Conference Paper

Exploring the Bauhaus in its International Context

Rabindranath Tagore visiting Albert Einstein in Hungary, 1930. Képes Vasárnap, The Hungarian “Pest Diary” (Hungarian weekle magazine) / Pictures Sunday, 27 July 1930. CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The exhibition of Bauhaus works organized in Calcutta in 1922 by the art historian and Indian art specialist Stella Kramrisch, who had been brought to India by Rabindranath Tagore to teach art history at Viva Charati in Santiniketan, reminds us that the twentieth century’s most influential school of art, design and architecture was not an entirely singular institution.1 Not only did its innovative pedagogy have roots in a series of experiments mounted already across Germany in the years preceding World War I, but its reform-minded mission was not completely unique either. Western scholars have paid the most attention to Vkhutemas (Vysshiye Khudozhestvenno-Tekhnicheskiye Masterskiye, or Higher Art and Technical Studios), established in Moscow in 1920, which shared the Bauhaus’s mission of teaching art through abstraction, but in India the mission of creating alternatives to nineteenth-century academicism was equally important, even as representation remained dominant in Santiniketan.2 Indeed, the Bauhaus’s eventually enormous influence should be attributed not just to the brilliance of so many of its faculty and students, but also to the fact that its establishment and the multiple approaches to the visual arts taken across its short history were obviously part of a broader desire present in many different places around the world to develop distinctly twentieth-century approaches to the teaching of the visual arts and to the design of the objects with which we live.

The Bauhaus was established in the German city of Weimar in 1919 in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War I and the founding, in the same city, of a democratic republican form of government, replacing the previous imperial system.3 Its first years in the city made famous more than a century earlier by the presence of Goethe and Schiller were marked by an engagement with Expressionism. An avant-garde art movement well underway already before World War I, Expressionism moved into the mainstream in the wake of Germany’s demoralizing loss.

Expressionism engaged artists from other countries, but as epitomized by the woodblock print chosen to illustrate the Bauhaus Prospectus, it seemed distinctly German, even if Lyonel Feininger, the artist in this particular case, had been born in the United States. By 1919 there were no adherents to Goethe’s claim that the Gothic had been invented by Germans, but certainly German woodblock printing of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as well as the presence of a medieval church steeple, are both recalled in Feininger’s print.4 At about the same time that he made this print, Feininger was also traveling from Weimar by bicycle to paint the medieval parish church in Umpferstedt seven kilometers east of Weimar.5 How did the Bauhaus move beyond such a specifically local response to a particular national situation to become exemplary of a global movement in art and design?

Lyonel Feininger, Kathedrale [Cathedral], 1919, Cover and one page of the manifesto and program of the Bauhaus, April 1919, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Photo: Atelier Schneider, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Although the Bauhaus today is best remembered for the industrial aesthetic that flourished at the school during its final decade, Expressionism’s engagement with abstraction also turned artists’ attention to what was viewed at the time by the European avant-garde as primitivism.6 Gunta Stölzl, who arrived at the Bauhaus in 1919, and Marcel Breuer, who came a year later, both began by enrolling in the preliminary course, then taught by Johannes Itten. The preliminary course offered the first systematic instruction in abstraction rather than drawing from live models or plaster casts. Itten, who was deeply engaged in mysticism, developed exercises that encouraged students to pay attention to form, structure and texture—as Breuer did in his so-called “African Chair,” for which Stölzl designed and wove the fabric. For artists like Itten, but also for a time for Breuer and Stölzl, so-called tribal peoples and their art seemed closer to the essence of spiritual and artistic expression than Western artists who focused on representation. This was for them a matter of locating authenticity in getting back to basics. Partially as a consequence of this point of view, although Surrealism also played a role, Bauhaus teaching bestowed legitimacy, especially in the middle years of the twentieth century, on the folk or tribal art of people’s around the world. For instance, when Bauhaus weaver Anni Albers and her husband Josef fled Nazi Germany, moving to the United States in 1933, they deepened their engagement with the art of pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, which had begun soon after Anni arrived at the school in 1922 and began studying Andean textiles.7 Anni, for instance, named one of her early American weavings after the Zapotec pyramidal temples at Monte Albán in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The interest evinced by European artists of this period in their own folk art and what they understood as primitive art from other parts of the world would inspire artists across the globe to examine with new respect alternatives to academic art’s focus on mastering specifically European codes of representation. Anni and Josef Albers’ increased esteem for the pre-Columbian art of the Americas was perhaps a way to identify with and assimilate in the United States, where they never attempted to work with the leading avant-garde artists of their own generation, although at first at Black Mountain College and then, in Josef’s case, at Yale they would teach and inspire many younger artists.8 Nationalists in India and elsewhere would also find in local iterations of Expressionism a way of bridging the divide between an intelligentsia acutely aware of European modernism and the peasantry who were not.

But Expressionism is not the whole story of the Bauhaus, even as many of those associated with the school continued to be haunted by its legacy. Throughout its short existence, the Bauhaus was in a continual state of flux. It moved twice—from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin in 1932. Hannes Meyer succeeded Gropius as director in 1928, only to be replaced two years later by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But certainly, the biggest upheaval in the school’s brief history came in 1923, when Gropius replaced Itten with the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy, who in 1925 asked Anni’s husband Josef, who had come to the school as a student in 1920, to partner with him in leading the preliminary course.

As a celebrated photograph taken by his wife Lucia hints, Moholy-Nagy saw himself as an engineer as much as an artist, once famously ordering a painting over the telephone by dictating the placement of color on a gridded surface.9 Fascinated by light, he helped shift the orientation of the school from painting towards photography.10 Equally as crucially, he was sympathetic to Gropius’s determination to move from Expressionism to an artistic position closer to De Stijl (the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg lived in Weimar for a time in order to have the maximum influence on students dissatisfied with Itten) and Constructivism (El Lissitzky spent much of the 1920s in Berlin). This shift also coincided with a highly pragmatic move from emphasis on the kind of artisan production seen in the African Chair to a new engagement with industry. Gropius hoped that local industries would benefit from working with students and staff capable of designing innovative high-quality wares—as design reformers in Germany had for a generation.11 With public funding always in question, this was a strategy intended to improve the school’s chronically shaky finances.

The result was the emergence of a marriage of abstract form and an industrial aesthetic that is now often termed “classic modernism” in Germany, as since at least the 1960s it has often appeared entirely timeless. It should be admitted, however, that it first went out of fashion, including with many of its original adherents, from the 1930s through the 1950s, when avant-garde artists were fascinated by surrealism and again by primitivism, while less experimental patrons flirted with both monumental and vernacular variants of historicism. And classic modernism’s apparently eternal appeal was also reduced during the height of postmodernism’s challenge—that is during the 1970s and much of the 1980s.12 Nonetheless, this fusion of crisp geometry and machine-like styling seemed at the time and has up to the present often appeared to be a universally valid design aesthetic. Furthermore, it appealed to many from the Global South for its ability to communicate modernization. Indeed, adopting the appearance of modernism sometimes appeared like a short cut to achieving actual technological modernization in places where colonialism and other forms of economic exploitation had often sundered connections with the immediate past—especially to court and other elite urban patrons.

The approach chosen by Marianne Brandt in her tea infuser or Erich Cosemüller in his photograph, Bauhaus Scene, which depicts a female figure wearing a metal mask designed by Oskar Schlemmer and a dress by Liz Beyer, seated in Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair (whose iron-cloth Beyer also crafted), captures the tone of these designs, for a tomorrow where even people were pictured as slightly machine-like. The Bauhaus production ethos was in line with emergent industrial mass production techniques like that of the Model T Ford, which appeared to many to promise improved standards of living for both workers and consumers as new and efficient means of production made what had formerly been luxury goods available to a mass market, not least because so much labor would be saved in their making. What is less obvious at first glance, however, is the degree to which products produced at the Bauhaus, remained nonetheless—as Robin Schuldenfrei in particular has pointed out—luxury objects.13 For instance, Brandt’s tea infuser was made of silver with an ebony handle and was actually hand-crafted. But the simple shift dress proved prescient for the degree to which designs made at the school in this period stood slightly outside contemporary fashion in ways that now appear to be almost timeless.14 Although its short skirt would have caused a scandal anywhere in the world before the early 1920s, it shares little else with the flapper dresses in vogue across Europe and beyond at the time. Unlike most of the high fashion of the period (Coco Chanel’s suits being a notable exception), it could easily be worn today as it could also have been frequently in the intervening years. Many people at the Bauhaus seemed to have had a knack for finding this sweet spot. Breuer was inspired to design his classic tubular metal chair, which he named for the artist Wassily Kandinsky, by studying the handlebars of his bicycle. Cool, self-possessed and rational, such objects paradoxically endure after nearly a century as markers of the new.

The pedagogical process through which they were developed was also significant. Breuer’s tipping of his hat to Kandinsky was no accident. Gropius hired a number of talented Expressionist painters to teach at the Bauhaus, none of them more celebrated than the Russian-born artist, who had lived in Munich between 1896 and 1914, where he became a major theoretical voice and one of the first abstract painters. His book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1912, made him one of the most famous artists of his time.15 Upon the outbreak of World War I he returned to Moscow, where he helped inspire Constructivism, before returning to Germany in 1920. Gropius brought him to the Bauhaus two years later, where his presence cemented the school’s stature as the most advanced art school in Europe and helped attract talented students from as far away as the United States, British Mandate Palestine and Japan. Kandinsky’s turn from Expressionism towards a more austere geometry paralleled and undoubtedly helped inspire the shift that took place at the school soon after his and Moholy-Nagy’s arrival towards more hard-edged rectilinear abstraction.

What was exciting about the Bauhaus was not just the presence of leading painters, but the use to which Gropius put them. In a school that was intended at the beginning to train craftspeople and whose focus eventually shifted to industrial design, painting was never the whole story. Instead, new directions across many media were forged by the coupling of form masters, as the artists were termed, with craft masters, most of whom were already experts in their respective fields, which included metalworking, woodworking, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, stained glass, photography and stagecraft. This pairing was not entirely new, as it had previously been attempted in several German schools of industrial design before the war. Indeed, Gropius inherited several of his craft masters from the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts that the Belgian designer and architect Henry van de Velde had established in Weimar in the first years of the new century. But the Bauhaus differed due to the relentless commitment the painters who taught there had to modern art, whether Expressionist or abstract, and those who taught the preliminary course to abstraction. Gropius appointed Kandinsky to lead the mural painting workshop, which paradoxically was never one of the school’s most successful.

The relationship between the form and craft masters is perhaps clearest in the case of the weaving workshop, although Gunta Stölzl, the first woman to be named a craft master, taught herself and her classmates to weave only after she arrived at the school. Gropius insisted on shunting as many of the female students as possible into the weaving workshop, as he feared that if the many talented women clamoring to study at the Bauhaus were allowed into every workshop, the school would not be taken seriously. However, that he assigned the talented Swiss painter Paul Klee to be the weavers’ form master shows that he did not write them off entirely. Indeed, the transformation of weaving into a fine arts practice was all but invented at the Bauhaus, and the appearance of much mainstream production, especially in the area of upholstery fabric, was also transformed by the workshop’s emphasis on tying together form and structure. Now that the attention of scholars is shifting from Bauhaus masters to the school’s students and from the men associated with the school to the women, the weavers have become the stars of most recent Bauhaus exhibitions and related scholarship.16

Like Amrita Sher-Gil in India, many of these women came from middle class backgrounds (some of the men who studied beside them were from families of more modest means) and found in artistic experimentation a welcome alternative to the gendered norms that had until recently limited many women’s prospects to marriage and children. Their training also provided them with a respectable means of making their own living. The loss of so many men of their generation in the recent war, as well as the subsequent inflation that wiped out the savings of many formerly well-to-do families, helped spur the emancipation of German women in the 1920s, who under the country’s new constitution gained the right to vote and equal access to work. This was very different from the aftermath of World War II, where huge civilian losses and the complete conquest of the country—including the rape of many women by conquering troops—would bolster a return to conventional domesticity, at least in what became West Germany, that would temporarily diminish awareness of the accomplishments of these pioneers.

Gunta Stölzl / Marcel Breuer, Afrikanischer Stuhl, 1921, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Lucia Moholy, Direktorzimmer von Walter Gropius im Bauhaus Weimar, 1923, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Already by 1923, the year of a major Bauhaus exhibition which brought artists, architects and critics from across Europe to Weimar, eager to assess the school’s progress, Gropius’s office at the Weimar Bauhaus had become a showcase for the furniture and weaving workshops. It also featured a wonderful lighting apparatus that doubled as an abstract work of sculpture. Three years later, the school’s purpose-built quarters in Dessau, a city best known at the time for its Junkers airplane factory, gave it a strong architectural identity several years before it began its architecture department. The studio block, based upon Gropius’s studies of American factories, including the one in which the Model T Ford was produced, enshrined the relationship between industry and art that would dominate its later years. Lucia Moholy-Nagy’s photographs ably capture its hard-edged rational character.

There was plenty of time as well for fun and games. The hostel wing, in particular, provided a backdrop for photographs documenting the many Bauhaus festivities. Many were taken by Lyonel Feininger’s son Lux, who, in a shift typical of the school’s increasing fascination with mechanization, became a celebrated photographer rather than following in his painter father’s footsteps. Much of the Bauhaus’s later impact can be traced not only to the education that the students obtained there or to the fact that many built new lives for themselves abroad following the school’s closure in 1933, but to the spirit of fun that pervaded the institution, including many legendary parties. These welded the school into an enduring community, fostering a sense of pride in a shared experience that did much to contribute to the mythic status of the Bauhaus’s historical significance, even while other innovative educational institutions were contributing to the modernist ethos that circumnavigated the world in the years after 1933.

During the 1930s, many of the leading Bauhäuslers migrated to the United States.17 Josef and Anni Albers did much to help cement Black Mountain College’s national reputation before Josef departed to take a teaching position at Yale in 1950. Gropius and Breuer found positions at Harvard; Mies van der Rohe taught at the newly opened Illinois Institute of Technology (ITT) in Chicago, the same city where Moholy-Nagy had established the New Bauhaus, which, after closing briefly, became the Chicago School of Design and then the Institute of Design, absorbed by IIT in 1949. A who’s who of postwar American artists and designers studied with these Bauhaus faculty and students and carried the lessons they learned into teaching as well as practice. The sculptor Ruth Asawa, for instance, trained with Albers at Black Mountain. She taught for many years at the San Francisco School of the Arts, which has been renamed for her. The furniture designer and entrepreneur Florence Knoll took classes from Gropius at Harvard and from Mies at IIT. However, the fact that Knoll began her schooling at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a school first headed by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero) that possessed no formal ties to the Bauhaus (although its teaching was influenced by affiliated movements, especially the arts and crafts movement), and many of its students spent summers at Black Mountain College over the course of the latter’s existence indicates change could happen independently of a direct Bauhaus influence.18 Charles and Ray Eames, who wrote the report that helped establish the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad met and married while both were students at Cranbrook, whose students were more likely to be engaged in design and craft than the architecture and fine arts programs where most Bauhäuslers taught after coming to the United States. Gautum and Gira Sarabhai, who also played key roles in the founding of NID, studied in the United States with Frank Lloyd Wright, who remained fairly skeptical about continental modernism even as he was able to relaunch his career due to the fame it brought him, rather than Gropius or Mies.

The Bauhaus was thus not the only place where experimental approaches to art and art education flourished. Figures like Kramrisch and the Sarabhais followed their own paths to similar ends and contributed to the education of artists and designers who did not always adhere to the abstract industrially-infused geometry favored by so many Bauhaus faculty and students in the school’s final decade. Nonetheless, no other institution so systematically challenged conventional arts education so early in the twentieth century, brought such a distinguished collection of faculty together—faculty who succeeded in creating a novel pedagogical approach to teaching art and design—and spawned so many of the artists, designers and architects who would carry the lessons first learned at the Bauhaus forward into the middle decades of the century and beyond. It is for these reasons that any discussion of artistic experimentation in the visual arts across the course of the last hundred years must begin, if not end, with the Bauhaus.

  • 1 Regina Bittner and Kathrin Rhomberg (eds.): The Bauhaus in Calcutta: an encounter of cosmopolitan avant-gardes, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Berlin 2013.
  • 2 Partha Mitter: The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947, Reaktion Books, London 2007, pp. 15–18.
  • 3 Mark Jones: Founding Weimar: Violence and the German Revolution of 1918-1919, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2016, and Ulrike Ackermann and Ulrike Bestgen (eds.): Das Bauhaus kommt aus Weimar, Deutsche Kunstverlag, Berlin 2009.
  • 4 Johann Wolfgang Goethe: “Von deutscher Baukunst,” in Goethes Werke, Hamburg Edition vol. XII, Christian Wegner Verlag, Hamburg 1960, pp. 7–15.
  • 5 See: (accessed 8 May 2019).
  • 6 Jill Lloyd: German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity, Yale University Press, New Haven 1991.
  • 7 Virginia Gardner Troy: “Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles,” See also: Lauren Hinksen and Joaquin Barríendos: Josef Albers in Mexico, Guggenheim Museum, New York 2017.
  • 8 Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson: Look Before You Leap: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957, Yale University Press, (New Haven 2015; Eva Diaz: The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2014; and Vincent Katz (ed.): Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, MIT University Press, Cambridge 2013.
  • 9 Matthew S. Witkovsky, Carol S. Eliel & Karole Vail (eds.): Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 2016.
  • 10 Rose-Carol Washton Long: “From Metaphysics of Material Culture,” pp. 43–62. In: Kathleen James-Chakraborty (ed.): Bauhaus Culture from Weimar to the Cold War, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2006.
  • 11 Frederic J. Schwarz: The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War, Yale University Press, New Haven 1996.
  • 12 Tom Wolfe: From Bauhaus to Our House, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York 1981.
  • 13 Robin Schuldenfrei: Luxury and Modernism: Architecture and the Object in Germany, 1900-1933, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2018, pp. 138–56.
  • 14 Kathleen James-Chakraborty: “Clothing Bauhaus Bodies,” pp. 127–46. In: Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler: Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School, Bloomsbury Academic, New York 2019. See also: Ita Heinze-Greenberg: “Bauhaus und Bubikopf: Der Typenschnitt im genormten Raum,” pp. 57–75. In: Karl R. Kegler, Anna Minta & Niklas Naehrig (eds.): RaumKleider: Verbindungen zwischen Architekturraum, Körper und Kleid, Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2018.
  • 15 Wassily Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual in Art, translated and with an introduction by M. T. H. Sadler, Dover, New York 1977.
  • 16 T’ai Smith: Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2014; and Sigrid Wortmann Weltge: Women’s Work: Textile Art from the Bauhaus, Chronicle Books, San Francisco 1993.
  • 17 For the pre-history of the Bauhaus exodus to America, see: Margaret Kentgens-Craig: The Bauhaus and America, First Contacts, 1919-1936, MIT Press, Cambridge 1999.
  • 18 Kathleen James Chakraborty: Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War, University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis, pp. 153–70.
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