Key Artists: Wassily KANDINSKY, Josef ALBERS, László MOHOLY-NAGY, Paul KLEE , Johannes ITTEN, Walter GROPIUS, Ludwig MIES VAN DER ROHE, Marcel BREUER.
With modern design’s intrinsic nature as a combination of art and industry, we owe much to Bauhaus, a German design school that persevered throughout a tough time of social and political upheaval to leave one of the biggest stamps on art, architecture and design in the 20th century.
The Bauhaus movement began in 1919 when Walter Gropius founded a school with a vision of bridging the gap between art and industry by combining crafts and fine arts. Prior to the Bauhaus movement, fine arts such as architecture and design were held in higher esteem than craftsmanship (i.e. painting, woodworking), but Gropius asserted that all crafts, including art, architecture and geometric design, could be brought together and mass-produced. Gropius argued that architecture and design should reflect the new period in history (post World War I), and adapt to the era of the machine. The Bauhaus movement is characterized by economic sensibility, simplicity and a focus on mass production. “Bauhaus” is an inversion of the German term “hausbau,” which means “building house” or house construction.
The motivations behind the creation of the Bauhaus lay in the 19th century, in anxieties about the soullessness of manufacturing and its products, and in fears about art's loss of purpose in society. Creativity and manufacturing were drifting apart, and the Bauhaus aimed to unite them once again, rejuvenating design for everyday life.
Although the Bauhaus abandoned much of the ethos of the old academic tradition of fine art education, it maintained a stress on intellectual and theoretical pursuits, and linked these to an emphasis on practical skills, crafts and techniques that was more reminiscent of the medieval guild system. Fine art and craft were brought together with the goal of problem solving for a modern industrial society. In so doing, the Bauhaus effectively levelled the old hierarchy of the arts, placing crafts on par with fine arts such as sculpture and painting, and paving the way for many of the ideas that have inspired artists in the late 20th century.
The creators of this movement were a fabulously talented faculty that Gropius attracted. Avant-garde painters Johannes Itten and Lyonel Feininger, and sculptor Gerhard Marcks were among his first appointments. Itten would be particularly important: he was central to the creation of the Vorkurs, and his background in Expressionism lent much of the tone to the early years of the school, including its emphasis on craft and its medievalism. Indeed, Itten's avant-gardism and Gropius's social concerns soon put them at odds. By the early 1920s, however, Gropius had won out; Itten left and was replaced by László Moholy-Nagy, who reformed vorkurs into a program that embraced technology and stressed its use for society. Other important appointments included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Georg Muche, and Oskar Schlemmer.
The style of Bauhaus is commonly characterized as a combination of the Arts and Crafts movement with modernism, as evident in its emphasis on function and its aim to bring art back into contact with everyday life. Thus, typical Bauhaus designs—whether evident in painting, architecture, or interior design—feature little ornamentation and a focus on balanced forms and abstract shapes.
In art, this emphasis on function is apparent in the balanced compositions of abstract pantings by Bauhaus artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Undoubtedly inspired by architecture, Bauhaus paintings typically pair flat planes with overlapping shapes to suggest dimensionality.
In addition to paintings, Bauhaus artists often produced abstract sculptures, avant-garde collages, and modernist posters featuring bold typography and blocks of colour.
The Bauhaus advocated for a “new guild of craftsmen,” abolishing the elitist lines between artist and designer in order to build a new future. The Bauhaus had far-reaching influence. Its workshop products were widely reproduced, and widespread acceptance of functional, unornamented designs for objects of daily use owes much to Bauhaus precept and example. Bauhaus teaching methods and ideals were transmitted throughout the world by faculty and students. It was the most influential modernist art school of the 20th century, one whose approach to teaching, and understanding art's relationship to society and technology, had a major impact both in Europe and the United States.