Happy Anniversary Bauhaus!

2009 marks the 90th Anniversary of the infamous Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany.  

The Bauhaus was an important historic enigma for me.  I origially studied the arts while attending Iowa State University in the early 80’s.  During the 80’s there was a frenzy of dissection and scrutiny over the training styles of the Bauhaus educators.  Each class I had, whether it was engineering or design, calligraphy or color theory; there was always an intertwining ribbon of Bauhaus history that ran underneath the basis of each class. 

The Bauhaus and it’s philosophy of blending form and function has gone through a slew of dissections of both its influences as well as its impacts since its inception in 1919 as a utopian environment combining all the arts in an ideal unity.  Bauhaus would bring together the talents of many renown architects such as Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Lazlo Maholy-Nagy.  Included were also artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten (discoverer of the color wheel), Oskar Schlemmer, Margarite Freedlander, Gunta Stolzl,  Joseph Albers, and Paul Klee.

The Bauhaus began in 1919 in Weimer, Germany and it should not have survived as long as it did.  This was a disastrous time in Post WWI Germany where most of the areas were in shambles from the fighting and artillery.

Within the Bauhaus each art department would be responsible to create their wares and sell them in town at the farmer’s markets.  Any money they earned from their “artwork” was returned to the school in order to purchase food and provide financial support for the school.   Some of the items sold were furniture, ceramic pots, fabrics, wallpaper, etc.  In order to be a participant in the market you had to make functional items or “usable artwork” thus being sellable.  This was the beginning of form/function in the arts.

By 1923 hyper economic inflation occurs in Germany in order to pay for the war.  People were being paid employment income 3 times each day and each time they would receive pay they would immediately run out to buy needed items such as bread, toilet paper, milk, etc.  This hyper inflation is what became the catalyst for staff and students to invent things to survive.  Bauhaus was primitive when it came to tools and materials.  Students and staff had to dig their own clay out of the ground and or weave their own fabrics to make clothing, towels, furniture covering.

Also in 1923 the Bauhaus holds an informational exhibition.   The students created and built the steel house in Weimar to hold it in.  The structure still stands today and is now a museum.  One of the items featured in the exhibition was something called Jena glass.  This type of glass substance would eventually be leased to Corning and became Corningware in this country.  Jena, and later Corningware, is the combination of glass with Borax in it allowing it to withstand open flame as well as freezing temperatures.   

In 1929, while at the Bauhaus,  Walter Gropius submits an entry to Chicago for the Tribune Tower and gets denied.  

Hitler took over power after being elected in 1933.  He despised the Bauhaus and therefore sent the Berlin police there to deny access to the students.  Hitler claimed a teacher was Jewish and claimed that Wassily Kandinsky was a Communist.  The Jewish teacher was actually Lutheran.  Hitler was demanding their removal from Bauhaus, however Mies (in charge at the time) gathered all the staff together.  After long discussions Mies and the staff agreed to all quit and close the Bauhaus down.  Hitler wanted to keep Bauhaus around but the staff thought better to have no Bauhaus than one run by a dictator.

1937 in Chicago a Bauhaus teacher, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, comes to create the New Bauhaus school of design.  This was financed by a family named Pepke (who owned the land that is now Aspen, CO).  Mies never liked Moholy-Nagy when in Germany.  Moholy-Nagy was married to another Bauhaus teacher, Lucia Moholy-Nagy.

 Shortly later Mies van der Rohe comes to Chicago because of  the architectural explosion the area was facing.  Mies discovers the New Bauhaus and sues Moholy-Nagy for the name rights because Mies held the school’s name ownership earlier.  After 18 months of fighting Moholy-Nagy changes the name of the school to the Institute of Design which still exists.  Mies goes on to open his own school which becomes the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Mies also goes on to construct 868-880 Lake Shore Drive in 1949 which becomes the Grandparent buildings to the Sears Tower.

IIT in the 50’s & 60’s was the best architectural school in the world.  Myron Goldsmith came here to Chicago and using a slide rule only creates some very famous buildings.  He works for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (also known as SOM – “Sons of Mies”).  Myron Goldsmith is the mathematical genius behind the John Hancock building and it has been said that Calatrava nods his head at Goldsmith in his own work.  Calatrava is the architect who designed the Milwaukee Art Museum as well as the Chicago Spire which is still in its beginning stages.

The Bauhaus’ education system was interesting.  During the first 6 months you studied an overview and introduction to all the programs and their hierarchy within the system.  Next was a study of materials, color composition, material composition, workshops, and nature study.  After that, your study surrounded color, glass, clay, stone, metal, wood, and fiber.  You also had a 2 year internship to fulfill before graduation.

Some of the educators were rather radical.  Oskar Schlemmer was into theater, dance, painting, and sculpture.  He designed the 1913 exhibition poster creating the Bauhaus’ colored rectangles  and squared face motif which would be its trademark.

Wassily Kandinsky began working for Lenin and after leaving Lenin went to work at the Bauhaus.  He would eventually take over for Johannes Itten as a color educator.

NEXT WEEK:  Johannes Itten – he studied Eastern/Western religious philosophy and was a colorist.  He created color studies and the play on psychology and the tricks to the eyes color plays.  He made his own clothing and invented the color wheel.  In 1919 he created the macrobiotic diet in the cafeteria at Bauhaus.  He eventually goes to Vienna and is replaced at Bauhaus by Kandinsky.

3 thoughts on “Happy Anniversary Bauhaus!

  1. I enjoyed your conversational style but wondered why you describe the Bauhaus as ‘infamous’.
    There seem to be a fair few details in this piece that I’ve not read anywhere else in relation to Bauhaus history so I would be interested to know your sources.
    I think that the colour wheel pre-dated Itten. No article about the Bauhaus should omit the Dessau buildings. They are World Heritage Sites and have inspired much modern architecture in the last 90 years. The Bauhaus exhibition soon to open at MoMA in NYC will offer a comprehensive history of the movement and an unparalleled exposition of its products.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. The reason for the use of “infamous” in the post is because in Chicago art has gotten away from any sort of functionality. Here there is an extremely wide breadth of stylings, inspirations, and reasons for making art; whereas Bauhaus had all the arts unified in one direction of creation for the sake of learning and supporting the school. I first learned of the Bauhaus at Iowa State University because the art movement then was still steeped in craft, however in Chicago craft and art can be found in the root of great debates.

    My source was my professor’s lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I took an entire semester of his Bauhaus class; he is quite credentialed and a frequent visitor of Europe. I wish I could have included more information, including Dessau, however it is merely a blog and was created to entice others to investigate this great monolith of pedagogical study.

    I believe Sir Isaac Newton created the color wheel itself in the 1700’s but it was Johannes Itten who invented it as a tool to study the relationships between colors.

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