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.

An invitation to guest criticism: Bauhaus students sit together in front of preliminary course work pinned to the wall. The works are made of the most diverse materials, objects found during forays around Dessau. Freshly assembled, here in the Bauhaus building the class examines them together with Josef Albers, their teacher.

Students were asked to leave the classroom and study the material world, and then return with their attention sharpened. What appeared to be an insignificant and inconspicuous thing at the periphery of the gaze suddenly became a valuable artifact. After concentrated observation in the field, the material combinations the students developed then became the subject of careful consideration. The space of pedagogical reflection was not that of words, but rather of patterns and structures realized materially. The working methods employed in these “studies” included touching, tearing, superimposing and sticking together.

It was not the reproduction of knowledge, the application of rules, nor pure intuition or felt knowledge that interested Albers. Rather, he was concerned with training all the senses of his students, especially the visual and motor senses. With this approach, he trained them to question and search, arousing interest in the perception of the material, thus encouraging independent “observation and formulation.”1

Josef Albers put it this way:

“Knowledge is power. I condemn this sentence as the most dangerous pedagogical false doctrine, even if many do not want to understand it that way. What is ‘knowledge’? Not being able nor knowing, not seeing nor looking, neither building nor forming. It is possession of so-called facts, which one can buy dearly in schools and books, collect and accumulate, in order to reproduce them first in the examination and afterwards, perhaps, also (re-evaluate) in order to understand something better.[…] Instead of “knowledge is power,” I recommend for education the sentence “seeing is power”; namely seeing in the sense of the English verb “to see,” which means “to look more.” For a visual creative education seems to me to be one of the most important tasks of our time.”2

Knowledge was a non-word at the historical State Bauhaus. After all, epistemological skepticism was at the school’s foundation. The devastating experience of the First World War was formative for both the founders and their students: the destructive power of machine rationality had led to a kind of tabula rasa situation where all experience and existing knowledge became suspect.

In this epistemic condition, one of a fundamental skepticism towards the existing order of knowledge, the Bauhaus school initially pursued “unlearning”—the abandonment of conventional knowledge and the promotion of pre-linguistic, intuitive, childlike approaches. In this respect, it was not merely a question of new forms of learning, but of a completely different approach to the acquisition of knowledge. The preliminary course in particular—introduced by Johannes Itten in Weimar, then continued by Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy in Dessau—was a reaction to this devaluation of knowledge at the school.3 In this vacuum, the preliminary course offered a test field, a space to gain experience through sensitizing the physical senses: through haptic handling of the most diverse materials; through physical and mental exercises to stabilize the psyche.

The Bauhaus student Otti Berger—one of the most successful textile artists the school produced—expressed this attitude of “unlearning” in an interview, part of a survey of students conducted by the Bauhaus magazine in 1928. When asked where she had studied or worked before, she replied: “At a mindless place of lore.” Asked about her expectations of the Bauhaus, she responded: “To overcome me and find me.”4

A mindless place of lore? The Bauhaus program was about breaking with the education conventions manifest in the pedagogical practices found in the historical École des Beaux-Arts model: life drawing with nude models; the study of nature or the imitation of forms from the Western ideals of beauty identified in Roman and Greek plaster statues, understood as classically and universally valid. This type of art education not only dominated the academies of the major Western cities, it was also exported to the metropolises of the colonies. After all, education was one of the colonial project’s central pillars, a means of asserting the West’s cultural superiority.5

The historical Bauhaus was part of a broad school reform movement that sought to initiate a paradigm shift in art education—away from learning according to conventions and imitating traditional canons of forms (as was common practice at the art academies) and towards the development of the creativity attributed to everyone as a potential; a notion integral at the time to the formulation of a democratic society. The art theorist Thierry de Duve concludes: “All progressive pedagogies of this century, from Fröbel to Montessori to Decroly, all school reformers and philosophers of education from Rudolf Steiner to John Dewey based their projects and programs on creativity or, rather, on the belief in creativity, on the conviction that creativity not tradition—not rules and conventions—is the best starting point for education.”6


“we do not want pictures, but we want to come to the best possible, final, living fabric! ... one must be able to comprehend it with the ‘hands’! The value of a fabric is to be recognized in the tactile, in the tactile value. ... one must listen to the secrets of the fabric, trace the sounds of the materials, one must grasp the structure not only with the brain, but feel it with the subconscious ...”7

Two illustrations from László Moholy-Nagy: Vom Material zur Architektur, Florian Kupferberg Verlag, Mainz 1968, p. 43.

Otti Berger’s plea for the importance of tactility as a mode of knowledge-generation went far beyond the medium of textiles. She had already experienced working with and through the material in Moholy-Nagy’s preliminary course. In turn, he included her tactile board in Vom Material zur Architektur (From Material to Architecture), the book which summarized his teaching methods at the Bauhaus. The book was also a pedagogical manifesto, focused on the question of finding independent forms of creative expression. According to Moholy-Nagy, “primitive tactile exercises” at the beginning of the preliminary course were essential for Bauhaus education precisely because “today most people—far from their own experiences—still build their world from secondary sources.”8 It was an argument that referred implicitly to the formation of material culture within industrial society: with mechanization, mass production and the Fordist division of labor, the connection between everyday life, use and the production of the material environment had become increasingly abstract. On the one hand: increased levels of mechanization, the replacement of human activity and control by the machine, artificially produced materials and fabrics and, finally, the ready availability of industrially produced goods and new media; on the other: these phenomena supported the experience of dematerialization and the liquefaction of material relations. This was a challenge for the Bauhaus Dessau. The school was charged with training people as designers within such processes. But these abstract dynamics were also active within the microcosm that was the school: thus, the debates at the Bauhaus about changes in human apperception occasioned by technological change are themselves a snapshot illuminating the broader discourse on modern culture and art in the West.

In tactile exercises, Bauhäuslers were instructed to get up close and personal with different sensual properties of the materials they worked with, to experience surfaces, temperatures, structures and states of aggregation. After all, the touching person not only confirms the existence of the world around him but also his own existence. From these tactile material studies Moholy-Nagy generated a terminology, a categorical system for the description of different material formations. These categories—structure, texture and fracture—found expression in what he called “image arguments.” The photographs assembled in this article originate from different contexts and imaging processes: microscopy, aerial photography and journalism.

Otti Berger’s previously quoted article was also accompanied by a Neue Sachlichkeit photograph that gets to the bottom of the deep layers of the material—a paradox in view of the fact that the tactile was negotiated in the cultural discourse of the 1920s as a counter-position to the dominance of the visual in modernism. Are these pictorial arguments not an expression of a restructuring of the perceptual relationships between the haptic and the optic? The dispute about the significance of modes of perception—visual versus tactile, optical versus haptic—is at its core a debate about different cultural modalities of knowledge.

To what extent did the debates at the Bauhaus Dessau concerning the relationship between the optic and the haptic contribute to the hegemonic cultural complex that has traditionally interpreted Western modern culture? Perhaps the avant-garde school was more concerned with exploring the mixed relationships and contact zones between seeing and grasping.

The emphasis on the study of tactility and the haptic as equal areas of knowledge was also a reaction to the dominance of the visual in modernity. The tactile as the supposedly different (in Moholy-Nagy’s book he refers to the highly developed tactile sense of “primitive peoples”) is an essential component of the discourse about Western modern culture that is both civilized and rationalized—a culture which, as the cultural scientist Hartmut Böhme puts it, “has not only asserted itself monopolistically in the linking of visualization and science, but even more so in the triumphal march of the optical media.”9 Whereas the tactile was previously regarded as a refuge of authenticity and proximity (and this understanding of tactility oscillated even in the programmatic approaches of the Bauhaus preliminary course), with the onset of the twentieth century, the tactile seemed to change to a way of perception conditioned by media technology. For example, Albers and Moholy-Nagy were less concerned with a new essentialism in their research on materials than with teaching as an experimental arrangement for exploring the restructuring of the relationships between seeing and grasping in a society shaped by new medial and perceptual relationships. For this reason, Albers’s material studies and Moholy-Nagy’s photograms are not contradictory: rather, they both document the movement between different media and modes of perception. In his lessons Josef Albers developed terminology to investigate material properties, distinguishing between material and matter. The former referred to substantial properties; the latter to surface qualities, the external appearance of materials. On the other hand, Moholy-Nagy understood photography as “light design,” emphasizing the productive character of the operation, one dealing with the optical effects of light—not reproduction but production. This is why the concept of Faktur (surface aspect or quality of execution) introduced in material studies can also be viewed as valid for photography. Faktur not only captures the “material texture but also the sensually perceptible result of a process.”10 At its core, Moholy-Nagy was ultimately concerned with investigating, together with his students, to what extent photography could develop its own surface qualities, a tension between its materiality and its visuality. In this, the design exercises in the preliminary course can be read as experiments exploring time-typical models of sensual knowledge.

“Tastaturen” of discipline or emancipation?

Although an expression of criticism of existing hierarchies of knowledge, the experimental exercises used to develop and expand sensory perception at the Bauhaus also circulated within discourses and disciplines of the 1920s concerned in varying ways with the transformation in modern society of the human psyche and the five senses. Considering this, it is no coincidence that Moholy-Nagy published a contribution on the Bauhaus to the Handbuch für Arbeitswissenschaft (Handbook of Ergonomics), published by the ergonomist and psychotechnician Fritz Giese. Giese, one of the leading figures in the new discipline of psychotechnology, published the book Psychotechnik und Taylorsystem (Psychotechnology and Taylor’s System) in 1920, and later headed an institute for applied psychology in the east German city of Halle. Here he developed apparatuses for testing the tactile senses, as well as tactile exercises, used to evaluate the capacities of individuals for undertaking different sorts of work.11 During Hannes Meyer’s directorship, courses on psychotechnics were also offered at the Bauhaus.

However, while Giese used tactile exercises in aptitude tests for special work requirements— a disciplinary method employed in the adaptation of the individual to the industrial world of work—Moholy-Nagy was concerned with opening up and expanding sensual experiences in his teaching of tactility training. The ambivalences inherent in this cultural technique became more visible after Moholy-Nagy relocated to the United States in 1937 to head the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Maggie Taft, in her research on the so-called “War Time” curriculum of the Chicago School of Design—the successor institution of the New Bauhaus—has worked out how, among other things, tactile exercises for veterans with war injuries were offered in order to retrain them for employment in the civilian labor market.12 Examples such as these of the early propinquity between experiments in sensory training in psychotechnology and art pedagogy show the frightening proximity between discipline and emancipation.

Years later, Anni Albers, who in 1949 accompanied her husband Josef to Yale after nearly a decade and a half teaching at Black Mountain College, would champion the subversive power of the sense of touch. Reinforced by her experience of the American way of life and the excesses of consumer society, “tactility” forms a central chapter of her book On Weaving, published in 1965. In it she points out that the sensitivity of touch and, in particular, the different articulations of tactility had degenerated in modern society:

“Our materials come to us already ground and chipped and crushed and powdered and mixed and sliced, so that only the finale in a long sequence of operations from matter to product is left to us: we merely toast the bread. No need to get our hands into the dough. … We remove a cellophane wrapping and there is it—the bacon, or the razor blade, or the pair of nylons. Modern industry saves us endless labor and drudgery: but, Janus-faced, it also bars us from taking part in the forming of material and leaves idle our sense of touch and with it those formative faculties that are stimulated by it.”13

Albers formulated her design theory based on the practice of weaving, a practice typified by the constant encounter between hand and fabric. The tactility of weaving—structured by the rhythmic links between warp and weft—modulates thinking and does not distinguish between touching, comprehension and cognition. Rather, weaving requires constant movement between object and subject. “Though I’m dealing in this book with long-established facts and processes,” she wrote, “still, in exploring them, I feel on new ground. … starting from a defined and specialized field, can one arrive at a realization of ever-extending relationship. Thus tangential subjects come into view. The thoughts, however, can, I believe, be traced back to the event of the thread.”14

Parallels to the debates, in which the Bauhaus was involved, conducted in the 1920s regarding the transformation of human modes of perception can be found in the present: when it comes to changing human apperception in the course of digitalization. In her research, the design researcher Caroline Höfler has examined contact zones between digital and analog culture, and has observed a new interest in the sense of touch. Using as an example the haptic revolver developed by Microsoft—a virtual poker game where different materials can be felt—she has discussed the constellations in which virtual and quasi-haptic experiences are combined. A comparison with the tactile drum—developed by Bauhaus student Rudolf Marwitz while attending Moholy-Nagy’s preliminary course of 1929—is obvious. “However,” writes Höfler, “the tactile exercises at the Bauhaus were aimed at the design of sensory realities, while virtual reality developments specifically seek to bring about illusions of the senses. While the person wearing 3D glasses once again subordinates the tactile experiences to the virtual sense of sight in this case, and thus basically continues traditional sense hierarchies, the tactile exercises of the Bauhaus were concerned precisely with the break with these hierarchies: their ‘subversive potential’ consisted in enabling an immediate “communication between bodies and materials, which at the same time reveals their mediocrity.”15

Tactile drum by Rudolf Marwitz from László Moholy-Nagy: Vom Material zur Architektur, Florian Kupferberg Verlag, Mainz 1968, p. 25.

  • 1 Martin Krampen (ed.): beobachten und formulieren. grundkurs mit übungen, nach einem filmskript von josef albers (observe and formulate: basic course with exercises, based on a film script by josef albers), Hatje Cantz Verlag, Berlin 2009.
  • 2 Eckhard Neumann (ed.): Bauhaus und Bauhäusler. Erinnerungen und Bekenntnisse (Bauhaus and Bauhäusler: Memories and confessions), DuMont Verlag, Cologne 1985, p. 254. Translation by editor.
  • 3 See Leah Dickermann: “Bauhaus Fundaments,” in: Barry Bergdoll und Leah Dickermann (eds.): Workshops for Modernity, MoMA New York 2009, p. 17.
  • 4 interview mit bauhäuslern (interview with Bauhaus student), in: bauhaus zeitschrift für gestaltung 2. Nr. 2-3, 1928, p. 24.
  • 5 See Christian Kravagna: “Im Schatten großer Mangobäume. Kunsterziehung und transkulturelle Moderne im Kontext der indischen Unabhängigkeitsbewegung” (In the Shade of Large Mango Trees: Art education and transcultural modernity in the context of the Indian independence movement), in: Marion von Osten und Tom Holert (eds.): Das Erziehungsbild. Zur Visuellen Kultur des Pädagogischen (The educational Picture: On the Visual Culture of the Pedagogical), Schlebrügge Verlag, Wien 2010, p. 108.
  • 6 See Thierry de Duve: “When Form Has Become Attitude—And Beyond,” in: Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1945, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Mass. 2005, p. 23.
  • 7 Otti Berger: “Stoffe im Raum” (Fabrics in the Room), in: RED, Sonderausgabe: Bauhaus, 1930, p. 145. Translation by editor.
  • 8 László Moholy-Nagy: Vom Material zur Architektur (From Material to Architecture), Florian Kupferberg Verlag, Mainz 1968, p. 19.
  • 9 Hartmut Böhme: “Der Tastsinn im Gefüge der Sinne. Anthropologische und historische Ansichten vorsprachlicher Aisthesis” (The Sense of Touch in the Fabric of the Senses: Anthropological and historical views of pre-lingual aisthesis), in: Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der BRD (ed.): Tasten. Schriftenreihe Forum, Vol. 7, Göttingen 1996, p. 198.
  • 10 See also T’ai Smith: Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2014, p. 91 footnote.
  • 11 Torsten Blume und Janek Müller: “Sachsen-Anhalt in der Moderne,” (Saxony-Anhalt in the Modern Age), in: Claudia Perren, Torsten Blume, Alexia Pooth (eds.): Große Pläne!: Moderne Typen, Fantasten und Erfinder. Zur Angewandten Moderne in Sachsen-Anhalt 1919-1933 (Big Plans! Modern Guys, Fantasists and Inventors: On Applied Modernism in Saxony-Anhalt 1919-1933), Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld 2016, p. 89.
  • 12 Maggie Taft: “Better than Before. László Moholy-Nagy and the New Bauhaus in Chicago,” in: Mary Jane Jacob und Jaquellynn Bass (eds.): Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2012, p. 31–43.
  • 13 Anni Albers: On Weaving, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown 1965, p. 62.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 15.
  • 15 “Carolin Höfler im Gespräch” (Carolin Höfler in Conversation), in: Regina Bittner und Katja Klaus (eds.): Gestaltungsproben. Übungen zum Unterricht am Bauhaus (Design Samples: Exercises for teaching at the Bauhaus), Edition Bauhaus, Vol. 57, Spector Books, Leipzig 2019, p. 29.
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