With the centenary anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, Aspen has much to celebrate. What an extraordinary bit of good fortune that one of the school’s principal members settled in Aspen and helped shape its identity. While the Bauhaus has exerted a global influence on art and architecture, Aspen shares with a very few other cities—London, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, Tel Aviv—a direct Bauhaus inheritance.
The “Bauhaus Style” of crisp geometric forms, primary colors, and the marriage of industrial materials with elegant functionality lives on locally in Bayer’s work and more widely as a paradigm for architectural and interior design. We see the Bauhaus legacy in desks at an Ikea store or in a Marcel Breuer chair at Design Within Reach or a Marianne Brandt teapot at a museum gift shop. Even in the school’s own day, copycat manufacturers advertised furniture made in the “Bauhaus Style,” and the public knew what that meant. We too know Bauhaus when we see it. But one hundred years of distilling this movement into a coherent style oversimplifies the history of the institution and its aesthetic philosophies, not all of which were compatible. It was not a monolithic institution. Its leaders issued manifestos that inspired the school community but that also gave rise to conflict and dissension. As we think about the Bauhaus a hundred years on, it is worth restoring some of this complexity to its history.
Walter Gropius was a well established architect when in 1919 he accepted an appointment to direct a new art school in Weimar. He had already designed and realized modernist buildings before the war. He had also pondered the idea, dating to at least the mid-nineteenth century, of reintegrating art and craft disciplines to produce a Gesamtkunstwerk, an “all together artwork,” in the form of a new architecture. “The ultimate aim of all visual art is the complete building!” began his 1919 manifesto.In Gropius’s understanding of art history, painting, sculpture, architectural design and the many craft traditions had drifted into their own spheres. That specialization gave rise to the romantic artist, a creator who would not compromise his own expression and identity by collaborating with others. Twentieth-century fine art—Constructivism and Suprematism in Russia, the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands, Cubism and Surrealism in France, and Expressionism and Dada in Germany— had for Gropius retreated into an abstruse self-referentiality. His solution was to create an educational environment in which students would recover the ability to work jointly as artists/craftsmen in order to create an efficient, comfortable, and beautiful lived environment.
This vision immediately met its first challenge in the eccentric person of Johannes Itten, a painter and founding faculty member. Itten designed and taught the important Vorkurs, the six-month introductory course that initiated every student into the Bauhaus program. His aim was to “acquaint the student with the basic principles which underlay all creative activity in the visual arts.”They were to become intimate with the medium on which they would later concentrate in the specialized workshops. Itten directed his students to engage with materials and forms in their natural state, and to allow their qualities to manifest through the student’s own pre-cultural, pre-social psychology.
Though Itten deemphasized the making of artworks per se, his approach prescribed a highly individualistic, psychological working method.Students were encouraged to follow Itten’s own spiritual practices, including meditation, a vegetarian diet, and even his adherence to Neo-Zoroastrianism. Itten’s teaching assistant, Gertrud Grunow, taught students to rely on their intuitions, and provided for them what resembled psychotherapy. Because of the student’s exploration of his inner state, art historians such as Arthur Cohen have characterized Itten’s pedagogy as ‘expressionist,’ that is, reflective of something unique and interior to the student artist.Inevitably, students in Itten’s course learned little of the collaborative, integrative working method at the center of Gropius’s vision. While Gropius was social, practical, and worldly, Itten was transcendent and monastic.
Presumably Itten anticipated that a student would be occupied by practical considerations soon enough, but his insistence on the personal gave rise to tensions which finally resulted in his departure in 1923. Itten essentially delayed the realization of the Bauhaus mission with what the historian Hans Wingler called an “expressionist interlude.” Even as we think about Bauhaus lamps and chairs and coffee tables, the students of the first graduating class finished their three-year course unprepared to design and produce such objects. That Itten’s orientation had pulled the students too far toward the abstract, that it remained too much in the nineteenth-century tradition of romantic “salon art,” not only defied Gropius’s call for a unification of art and craft, it meant that the school was slow to earn income with marketable products.
Gropius had also to negotiate a second, related programatic complication. In striving to raise the status of craft to that of fine art, he established workshops in metal, weaving, ceramics, typography, mural painting, stained glass, and cabinetmaking. In this celebration of craft, Gropius shared with earlier figures such as William Morris of the Arts and Crafts Movement a reverence for the handmade. But also like Morris, Gropius ran into the economic reality that goods made with pre-industrial technologies would be too expensive and too limited in quantity to find a mass market. Inevitably, he had to introduce industrial, assembly-line methods. In a not altogether coherent reformulation of principles, Gropius issued a circular to the school’s masters in February of 1922 stating that the Bauhaus’s fusion of art and broader social and economic practice should not succumb to a romantic impulse to make art for art’s sake. “Genuine crafts also have had to be reborn in order to make intelligible to our youth, through handwork, the nature of creative work. But this by no means implies a rejection of the machine or industry. The only basic contrast lies in the division of labor on the one hand and unity of labor on the other. …The Bauhaus could become a haven for eccentrics if it were to lose contact with the work and working methods of the outside world.”Here Gropius skirted the issue of the hand versus the machine by simply requiring the artist to collaborate with others in the improvement of the everyday world. Two years later in 1924, his argument for a synthesis would become more rhetorically abstract in letting the term ‘technology’ stand for both craft and industrial methods. “Art and Technology, a new unity! Technology does not need art, but art very much needs technology—example: architecture!”
The problem of the hand versus the machine was an old issue for Gropius and his generation. He had encountered it as a member of the German Association of Craftsmen (Das Deutsche Werkbund) before the war. This consortium of architects, engineers, artists and craftsmen had sought to marry the efficiencies of the factory with high design in order to be more competitive in international markets. It seems, however, that this effort foundered on the reluctance of individual artists to sacrifice their identity to the anonymity of group collaboration. As the youngest member of the Association, Gropius carried with him this unsolved problem through the war and into the Bauhaus.
Machines eventually made possible the commercial success of some departments such as cabinetry, metal, and weaving. The school achieved consistency and quality in production, even though it meant that some students were tasked with repetitive, production-line labor. Where the school did not have in-house capacity, it licensed other manufactures to produce its commodities. Meanwhile Gropius did not abandon craft, but areas such as stained-glass were underwritten, with some resentment, by other departments. One senses in the Bauhaus that an atavistic attraction to chisels and mallets competed with the equally alluring potential of the hydraulic press and conveyer belt. As an institution that saw itself as having a great impact not just on the arts, but on the emergence of a renewed German society, it juggled, sometimes awkwardly, the dual impulse to retrieve the best traditions of the past while chasing futuristic innovations. (That dynamic is familiar in our own day as the artisanal exists alongside the digital.) Some faculty masters such as Itten and Oscar Schlemmer, struggled with this dual movement, while others adapted. Bayer was among those able to work both sides of that divide.
These aspects of the Bauhaus discussed so far, the tension between a collaborative and a individualistic model of art making, and the parallel question of the factory versus the atelier, held a significance that went beyond the immediate questions of the school’s curriculum or facilities or its financial viability. How the school conceptually framed the merits or disadvantages of these choices reflected broader, if largely unarticulated, assumptions about the school’s social responsibilities. It is a remarkable but not coincidental circumstance that the lifespan of the Bauhaus coincided with that of the Weimar Republic. Even as the Republican National Constituent Assembly was hammering out in the same city a radically liberal constitution for the new state, Gropius was trying to articulate and implement creative principles that would produce an equally radical revolution in the physical environment. While they both had precedents, they also both proceeded from the notion that they could create almost from scratch and with a lessened burden of history a new and better society. Whatever their disagreements or inconsistencies, the students and masters at the Bauhaus were united by a shared sense of responsibility to a larger community.
When Gropius and his instructors thought about creating a new, salutary environment, they did not have in mind an affluent clientele. Their social conscience was focused on the urban blue-collar worker. While not dogmatic, they, like the rest of the European leftist intelligencia, had internalized the prevailing social language of the day, a Marxist vocabulary of class that juxtaposed urban workers and a capitalist bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, Gropius knew the school had to remain apolitical. It was, after all, a public institution, a Staatliche Bauhaus, that received its charter and the majority of its funding from the state of Thuringia and then later from Anhalt.He had to negotiate from year to year with state officials the terms of the school’s finances, facilities, and faculty contracts. In its dependence on state patronage, the school was from the beginning vulnerable to attacks from the incipient Völkischnationalist right. This faction perceived in the school’s modernism a degradation of traditional German culture on the one hand, and, on the other, an implicit alignment with Soviet communism in its concern for the working class. Gropius, in as much as he embodied the institution for the public, had to fend off accusations that the Bauhaus was a factory for “bolshevik art.” It didn’t help with the conservatives that the campus at Weimar had a reputation for bohemian behavior. If the Bauhaus community harbored any inclination to remain politically neutral, such attacks against its aesthetics and its social conscience pushed it toward a soft, if not Soviet, socialism. When the architect Hannes Meyer replaced Gropius as director in 1928 he did not conceal his political convictions. The school in any case exercised an independence of thought that would never be tolerated by local and then national authoritarian politicians. As soon as the National Socialists gained control of Anhalt in 1931, they summarily closed the school with an emergency decree. Mies van der Rohe made a brave attempt to reopen in an abandoned telephone factory in Berlin and fought with the National Socialist bureaucracy, but he and the school community realized that they could not pursue their vision in the new political reality of fascism.
It is worth pausing to admire the Bauhäuslers tenacity in the face of the larger political and economic context of the 1920s. Europe had been at peace for less than a year when the school opened. The war had brutalized the continent. German military and civilian deaths amounted to a staggering two and a half million with another four million wounded. The Weimar Republic, while based on a liberal constitution, struggled to gain its footing under the weight of onerous war reparations. Combat veterans streamed back to the cities where they found no jobs and food shortages. The decade then unfolded with hyperinflation in the early 1920s, the crush of depression after 1929, and the radicalization of the nationalist right. And yet the masters and students of the Bauhaus found the will to raise the school not once but three times. In the midst of political hostility, personal privation, and material shortages, as well as navigating through the problems inherent in its own mission, the community produced a body of artwork and a range of commodities that would be extraordinary in any period. There is a heroism in their perseverance.
And then the many Bäuhauslerwho migrated to America in the 1930s experienced a radical change of fortune. They left behind not only the social conditions that had initially motivated their work, but more immediately the deteriorating political situation. Some like Bayer and Mies remained long enough to witness the National Socialist government pass law upon law that reduced Jews first to non-citizens without civil rights and then to non-humans. In the space of an ocean passage, Bauhaus refugees shifted their artistic practice out of a vicious totalitarianism and into a free-market, free-speech democracy. Instead of thinking about apartment buildings for the downtrodden workers of Berlin or having to haggle with the Gestapo, these artists found themselves designing a Bauhaus show at the Museum of Modern Art, or considering professorships at Ivy League schools, or drawing buildings for Park Avenue, or directing the New Bauhaus in Chicago, or revitalizing a Colorado mining town. It was not only that they had escaped the fascist nightmare. Revelations about the grim nature of Stalinist Russia disabused those who nurtured illusions about a communist state, while the post-war American economic boom rendered the Marxist discourse of class antagonism moot. For the first time in their careers, artistic practice for these immigrants was relatively free of a weighty political or social context.
It is no wonder that their work, especially in architectural design, became more theoretical, more formal, more about an abstract composition of space with less regard for human occupants. Bauhaus style at its most insular became a kind orthodoxy for museums and art galleries and corporate lobbies. This ivory tower academicism came under attack by critics like Tom Wolfe, but their commentary overlooked more practical contributions to visual communication, graphic design, and especially the residential interior. Gropius might consider his original mission of folding art into the everyday largely fulfilled if he could walk through an Ikea store. He would see how the aesthetic sensibilities of his school have transcended their historical moment and continue to shape our world.
Hans M. Wingler, Ed., The Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, trans. Wolfgang Jabs (Baltimore: MIT Press, 1986), 31.
Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, Ise Gropius, eds., Bauhaus, 1919-1928, (Boston: Charles Branford Company, 1959), 34.
Cohen, Bayer, 9-11. Cohen and his Herbert Bayer: The Complete Workdeserve further mention here for elucidating how Itten’s approach clashed with the founding Bauhaus principles set out by Walter Gropius.