Celebrate the Bauhaus and its remarkable legacy in our collection of anniversary publications.
The Bauhaus art school, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, was a luminous flash in the early 20thcentury dark. Flanked by two world wars, rocked by the volatile Weimar Republic, the pioneering school represents a luminous window of clean form, streamlined function, and political idealism amid decades of horror and chaos.
The window was slammed shut by the Nazis in April 1933. Amid an intensifying campaign against ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘decadent’ or “Bolshevikstik” art, Bauhaus masters and students gathered at their last premises in Berlin for a solemn dissolution ceremony; they would rather disband themselves than be closed down by the regime.
But for all its brief tenure, the Bauhaus light streams down through the decades to this day. It altered the look of everything, from the chair you are sitting on to the house you go home to, to the pot you pour your tea from and the cup you pour it into.
It also transformed the way art is taught. Every student pursuing a foundation course has the Bauhaus to thank. And every art school that offers studies of materials, colour theory and three-dimensional design is indebted in part to the educational experiments carried out by Bauhaus teachers and students between 1919 and 1933.
A century on from the school’s foundation, many questions animate this legacy. What characterized the three different phases of the school’s tenure, moving as it did from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin, and through three different directors? How much did artistic radicalism extend to social activism? Were there strains, as Frank Whitford investigates, of conservatism in its utopian thinking? Was the Bauhaus, like much of Weimar-era art, part of a ‘culture cut short’ — an attempt to forge a new way of life out of the ashes of the First World War?
Certainly, the Bauhaus sensibility – like that of other post-war movement such as Dada – was sharpened by the annihilation of the war. But as an inherently modernist movement, it was also embedded in a global, transcultural exchange. The school’s international community included students and teachers from Croatia, Hungary, Japan, Palestine, Russia, Switzerland, the United States. As explored in The Spirit of Bauhaus and the new Bauhaus Imaginista, its aesthetic vocabulary also reached across geography, receiving and interpreting influences as varied as medieval European cathedrals, Hokusai prints, Eastern spirituality, reform pedagogy, and William Morris.
Paul Klee’s drawing of a Berber kilim, the starting point of the second chapter in Bauhaus Imaginista, is one of many examples of the school’s appropriation of art forms outside the European mainstream. Members of the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop, such as Anni Albers, were particularly focused on Andean textile techniques and forms.
With its emphasis on handiwork and cooperative projects, and its desire to collapse the hierarchy between craft and fine arts, the Bauhaus drew strongly on the Arts and Crafts tradition. Its first goal, as defined in Walter Gropius’ “Programme of the State Bauhaus in Weimar” was to rescue all the arts from isolation and combine skills in “the ultimate aim of all creative activity” — the building.
It was, fittingly, also in building design that the Bauhaus had some of its most important international encounters —first with its competition design for the Chicago Tribune Tower, which garnered the school significant acclaim across the Atlantic, and subsequently when Bauhaus emigrés such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Arieh Sharonand László Moholy-Nagy, brought their clean-lined ideals to Britain, the United States, Israel, and beyond. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Tel Aviv’s White City comprises over 4,000 buildings built in a Bauhaus / International Style — the greatest architectural density of the style the world. In Western Nigeria, Arieh Sharon’s Ife University represents a climate-responsive and culturally inquisitive variant of his Bauhaus-trained style, offering a newfound plasticity, porosity, and artistry.
Bauhaus also shaped experimental audio-visual environments. Bauhaus student Kurt Scherdtfeger’s ‘reflecting light rays’ device, first put to use at a Bauhaus party in 1922, helped develop the concept of a ‘media surround’, that would later ripple through cinema subcultures, in nightclub strobe lighting, in British New Wave and West German electronic music, as well as through American academia — most particularly at the Institute of Design in Chicago and the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.
This fluid overlap between cultural, academic, and pop cultural environments is in itself another key legacy of the Bauhaus. The school was never just about aesthetics — never simply about form, lines and colour. In its brief but dazzling burst, it also forged a new hybrid of experimentation, education, and commercialization that has today become the norm in the circulation of ideas, material objects, and aesthetics.
Words by Eliza Apperly.