Many imitators of the famous art school’s output have missed the surreal, sensual, irrational, and instinctual spirit that drove its creativity.
Think of the Bauhaus and the images that spring to mind will be streamlined, stylish, and minimal: the Dessau building’s clean lines and vertical lettering, Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair, the Wagenfeld lamp, Marianne Brandt’s teapot, or Max Bill’s kitchen clock. One might even think of a descendant of the Bauhaus, like IKEA or Apple. Yet while these aesthetics are certainly true to the Modernist design school, they only tell one side of the story. Many imitators have missed the element of Bauhaus that breathed life into what might have become sterile functionalist designs; the surreal, sensual, irrational, and instinctual spirit of the Bauhaus.
To understand this other, weirder Bauhaus, one must return to the crucible in which it was formed. The German architect Walter Gropius had returned from World War I, having survived numerous near-death experiences and traumas, to find his country near-bankrupt. There was an atmosphere of exhaustion but also a nearly hysterical sense of hope. The Kaiser had fled to Holland, the Spartacists were taking over the streets, and revolution was in the air. In the absence of paid work, Gropius and his fellow architects began to dream and conjured up apparitions of Paradiso in stark contrast to the Inferno they’d just endured.
They began to exchange correspondence under pseudonyms in what became known as the Crystal Chain, full of visionary utopian revelations. Their drawings followed suit from the crags and cavernous monuments of the Luckhardt brothers to the mountaintop crystal palaces of Bruno Taut. A grounded and stoical man, Gropius sought to turn their fantasies into action. He helped organize the Exhibition for Unknown Architects with a desire that would be central to his forthcoming Bauhaus. “Let us tear down the walls that our misguided book-learning put up between the arts and all become builders again,” he proclaimed.
The early Bauhaus was much stranger—and Expressionist—than often thought. Its manifesto encapsulates this with its triumphant radiating “Cathedral of Socialism” woodcut illustration by the Bauhaus’ first teacher Lyonel Feininger and Gropius’s near-religious zeal in its text. With a degree of romanticism, Gropius looked back to Die Bauhütten medieval guilds, how they worked together to create Gesamtkunstwerk (total works of art from the spire to the stained glass to the door handles), like the Gothic cathedral in his manifesto, and lamented the barriers that had since been artificially put up between the arts and the crafts. The Bauhaus would be an attempt to resurrect this spirit for the new modern age.
The teaching staff, a line-up of idiosyncratic avant-garde misfits that Gropius assembled, seem initially to have been woefully miscast for this challenge. There was the spiritual shaven-headed Johannes Itten who followed the ancient Persian fire cult called Mazdaznan, built a long-lost stained glass “Tower of Fire” in 1920, and encouraged his pupils to meditate and purge themselves through self-discipline. There was Feininger, formerly a pioneering comic book artist in the U.S., who specialized in mysterious woodcuts and paintings of atmospheric angular street scenes populated by desolate figures and tumbledown buildings dissolving into geometric shapes. Alongside them was the quixotic Swiss artist Paul Klee, whose near-mystic work seemed built from the flotsam of childhood, dreams, folklore, and the unconscious, and the Russian Wassily Kandinsky whose kaleidoscopic landscapes and cityscapes had gradually disintegrated and radiated into other worlds of abstraction. They worked supremely as teachers. Even before the Bauhaus existed, Kandinsky had written—in sentiments that chime with Gropius—of “breaking down the walls between the arts.... and [to] finally prove that the problem of art is not a problem of form but a problem of spiritual content."
To the outsiders who would rail against and eventually close the Bauhaus, the school sowed chaos and subversion. Yet there was a structure and spirit in place from the beginning. To start a new truly modern way of designing the world, Gropius knew he had to engineer a childhood. The ornament of the old, rotten, aristocratic, and imperial world which had led to the cataclysm of war, was discarded. Instead, designs would be beautifully simple and useful, like Josef Hartwig’s Bauhaus chess set where the pieces are shaped according to how they move. Primary colors became the Bauhaus trademark, providing a unity that held the otherwise disparate work together from Herbert Bayer’s kiosks to the patterns of the Albers to the toys of Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. Color was recognized not just as decorative but as corresponding to mood, music, atmosphere, dissonance, and harmony; echoing the trances and harmonics of the Bauhaus’ music teacher Gertrud Grunow. There was a sense of childlike wonder and simplicity, but the intention was practical. “Marshaling the play of forces within us,” Itten claimed, “means creating in the fashion of children.” It was also a way of marshaling individual eclectic talents in a discernible and trademark order.
The streamlined Bauhaus developed during its second act; primarily with the arrival of László Moholy-Nagy. The Hungarian Constructivist had a huge bearing on Gropius and changed the direction of the school. The motto of “Art and craft—a new unity,” became “Art and technology—a new unity.” Such was the transformation that the old masters like Klee and Feininger feared for their jobs and relevance, especially as Itten had been replaced for leading the students into esoteric cultish territory. Yet Moholy-Nagy, for all his technocratic sides, had plenty of eccentricities. He created paintings over the telephone and made music by scratching and manipulating records. Most importantly, he encouraged students to see and photograph the world from curious de-familiarizing angles (his specialty was shooting while dangling from the heights of radio towers), giving birth to Neues Sehen, as evidenced in the found patterns of Elsa Thiemann and the slanted portraits of Florence Henri. Herbert Bayer’s photomontages, like his famous “Lonely Metropolitan” (1932) with its eyes staring out at the city from upturned palms, owe something to Moholy-Nagy. As do the oblique shots Iwao Yamawaki took around the Bauhaus and the incensed photomontage he created to protest the “Assault on the Bauhaus” by Nazi forces in 1932.
There was certainly a sense of renewed clarity in the Bauhaus with Gropius (and even more so later with Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe) reining in indulgence and obscurantism. He had always set out to create a democratic and egalitarian school; offering students cheap food and subsidized education. Herbert Bayer's Universal typeface of 1925 was symbolic in this regard, containing no capital letters. The Bauhaus was also encouraged to aim beyond the left-field of art by financial necessity. To survive, they had to sell commercial products like the wallpapers of Maria Rasch and Margaret Camilla Leiteritz. Here too, though, the aim was to enter and transform the everyday lives of the many.
Collaboration, rather than ego, was at the heart of the Bauhaus’s ethic. The initial aim Gropius declared was “to liberate the individual by breaking down conventional patterns of thought in order to make way for personal experiences and discoveries which will enable him to see his own potentialities and limitations.” The next step was to move from “me” to “we.” Following the idea of total art, the Bauhaus taught that everything was worthy of considered design from the mural classes of Hinnerk Scheper to the textiles of Gunta Stölzl. The ultimate goal was combining all the disciplines, breaking down self-imposed barriers, collected within architecture—the ultimate overarching discipline. A successful example of this was the now-lost Sommerfeld House. Built for a magnate from the wreckage of a decommissioned wooden warship, the building looked more like an alpine Frank Lloyd Wright than the Bauhaus. It was organic, vernacular, and ornamental. It had chairs by Marcel Breuer, a stained glass window by Josef Albers, geometric engravings by Joost Schmidt, and so on. It was sadly destroyed in World War II.
Another exemplar of Bauhaus collaboration was the Bauhaus Theater, combining everything from set design and costumes right down to posters and hand puppets. It culminated under the guidance of the inspired Oskar Schlemmer and particularly with his creation the “Triadisches Ballet.” Having three acts, three central characters and three moods, it seemed to take opposing states and arrive at some new transhuman synthesis, Vitruvian Man transformed; Apollo and Dionysus, machine and human, discipline and impulse. In reality, it was a supreme excuse to dress up in extravagant outfits that echoed everything from robots to bondage, science fiction to children’s toys but which nonetheless seemed otherworldly. The ballet still seems ahead of our time let alone theirs (it inspired New Order’s “True Faith” music video by Philippe Decouflé).
There were other moments of thrilling prophecy of the world to come from the light projections and musical soundtracks of Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack’s Farblichtspiele to the isometric video game premonition of Herbert Bayer’s drawing of Gropius study (1923). In another sense, the collaborative joi de vivre aspect of the Bauhaus enabled its participants to have a certain flexibility in moving between disciplines while maintaining the same spirit. The key was, as the first rule of the Bauhaus Basic Course went, “To liberate creative forces and thereby the artistic talents of the students through their own experiences and perceptions.” Those experiences would change but they’d be ready. When the Bauhaus artist Alfredo Bortoluzzi (deemed a “degenerate” by the Nazis) was forbidden from painting, he applied himself to the equally Bauhausian art of dancing by becoming a famed ballet dancer, as well as a choreographer and scenographer, in Paris.
Dancing was an integral part of the Bauhaus. The central importance that Gropius placed on collaboration extended into a sense of community, with the director encouraging “friendly interaction” between masters and students. (Today, such power dynamics would come under questioning. But interactions between the sexes within the Bauhaus led, it is claimed, to 71 marriages.) There was a focused and creative informality to these proceedings. “Tell me how you party and I'll tell you who you are,” Schlemmer claimed, designing not just the theatrical events but many of the public parties for which the Bauhaus became famous. There were the seasonal parties: the lantern procession, the fiery summer solstice, the festival of aerial games featuring fantastical, often impractical, kites, and the yuletide Christmas gift party, with monthly masked balls and the birthdays of the teacher’s being celebrated. Then there were the singular themed events (the “Beard, Nose, and Heart Festival” for instance) encouraging imaginative fashions, hairstyles, and entertainments such as musical staircases and laughing closets. In the Metallic festival of 1929, attendees entered via a chute below suspended silver balls and the sound of bells, entering a dance hall filled with people in mechanical tinfoil outfits.
The parties were seen as a creative and cathartic outlet, bonding the Bauhäusler together and spreading the word among the wider community, though sometimes to disdainful effect among the puritan elements of the population. They fulfilled a ritualistic purpose for Gropius but they were also a way of leveling pretensions through humor and humility; the director would present each individual student with food for example. The events were soundtracked by the Bauhaus in-house band, which played pan-national music, for the pan-national audience, underscored by Jazz and “a bone-rattling rhythm that makes its mark,” in their own words. It was all part of the wider plan, “Play becomes party—party becomes work—work becomes play,” as Itten put it.
The Bauhaus aimed for an egalitarian and open-minded environment. “Any healthy man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect,” Moholy-Nagy claimed, “just as when he speaks, he is a ‘speaker.’” And therein lay a crucial problem with the Bauhaus. In 1927, Erich Consemüller took a photograph of the Bauhäuslers, Breuer, Martha Erps, Katt Both, and Ruth Hellos-Consemüller. The figures seem so ahead of their time, in their ruffled androgynous poses, that they strongly resemble a Shoegaze band. Yet, for all the female artists and designers who passed through the school and flourished, the Bauhaus wasted a great deal of talent through the bias of its management.
It certainly professed a message of equality (welcoming “any person of good character… regardless of age or sex”) and was remarkably progressive for its time (a period in which it was not unusual for German universities, for instance, to have professors of “Racial Hygiene”). It encouraged the enrollment of foreign students and those from working class and disadvantaged backgrounds. One third of the students were female, and half of the male students were young war veterans with few opportunities and hidden traumas. The students could get cheap food and occasional work on the side, while a blind eye was generally turned if they had to crash in the faculty buildings. Female teachers and pupils however found themselves frozen out of many departments, to the frustration of exceptionally talented figures like Anni Albers. Many were forced into textiles, primarily due to Itten’s absurd insistence (and Gropius’s acceptance) that women were better skilled at 2-D than 3-D. Some of the school’s most gifted students created work as much in defiance of the Bauhaus as because of it (Gertrud Arndt’s mask portraits for example) or struggled unnecessarily for far too long before being recognized, as in the case of the metalwork of Marianne Brandt. In the end, they lost out. And so did the Bauhaus through its own wilful myopia.
Flaws aside, when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, a force for progress and pluralism was silenced. Many of the Bauhäuslers went on to produce innovative work and start their own creative scenes all around the world. Towards the end of their lives, leaders like Gropius and Arndt recalled the Bauhaus with immense fondness and wished only to be personally remembered in the manner of a little Bauhaus party. Others were submerged in the war and genocide that followed. The figure that embodies the surreal, joyful side of the Bauhaus perhaps more than any other, Schlemmer died as a broken man trapped in Nazi Germany, which had declared him a “degenerate artist.” His last works were his melancholic paintings looking out from his window onto others.
If one seeks to emulate the Bauhaus today, it is vital to remember the elements of weirdness, pleasure, and even organized chaos that made it what it was. And, also, the moments where it failed to rise to fulfill its own ambitions and principles. It was as we are, with Schlemmer’s Bauhaus logo being, after all, a human face.