Masters of the Bauhaus — the great artists who taught
As the 20th century’s most influential school of art, architecture and design celebrates its centenary, Alastair Smart focuses on the artists who shaped its beginnings — illustrated with works in our Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale, 19 June
Precisely 100 years ago, the 20th century’s most influential school of art, architecture and design opened its doors in Weimar in central Germany. That school was called the Bauhaus, and that timing was crucial: immediately after Germany’s defeat in the First World War.
The Bauhaus was founded in the spring of 1919 by architect, Walter Gropius, with what he described as ‘the ardent hope and desire to build up something new from the ruins’. (Gropius himself had been wounded on the Western Front while serving as a cavalry officer.)
His radical idea was to create a school in which the distinction between fine arts (such as painting and sculpture) and applied arts (such as metalwork, architecture and interior design) was dissolved: a distinction that had dated back to the Renaissance.
Everyone would be taught everything under the Bauhaus roof — on a compulsory, multi-disciplinary foundation course known as the Vorkurs. Only after taking that were students allowed to move into areas of specialisation.
From the outset, the Bauhaus attracted high-quality artists, architects and designers to its teaching staff. Among the first recruits as masters, as teachers were known, were Lyonel Feininger and Johannes Itten. The latter was a particularly colourful character who shaved his head, wore monk-like robes, and smothered everything he ate in garlic. A follower of the esoteric Mazdaznan faith, Itten began his classes with gymnastics and breathing exercises.
The fact that a teacher such as Itten could thrive at the Bauhaus is testament to what a broadminded place it was, where diverse opinions, theories and artistic styles were encouraged.
Among a second wave of teachers hired in the early 1920s were Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer. (All three have works appearing in the Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper sale at Christie’s London on 19 June).
Klee was in charge of workshops for bookbinding and stained glass, and also taught design theory. He constantly stressed the affinities between building and picture-construction. A painting, he said, ‘is built up piece by piece, no different from a house’ — and a painter, like an architect, must ensure that his constructions are load-bearing and stable.
Klee was highly popular with students. His calm, thought-provoking way of teaching earned him the nickname of ‘the Bauhaus Buddha’.
Kandinsky was another fine catch. The Moscow-born painter had been involved in cultural policy at a high level in his homeland after the Russian Revolution, becoming the first director of the Institute of Artistic Culture in 1920.
He moved to the Bauhaus two years later, where he taught mural painting and analytical drawing. According to one of his pupils, Herbert Bayer, Kandinsky was renowned for ‘provoking especially animated discussions’.
One of his favourite classes involved asking students to consider whether any of the three primary colours was intrinsically connected to any of the three geometric shapes: square, circle and triangle.
Many argued that there was no fundamental correspondence between colour and form. Kandinsky, however, believed squares were intrinsically red, circles blue and triangles yellow. This belief would inspire the look of a number of products designed at the Bauhaus (such as Peter Keler’s baby cradle).
As for Schlemmer, he made his name in charge of the theatre workshop. During his years at the Bauhaus, he put on a number of avant-garde stage productions, most famously Triadic Ballet, in which dancers in geometric-shaped costumes made mathematically-inspired moves — in a manner rather resembling marionettes without the wires. This piece would influence a host of performers after him, from David Bowie to Lady Gaga.
The Bauhaus has become synonymous today with products of sleek efficiency and a minimalist, almost austere aesthetic — think flat roofs, skylights, and tubular chairs. When it came to social life on campus, though, things were anything but austere. Parties came thick and fast, sometimes lasting for days. Often there was a given theme — such as at the ‘Metallic Festival’ in 1929, at which students and staff wore all-glittering, all-jangling, metal costumes. Some came dressed as egg-whisks, others as wing nuts. Parties at the Bauhaus were seen pretty much as extensions of the curriculum.
The school had three different homes over its lifetime: it moved from Weimar to the city of Dessau in 1925, and then from Dessau to Berlin in 1932. Its outlook certainly evolved over the years: where at the start the focus was on producing hand-crafted, individual objects, by the mid-1920s Gropius declared it should concentrate on designs for industrial mass-production. What remained consistent throughout, though, was that students received a holistic, wide-ranging education.
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In many cases, they were invited to help their teachers with commissions outside school. When Gropius, for example, designed Sommerfeld House in Berlin (for the sawmill owner, Adolf Sommerfield), he asked a young Marcel Breuer to produce the furniture; a young Josef Albers to design the windows; and a young Joost Schmidt to create wood carvings in the entrance hall.
A final point to make about the Bauhaus education is that teachers were given a healthy amount of free time. Neither Klee nor Kandinsky taught for more than five hours a week — which meant that they had plenty of time to devote to their own artistic projects.
Klee argued that giving classes at the Bauhaus actually improved him as an artist, because it made him consider his work on an intellectual level for the first time. ‘When I came to teach,’ he said, ‘I was obliged to make precisely clear to myself what I did for the most part unconsciously.’
In 1933, after repeated run-ins with Nazi authorities, the Bauhaus was forced to closed down. It had been open just 14 years. And yet, remarkably, an entire century after its founding, it is still being celebrated today.
‘In part, that’s down to the teachers,’ says Annie Wallington, Head of the Works on Paper sale at Christie’s London. ‘Three of the brightest teachers at Bauhaus were Klee, Kandinsky and Schlemmer, and we’re fortunate to have fine works by all of them coming to auction this month. It’s a fitting way to mark the great school’s centenary.’