pallets, fast, follow ancient systems of medicine such as bloodletting, and other delights such as colonic irrigation. A former primary schoolteacher, Itten developed the theories of Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the Kindergarten movement, with its use of educational toys, coining the motto – ‘Play becomes celebration; celebration becomes work; work becomes play’. It was no surprise when parties, festivals and masked balls formed a large part of the curriculum.
Three events in 1923 were decisive in the Bauhaus story at Weimar, the year that Gropius announced the school’s changed line: ‘Art and Technology – A New Unity’. A member and propagandist of De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg was appointed to serve as a catalyst for the change of direction towards pragmatic functionalism, furthering the confrontation with constructivism and the demands of a technologically orientated world. Itten resigned, and Albers and Moholy-Nagy took over the preliminary course, which they purged of meditation and ritual. Extended to a full year, it would become the basis of art and design education all over the world. Then, in August and September 1923, a large exhibition of work by Bauhaus masters and students was accompanied by lectures, concerts and film showings. New works by Stravinsky and Hindemith were performed. Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were among 30 architects who came from across the world.
The Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche for the Werkschau in 1923 can still be seen today. Privately owned and not open to the public, even from outside its rectangular, unornamented design marks it out. Moholy-Nagy designed the light fittings, and Breuer the built-in cabinets. The original design by Gropius was rejected by the students who chose the Muche proposals, but two notable buildings that the director did design, in Jena, 15 miles from Weimar, are still standing. One, built in 1924 for the family of the physicist Felix Auerbach, is at 9 Schafferstrasse. The other, a few blocks away at 4a Weinbergstrasse, is a highly imaginative, geometric-looking apartment building built in 1926-27.
The actress Ellen Frank photographed by László Moholy-Nagy, from a series Moholy began in the late Twenties in which he pushed past conventions to create a new kind of portrait photography
Despite its success the Bauhaus was never secure. Established when the political left was strong just after the First World War, in 1924 its budget was immediately halved by the new right-wing government of Thuringia, the teachers received notice, and the school moved out. Like Thuringia as a whole, Weimar had above-average numbers of Nazi Party members and voters. Hitler paid his first visit to Weimar the following spring, and in 1926 it was where he launched his political comeback after serving a prison sentence for leading the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Later, Entartete Kunst – the exhibition of Degenerate Art, which included works by former Bauhaus painters, visited Weimar. Later still, five miles north of Weimar, buses ran to and from KZ-Buchenwald when it opened in July 1937. The camp had a Weimar telephone number, deaths there were recorded in the Weimar registry and before 1940 the camp’s cremations were carried out in town. It would have been very difficult not to know what was happening there. Having the advantage of a famous name helped Weimar become European Capital of Culture in 1999.
There are emigrations and emigrations. The Weimar emigration is a different matter. It hit any country that it affected with the force of a powerful missile. Weimar’s émigrés transformed art history and visual culture, as well as the media through innovations in publishing, journalism, photography and design. They are the reason non-Germans take an interest in the Weimar Republic at all; not its politics, but its intellectual and cultural contribution. The very word Weimar today suggests to us George Grosz and Hannah Höch, Max Beckmann and Walter Benjamin, Brecht and Weill, and the Bauhaus.
When the school reopened in Dessau on 4 December 1926, the move only served to foster its consolidation on the path to the design of new industrial products for everyone. Its unconventional approach to teaching was established in Weimar but the basis for the school’s international reputation only achieved its full potential in its new home, and the majority of the products and buildings that still define the image of the Bauhaus today were created in Dessau.
When the school moved there, its programme changed, its teaching and production expanded, its appearance altered. The State Bauhaus at Weimar became the Bauhaus – School of Design at Dessau. Professors and students took the place of masters, journeymen and apprentices. The voluminous cloaks of Itten’s students gave way to close-fitting suits for men, and trousers or knee-length skirts for women, whose previously shorn heads now had hair in a bob.
The Bauhaus was never the same although its basic character remained unchanged, driven by creative freedom. To visit Dessau today, in the context of the Disneyland architecture of the reunified Germany, is a salutary experience. Just look at Potsdamer Platz. Visiting the various Bauhaus sites, one feels like being in a travel guide to history. If you hit the Bauhaus trail you may choose to spend a night with the ghosts of the Bauhaus by sleeping at Dessau.
At the Bauhaus parties, teachers and students gave free rein to their creative talents and enjoyment of design. Weeks were spent on organising and designing lantern parties, dragon parties, Christmas parties and also motto parties such as the ‘Beard, Nose and Heart Party’ or the ‘Metallic Party’. Almost all of the workshops were involved in implementing them. The parties promoted contact between the college and the public, as well as a common spirit and the development of the ‘play instinct’. Inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Oskar Schlemmer recognised that play was the force that made creativity possible in the first place, precisely through non-purposeful activity. He planned the large public parties and also used them as a kind of experimental stage for the theatre workshop that he directed. While the parties held during the Weimar period still had something of the spirit of the nature-loving ‘wandervogel’ rambling club, in Dessau they became cultural events. The dancing was now no longer done to the accordion, but to the jazz sounds of the Bauhaus Band, which soon rose to fame outside of the college as well.
Its studio building is now a boutique hotel, 20 rooms fitted out with Breuer’s steel furniture, Albers’ replica beds, tables, and cupboards, or perhaps choose a Franz Ehrlich room with pieces he made for the DDR in the Fifties. Staying in a futuristic laboratory from the past, one of the roots of modernism, is an eerie feeling, phantoms of Bauhäusler surely washing alongside as you use one of the communal bathrooms, reinstated as part of the drive to historical authenticity.
Completed in 1926 the building was designed by Gropius, along with Carl Fieger, Ernst Neufert and others in their private architecture practice on behalf of the city of Dessau, which was prepared to give the money and a site where the originally preferred Frankfurt am Main was not. The importance of giving a home to the most important artists’ colony of the day, already famous outside of Germany, was not lost on the city fathers who saw the advantage of the image factor for their emerging industrial location.
The Bauhaus did not have its own department of architecture until 1927. With the exception of the sculptor Gerhard Marcks, Gropius appointed painters as teachers. According to the art historian Ludwig Grote, as a motivating force in the Bauhaus move to Dessau, Gropius based his approach on the belief that ‘painting took the lead among the arts and had created a new aesthetic which should govern the structuralist principles of the architecture of the future’. So, it should be no surprise that drawing from life was practiced throughout its history at all times.
Yet all that drawing led to was not so much a work of art as a triumph of craft, production-orientated constructivism, socially minded functionalism in a utilitarian production art laboratory. And their designs reached the consumer. A collection of textiles released in 1929 was the most profitable line in the school’s history. Kandinsky and others always opposed plans to market the products of the school’s workshops, as students and faculty members fought over the profits from sales.
In Dessau, as in the Fagus-Werke in Alfeld an der Leine, the glass curtain wall suspended in front of the load-bearing framework defines the exterior of the workshop wing and openly shows the constructive elements. Rational to the point of extreme, almost forbidding severity as it was seen at the time, it has endured. Thoroughly and rhythmically planned, the functional rectitude is in striking contrast to the more romantic modernism of its contemporaries.
The centenary logo for Bauhaus, designed by creative brand agency Stan Hema
The various parts of the Bauhaus building are consistently separated according to their functions and each designed differently. The different wings are arranged asymmetrically – in relation to its location, what are today Bauhausstrasse and Gropiusallee respectively.
There is no central viewpoint, meaning that in order to appreciate the overall design of the complex you have to move around the whole building. The building looks out at itself, glass and-steel grids that layer into lattice, creating ever-new angles and futuristic vistas, curtain walls extending to transparent corners.
The glazed, three-storey workshop wing, the block for the vocational school, and the five-storey studio building with its conspicuous, projecting balconies are the main elements of the complex. A two-storey bridge that housed the administration department and, until 1928, Gropius’s architecture practice, connects the workshop wing with the vocational school.
Oskar Schlemmer 1932 Bauhaus Stairway
A single-storey building with a hall, stage and refectory, the so-called Festive Area, connects the workshop wing to the studio building.
This originally contained 28 studio flats for students and junior masters, each measuring 20 sq m. The entire complex is rendered and painted mainly in light tones, in contrast to the dark window frames, whereas for the interior, Hinnerk Scheper, the junior master of the mural workshop, designed a detailed plan that, by differentiating between supporting and masking elements, aimed to accentuate the construction of the building through the use of colour.
The Bauhaus at Dessau closed in 1932. The same year, three years after he left his teaching position, Oskar Schlemmer produced Bauhaus Stairway. The choreographed figures are reminiscent of the theatrical performances for which he won fame, but in choosing the stairs he found a metaphor for the whole idea of the school, and one that matched Feininger’s Cathedral. Whereas the earlier image captured the total work of art combining architecture, craft and art into an ideal unity, Schlemmer’s figurative expression symbolised not only the movement between – and hence the integration of – departments, in a strange way, it also indicated what was the heart of the college.
The master of multimedia and multidisciplinary design, Schlemmer demanded versatility. Yet rather than moving between the various disciplines, here the students are walking away from the viewer towards huge windows and a higher realm. Forced to abandon Dessau, the students are leaving utopia for a new world, somewhere out there. Just one student is coming towards us on tiptoe: it’s dangerous but perhaps there is still hope? This is a vision of the new society but one that for now is receding from us. It was a farewell to the Bauhaus.
Students on the stairway painted by Schlemmer
‘Gingen wir doch, öfter als die Schuhe die Länder wechselnd’ – For we went changing countries more often than our shoes: Brecht’s poem says it all. At a time when Paris was the unquestioned capital of the visual arts, and Vienna the capital of music, out of a country that had suffered defeat in the Great War, the revolution that overthrew the Kaiser’s regime, the shame of the Versailles Treaty, and the great inflation of 1923 when money ceased to have any value, out of all that came what the authoritarian right now called Kulturbolschewismus. It had taken some time for the prestige of Paris to wane yet the ‘capital of the 19th century’ no longer had any major innovations to offer. Germany had become the centre of modernity and Western thought, but not for long.
After the election in the summer of 1932 when the Nazis became the largest party though short of a majority, even the Jewish editor of the Tagebuch, a left-liberal weekly, published an article whose headline now strikes us as suicidal: ‘Why not let him in!’
At the Bauhaus they wanted out. Most of the great artists left the new Reich in a hurry, many of them sadly ceasing to be very interesting at all away from home as they became ill at ease in the USA.
Its kinsfolk and students scattered all over the world, all over the 20th century, and all over the corpus of classic modernist design and architecture, their achievements undimmed by the passage of time. Now, in the 21st century, the Bauhaus looks like some disenchanted ‘then’; but it is still the yesterday that we must appreciate and understand and come to terms with in order to make proper sense of design today.