Bauhaus was an influential art and design movement that began in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. The movement encouraged teachers and students to pursue their crafts together in design studios and workshops. The school moved to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin in 1932, after which Bauhaus—under constant harassment by the Nazis—finally closed. The Bauhaus movement championed a geometric, abstract style featuring little sentiment or emotion and no historical nods, and its aesthetic continues to influence architects, designers and artists.
The Weimar school founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919 was inspired by Expressionist art and the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and designer William Morris. Its creators believed in bringing artists and craftspeople together for a utopian purpose.
Under the leadership of Gropius, the Bauhaus movement made no special distinction between the applied and fine arts. Painting, typography, architecture, textile design, furniture-making, theater design, stained glass, woodworking, metalworking—these all found a place there.
The Bauhaus style of architecture featured rigid angles of glass, masonry and steel, together creating patterns and resulting in buildings that some historians characterize as looking as if no human had a hand in their creation. These austere aesthetics favored function and mass production, and were influential in the worldwide redesign of everyday buildings that did not hint at any class structure or hierarchy.
Gropius remained as director for nine years and steered the Bauhaus school into developing a cohesive style, though that was not his original intention. Starting in 1925, Gropius oversaw the school’s move to Dessau, allowing the opportunity for the principles of Bauhaus to manifest in the school’s physical space. Gropius designed the Bauhaus Building and several other buildings for the new campus.
Fine art became a major offering at the school in 1927 with a free painting class offered by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Instruction focused less on function (like so many Bauhaus offerings) and more on abstraction. Expressionism and Futurism would have a noticeable influence on the art produced in the school alongside its specific style of geometric design that at times resembled Cubism.
Paul Klee joined the school’s faculty in 1920, bringing with him a fascination with the art and artistic processes of non-Western cultures and children that he melded with a geometric, often scientific approach to abstract painting. His tenure at Bauhaus saw him create works that are lauded for their poetry and humor, as with his 1922 painting, Dance, Monster, to My Soft Song!
Klee left the Bauhaus in 1931 and died in 1940. Surrealist painters Joan Miró and Andre Masson credit Klee as a major influence on their work.
Painter Wassily Kandinsky began teaching in 1922. Turning his back on representational art, Kandinsky embraced what he saw as the spiritual qualities of color and form.
During his tenure at Bauhaus, Kandinsky’s work became more focused on abstract shapes and lines, as displayed in his 1923 painting Composition VIII. Kandinsky remained with the school until its closing.
Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the school in 1923 to teach preliminary classes and run a metal workshop, but his real passion was for photography.
Moholy-Nagy was known for darkroom experimentation, utilizing photograms and exploring light to create abstract elements through distortion, shadow and skewed lines, similar to the works of Man Ray though conceived separately from them.
Moholy-Nagy also created sculptures such as his kinetic light and motion machines called “light modulators,” and abstract, geometrical paintings.
Oskar Schlemmer taught at the school from 1920 to 1929, specializing in design, sculpture and murals, but preferring to pursue theater. He was appointed the school’s director of theater activities in 1923 and created an experimental theater workshop in 1925.
Schlemmer was known for focusing all his disciplines on the human body. His most famous work, 1922’s The Triadic Ballet, Schlemmer transformed his dancers in kinetic sculptures by costuming them in geometric shapes made from metal, cardboard and wood.
Joseph Albers is best known during his time in the Bauhaus school for his glass pictures in 1928, which utilized glass fragments. His process consisted of sandblasting the glass, painting it in thin layers and baking in a kiln to create a glowing surface. His most famous work of the Bauhaus era is a glass painting from 1928, City.
Albers was appointed to the teaching staff in 1923 before he had even completed his courses at the school. He began in the glass painting workshop and taught furniture design, drawing and lettering.
His wife Annie Albers studied weaving at the Bauhaus, a choice due to her frailty (caused by Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease). Often mentioned as the most important textile artist of the 20th century, her efforts entered the realm of abstract art with her wall hangings—she even created new textiles.
Other notable students include Marcel Breuer, who designed the Whitney Museum; Wilhelm Wagenfeld, a designer renowned for his household products; Master potter Otto Lindig; and furniture designer Erich Dieckmann.
Mies van der Rohe
In 1928, Swiss architect Hannes Mayer took over from Gropius, but his tenure was a troubled one, with student-teacher ratios becoming a big problem for the school and various disputes with Communist students and anti-Communist faculty members. He was dismissed in 1930.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was considered the top architect in Germany when he was tapped by Gropius to take over as school director that same year.
Under his leadership, the school moved during a struggle for survival with Germany’s ever-encroaching National Socialist Party, whose interference demanded experimental work be toned down as it seized control of the school.
End of the Bauhaus
Mies van der Rohe’s solution to Nazi intervention in the school was to move it to an empty telephone factory in Berlin and designate it a private institution. But the National Socialists continued to harass the school, attacking what the Nazis perceived as a Soviet Communist ideology and demanding that Nazi sympathizers replace select faculty members.
The faculty flatly refused to work with the Nazis, and rather than cooperate with them, the school was closed in 1933 by the faculty’s vote.
Following this decision, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, the Albers and many others within the Bauhaus school fled to the United States, where they continued to have a profound and lasting influence on 20th-century art and design.
Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis.
History of Modern Art. H.H. Arnason and Marla F. Prather.
Bauhaus 1919 – 1933. Michael Siebenbrodt and Lutz Schobe
The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. Nicholas Fox Weber.
Art in Time: A World History of Styles and Movements. Phaidon.