How the Bauhaus School Redefined Aesthetics

Discover the groundbreaking Bauhaus school, renowned for its influence in art, design, and architecture. Explore the visionary teachings of Walter Gropius and Johannes Itten, as they shaped a movement that transformed creative disciplines and urban life.

How the Bauhaus School Redefined Aesthetics
Bauhaus building seen from the southwest, workshop section. Credit: Arts and Culture

The mythical Bauhaus school was developed from 1919 to 1933; its importance in fields such as art, industrial and graphic design, artistic pedagogy, museography, and architecture is immeasurable. Perhaps the key factor that made a small school with an average of ten to fifteen teachers and two hundred students have the transcendence that is recognized today lies in the sensitivity of the man who devised its realization and who chose the group of characters that would make up its teaching staff; we refer to the architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969).

The vision of this man, in attracting to the city of Weimar—the first site of the school—a group of first-class intellectuals and, at the same time, avant-garde artists, made the ideas, exercises, design resources, and architectural and artistic approaches of the Bauhaus transform not only those fields of human endeavor but also the daily life of the urban being. The first outstanding contribution was undoubtedly the manifesto of the Bauhaus constitution since it outlined the positions that were to govern both the courses and the creative work of students and teachers during their work at the school.

With this premise, the aim was to make the artist participate in the creation of furniture and objects that technology was stripping of beauty by replacing craft processes; this is how the Bauhaus became the cradle of the industrial design career. Secondly, it was proposed to retake the collaboration of all the arts to reach the total work inspired by the medieval cathedral but transform it into the socialist cathedral to be in line with the times; that is, architecture was the ideal space for the coexistence of creative disciplines in the service of society.

In a world that was entering an accelerated stage of industrialization and, therefore, urbanization, the new school wanted to make art participate in the development of a new society and a new man. In the case of Germany, it was living in a period of certain hope in the political field: the German Empire had been dissolved after the defeat in the First World War, and an attempt at a democratic period better known as the Weimar Republic had been founded (which would be dismantled by Hitler and the National Socialist party after his rise to power in 1933). The desire to build a society different from the one that had led Germany to the first great war made necessary an intellectual current that emphasized precisely the construction at the service of society; therefore, Bauhaus means the builder's house, and therefore also the architectural current that promoted was called functionalism.

Walter Gropius, 1915.
Walter Gropius, 1915. Credit: Mahler Foundation

In the field of pedagogy, Gropius chose a Viennese artist and teacher named Johannes Itten to develop the program of the school's introductory course, or vorkurs, which was mandatory for all students of the institute, regardless of the discipline they were inclined to. Itten, who in Austria had been close to avant-garde pedagogical figures such as Hólzel, who had closely experienced the psychological discoveries of his compatriot Freud, and who had an affinity with various spiritual disciplines that were arriving in Europe from Asia, such as yoga and meditation, knew how to design a course of sensitization and awareness for the students. He was able to design a highly advanced creative awareness course for the 1920s in which the student underwent exercises that appealed to both his sensory world and his mental readiness, as well as his creative capacity and problem-solving acumen with various materials.

Itten's classes included physical routines, relaxation, and exercises designed to awaken each of the senses, all with the clear purpose of making the student notice how a work of art is the product of the interaction of all the sensory qualities and the spiritual and mental worlds in a single object or project. It was common for Itten to pose to young people a series of opposites that complemented each other to reach balance or harmony; for example, these are dualities that were frequently heard in his didactic routines: feeling and thinking, intuition and intellect, expression and construction, essence and matter, heaviness, and lightness. It has been said that Itten's great success was to transfer the playful aspect of avant-garde education for children (Montessori, Kindergarten) to the field of artistic pedagogy for adults.

The first Bauhaus trademark, used from 1919 to 1922, was created by Karl-Peter Róhl.
The first Bauhaus trademark, used from 1919 to 1922, was created by Karl-Peter Róhl. Christian and non-Christian symbols, such as the pyramid, the swastika, the circle, and the star, are intermingled in it. Credit: Steffan Cheriet

Gropius' purpose in inviting Itten was also to search for a balance between the functional stance of the Bauhaus and the spiritual world that should permeate the true artist. After the introductory course, the students entered various art workshops (mural painting, sculpture, theater) and other applied arts workshops (cabinetmaking, bookbinding, weaving, ceramics, glass) taught and directed by an artist but supervised by a craftsman. Two of the most important figures of contemporary art participated in these areas of work: the Russian Wassily Kandinsky and the Swiss Paul Klee, whose notes and programs on his courses and lectures at the Bauhaus are today classic books of modern aesthetic theory.

Kandinsky, who had developed in theory and practice the consolidation of abstract art, had come from designing in Moscow the programs of the art schools in the nascent Soviet Republic; however, the political hardening and the deviation of the revolutionary purposes that Stalinism would mean led him to accept Gropius' invitation. Kandinsky's abstractionist ideas were a perfect fit for an institution that sought a new aesthetic for its designs, constructions, and works of art.

Wassily Kandinsky, 1925.
Wassily Kandinsky, 1925. Credit: Artnet

The aesthetic proposal of the Bauhaus consisted of appealing to primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and respecting basic shapes (triangle, circle, and square) to create a modern plastic language, due to its abstract and geometrical profile, but also poetic, since it returned to the basics, to the essential. The sober style of the Bauhaus was also a reaction to Art Nouveau and, in general, to modernism and its extreme decorativism, which had led that architectural trend to become an art for aristocrats, while the Bauhaus appealed to savings in construction costs, to the functionalism of buildings, and to the urban consciousness that had as its central concern to provide the large workers' settlements that were growing around the industries with comfortable, cheap houses imbued with avant-garde plasticity. Collaboration with industry was a constant, and his designs for furniture, lamps, wallpaper, crockery, and cutlery were an important source of funding to sustain the school even at times when the state reduced the budget.

The masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building.
The masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building, from left to right: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stólztl and Oscar Schlemmer. Credit: © Bauhaus Kooperation

Many of the Bauhaus mentors emigrated to the United States after Hitler persecuted them in Germany, and their style eventually became popular all over the world. In Mexico, Ciudad Universitaria is a classic example of functionalist architecture that seeks to create buildings expressly designed for the functions they will serve. Anyone who wishes to compare photographs of the Bauhaus in Dessau (the school's second site) will find enormous similarities with the buildings of the faculties of law, philosophy and letters, architecture, and economics. But in addition to its architectural influence, the Bauhaus gave birth to tubular furniture, interactive museography, architect's lamps, lighting for museums, housing units, the professionalization of graphic and industrial design careers, the inclusion of photography classes in an art school, photomurals, etcetera.

Paul Klee at work in his Bauhaus studio in Weimar, 1924.
Paul Klee at work in his Bauhaus studio in Weimar, 1924. Credit: Monoskop

This vitality makes us think that a project in which teachers are involved and can participate in the design of school programs will yield stupendous results. The Bauhaus was not a school that enjoyed large budgets, but it was an imaginative, combative, and idealistic institution; those were the driving forces of its operation, in addition, of course, to the excellence of its academics.

Report on the closure of the Bauhaus in Dessau, published in the newspaper "Berliner Tageblatt".
Report on the closure of the Bauhaus in Dessau, published in the newspaper "Berliner Tageblatt" in the autumn of 1932. Credit: Droste, Magdalena. Bauahus, 1917-1933. Germany, Taschen, 1991.

Authors: Selma Guisande and Fernando Gálvez, Una escuela revolucionaria: la Bauhaus, Correo del Maestro. No. 44, pp.47-50.