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The Story: The Bauhaus School
The Bauhaus School
Frank Whitford provides a detailed account of the Bauhaus School and defines three phases in its history from 1919 to 1933.
The first phase was from 1919 and 1923.
"The early months of the Bauhaus were marked both by a determination to reform art education and to create a new kind of society, and by a willingness to sacrifice a great deal in order to do so. Plagued like the young Republic itself by internal dissent, unreasonable external demands and crippling economic crises, the Bauhaus was quickly forced to redefine its aims, to temper idealism with realism." [Whitford, 1984, p.9]
The second phase was from 1923 to 1925.
"During the second phase of the school's life, therefore, rational, quasi-scientific ideas gradually replaced Romantic notions of artistic self-expression and brought about important changes in the school's curriculum and teaching methods. This phase embraced the years in which the tottering German economy stabilized and the nation's industry began to flourish. They were, however, also the years in which political extremists of both the left and right gained strength. They, too, directly affected the Bauhaus." [Whitford, 1984, p.9, 10]
The third phase was from 1925 to 1933.
"... when the Bauhaus was forced to leave Weimar: the city's new nationalist government withdrew financial support. The German Republic itself now also suffered increasingly from the attacks of radicals and revolutionaries alike, and the polarization of politics was reflected at the Bauhaus, now located at Dessau. At the same time the national economy enjoyed a brief boom and the Bauhaus began to tailor its teaching to the demands of industry." [Whitford, 1984, p.10]
The closure of the school by the Nazis in 1933 began the spread of Bauhaus ideas across Europe and the United States. The Bauhaus inspired a revolution in design and art education that is still present today. The "foundation course" taught in art schools is a product of the Bauhaus. Wolf von Eckardt stated that the Bauhaus "created the patterns and set the standards of present-day industrial design; it helped to invent modern architecture; it altered the look of everything from the chair you are sitting in to the page you are reading now." [Whitford, 1984, p.10]
The Bauhaus established the workshop-based training that revolutionized art education and is used to this day. As Gropius explained in an interview, "I realized that closer links had to be forged between the machine and the artistic individual. So I established workshops, which trained people in two ways - as artists and as craftsmen. It's often wrongly thought that everything was based on handicraft. In fact, it was a place of preparation. You can't understand a machine until you've understood the tools of your craft."
Many of the ideas at the Bauhaus were not unique. Since the industrial revolution, educated men and women were contemplating the problems associated with art and its relevance in the new era of the machine. What made the Bauhaus teaching unique, particularly with regards to the foundation course or Vorkurs, was "the amount and quality of its theoretical teaching, the intellectual rigor with which it examined the essentials of visual experience and artistic creativity." [Whitford, 1984, p.103]
Johannes Itten established the Preliminary or Foundation Course at the Bauhaus. Itten followed a religion based on eastern beliefs called Mazdaznan. Adopting principles from Buddhism, Itten would begin his workshops with breathing exercises. He encouraged his students to study materials and textures by working with materials they could find, feel and touch. In the early stage of the Bauhaus, Itten was the most influential of the teachers since he determined who would take the foundation course and by implication determined who would gain admission into the Bauhaus School.
Unlike previous preliminary art education, which taught art history and the problems that were encountered in the past, the preliminary course was about learning abstract forms, color theory, nature of materials and other principles of art and design. The primary focus was on the individual student (senses, emotions and intellect) and assisting them to learn about themselves before deciding on a specific direction. Students were encouraged to go out and get any material they could find and study its nature and produce work from their exploration. It was an economically hard time and students had to go out to dump yards or use whatever was available. Some innovative designs were created.
"Imagination and creative ability must first of all be liberated and strengthened. Once this has been achieved, technical and practical demands and finally commercial considerations may be introduced. Young people who begin with market research and practical and technical work seldom feel encouraged to search for something really new. If new ideas are to assume artistic form, physical, sensual, spiritual, and intellectual forces and abilities must all be equally available and act in concert. This realization largely determined the subjects and methods of my teaching at the Bauhaus. It was essential to build up the individual student as a well-integrated creative person, a program I consistently advocated in the 'Council of Masters'." [Itten, 1975, p.8]
At the Bauhaus there were two types of teachers or “Masters”. The "Workshop Masters" were skilled craftsmen. They were usually skilled in various disciplines but they taught specific crafts such as painting, pottery, weaving or architecture. There were also the "Masters of Form" who were responsible for aesthetic qualities.
The modern painters provided the constructive thinking. They worked with space and form. Gropius explained that he thought the painters could help usher in a new Constructivist thought in architecture. He said, "We have to pull the whole thing together. We have to destroy the separations between painting and sculpture, architecture and design and so on. It is all one." Amongst the painters who taught at the Bauhaus were some of the most original and well known including the Swiss artist Paul Klee, and the Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky. Kandinsky virtually invented abstract painting before the Great War. His works had no reference to nature, it was about how he felt. He was developing a visual language based on circles, triangles, squares and lines.
Theatre also played a role. The emphasis was not on acting or drama, but on design and construction of props and costumes. In more contemporary business terms, the theatre workshops created a “team spirit” amongst students who worked towards a “shared vision”. No doubt, the emphasis on roles and role-playing also helped in conceptual thinking.
Although Graphic Design was not a specific course, photography and typography were taught at the Bauhaus. The face of the modern media was developed at the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus banned the use of serifs. The new typography was bold and clean. The purpose was to provide better clarity in media and print. It helped to make magazine publications accessible to the masses and resulted in the phenomenon of “rapid consumption”. It created the appeal of advertising. With window glass, television and computer screens, the modern typefaces are easier to read.
The workshops were designed to enable students to become well rounded in all disciplines. It was an effective teaching method because it catered for kinaesthetic as well as auditory and visual learning. The re-location to the industrial center of Dessau from the cultural hub of Weimar was intended to encourage a closer relationship between art and industrial design. Whereas in the early years at Weimar the emphasis was on individual work, the Bauhaus of Dessau became more focused on industrial design. Works became commercial prototypes for some of the products manufactured in industry. From the Bauhaus came kitchen utensils, furniture, toys and other products that are so common in modern life that many people today would be surprised to discover they originated in the first quarter of the century.
In 1923, Laslo Moholy-Nagy took over the foundation course from Itten. He brought a constructivist and functionalist thinking to the course. Josef Albers a graduate of the Bauhaus also taught the course fulfilling one of the Bauhaus aspirations that students should one day become teachers. Albers brought engineering principles to design teaching. He produced three-dimensional structures from paper. Students were taught as engineers rather than as artists. This was also where the use of prototypes and models for expressing design in architecture was instilled.
A functional prototype of the modern home was constructed, known as the "Haus am Horn". It had all the features and functions of the modern kitchen. It was unlike the homes of that time. It was not only functional but also based on rational principles. Although it was intended as a commercially viable alternative for housing in Germany, it became an early expression of the modern suburban American homes from the 1950s and 60s.
It was the Bauhaus in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius that was the prototype of the crystalline design of glass and metal which became the fore-runner of the International Style that would be adopted in modern building architecture. Cars and airplanes and other modern machines inspired furniture designs. The steel tubular steel chairs common in modern business interiors were designed at the Bauhaus.
There was a housing problem in Dessau especially as it was an industrial area and did not provide adequate housing for workers. With the economic problems facing Germany, there was a need for low-cost housing. Students collaborated on a housing project in a Dessau suburb – assisting in the design and planning. The head of architecture at the Bauhaus was Hannes Meyer who believed that architecture was a science and not an art. He put greater emphasis on the architect's social responsibility.
Meyer became the second director of the Bauhaus in 1928 when Gropius resigned because of the personal criticism of the rising Nationalists (Nazi). Meyer was a communist and his appointment played into the hands of the Nazis who had already labeled the Bauhaus as a breeding ground for communism. In 1930, Meyer resigned and the re-knowned architect Mies van der Rohe acquired the directorship. Van der Rohe was appalled by the emphasis on functionalism at the expense of art and wanted to bring back the arts. He also banned political activity which helped in stabilizing the tense relationship with the Nazi dominated Dessau municipal authorities. Despite these changes, in 1932 the Dessau City Council withdrew all staff contracts. Political harassment continued and the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus. A final attempt was made to establish the Bauhaus in a Berlin Factory but in 1993 it too was closed down.
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