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Bauhaus

The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 to explore new aesthetic perspectives and creative teaching programmes for the education of architects, designers and artists for a post-war democratic society.

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The text below is the excerpt of the book Art of the 20th Century, written by Dr Dorothea Eimert, published by Parkstone International. 

Rapid technical and economic growth around 1900 resulted in the creation of trade associations in many countries which, in architecture and the crafts, sought greater equality of form.

In the Bauhaus, the goals of the trades associations saw their further advancement. The medieval concept of a synthesis of the arts was re-emerging. The architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919 in Weimar. Craftsmen under the direction of renowned artists, who were called ‘masters’, tested out fundamental ideas of shape, colour, material and their interaction. The Bauhaus wanted to put itself at the service of the industrial world and strove for the unity of all craft and artistic disciplines. Painting, sculpture, trades and applied arts were inseparable elements in the art of construction. The artist was to step out of his ghetto and work together with tradesmen and industry. Walter Gropius was successful in engaging artists with the Bauhaus who had already made a name for themselves. The aura of these individuals is the basis even today for the reputation of this school. Among the first were Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, who taught in the workshops for stained glass making and mural painting. In the printing shop was Lyonel Feininger; Gerhard Marcks was in the pottery shop; and Georg Muche was in the weaving mill. Oskar Schlemmer was responsible for both wood and stone sculpture. From 1923 onwards, he was also responsible for the Bauhaus stage, following the departure of Lothar Schreyer. Johannes Itten, László Modoly-Nagy and, finally, Josef Albers taught the introductory and basic courses.

 

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Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue, Black, Yellow and Grey, 1921. Oil on canvas, 76 x 52.4 cm. Gift of John L. Senior, Jr.,
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

A restructuring took place after the Bauhaus moved in 1926 from Weimar to Dessau. No longer did the basic principles of Johannes Itten, stressing the sensual perception of colour and quality of materials have pride of place, but rather that of basic design. Dynamic strengths and functions of materials were tested.

Oskar Schlemmer, Stairway of the Bauhaus, 1932.Oil on canvas, 162.3 x 114.3 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In the course of their research, the Bauhaus members published diverse essays, including Josef Albers on the non-utilitarian design theory. One verified the utility of modern materials, as well as their functional and aesthetic uses. These experiments were geared towards series production, which was advantageous for the industry. Albers wrote:

In an economically oriented time, the chief concern is an economical design that is determined by the factors of function and material. Before conceiving the function stands the study of the material.

Independent, constructive thinking is required, and beyond this, the testing of uncommon materials like straw, paper, cellophane, wallpaper, corrugated board, newspaper, wire mesh, labels, razor blades … ‘Thinking is the cheapest form of wear and tear,’ was the slogan. Every element had to be of equal value. Spatial thinking, new perspectives, precise observation, a most refined sense of structure, material, and for surfaces were innovations that lived on in many art genres even after World War II.

Lyonel Feininger, Gelmeroda IX, 1926.Oil on canvas, 108 x 80 cm.
Folkwang Museum, Essen.

The Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933. After World War II, an attempt was made at the School of Design in Ulm to continue the Bauhaus traditions. Max Bill, who served at this institution for several years as the rector, had already taught at the Bauhaus from 1927 to 1929. In 1931, he joined Abstraction-Creation, and, in 1944, he assumed a teaching position at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich. His sculptures – with the impressive ‘naturally pure’ river, the endless ribbons and the rolling spaces – gave the impression of having sprung from the ‘pure’ flow of a paper web, just as Albers had taught at the Bauhaus.

The Hungarian Alexander Bortnyik opened a private studio for applied graphic arts in 1928 that became known as the Budapest Bauhaus. After fleeing the Nazi regime, Moholy-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, Albers and Feininger founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago. In the 1950s and 1960s, their ideas influenced the Colour Field and Hard Edge painting styles in America.

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Max Bill, Infinite Torsion (Curva infinita), 1953-56.Bronze, 125 x 125 x 80 cm. Openluchtmuseum voor Beeldhouwkunst Middelheim, Antwerp.

In his art, Josef Albers made the reduction of shape and colour vivid with his squares. The square, as the purest of shapes, illustrates the aesthetic power of simplification. Shape in the form of a square recedes into the extreme background. The superimposition of colour layers leads to ever-new transparencies and to ever new and fascinating colour dialogues. Albers chose the nested square form so that the colour quality would appear ‘free floating’ and ‘clearly limited’ in relation to the neighbouring colours and develop a life of its own. In 1950, he began the long series Homage to the Square as a painting, as a silk-screen print or as a tapestry.

The longer we look at Albers’ paintings, the less visible the squares become, and the more visible alone the colour becomes. Albers’ homage to the square is entirely a homage to colour. With the constant repetition of one and the same shape, Josef Albers provided a fundamental contribution to the theme of the ‘series’. Albers is, thereby, a pioneer of Concrete Art with their varieties ranging from Op Art and Kinetic Art, as well as Colour Field Painting and its variations. In 1921, the Hungarian and former lawyer, László Modoly-Nagy met El Lissitzky in Düsseldorf. He painted his first Constructivist painting, and, in the book he published in 1922 in Vienna, Book of New Artists, he declared his position with respect to the new art. His work at the Bauhaus from 1923 to 1928 was remarkably far-reaching. Moholy-Nagy liked to experiment and looked for new methods in new areas. So it was with coloured light, similar to Man Ray, in photograms and photomontages. And just like the brothers Gabo and Pevsner, he experimented with kinetic space modules.

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Josef Albers, Tribute to the Square, 1964.Oil on cardboard, 78 x 78 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

Oskar Schlemmer sought the synthesis of all the arts. In the area of set design for the theatre, he could develop his ideas of harmony as a reflection of the human soul. The figure of man ought to be the measure of all things on stage as on the canvas. The preoccupation with dance and the theatre allowed him to imagine a new conception of space: space is no longer just expansion, but rather, space becomes functional; it becomes space for living. In his paintings, Schlemmer realises the imaginary space that extends itself to metaphysical concepts. The figures become distillate forms of graphic-spatial perceptions of mankind. It is a free arrangement of shapes. In the interaction of their relative sizes, they suggest a dynamic and unending spatial depth. ‘With a clear imagination…cautiously and carefully,’ he feels his way along his paintings. ‘It is the thrill at the success, at the beautiful confluence of will and imagination.’

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