A Mystic Milieu

Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan at Bauhaus Weimar

Unknown photographer, Johannes Itten leads students in physical exercises on the roof of the
Itten School, 1931, Itten-Archiv Zürich.

The late 19th century was characterized by a sense of growing disillusionment with orthodox religion, hastened by the demystifying progress of science. The atmosphere was ripe for movements to flourish claiming to offer antidotes to the spiritual starvation so many seemed to suffer from. The establishment of the German branch of the Theosophical Society in 1884 was one such instance, heralding the dawn of an occult revival in the country. By the early twentieth century numerous new doctrines had emerged there. Simultaneously this period saw the formation of several Lebensreform (life reform) groups promoting an interest in physical culture and advocating novel forms of exercises they claimed restored “well-being” to those who practiced them. One doctrine which claimed to elevate both body and spirit was Mazdaznan, a particularly popular movement incorporating bodily consciousness realized through breathing exercises, a strict vegetarian diet and esoteric philosophy.

Johannes Itten: "Greeting and health to the hearts that are illuminated by the light of love and cannot be led astray by the hopes of a heaven or the fear of a hell. O.Z. Hanish," from the folio, "Masters of the State Bauhaus in Weimar," 1921, Itten-Archiv Zürich / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

Mazdaznan had a significant although often misunderstood impact on the life and work of Johannes Itten (1888–1967), a key figure in the development of the Weimar Bauhaus. A devout practitioner of Mazdaznan, he was responsible for introducing it to students of the Bauhaus in the early 1920s. In this essay for bauhaus imaginista, I explore the intimate relationship between Itten, Mazdaznan and the Bauhaus. In so doing, my intention is also to underscore how in its infancy the Bauhaus was very different from its later incarnation as a school associated primarily with technical innovation in the realms of design and mass production. Finally, I will discuss how Itten and Mazdaznan brought to the early Bauhaus a set of ideological tendencies and pedagogical techniques that can, from today’s perspective, appear at once arcane, messianic, inspirational and morally repugnant.

Mazdaznan is a syncretic system founded in the U.S. in the 1890s by Otto Hanisch (?–1936), who later became known as Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha’nish.1 While it is confirmed that Ha’nish died in 1936, the date of his birth, like many other details of his life, is shrouded in mystery. The “official” narrative disseminated by those directly affiliated with the movement claims Ha’nish was born in Tehran in 1844, the son of a Russian diplomat. According to Mazdaznan disciples, Ha’nish was born with health problems and as a result was sent by his parents to live with a mysterious Zoroastrian sect in a remote mountain monastery. There the initiates who were his guardians schooled him in breathing techniques and various forms of asceticism which enabled him to triumph over his potentially fatal illness. Other sources suggest Ha’nish was a typographer from Leipzig who emigrated to Chicago, reinventing himself as a spiritual guru. Upton Sinclair claimed in his book The Profits of Religion that Ha’nish was merely a fraud. In Sinclair’s scathing account, he proposed the Mazdaznan movement was founded with the sole intention of providing Ha’nish with a source of income.

What is known is that Ha’nish first began propagating Mazdaznan in the United States in the 1890s via public lectures where he presented some of the material that would eventually be published as Mazdaznan Health & Breath Culture and Inner Studies, both appearing in 1902. In these publications Mazdaznan combined a diverse range of ideas regarding spiritual and physical well-being from numerous sources, presented within the frame of Zoroastrian mythology. Indeed, Ha’nish claimed Mazdaznan was in fact the modern inheritor of Zoroastrianism and that its connection to that ancient tradition was proof of its authenticity. The movement appeared to emulate its precursor, the Theosophical Society, in other ways. The emergence of the Theosophical Society in 1875, and its subsequent popularity in the United States and Europe, resulted in a surge of interest in esotericism and a fascination with various forms of Eastern thought.2 An array of concepts taken from Hinduism, such as reincarnation and karma, were introduced by figures associated with Theosophy and were soon widely disseminated.3Theosophy adopted the concept that freedom of thought and spirit could be achieved through breathing and various bodily exercises from Yoga.

While the impact of the Theosophical Society was of greater significance than that of Mazdaznan, both movements were essentially an amalgamation of diverse elements drawn from numerous sources. However, one significant difference between the two is that while Theosophy proposed that a certain divine wisdom united all spiritual traditions, Ha’nish made the claim that Mazdaznan was the supreme source of all occult knowledge and had been “plagiarized for aggrandizement by (other) individuals and schools.”4 According to Ha’nish, there was almost no system of thought that had not benefited in some way from Mazdaznan and it was therefore the worthiest path to follow. Yet, paradoxically, the aspects of Mazdaznan that pertain to spiritual doctrine are notably vague and disparate. Instead, the main emphasis of the movement was and remains a vegetarian dietary regime, breathing exercises, physical postures and other forms of body related therapeutics, including colonic flushing and intestinal care. Inner Studies details the stringent hygiene and dietary routine that practitioners were expected to follow in order to ensure that they would attain both physical and spiritual purity. This focus on dietary discipline, frequent enemas and exercises has been described as “medical occultism” by British historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.5 Throughout Inner Studies Hanisch claims that certain exercises and physical postures can “stir negative forces” within the body and change currents into positive actions. It is evident from Mazdaznan literature that Hanisch conflated bodily purification with the achievement of spiritual transcendence. There is a recurring preoccupation with purging the body in a variety of ways and, as one might expect from a movement which advised eschewing alcohol, tobacco and meat, Mazdaznan literature also counseled sexual abstinence. In Inner Studies, the arousal of sexual desire was explained as a psychological symptom of bowel problems, easily remedied by a thorough enema. For those who did chose to engage in sexual intercourse, Ha’nish provided instructions on how the body should be controlled. For example, men were advised to retain their seminal fluid, the suggestion being that abstaining from ejaculation was the key to eternal life.

Unknown photographer, Otoman Zar Adusht Ha'nish, 1910, © ullstein bild – Philipp Kester-

Lothar Schreyer, "Mann" (man), from the Kreuzigung Spielgang Werk VII collection, 1920, © Schreyer, Hamburg.

While some aspects of Mazdaznan doctrine may appear today as prudishly Victorian, there were progressive facets to the movement. This is most apparent in the somewhat surprising advocacy of gender equality. For example, Hanisch writes: “It is proper that man should understand woman as woman understand men, for when the line between them can no longer exist and the barrier once broken down, the unveiled mystery conceived to keep mankind in a condition of deep ignorance will lose its charm … that woman will steadily come to the front and the day is not too far distant when she will. Man has nothing to fear. He should call this day welcome for through it salvation will come to him as well.”6 However these somewhat progressive elements co-existed with views influenced by one of the more abhorrent trends of the era, eugenics. As the history of the eugenics movement reveals, it flourished to an astounding degree in the early twentieth century, propagated by organizations such as the Eugenics Education Society founded in 1907. Several decades before the rise of the Third Reich, early Mazdaznan literature displayed a preoccupation with racial superiority and anti-Semitism, promoting the idea that the earth should be ruled by the “Aryan race.” This particular aspect of the movement’s philosophy, which I will return to later in this essay, garnered varying levels of popularity and appears to have been eliminated from the movement as it was modernized.

Mazdaznan was first introduced to Europe via Germany in 1907 by David Ammann (1855–1923), and subsequently popularized by Ha’nish himself via a series of lectures he presented in 1911. The movement proved particularly popular in Germany and Switzerland, where it appealed to the burgeoning middle classes. Many Germans and Swiss viewed industrialization and the expansion of urban living as destructive, idealizing Lebensreform’s back-to-nature trend, then most visible in the emergence of a variety of rural alternative communities. These groups practiced natural medicine, vegetarianism, nudism and other restorative pursuits, believing these would hasten the return of a pre-industrial idyll. Mazdaznan proved incredibly popular in its initial phase, with movement-associated vegetarian restaurants popping up in Berlin, Leipzig, Weimar and other German cities.

Paula Stockmar, Portrait of Johannes Itten with shaved head and monkish robes photographed with his the colour star that he used in his teachings at the Bauhaus, c 1920, Itten-Archiv Zürich / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

Johannes Itten is thought to have encountered Mazdaznan as early as 1912 in Bern, and is known to have been a member of the Aryana Mazdaznan temple community in Herrliberg on Lake Zurich. By 1916 he was producing artworks in a distinctive vocabulary evoking Orphic Cubism while also suggesting a commitment to esoteric ideals. It is known that by 1919 Itten had become a devotee of Mazdaznan, by which time he was producing works such as Ascension and Pause, a work redolent in ideas and symbolism central to the movement. Interestingly, one can discern certain formal similarities between this painting and the iconic cathedral woodcut produced by Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) for the cover of Walter’s Gropius’s (1883–1969) 1919 Bauhaus manifesto.

The fact that Itten was deeply engaged with the Mazdaznan before joining the Bauhaus indicates that involvement in such societies would not have been considered outlandish at the time. Indeed, it is significant to note that Itten, who arrived in Weimar in October 1919 to become one of the Bauhaus’s first masters, was initially recommended to Gropius (1883–1969) by his wife Alma Mahler (1879–1964), herself a committed Theosophist. By the time Gropius encountered Itten, he had already established his reputation as a teacher. Having trained in Geneva and Stuttgart, Itten worked as a primary school teacher before opening his own art school in Vienna, where he was said to have been worshipped by his students. Itten’s popularity amongst students initially appealed to Gropius, but would eventually be among the reasons for his departure from the Bauhaus in 1923.

Itten used his wealth of experience to develop the renowned Vorkurs, the preliminary course which was the foundation of Bauhaus pedagogy. He sought to foster an intuitive approach in each of his students, and was significantly influenced in this by the theories of Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the pioneering German educator who integrated active play into the learning process. The preliminary course consisted of a six-month program compulsory to all Bauhaus students. Its idea was to provide a shared foundation, and to help “decondition” students of their preconceived knowledge and assumptions regarding the artistic process. Students explored the standard subjects of form and color, but Itten also introduced them to forms of exercise, meditation, breathing and concentration—many taken directly from Mazdaznan teachings. Later accounts by students and Bauhaus masters confirm that the inclusion of such physical practices was influenced by Itten’s desire to promulgate the ideas of Ha’nish among his own students. Initially, Itten’s esoteric practices and zealous nature were tolerated at the Bauhaus. He even seems to have converted many of his students to Mazdaznan. There was what the historian Peter Staudenmaier refers to as “a bewildering array of ideologies and esoteric paths 7 available at that time, often in combinations that today would be viewed as representing incompatible traditions. The desire to find new spiritual paths and modes of living was in no small way a manifestation of the aftermath of the First World War. One can well imagine that Itten’s charisma and messianic approach might have been reassuring to those unsettled by the recent experience of war. Writing in the early 1920s, Itten acknowledged that while students initially expressed a certain amount of resistance to his methods, after a few days they would join in with enthusiasm. One can imagine a coterie of enthusiastic students gathering for Mazdaznan meetings in Itten’s studio, located, appropriately, in a building once used as a lodge house by the Knights Templar.8

Itten’s teaching practices aimed to expand his students range of perception; to widen their awareness through focusing, for instance, on color. In these efforts he recruited Gertrud Grunow (1870–1944). Grunow taught her course on the Theory of Harmony at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923 as part of the Vorkurs, and claimed she was capable of using music and trance to harmonize the latent creative powers of her students. Accounts of those who had direct experience working under Itten and Grunow make for useful reading. Those of Paul Citroen (1896–1983), whose own work was significantly influenced by Itten, are particularly insightful.

“I was, like all the new entrants, a pupil on the Vorkurs, which Itten taught. At that time Itten was so full of Mazdaznan, expected so much from a deep immersion in the teachings, that soon after the beginning of the course he took several months leave in order to be fully initiated into this doctrine at Herrliberg on Lake Zurich, the European seat at the centre of Mazdaznan … there was something demonic about Itten. As a master he was either ardently admired or just as ardently as hated by his opponents, of whom there were many. In any event, it was impossible to ignore him. For those of us who belonged to the Mazdaznan group—a unique community within the student body—Itten exuded a special radiance. One could almost call it holiness (…) Itten, entrusted with the mysteries of reincarnation and other secrets of doctrine by virtue of his weeks in Herrliberg, was our undisputed master and leader”.9

As the coterie around Itten became increasingly cultish and fanatical, the presence of Mazdaznan within the Bauhaus grew more divisive. Another account from Paul Citroen details how the Mazdaznan clique distanced themselves from other students. He and his fellow Mazdaznan disciples practiced aloofness and eventually the clique began to consider themselves superior, the doctrine made us arrogant and despise the uninitiated.10 Eventually, Itten’s methodology and mystical tendencies were viewed as incompatible with the direction the Bauhaus was being steered in by Gropius. In an attempt to lessen the dominance of Itten’s influence, Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) and Paul Klee (1879–1940) were employed to assume some of Itten’s responsibilities, therein reducing the extent of his leadership. Schlemmer describes how Itten and Gropius represented two opposing alternatives: “on the one hand the influence of oriental culture, the cult of India, a return to the Wandervogel movement ... communes, vegetarianism, Tolstoyism, reaction against the war and on the other hand the American spirit, progress, the marvels of technology and invention, the urban environment... progress, expansion and self fulfilment.”11

Johannes Itten, Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascension and Pause), 1918/1919, Kunsthaus Zürich, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018 / photo: © Kunsthaus Zürich.

Postcard showing Tempelherrenhaus where Itten has his studio and Mazdaznan meetings were held. Weimar ca. 1935,  Photographer unknown, Credit: FAY 2018 / Alamy Stock Foto.

In her study of the early years of the Bauhaus, Éva Forgács characterizes the school as suffering from a type of schizophrenia, and Gropius and Itten certainly represent this split personality. However, the discord at the Bauhaus was not just a result of differences between the rationally and the cosmically inclined. Personal letters from Itten at the time reveal that he viewed Gropius as a bureaucrat, that he wished to assume the directorship himself. One can view the rupture that ultimately resulted as a consequence of Itten’s aspirations for increased authority as much as ideological differences between himself and Gropius. Both students and colleagues alike had issues with Itten, accusing him of splitting the Bauhaus into two camps. Indeed, the fact that Itten had infringing upon the constitution of the Bauhaus by involving Mazdaznan in his teaching methods is confirmed by accounts of several students from this time. Students found it difficult to work with figures like Grunow, whose approaches were viewed not only as unorthodox but exceedingly bizarre. Such sources of tension led to Itten’s departure in 1923, an event that became a turning point in the school, precipitating a radical shift in its direction. That same year Gertrud Grunow also ceased teaching, and Gropius dismissed Lothar Schreyer (1886–1966), who had been employed only two years previously to coordinate the Bauhaus theatre program. Schreyer was a mystic, fascinated with archaic Christianity and was himself in the process of developing a coterie around himself. Presumably, Gropius felt compelled to prevent the emergence of another fanatical group. Expelling individuals with esoteric tendencies was intended not only to maintain a sense of internal harmony but to assuage the burghers of Weimar, some of whom viewed the school with disdain and were outspoken in their criticism, thinking it a suspect and wayward institution.12

Whereas the beginnings of the Bauhaus in Weimar was shaped by an array of influences, of which Itten’s esotericism represented a strong tendency, eliminating these elements was undertaken in order to steer the school into less controversial waters, in the process strengthening its profile as a school of the applied arts. By 1923, mystical modes of thought had been replaced by a more outwardly rational, and ultimately materialistic, approach. It may have also been that Gropius had become uncomfortable with certain socio-political elements within Mazdaznan. One might conjecture he recognized that the racial mysticism and body culture advocated by Mazdaznan bore similarities to those being advocated by the early Nazi Party. From its inception, Mazdaznan was distinguished by its recurring obsession with physical and spiritual purity. Mazdaznan literature conflated theories gleaned from Theosophy regarding “root races” with racist ideas about the innate superiority—and spiritually advanced nature—of certain cultures, and pseudo-scientific theories concerning the relationship between ethnicity and physical and spiritual purity. According to early Mazdaznan literature, it was the white Aryan races that had attained the highest level of spiritual and physical evolution. In the Mazdaznan system of evolution, the soul progressed through a variety of stages and was at its most advanced when manifested in the Aryan race. Mazdaznan followers believed the physical body would eventually be completely jettisoned and the soul would continue on its path toward a divine, disembodied intelligence.

Johannes Itten, House of the White Man (Haus des weißen Mannes) from the portfolio New European Graphics, 1st Portfolio: Masters of the State Bauhaus, Weimar, 1921 (Neue europäische Graphik, 1. Mappe: Meister des Staatlichen Bauhauses in Weimar, 1921), Itten-Archiv Zürich / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

Although Ha’nish was not personally affiliated with any fascist organization, his literature contains repeated references to what he referred to as the supremacy of the “Aryan people” and a desire to maintain the inherent “purity” of certain racial types. In the interwar years, such racial theories were integrated into several popular spiritual movements, and Staudenmeier notes that the support and involvement of several Nazi leaders meant certain esoteric organizations were not merely tolerated but were in fact were embraced by the Third Reich.13 Movements such as Mazdaznan advocated a pastoral way of life compatible with Nazism’s anti-modern ideology, and Staudenmaier suggests that the alignment between fascism and esotericism during the European occult revival were manifestations of various pan-European forms of social modernism in search of a resolution to the West’s spiritual crisis. In the post-war years there has been an attempt to revise and sanitize the more abhorrent aspects of Mazdaznan. Assessed in its current attenuated form, one would never suspect the movement once advocated eugenics or preached the benefits of rule by an Aryan master race. Today, Mazdaznan has been cleansed of such questionable tenets and appears to be no more than a holistic health movement, “a life science of ancient Persian origin, similar to the training system of Indian Yoga or Ayurveda.”14 It should also be noted that the extent to which the movement’s racial aspects were embraced varied according to location. While some followers in the United States held racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, in Germany and Switzerland volkisch ideals proved particularly popular.15 Apart from a few exceptions, the literature produced by the movement in America and Britain is devoid of overtly prejudicial material, while several books solely on Mazdaznan theories of race and eugenics were published in French and German by Ammann—they seem to have no English-language equivalent. Importantly however, the later alliance between esoteric organizations and the Nazi party should not be viewed as anything but tenuous and temporary. Despite contemporaneous reports of swastikas hanging in its Leipzig headquarters, Mazdaznan was one of many esoteric organizations banned by the Ministry of Interior in 1935 as part of a purge of similar groups that resulted in an elimination of much occult activity in the Third Reich. The anti-Semitic magazine Judenkenner described Mazdaznan as a “mask for International Jewry,” while an SS memo concluded that it “...denies all Nazi principles. It must be destroyed.”16

Johannes Itten was never affiliated directly with the Nazi party, unlike the aforementioned Lothar Schreyer, who became involved with the party after his departure from the Bauhaus. The fact that the private art school Itten established in Berlin after his departure from the Bauhaus was shut down by the party in 1935 may be taken as additional proof that he was not a Nazi follower. Indeed, the fact that Itten’s paintings were included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937 is evidence demonstrating how he was regarded by the Nazi establishment. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Itten’s lithograph Haus des weißen Mannes (House of the White Man) from the portfolio Neue europäische Graphik, 1. Mappe: Meister des Staatlichen Bauhauses in Weimar, 1921 (New European Graphics, 1st Portfolio: Masters of the State Bauhaus, Weimar, 1921) not only represents one of the first depictions of an overtly modernist and constructivist building but also suggests that he openly subscribed to the racial beliefs of Mazdaznan. Indeed, Magdalena Droste describes how Itten made several contributions to art magazines at the time, discussing theories of racial evolution and proclaiming that the “white race” represented the highest form of civilization.17

In the long term, the presence of malevolent elements within Mazdaznan corrupted the movement, tainting some of those affiliated with it. However, in its early years Mazdaznan ideas seem to have been revelatory to some and, in Itten’s case, served as a catalyst for the formation of a new aesthetic. This is exemplified by his Tower of Fire, a no longer extant object which may have been a sculptural work or an architectural maquette.18 The structural elements of Itten’s tower can be read according to their formal and numeric symbolism. For example, the spiral that constitutes the backbone of the tower represents the possibility of achieving ascended states and spiritual evolution, aims central to Mazdaznan. The same symbolism is also visible in the aforementioned painting Die Begegnung (The Encounter), which can be viewed as a demonstration of the artist's exploration of color theory, color rhythms and contrast. As mentioned, the structure is replete with numeric symbolism, with the number twelve recurring throughout the tower in glass and metal forms. This connects with the diagrammatic star of twelve colors devised by Itten to introduce Bauhaus students to color theory. This recurrence of the number twelve can be linked to Itten’s preoccupation with the zodiac, but it is also related to the artist’s contemporaneous investigations into twelve tone music and harmonies. Constructed from an array of multicolored glass panels, the tower tapers toward the top like a conical shell. Black and white images can offer only a limited idea of how striking this monumental prismatic minaret must have appeared. Moreover, since Itten envisaged the tower as a kinetic gesamtkunstwerk, it would have also emitted light and sound.

Of all the ways that Mazdaznan influenced Itten, the most positive and indeed the most historically significant was how it informed his teaching techniques. Itten’s development of a holistic educational program to activate both body and mind through physical and mental exercise was influenced directly by Mazdaznan teachings. The fact that Itten’s pedagogical system remained a key element of the Bauhaus syllabus after his departure and is still in use today testifies to the fact at least some ideas propagated by Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha'nish possessed affirmative value. Éva Forgács argues that Mazdaznan was a readymade philosophy of life that students could passively adopt. She focuses upon the negative aspects of the movement, suggesting Itten used his esoteric system to dominate his students and usurp Gropius’s position. According to Itten, however, incorporating these elements within his teaching methods actually had the opposite effect upon his students: Mazdaznan techniques were intended to empower students. Writing about his methods of teaching, Itten acknowledged that there was much that occurred between himself and his students which could not be adequately described in words:

"The description of my teaching seems to me poor compared with what actually happened. The tone, the rhythm, the sequence of words, place and time, the mood of the students, and all the other circumstances which make for a vital atmosphere cannot be reproduced; yet it is the ineffable which helps form a climate of creativity. My teaching was intuitive finding. My own emotion gave me the power which produced the student's readiness to learn. To teach out of inner enthusiasm is the opposite of a mere pre-planned method of instruction."19

Unknown photographer, A Student of Gertrud Grunow during Concentration Exercise, Harmonisation Theory, Bauhaus Weimar, ca. 1920, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.

Unknown photographer, A Student of Gertrud Grunow during Concentration Exercise, Harmonisation Theory, Bauhaus Weimar, ca. 1920, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.

Tower of Fire, author: Johannes Itten, 1920, reconstruction by Michael Siebenbrodt, FA. Glas Kraus, Weimar and Rainer Zöllner, 1995/1996, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018 / photo: Michael Siebenbrodt/Weimar.

Although Itten’s unorthodox teaching methods were criticized during the interwar years, the passing of time has seen many of the ideas and exercises he applied integrated into mainstream art pedagogy. Several elements from Itten’s Vorkurs program remain at the foundations of modern art and design instruction. Itten’s devotion to Mazdaznan as well as his own experience as a teacher instilled within him the desire and ability to enable his students to heighten their power of perception, intuition and bodily awareness. As mentioned, Itten used exercises outlined in Mazdaznan literature as a means of promoting a more holistic approach to teaching art, integrating body, mind and spirit. There can be no doubt that his methodology was hugely successful in enabling many of his students at the Bauhaus (and later at his own school in Berlin) to realize their creative potential. Under Itten’s direction students were introduced to consciousness expanding ideas and possibilities a more conventional education would never have offered. The case of Josef Albers, who began his career under Itten’s tutelage, exemplifies this aspect of Itten’s teaching methods.20 Itten’s declaration that “Color is life; for a world without color appears to us as dead. Colors are primordial ideas, the children of light,”21 most certainly had an impact on Albers, who although first and foremost an artist, can also be considered a scientist of the color spectrum.22

In 1926 Itten founded his own art private art school in Berlin. The iconic photograph of himself and his students practicing Mazdaznan postures was taken on the roof of his school in 1931, which lasted until 1934, when it was shut down on account of its “Cultural Bolshevism.” Although Itten remained active after this date, working in a variety of capacities, he has since become a somewhat marginal figure.23 While his books on color theory are familiar to many, few would be aware of his role in forming the first phase of the Bauhaus. Undoubtedly, this has much to do with the transformation of the Bauhaus in the years after Itten’s departure. Changes occurred as the school evolved under new directors: there was a desire for the organization to focus upon quantifiable research and industrial production. As this occurred, mystical or outré elements were eliminated. It seems possible that Itten himself may have contributed to this elision of the importance of Mazdaznan to the early years of the Bauhaus. In his later autobiographical texts, he himself downplayed the importance Mazdaznan held for himself and his students at the Bauhaus:

“The terrible events and shattering losses of the war had brought chaos and confusion in all fields. Among the students there were endless discussions and eager searching for a new mental attitude. My attention was drawn to Spengler's book, The Decline of the West. I became conscious that our scientific-technical civilization had come to a critical point. The slogans "Back to Handicraft" or "Unity of Art and Technology" did not seem to me to solve the problems.

I studied oriental philosophy and concerned myself with Persian Mazdaism and Early Christianity. Thus I realized that our outward-directed scientific research and technology must be balanced by inward-directed thought and forces of the soul.

Georg Muche had come to similar conclusions through his war experiences, and we worked in friendly cooperation. We sought the foundations of a new way of life for ourselves and our work. At that time, we were ridiculed because we did breathing and concentration exercises. Today the study of oriental philosophy is widespread and many people practice yoga.

These first Weimar years are wrongly described as the romantic period of the Bauhaus. In my opinion, these were the years of universal interests. Certainly mistakes were made in the exuberance of feverish search and practice. We all lacked a great teacher who could have guided us through the ebullient confusion.”24

It seems that here Itten cannot even bring himself to correctly name Mazdaznan, and the final lines suggests that he’d come to feel that Ha’nish—who often signed himself “Master” and was viewed as an avatar or divinity made flesh by some of his followers— was ultimately a false idol, far from the great teacher the world sought. In An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, Roger Lipsey writes, “it is a matter of lasting astonishment that the Bauhaus began with a medievalizing, romantic self-image and emerged in a few short years as the principal artisan of design principles that are the essence of 'modern' and the hallmark of the century.”25 While this statement registers to some degree the diverse elements that made up the Bauhaus in its initial phase, it also obviates how Itten’s pedagogical approach and the abstract aesthetic which he developed were shaped by his engagement with esoteric doctrine. Until recently, the complexities and significance of those esoteric elements has been downplayed, relegated to little more than footnote. Perhaps this is in part down to the extremely objectionable aspects of Mazdaznan, which from our perspective in the twenty-first century seem glaringly obvious. The anti-Semitic and Aryan supremacist elements present within Mazdaznan literature tainted the movement irrevocably, and most likely played a role in contributing to Itten’s role at the Bauhaus later being downplayed. However, the Bauhaus in its first phase, and the artists and artworks that emerged from that context, cannot be properly understood without acknowledging the major influence of the Mazdaznan movement and the mystical milieu that it helped to create.

Unknown photographer, Johannes Itten leads students in physical exercises on the roof of the Itten School, 1931, Itten-Archiv Zürich.

  • 1 Ha’nish inserted Zar Adusht into his name as a means of further elevating his status as a spiritual leader. The name has associations with Zoroaster and underscore his allegedly noble birth, the word zar meaning “prince” in Arabic.
  • 2 The Theosophical Society was officially formed in New York City, on 17 November 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge.
  • 3 In the Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky maintains that there were centers of esoteric learning and initiation in the East. Blavatsky claimed to have read the stanzas of Dzyan in a Himalayan Lamasery and maintained many similar centers of esoteric learning and initiation existed elsewhere. According to Blavatsky there were magnificent libraries and fabulous monasteries in mountain caves and underground labyrinths throughout central Asia.
  • 4 Dr. O. Z. Ha’nish: Health & Breath Culture, Mazdaznan Press, Chicago 1914, p. 1.
  • 5 Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890–1935, New York University Press, New York 1992.
  • 6 Ha’nish: Health & Breath Culture, 1914, p. 119.
  • 7 Peter Staudenmaier: Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900–1945, unpublished dissertation, Cornell University, Cornell 2010, p. 80.
  • 8 Appropriately, this building possessed several structural elements designed by Goethe during his time in Weimar. The Templar House was almost completely destroyed by the bombing of Weimar in 1945 and today remains a ruin. However, the pentagram windows and sculptural figures of Knights Templars are still intact.
  • 9 Éva Forgács: The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics, Central European University Press, Budapest 1995, p. 48.
  • 10 Magdalena Droste: Bauhaus Archiv 1919–1933, Taschen, Cologne 2002, p. 30.
  • 11 Forgács: The Bauhaus Idea And Bauhaus Politics, 1995, p. 78.
  • 12 An article in The Weimarische Zeitung from June 1924 claimed that licentiousness was rife at the Bauhaus, that one student had become pregnant and another had had an affair with a master. The article warned that people must be prevented from sending their sons and daughters there.
  • 13 Staudenmaier: Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy 1900–1945, p. 520.
  • 14 Quote from website of Mazdaznan movement: (18 August, 2016).
  • 15 Constantine Leon de Aryan was a right-wing anti-Semite who championed Mazdaznan in the United States.
  • 16 Corinna Treitel: A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2004, p. 229.
  • 17 Droste: Bauhaus Archiv 1919–1933, 2002, p. 32.
  • 18 It has been suggested by several art historians that the Tower of Fire was in fact intended as an airport building for Weimar.
  • 19 Johannes Itten: Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus, trans. John Mass, Reinhold Publishing Corporation, New York 1964, p. 7.
  • 20 Albers would become a professor at the Bauhaus in 1925.
  • 21 Johannes Itten: The Elements of Color, John Wiley and Sons, New York 1970, p 8.
  • 22 Albers commitment to investigating the properties of color is exemplified in his Homage to the Square series, begun in 1949. It is comprised of over a thousand artworks, all of which are ultimately the components of a single prolonged investigation of color interaction.
  • 23 In 1932 Itten became the director of the Textile Design School in Krefeld, Germany, holding this post until 1938, when he emigrated to the Netherlands. From 1949 Itten was involved in the creation of the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, where Asian, African, American and Oceanic art was displayed. In 1961 he published the book Art and Color and has been more known since then as an influential color theorist.
  • 24 Itten: Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus, pp. 11–12.
  • 25 Roger Lipsey: An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, Random House, New York 1988, p. 201.
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