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

●Latest Articles
The Bauhaus Manifesto — Conversation with Magdalena Droste

Gropius wrote his Bauhaus manifesto shortly after the end of World War I. The German empire had collapsed, Russia had undergone a revolution and a second revolution in Germany was in the process of being suppressed. Throughout Germany people felt the necessity for a social and intellectual change. → more

Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus-Manifest

Das Bauhaus wandte sich von Anfang an vom Nationalismus ab und dem Kosmopolitismus und Internationalismus zu, eine Orientierung, die es schließlich mit dem emporkommenden Nationalsozialismus in Widerspruch brachte. Die Schule korrespondierte auch mit zeitgenössischen Bildungsinitiativen in anderen Teilen der Welt, darunter die Kala Bhavan (Kunstschule) in Santiniketan, Indien. Das Bauhaus wirkte durch seine Schriften und Studierenden auch auf andere Schulen in Japan. → more

“The Art!—That’s one Thing! When it’s there” — On the History of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst in the Early Weimar Republic

Even though the progressive artists of the interwar period ultimately failed in their plan to realize the new, egalitarian society they had envisioned, their influence was lasting. The international avant-garde produced some of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, some members of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers council for art) occupied important positions at the Bauhaus—above all, its founding director Walter Gropius. → more

Towards a Tangible Pedagogy — Dimensions of Tactility at the Bauhaus

In the epistemic context of a fundamental skepticism towards the existing knowledge system, the Bauhaus school was in pursuit of “unlearning”: dismissing conventional learning and promoting pre- linguistic, intuitive approaches- which also led to adoptions of non-academic modes of perception and included an interest in pre-modern knowledge systems. → more

Shifting, Rotating, Mirroring 
 — Lena Bergner’s Minutes of Paul Klee’s Classes

Lena Bergner developed carpet patterns applying specific methods learned from Paul Klee discernible in her finished work. The results, however, are quite unique. This is precisely what Klee sought to achieve with his classes at the Bauhaus: to point to paths of design so that the formal language is not arbitrary, without, however, prescribing predetermined outcomes. → more

Bauhaus Weimar International — Visions and Projects 1919–1925

Although the Bauhaus opened its door in 1919, it took more than three years for Gropius to fully organize the school’s faculty, since with the departure of several of the old art school’s professors, such as Max Thedy, Richard Engelmann and Walther Klemm, open positions had to be regularly filled. But Gropius’s first appointments indicated the course set toward an international avant-garde school, a school of invention. → more

Gertrud Grunow’s Theory of Harmonization — A Connection between European Reform Pedagogy and Asian Meditation?

In this essay Linn Burchert sheds some light on the darkness obscuring Grunow’s practice by presenting the background and details of Grunow’s teaching, concluding by examining the striking parallels between her harmonization teaching and meditative and yogic practices, which had already been introduced at the Bauhaus in Johannes Itten’s preliminary course. → more

Three Preliminary Courses: Itten, Moholy-Nagy, Albers

It was the special qualities of the Swiss artist Johannes Itten, whose career as a primary and secondary school teacher was characterized by adherence to the principles of reform pedagogy, to have introduced a stabilizing structural element into the still unstable early years of the Bauhaus: the preliminary course which—in addition to the dual concept of teaching artistic and manual skills and thinking—was to remain a core part of Bauhaus pedagogy, despite considerable historical changes and some critical objections, until the closure of the school in 1933. → more

●Artist Text
Open Your Eyes — Breathing New Life Into Bauhaus Papercuts

My artistic practice working primarily with abstract folded paper objects led me to Josef Albers and his similar obsession with paper as an instructional medium. Initially looking for pleated paper forms and to learn more about the history of these techniques, I have since been swept up in the maelstrom of Albers' pedagogical mindset. It’s difficult to look at one area of his thinking and not get pulled into many other directions, finding yourself challenged at every turn. → more

A Mystic Milieu — Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan at Bauhaus Weimar

Mazdaznan had a significant although often misunderstood impact on the life and work of Johannes Itten, 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. This essay explores the intimate relationship between Itten, Mazdaznan and the Bauhaus and, in so doing, also underscores how in its infancy the Bauhaus was very different from its later incarnation as a school associated primarily with technical innovation. → more

●Artist Text
The Egyptian Postures

In the late nineteenth century the self-styled Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha'nish founded Mazdaznan, a quasi-religious movement of vegetarian diet and body consciousness, which flourished across the USA and Europe until the 1940's. The Egyptian Postures is a guide to the most advanced Mazdaznan exercises that Johannes Itten taught his students at the Bauhaus. This edition of Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha'nish’s original instructions has been newly edited and illustrated by Ian Whittlesea with images of actor Ery Nzaramba demonstrating the postures. → more

The Bauhaus, the Nazis and German Post War Nation Building Processes

On 4 May 1968 the exhibition 50 Years of the Bauhaus was opened at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart. Designed by Herbert Bayer and conceived amongst others by Hans Maria Wingler and Ludwig Grote, the exhibition was shown in eight museums worldwide until 1971. To this day, it is considered one of the most influential post-war exhibitions on the Bauhaus and was of great significance in the course of the nation building process for the still-young Federal Republic. Fifty years later the Württembergischer Kunstverein undertook a critical rereading of the historical exhibition, which created a long-term image and brand of Bauhaus that has been and still needs to be called in question: not least in such a year of jubilation. → more

●Artist Text
The Legacies of the Bauhaus — For the Present and the Future

“My method of bringing new life to archival images is to look at what happens at the margins rather than the center of a picture. I am also obsessed with making links, based on the belief that everything is connected. And also with what I call ‘narrative environments,’ mediating spaces facilitating new forms of engagement.” Luca Frei is a commissioned artist for bauhaus imaginista: Corresponding With. He talks about his approach to his installation for the exhibition at MoMAK in Kyoto. → more

Naked Functionalism and the Anti-Aesthetic — The Activities of Renshichirō Kawakita in the 1930s

Kawakita called the educational activities that developed around the central axis of the School of New Architecture and Design “kōsei education.” The term “compositional/structural education” is often taken nowadays to refer to a preparatory course in composition derived from the Bauhaus—plastic arts training in which plastic elements such as color, form and materials are treated abstractly.  → more

The Bauhaus and the Tea Ceremony

The impact of the Bauhaus teaching methods reached far beyond Germany. Conversely, throughout its existence, a Japanese sensibility permeated the Bauhaus, springing from the Japonisme of individual professors, until its closure in 1933. This article analyzes the reciprocal impact of German and Japanese design education in the interbellum period in order to shed new light on the tightly knit network of associations then connecting Japan and Europe. → more

Johannes Itten’s Interest in Japanese Ink Painting — Shounan Mizukoshi and Yumeji Takehisa’s Japanese ink painting classes at the Itten-Schule

It’s widely known that Johannes Itten had an interest in Asian philosophy and art. He had a series of fruitful encounters with Japanese artists while leading his Itten-Schule art institute in Berlin (1926–34). In this article Yoshimasa Kaneko presents his research of these exchanges: In 1931 Nanga painter Shounan Mizukoshi taught Japanese ink painting in Nanga style at the Itten-Schule; in 1932 Jiyu Gakuen students Mitsuko Yamamuro and Kazuko Imai (Married name: Sasagawa) studied there; and finally, in 1933 the painter and poet Yumeji Takehisa also taught Japanese ink painting (including Nanga style) at Itten’s invitation. → more

“The Attack on the Bauhaus” — A Collage that Became a Symbol of the Closure of the Bauhaus

For the Yamawaki couple, their studies at the Dessau Bauhaus ended with the closure of the Dessau site. Iwao’s luggage for his return home also included his collage Der Schlag gegen das Bauhaus. It was first published in the architecture magazine Kokusai kenchiku in December 1932. Iwao let the collage speak for itself, publishing it without comment. → more

●Artist Work
The O Horizon — A Film Produced for bauhaus imaginista

The Otolith Group have been commissioned to produce The O Horizon for bauhaus imaginista, a new film containing studies of Kala Bhavana as well as the wider environments of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Through rare footage of art, craft, music and dance, it explores the material production of the school and its community as well as the metaphysical inclinations that guided Tagore’s approach to institution building. → more

A Virtual Cosmopolis — Bauhaus and Kala Bhavan

The Bauhaus is renowned for its contribution to modernist architecture and design. Less known but equally significant is its pioneering role in opening up a transcultural network that created the conditions for global conversations on art and design as early as the 1920s. → more

Reclaiming the National — Against Nationalism

The question of how one resists populist nationalism is both obvious and fiendishly difficult. This sounds like a paradoxical proposition, and, indeed, it is. I am inspired by an early critique of nationalism which bears an uncanny resonance in today’s world: a critique that was made in 1916 by the Bengal poet and visionary, Rabindranath Tagore, during a lecture tour in Japan, in the midst of the First World War. → more

Sriniketan and Beyond — Arts and Design Pedagogy in the Rural Sphere

In this article Natasha Ginwala examines how certain Bauhaus ideas flowed into Tagore’s pedagogic experiment and rural reconstruction program at Sriniketan (created in 1921–22), as well as the engagement with design Dashrath Patel, the founding secretary of the National Institute of Design (NID) and its leading pedagogue, pursued in the rural sphere. → more

Santiniketan — Rules of Metaphor and Other Pedagogic Tools

This essay was occasioned by the Delhi exhibition of the Hangzhou chapter of bauhaus imaginista and the accompanying seminar in December 2018. The overarching brief of the seminar was to discuss the pedagogic aspects of schools in various parts of the world that are relatable to the practices of Bauhaus. Specifically, the essay attempts to capture the foundational moments of Kala Bhavana, the art school in Santiniketan that, incidentally, also steps into its centenary year in 2019. → more

●Text Compilation
News from Santiniketan — A Text Compilation of Educational Texts from Santiniketan

Unlike the Bauhaus, Kala Bhavana had no written manifesto or curriculum. However, a corpus of writing developed around the school, largely produced by the school’s artists and teachers. The academic Partha Mitter, whose own writing has explored the interplay between the struggle against colonialism, modernism, and the cultural avant-garde in India, has selected a group of texts on education in Santiniketan. → more

Bauhaus Calcutta

ln December 1922, ‘The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the lndian Society of Oriental Art’ was held at Samavaya Bhavan, number seventeen Park Street. Paintings by artists from the ‘Bengal school’—all of them members of the lndian Society of Oriental Arts—were exhibited. Most of these artists painted in a manner, which would have been recognisable as that school’s invention, a particularly lndian signature style, with mythology as preferred subject. Hung on the other side of the hall was a large selection of works from the Bauhaus.  → more

●Video and Introduction
Ritwik’s Ramkinker — A Film in the Process

Ritwik Ghatak’s film Ramkinker Baij: A Personality Study on the sculptor from Santiniketan is like a spurt, a sudden expression of ebullient enthusiasm from a friend, who is said to have shared artistic affinities with him. Incidentally, it also registers, through a conversational method, the process of discovering the artist, who was embedded, organic, yet global and most advanced for his time. → more

●Artist Work
Anna Boghiguian — A Play to Play

The works from Anna Boghiguian shown here are from an installation commissioned by the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) titled A Play to Play as part of the exhibition Tagore’s Universal Allegories in 2013. These works incorporate elements associated with Tagore, from the artist’s frequent visits to Santiniketan. → more

+ Add this text to your collection!