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How Bauhaus Changed Art and Aesthetics

May 17, 2016
Runs, does yoga.

When did Modernism begin? Art historians cannot agree on this, but they do know which institution was the one to give shape to it, and to most of the ideas from this period. It was the Bauhaus – a revolutionary art school, far more than just an educational center. As many would say, the Bauhaus was a philosophy, a way of life and thinking, a fruitful protest against the regressive nature of art schools, and an advocate of the bond between art and life. It effectively redefined these relationships and re-established some preconceived notions in art and the way it is viewed. Coinciding with a series of other significant movements and events, the Bauhaus was a channel to keep it all together in one place, at least for a certain period of time. So even though the school was closed a few years before the World War II began, the spirit was kept alive, albeit dispersed across the globe, and it has helped redefine the relationship between arts and crafts, in a way even more outreaching than the one suggested by the original Arts and Crafts in the late 19th century.

bauhaus art
Lyonel Feininger – Cathedral for the Program of the State Bauhaus in Weimar. 1919. Woodcut, (30.5 x 19 cm). The woodcut was used as a cover for the Bauhaus manifesto; the cathedral symbolizes medievalism, which had resonated with the ideas of art being “crafty”.

Principles and Manifesto

The Bauhaus came in a moment of great uncertainty, at a time when the intellectual started drifting apart from the manufactured. This state was announced by the emergence of industrialization on one hand, but it was also provoked by the nihilist and anti-art ideas suggested by Dada on the other. It looked like art was going to become completely estranged, cut out from anything related to everyday life – which would eventually be more of a threat to everyday life than to art itself. The founder, Walter Gropius, and a number of his contemporaries were set out to reconcile creativity and realization, to bring theory back to practice, and vice versa. They believed in the unity of all arts, which should be in a constant dialogue, helping and learning from each other, and responding to the true needs of the society. With this in mind, the Bauhaus encompassed a range of different genres, but all of them were brought together through crafts.

bauhaus art
Theater was an important part of the school’s curriculum – Bauhaus costumes in the 1920s

Bauhaus History – The Beginnings and the Modernist Legacy

The school was founded by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, conceived as a renewed version of two art schools combined, both of which were subject to renovation due to the consequences of the World War I. The fact that two schools were merged into one was equally important as a base for further intents of the school, and a symbol for what the Bauhaus stood for. Clearly motivated by the liberating spirit of Modernism, which came just in the right time, the Bauhaus was the first institution in Germany to say goodbye to the ornament and to emblematic connotation of any kind. Arguably, this radical approach to arts and aesthetics was preconditioned by the repression felt under the old monarchistic regime, which finally ceased to exist in the modern times. The idea was to  designate an international visual language, and Modernism responded to this endeavor perfectly. It was finally possible to enjoy the international style and to dive into abstraction, simplified form, and the beauty of this new freedom, a freedom to stay apolitical. The norms were about to be broken and redefined, allowing for a completely fresh and different view to flourish and give way to a new kind of approach.

bauhaus art
Bauhaus building today, entrance

Struggling with Reality

However, as much as the enthusiasts strive to pursue this freedom, reality seldom follows the heroic paradigm. In 1925, the school was practically forced out of Weimar, being exposed to a lot of political pressure. Some departments remained, and this school still exists (it is now called Bauhaus-University Weimar), but the real Bauhaus was re-established in Dessau – which turned out to be one of the best things that happened to the school, mostly because of the famous building which remained intact to this day. Gropius had appointed Hannes Meyer as the new director, which announced a turbulent period during which a lot of great things happened, but so did a number of conflicts among the staff. In 1930, Gropius suggested that the renowned Ludwig Mies van der Rohe should become the new director, only 2 years before the school was closed once again, for reasons similar to the ones before. One last attempt to make the school function was made by Mies van der Rohe himself, who used his own money to finance its relocation to Berlin. Despite the efforts to keep the school going, the influence of the Nazi party was rising, and so the staff eventually decided to close the school voluntarily. Being accused of the “un-German” spirit and condemned for the propagation of the “degenerate” Modern art, the Bauhaus could not remain in the right-wing Germany anymore.

bauhaus art
The famous Bauhaus window mechanism

Bauhaus Design – “Art into Industry”

As already mentioned, the ideas which brought the Bauhaus artists together were quite similar to the ones propagated by the Arts and Crafts movements earlier, especially the ones related to William Morris and his outlook on the revolution of design. However, the objects made by the British Arts and Crafts do not seem to have much in common with the Bauhaus design. The discrepancy is partly due to the time of creation, as Bauhaus came later, and partly because of the Bauhaus’ affirmative attitude toward industrialization, which differed from Morris’ own, anti-industrial approach to crafting. The Bauhaus artists believed that form and function should be in harmony, corresponding to each other, without any need for excessive decoration. Unlike William Morris, the German creatives saw great potential in mass production, embracing the advancements that it could bring, such as the financial practicality, for example.

bauhaus art
Replicas of Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chairs

Immense Influence on Art and Architecture

A lot of theorists like to single out the fact that architecture was included in the school’s curriculum only after a few years of existence, which comes as a paradox, since all three directors of the school were architects. Given the fact that architecture is perhaps the most “purposeful” of all the arts out there, it comes as no surprise that, once the department was included, it became what the school is today most known for. Bauhaus is one of the reasons why industrial design and architecture are often roofed under the same genre, and the building in Dessau, designed by Gropius, is a perfect example of this principle. The construction details and the interior of the Bauhaus school building are still considered to be the guidelines of what you would call “good design”. The same, functionalist logic being applied to building design and to design of a chair – that is what Bauhaus was all about. After the Second World War sprung out, a lot of Bauhaus alumni and teachers immigrated to the United States, among them Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who established the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was also engaged in education in Chicago, and became an exceptionally influential architect later on. Almost all the artists who were associated with the Bauhaus became known as the legends of the 20th-century art, such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, etc., which speaks clearly about the impact of the movement. This impact is also reflected in a number of iconic designs left behind. That is also to say that much of today’s design relies on the principles derived from the Bauhaus.

Editors’ Tip: Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago

The book represents a selection of firsthand information and documents related to the history of the Bauhaus. Documents presented in this book are taken from a wide range of sources, including the public manifestos, private letters, internal memoranda, jotted-down conversations, minutes of board and faculty meetings, sketches and schemata, excerpts from speeches and books, newspaper and magazine articles, Nazi polemics, official German government documents, court proceedings, budgets, and curricula. It is also appropriately and beautifully illustrated, so that it gives additional information on the movement, while embellishing the content of the book.

Featured images: From left to right Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl and Oskar Schlemmer, c. 1926; Lucia Moholy (Photo) / Walter Gropius (architect), Bauhaus Building Dessau from north-west, 1926. All images used for illustrative purposes only.