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Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan at the Bauhaus

Having experimented with Mazdaznan’s teachings on nutrition, breathing and character while studying at the Stuttgart Academy of Art (1913–16), Johannes Itten used these findings for the first time as a “teaching and educational system” while directing his Viennese painting school (1916–19). By 1918/19 at the latest (still before his move to the Bauhaus), Itten had also learned about Mazdaznan’s racial model. But how did the racialist worldview of the Swiss Bauhaus “master” affect Bauhaus practice?

A presentation on the topic of “Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan” could be understood as an intentional political slander of the Bauhaus teacher. For in 2011, under the heading “Stadt will Straße nach Rassentheoretiker nennen” (“City wants to name street after race theorist”), the Münchner Lokalberichte (Munich Local Report), a small magazine associated with the city’s branch of the Leftwing party DIE LINKE, published an extremely effective diatribe against Itten, successfully torpedoing a proposed street naming in a new housing development by the Schwabing-Freimann district committee. The motion to name four streets in this new development after Bauhaus figures Fritz Winter, Gertrud Grunow, Max Bill and Johannes Itten had previously been approved by the Munich city council of elders in the summer, a decision reaffirmed that autumn by the municipal committee—without objections from the municipal surveying office responsible for researching such issues. The magazine’s accusation of racism was verified by citing the Mazdaznan chapter of Bernd Wedemeyer-Kolwe’s historical work Der neue Mensch: Körperkultur im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik (The New Man: Physical Culture during the German Empire and in the Weimar Republic; Würzburg 2004, here pp. 153–164). The parliamentary party leader of the Greens on the Munich City Council had kept the Münchner Lokalberichte article in mind and, after consultation with his parliamentary party, he chose to offer this pejorative information to the directorate of the city. There the matter was pursued further, with the result that the municipal committee of the city council “withdrew” the Johannes-Itten-Straße naming proposal in July 2012, and in its decision referred to the justification of the municipal department: Itten had been a supporter of Mazdaznan and thus of “a religious doctrine with Zarathustrian, Christian and Hindu characteristics, which due to its racist elements has an affinity to the ideology of National Socialism.” On 12 July 2012 a headline in the Munich daily Abendzeitung read: “City is changing controversial street names. Johannes Itten, an artist, should be the namesake—but his vita has a dark spot.” Implicit in this was the accusation that the Bauhaus itself, through its celebrated master of “form and color,” possessed a “dark” racist stain. In 2013, the Munich city council chose to name the street Margarete-Schütte-Lihotzky-Straße, after the Austrian architect and communist resistance fighter (and creator of the Frankfurt Kitchen), but was still unable to fully wash away this allegedly brown stain.

At this point it would be of little use to render in greater detail the not-very-original racism of the “Mazdaznan doctrine” or that of its founder, Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Hanish—a German-born American named Otto Hanisch. For this racism, coupled with some precepts drawn from evolutionary theory, largely paralleled the racism of theosophy and anthroposophy, which from 1916 to 1917 Itten had also explored (along with astrology and number mysticism)—using these findings for the first time as a “teaching and educational system” while directing his Viennese painting school, having experimented with Mazdaznan’s teachings on nutrition, breathing and character while studying at the Stuttgart Academy of Art (1913–1916). By 1918/19 at the latest (still before his move to the Bauhaus), Itten had also learned about Mazdaznan’s racial model—long with the doctrine’s surprising statement that Jews belonged to the white race—applying it to cultural and art history. One might thus state with some confidence that Mazdaznan racism was therefore free of anti-Semitism, and this was especially true of Itten! But it is no secret that Itten’s vision of the Bauhaus, presented under the title “The Coming Man” in a series of five public “Bauhaus” lectures in late autumn 1922, was that it was the “House of the White Man” (Bauhaus portfolio 1921), the house of the coming seventh race. By the conclusion of his lecture series he left no doubt of his sincere belief that in this “white” Bauhaus of the future Aryan artist monks should produce a new and pure art through their racial life (through the purity of the “blood” in the Mazdaznan sense). But how did the racialist worldview of the Swiss Bauhaus “master” affect Bauhaus practice?

It cannot be denied that Itten’s belief in the racist Mazdaznan doctrine, which was quite popular in educated circles after the First World War, was also his pedagogical recipe for the Bauhaus itself, or that in this he was initially supported fully by Walter Gropius, the school’s first director. The main reason for this was the fact that Mazdaznan, as an inner-worldly doctrine of self-redemption, was a variant of the Lebensreformbewegung (life reform movement) that had been popular throughout Protestant Northern Europe since 1900. Thus, its focus was not only on a racist worldview but also on physical and mental everyday practices. It is no coincidence that the most successful Mazdaznan publication, including at the Bauhaus, was a nutritional treatise-cum-cookbook.

According to Itten’s notions, it was important that life reform practices gain acceptance at the Bauhaus, and in so doing stabilize it. After the First World War—from which many prospective students as well as teachers returned traumatized—and during the stormy years of revolution and inflation that followed, Bauhaus students had to be educated and disciplined in such a way that the school might run in an orderly fashion, despite the artistic freedoms they were granted. While Gropius initially fell for the grandiose message of ego-centered “self-control” propagated by the “inflation saint” Louis Hauesser (that is another story), Itten focused solely on the spiritual orientation of the Mazdaznan doctrine, above all on its implementation through instructions for psychosomatic self-discipline. Mazdaznan doctrine focuses on everyday holistic practices (what we might today call “wellness”)—i.e. breathing, eating and sexuality. These were regarded as an essential aspect of race hygiene and eugenics—for Mazdaznan self-reform always had racial refinement as a larger goal. Itten was inspired by the German Mazdaznan Center in Leipzig and even more by stays in the Mazdaznan settlement of Aryana in Herrliberg near Zurich. He subsequently moved there as an initiate after resigning from the Bauhaus in 1923, following widening differences between himself and Gropius over the school’s future direction.

Johannes Itten im Mazdaznan-Ornat mit Stehkragen, ca. 1921; CC BY-SA 3.0

It should be noted that while teaching at the Bauhaus, Itten was not only concerned with the use of the Mazdaznan practice by female and male students, but first and foremost by his wife Hildegard and himself. One might say this presupposed personal pietism, vigilant self-observation and control. The theoretical basis for these practices was Mazdaznan “self-diagnostics,” a theory of temperament based on phrenology (craniology). Itten’s well-known photographic portrait with a shaved skull and garbed in the pseudo-priestly Mazdaznan cloak also belongs to this phrenological context. The result of such rigorous self-diagnostics was a careful monitoring of diet, conscious breathing and glandular care (especially of the sexual glands)—meaning abstinence or seminal retention, in the case of male practitioners). In any event, Itten had already begun subjecting his body to rigid ascetic self-regulation since his youth, a habit which perfectly fit into Mazdaznan body training.

As far as the latter point of sexuality is concerned, triumph and failure lay tragically side by side for the couple. Johannes Itten celebrated the birth of his son Johann Matthias (called “Bueli”) in June 1920 with a devotional painting of his golden-haired child as a priest/prince over whom the Mazdaznan star traveled. With regards to his son, his identification of Bueli’s birth with that of the “coming man” was proclaimed and confirmed by Itten when in a message to his wife he emphasized his racial classification, writing: “he is transparent white after all.” Creating the more-than-white man with alabaster-like translucent skin was Mazdaznan’s ultimate goal. Bueli was thus a prototype of the higher New Man formed by the Mazdaznan practice of his parents, including the properly scheduled procreation and the prenatal education practiced by Hildegard (the birth of the "New Man" was, after all, one of the central artistic motifs of these expressionist post-war years—for instance, in the work of Heinrich Vogeler). Because of this, the miscarriage of a second child, a daughter, in autumn 1922 was a difficult blow for the couple, especially since Hildegard, as the bearer of the future of the race (she had formally joined the Mazdaznan-Bund in January 1921), had apparently failed in her self-optimization efforts. Mazdaznan thus meant a considerable overtaxing of the self in those who conscientiously subjected themselves to the constraints it advocated.

Johannes Itten, Kinderbild, 1921/22
photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

As part of his preliminary course from autumn 1919 onwards, Itten the “pedagogical powerhuber” (as Oskar Schlemmer referred to him) subjected his students to the disciplinary training of Mazdaznan breathing theory, with its rhythmic loosening and concentration exercises, whose aim was to balance the spiritually expanded individual body as part of a binding communal experience: Bernd Wedemeyer-Kolwe claims the Bauhaus was the first art school to include rhythmic gymnastics in its curriculum.

According to Oskar Schlemmer, from 1921 onwards Itten also used the Bauhaus canteen to spread Mazdaznan life reform practices through his “assistant,” the Bauhaus teacher Georg Muche, who was head of the kitchen garden and chairman of the Bauhaus Kitchen Commission. The general shortage of meat resulting from the postwar economic crisis and the imposition of a vegetarian Mazdaznan diet led to an unholy alliance. Not only the way the food was prepared but also the inclusion of certain “cleansing” and “healing” foods—such as garlic or onions for intestinal cleansing—characterized the Bauhaus canteen diet. In December 1921 there was a written vote among canteen users as to whether they were for or against the inclusion of onions as a staple ingredient. Gropius was signed on the onion opponent list; a small but clear sign that Itten and Gropius’s respective paths were beginning to separate. A detailed analysis of the young plants or seeds ordered at the time for the Bauhaus garden shows the victory of the Mazdaznan diet. The purchase, for example, of a hundred violet plants is only understandable if one knows that both violet blossom and violet root appear as ingredients in Mazdaznan cooking.

Georg Muche and Itten also organized a student Mazdaznan circle at the Bauhaus that took on some features of a secular monastic community. This small “Mazdaznan community,” with both female and male student members, existed from 1919 to 1923. One of its internal tasks was the recruitment of a voluntary kitchen helper service. However, the focus was on body-related rituals (or “exercises”): the correct inhalation and exhalation, singing together with rhythmic movements (“harmony exercises”), the concentrated intake of food, adherence to fasting periods, various bodily cleansing procedures—including intestinal cleansing (intestinal enemas) and laxatives—sexual “glandular care,” and concentration and meditation exercises. The only detailed account of the practices of this circle are those offered by the drawings and memoirs of Paul Citroen, who came to the Bauhaus in 1919. For instance, Citroen illustrated a Mazdaznan skin puncturing cleansing method (which involved rubbing the skin with wood ash, puncturing it with a needle machine, followed by treating the skin with laxative oil and bandaging the whole body in order to sweat out impurities). As a self-proclaimed Bauhaus elite, this circle, subject to the mandatory regulations of Mazdaznan, was set on counteracting the centrifugal forces of the inflation years, offering a "hold ... in the general chaos" and "elevated self-confidence,” as Citroen later recalled. But due to the indifference of most students, the protests of some workshop supervisors and, above all, Gropius’s resistance on principle, Itten failed in his actual goal of transforming the Bauhaus—in the inner-worldly sense—into the intellectually elevated and racially pure “House of the White Man” held by Mazdaznan followers to be the ultimate aim of its assorted bodily practices.

Paul Citroen, Mazdaznan-Kuren, ca. 1922
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

The text above summarizes the author’s two previous publications on Mazdaznan and the Bauhaus:

“The Traceless Mazdaznan Lecture by Otto Rauth,” in: Peter Bernhard (ed.): Bauhaus Lectures: Guest Speaker at the Weimar Bauhaus 1919-1925 (New Bauhaus Books, edited by the Bauhaus Archive Berlin, new census vol. 4), Berlin 2017, pp. 217-232.

Ulrich Linse: The Mazdaznan Pedagogy of the Bauhaus Master Johannes Itten. This text is available as a downloadable pdf in the online appendix of the aforementioned publication at www.bauhaus.de/de/bauhaus-archiv/2129_publikationen/2132_bauhaus_vortraege/

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