In 2009, art museums and historians observed the 90th anniversary of the last century’s most influential art and design school. The Bauhaus, established in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, was the subject of major exhibitions in New York and Chicago and reappraisals the world over. Although the school’s influence on architecture was famously condemned by Tom Wolfe in his bestseller, From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), the straight-edged steel and glass buildings that rose in its wake were only one facet of an academy that numbered painters and sculptors and designers in textile and home furnishings among its faculty and students.
The Bauhaus became a watchword for Modernism, yet was rooted in age-old principles. Its name, literally “House for Building,” recalled the guilds of artisans who reared Germany’s cathedrals in the Middle Ages. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius (1883-1969), praised the old cathedral builders as a model for work on behalf of society as a whole in which the distinction between artist and craftsman would be erased. He called for a future that “will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity.” Influenced by William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus imagined the world rebuilt with attention paid to the smallest detail, including the carpeting, chairs and art on the wall of the new structures.
Controversial during its existence, the Bauhaus became associated with the political left in Germany and was abolished after the Nazi takeover in 1933. Ironically, the school’s exiled professors would enjoy their greatest success working on behalf of capitalism by erecting the sleek glass office towers that symbolized big corporations in 1950s America.
During its nearly 14 year existence, the Bauhaus moved from its original home in Weimar to Dessau and finally to Berlin. Throughout this time, the academy’s 33 instructors supervised the education of 1,250 students. The school’s philosophy of learning was anti-academic and very un-modern. Harkening back to medieval guilds, instructors were referred to as masters and students called young masters. Despite a few archaic formalities, it became known primarily as a cultural birthplace of modern architecture. Although less known as a visual art school, the Bauhaus also generated a large body of exceptional modern art. Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, Oskar Schlemmer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy all came out of the Bauhaus and left their mark on 20th century art.
Painter and writer Johannes Itten (1888-1967) was part of the core of the Weimar Bauhaus. Born in Switzerland, Itten taught at the Bauhaus from 1919-22, where he laid down his theories on color and composition, an interest which led to the publication of his book, The Art of Color (1920). Considered today as the world’s foremost color theorist, Itten’s work included expanding the color wheel to include 12 colors, or ratios. His abstract painting, Ascent and Resting Point (1919), illustrates his concept for the perfect harmony of color and form and suggests an influence on Kandinsky and Klee, also associated with the Bauhaus.
Itten emphasized individual artistic expression, an approach at odds with the Bauhaus’ concept of mass-production as a way of bringing art to the people in the industrial age. He resigned in 1923 to open a private art school in Berlin and eventually returned to Switzerland. His body of work includes watercolors, paintings and prints, mostly abstract or geometric with an occasional still life infused with a cubist angle.
Itten was replaced by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), a Hungarian Constructivist painter with a strong interest in incorporating technology and industrial themes into art. Teaching the preparatory course, his philosophy complimented the original Bauhaus focus on industrial integration and design, which had become vague during Itten’s tenure.
Moholy-Nagy also took charge of the metal workshops, enabling him to mold the ideological building blocks of Bauhaus design in steel, concrete and glass. Also drawn to photography, he coined the term “the New Vision” to describe his theory that photography could produce insights unattainable by the human eye alone.
He resigned from the Bauhaus in 1928, and eventually moved to London in 1935, where he and founder Gropius planned to establish a new Bauhaus. In 1937, after their plans failed, Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago to head the New Bauhaus, which closed after one year for lack of funding. He later opened the School of Design, which became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology and offered the first PhD in design in the US.
Moholy-Nagy produced photography, sculpture, painting and prints which collectors bid for aggressively at auction. His photograph, Fotoplastik — The Benevolent Gentlemen (1924), sold at Sotheby’s (NY) in 2009 for $40,000 (hammer).
Josef Albers (1888-1976) and Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) joined the Bauhaus in 1920. Albers worked his way from student to teacher while designing furniture and working with glass. Schlemmer headed the mural-painting and sculpture departments before teaching theater in 1923. His own works explored the relationship between figures and their occupation of space in a composition. His most celebrated work, Bauhaus Stairway (1932), is at once a tribute to the school and a study of figural forms and their spatial positioning throughout the geometric design. The 63 by 45-inch oil on canvas resides in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
Schlemmer left the Bauhaus in 1929, foreseeing the political tensions in Germany affecting the school’s future. He remained in Germany and died in 1943. His legacy is his figurative work within abstract art. A superlative example, Junglinge am Tisch (1928), sold at Villa Grisebach (Berlin) in 2007 for $702,573 (hammer).
Albers remained with the Bauhaus until its forced closure in 1933 and relocated to the United States, teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In 1950 he joined the faculty at Yale, where he headed the design department until his retirement in 1958. He continued to paint until his death in 1976. His influence on American art in the 1950s and 60s can be seen through many abstract painters of the era. His oil on masonite, Study To Homage to the Square: Protected Blue (1957), sold at Christie’s (London) earlier this year for $422,010, taking him from the Bauhaus to the auction house 90 years later.
Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.
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