The Bauhaus school of design was founded in Weimar Germany a century ago. Born of the spirit of transformation that followed the horror of the First World War, it has arguably not been surpassed in its breadth and radicalism. Siobhan Brown explains the movement’s context.
This month marks the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus. It was the most celebrated art, design and architecture movement of the 20th century. It is still hugely influential: from big things, like the buildings we inhabit, to the small things, such as the chairs we sit on. Even the success of Ikea can be put down to its influence.
There is a packed programme taking place across Germany celebrating the movement. The breadth of its influence is clear. As well as design shows and art exhibitions, there is a Bauhaus ballet being performed at Berlin Academy of Arts. Critics have noted the surprising contemporary relevance of the programme in its aesthetic but also collaborative values.
The school continues to have influence in the art world today. In 2015, the Turner Prize was won by the design group Assemble Collective. This signified a renewed move away from the idea of the great solo artist and instead reflected a more cooperative way of doing things, with a focus on the functional yet elegant. Assemble can be considered very Bauhaus.
The term “Bauhaus” — literally “building house” — means different things to different people. It is easy for art historians and critics to remove so influential a movement from the historical and political context in which it was rooted.
The First World War had shaken the world. In 1919 there was a battle to reshape it. Germany was a society in turmoil.
The war had ended with the overthrow of the Kaiser and the establishment of workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils in cities across Germany. In late 1918 a battle took place between the revolutionaries — including Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards’ movement — and the reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD) about the future of Germany.
After the failed Spartacus rising of January 1919, the reformists gained the upper hand. They established a parliamentary democracy known as the Weimar Republic. Though progressive in many ways, the Weimar Republic was primarily an attempt to stabilise the capitalist order in Germany.
But for the next decade Germany continued to be racked by war debts, hyperinflation, economic crises and eventually mass unemployment. There was dramatic political conflict and the growth of both the Communist Party and the Nazis.
Inevitably, artists too were grappling with the problems of their age.
Cultural life in Weimar Germany was rich and varied. The period produced the literature of Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Erich Maria Remarque. It gave us the radical theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Toller, and the socially critical art of George Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz. The lifespan of the Bauhaus was also exactly that of the Weimar Republic itself — coming to a crashing halt with the seizure of power by Hitler’s Nazis in 1933.
Hopes of the era
The Bauhaus school was founded in April 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius. The initial manifesto (see box) was a stark representation of the hopes of the era and the reformist vision to improve society. Gropius described how “the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux toward a new form. We float in space and cannot yet perceive the new order.” Hopes were high, but in a bitterly contested situation.
The manifesto set out a number of ambitious aims. It challenged the traditional “high art” aesthetic order.
The first aim was to train craftspeople and artists to embark on cooperative projects in which their skills would be combined. It sought to elevate the crafts — making “things” — to the status that fine art already enjoyed.
It also set out a different way of teaching art and design. Each workshop was not taught by a teacher, but two co-masters — one who taught practical skills and one with a more traditional art background.
It had a programme of unlearning knowledge of art materials and starting from scratch. This meant its designs used the essential essence of the material and did away with the clutter and decoration of Edwardian and Victorian gothic styles.
The Bauhaus also sought to connect technology and art in new ways.
Some of the Bauhaus artists came from a revolutionary background. Others had always been committed to the reformist project. The dominant thread of the Bauhaus artists was not one of revolution, but of radical reformism which pervaded the 1920s.
The Bauhaus years were divided into three phases. The school was first based in Weimar. The Bauhaus Manifesto sought to bring all artistic and creative tasks under the ultimate aim of “the building”. During the early years of the Bauhaus the focus was on developing the school style. It moved from its original log-cabin style and drew on the modernising influence of architects such as Le Corbusier, a key proponent of European modernism.
The designs were functional yet elegant. The school was mostly building models and show houses for exhibitions, with state authorities generally reluctant to plough money into their unusual designs.
During this time, the Weimar government was undertaking public building projects on a scale never seen before in Germany. The focus shifted from business and power towards a more people-centred approach. There were housing developments, shops and schools designed and built in the interest of people.
But — perhaps surprisingly — the Bauhaus school were not the initiators of extensive Weimar-era housing. It was the city architects of Berlin, Dresden and Frankfurt who should be credited with the progressive housing of the period.
The overarching emphasis was on functionality, and the importance of community-building. This is in stark contrast to how homes and public buildings are conceived for the private market today. Take the battle between the Tate Modern and its neighbours, fed up of visitors looking into their luxury flats. In the architecture of Weimar Germany, residents were encouraged — through design — to look into one another’s homes as a way to foster community-building.
The major exhibition at the school in 1923 reflected the ideas of art and technology coming together, and showed the wide range of pursuits undertaken by students. It combined painting, sculpture, architecture and craft in new ways.
In 1924 more conservative forces asserted themselves during what is known as the Stresemann era, after Germany’s chancellor. It was the most stable of the Weimar period.
But financial support was withdrawn from the school. It closed down and was forced north to the industrial town of Dessau. Here the political environment was better: the local mayor was supportive of the school and it became the municipally funded school of design. There was the potential of good links to local industry — important in allowing the school to start making products for the mass market to ensure its financial survival.
The new building was hugely influential. It was commissioned by the council and built, alongside masters’ houses for Gropius and other masters to live in, in 1925-26.
In 1928 Gropius stepped down as director of the school and was replaced by Hannes Meyer. Meyer was already a prolific architect. He was also a communist.
He brought the school some real building commissions: an apartment block in Dessau and the ADGB Trade Union School. In 1929 the Bauhaus made money — but Meyer was forced out in 1930. The mayor of Dessau sacked him, saying that “things in the Bauhaus get more and more unbearable every day”. He noticed that “communist students were becoming trendsetters” and put this down to Meyer’s influence.
The relationship with even left wing local governments was tense, and without state backing, the school was unable to raise the money to continue let alone start major building programmes.
By the end of the 1920s the balance of political forces in Germany was changing rapidly. Most significantly, the Nazis were on the rise. They made sweeping gains in elections at every level. German society become increasingly polarised.
In 1931 the Nazis won local elections in Dessau, the home of the Bauhaus, and shut the school down. They described its ethos as “cultural bolshevism”.
This was part of a wider culture war against modern art. As Mark Brown described in this magazine earlier this year, “for the Nazis any art work that reflected the abstract, non-naturalistic or discordant traits of modernism was, by definition, ‘degenerate’”.
Many of the Bauhaus artists left Germany and set up across the world, most notably in the US. In 1937 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago. The other place where Bauhaus influence is in plain sight is Tel Aviv. The “White City” is a collection of over 4,000 buildings designed and built by Jewish Bauhaus-trained architects who eventually settled in Palestine.
The Bauhaus demonstrates what radical reformist culture can look like — visionary, sometimes progressive, but held very tightly within the limits of reformism. It didn’t focus as much on brilliant individuals. Its output was sometimes radical, using materials in new ways and experimenting with form and colour.
The Bauhaus played a crucial role in the development of Modernism and in the way that art is still taught today. But it had its limitations — and that was because an art school alone, however fundamental its influence, cannot change society without society changing first.
Battles around art, culture and expression can still be part of challenging an existing order and moving towards a new society. They reflect the remarkable creativity and confidence that is unleashed by struggles to change the world. For revolutionaries, cultural battles are not merely an adjunct to political struggle.
They can be examples of rebel sentiment, creativity and pushing boundaries. They can look towards a future that is not yet made.
Women in the Bauhaus
Tate Modern’s recent blockbuster exhibition celebrated the Bauhaus designer and weaver Anni Albers. Albers was one of the most prominent female Bauhaus artists. Sadly many others have been forgotten or overlooked.
In an increasingly socially liberal society, a battle for the “new woman” was ongoing. Women were at least more visible in public life, despite a number of setbacks, and debates were raging about their role in society.
In 1919 more women than men applied to join the Bauhaus. But it was not progressive when it came to the women in its ranks. Although Gropius said that there would be “no difference between the beautiful and strong sex” he also did not believe women could think in three dimensions — so architecture was out for them.
Students would first follow the Vorkurs, a preliminary training course in basic forms, textures and colours. They would then dedicate themselves to one workshop. Men (the “strong” sex) were fielded into carving and painting, whereas women (the “beautiful”) found themselves in the workshops most linked to traditional feminine roles, such as toy making and ceramics. Albers joined the weaving class. It became known as the “Women’s Workshop”.
By 1930, when the Bauhaus became more heavily focused on architecture, there was little space for women to thrive. Albers’ biggest success came after her move to Black Mountain College in the US where she taught until 1949.