Though the Bauhaus school only existed for fourteen years, its legacy has permeated through decades—ten to be exact. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the immensely influential art and design school founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, and to celebrate, cultural institutions all over the globe are mounting exhibitions to mark the momentous occasion.
Excerped from Phaidon’s The Art Museum, we look at five paintings that typify the movement.
The Bauhaus (literally a ‘house for building’) combined the functions of a school of fine arts and one of arts and crafts. Its ideological basis was to bring together fine art and craftwork, reconcile function and beauty, and integrate art with industry.
Wassily Kandinsky’s vision of the arts drawing together and the Expressionist preference for the handmade, personal and spiritual were both apparent in the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto. Founded that year by the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in Weimar, Germany, the school, operated on the workshop system, in which the inexperienced could learn and progress alongside the experienced, harking back to the medieval guild system and suggesting a collaborative environment that would produce work to be sold.
In 1920, Paul Klee was employed as a teacher on the preliminary course and as master in the bookbinding and stained glass workshops; in 1922 Kandinsky joined as master in the wall painting workshop. Joseph Albers enrolled as a student in 1920 and began teaching in 1922. Oskar Schlemmer headed the theater workshop from 1920, and his 1922 Triadic Ballet suggested at once the body as mechanism and as a vessel for creative urges. In experiments such as Schiemmer’s ballet, the relationship between the individual and the useful progression of mechanization was partially reconciled. By 1923, the Bauhaus, the early designs and products of which relied on traditional handcrafted techniques, came to stand for an industrial, modernist aesthetic that could be made available to a mass market.
The Bauhaus was initially funded by the Weimar Republic, the liberal democracy that emerged in Germany after the First World War, but when the new nationalist government withdrew support in 1925, Gropius moved the school from Weimar to Dessau. In 1937, an exhibition of ‘degenerate’ wart was held in Munich, making a political statement that sanctioned uniformity, conformity and nationalism. The exhibition included works by Klee, Kandinsky, and Schlemmer.
Twittering Machine, 1922
Klee’s peculiar machine combines mechanical and natural elements. Birds perch on a thin wire connected to a handle or crank. The mistiness of the blue and pink background suggests the machine may be about to create the dawn chorus. A sheet is stretched between rods below the birds: perhaps they will be knocked off their perch to be bounced back up for the machine to start its cycle anew. In his combination of careful drawing and bleeding colors, klee (1879-1940) offers a witty mechanical metaphor for the natural world that resembles the machines in Dada and Surrealism; here, it suggests the relationship between the individual and the industrial, the handmade and the Modernist.
Bauhaus Stairway, 1932
In Schlemmer’s (1888-1943) depiction of the staircase in Dessau, the grid lines that describe the building’s glass-tiled exterior emphasize the importance of geometric design in conjunction with fine art. The figures (including women) are schematically modeled and relate strongly to Schlemmer’s costume designs.
Several Circles, 1926
According to Kandinsky (1866-1944) the ‘point,’ essentially an ‘ideally small circle,’ is the purest and most basic element of painting. In itself it is still, but it has the potential to create a moving line or a static plane. The circle is the most static of the planes (two-dimensional shapes) and as such does not create movement in its own right but shifts when placed in tension with other forms. The circles suggest constant cosmic bodies floating through the atmosphere.
Yellow, red, and blue are the dominant tones of this work, but their transparent layering creates hints of their combination: green and orange are present in the layered squares on top of the blue circle to the right, an aura of orange surrounds the yellow rectangle to the left, making it stand out, and purple seeps into the edges of the composition from the bottom left corner. Colors, Kandinsky implies, can be analyzed and contained only to an extent. Like the spiritual dimension of existence, they are organic and ever in flux. For Kandinsky, the Bauhaus was a place where logic and spirituality could be reconciled.