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.