1919 is rightly being celebrated as the year of revolution, but there is another centenary to celebrate: that of the Bauhaus.
There is a song, “Bread and Roses”, much sung on the left, which draws attention to the fact that not only do we need bread to survive but we also need roses. The world we want to build not only has to provide food, warmth, work, shelter for all, but it must be beautiful too. Marxists do not worship ugliness or depravity, nor do we recognise a world where beauty is monopolised by the wealthy and the elite. We do not trash old buildings or gardens, burn oil paintings or sneer at classical music. We read literature that was written before 1900. We also want to build a new world where there is space and light both at home and at work, an environment that is something to be proud of and to work for and not something to be, at best, tolerated. Echoing the sentiments (if not the letter) of the early French utopian socialist Saint-Simon, we envisage the artist’s role as drawing a vision of the future.
It was in 1919 that probably the most famous art and design centre in the whole of human history was established in Germany in the historic city of Weimar. It was officially the Staatliches Bauhaus, but is known simply as the Bauhaus (Bau = building, haus = house). Soon it attracted an array of talent rarely gathered in one spot either before or since.
What was the Bauhaus? It was more than just an art and design college. Yes, there were students and courses and there were teachers, but both were experimenters, designers dedicated to an idea of aligning art and design to the industrial age – an approach emphasised by the Bauhaus’ first public exhibition, Art and Technology: A New Unity.
The founder was Walter Gropius, a German architect who had run an art college in Weimar. He re-organized and redesigned the college and the Bauhaus was born on 1 April 1919. The Bauhaus received funding from the regional government (with its Social Democratic Party majority). It lost that after the SPD took an electoral hammering in 1924, but then the Social Democratic mayor of Dessau offered the Bauhaus a new home. It also charged students a fee for enrolling in its courses.
In the 1930s, the Bauhaus came under increasing pressure from the far right. It had to move to Berlin in 1932-33, and was closed down under Nazi pressure in 1933. Here are some of the courses that the Bauhaus ran, with their teachers’ names: •Printing (Lyonel Feininger) •Ceramics (Gerhard Marcks) •Metal workshop (Oscar Schlemmer) •Book binding and glass painting (Paul van Klee) •Wall painting (Wassily Kandinsky)
The Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy joined the staff in 1923 and ran workshops on metal work and experimental approaches to photography. He also made several films and became one of the most influential of the staff members. All students at the Bauhaus underwent an introductory one-year foundation course. Although the group photograph shows an overwhelmingly male teaching staff (only one woman!), more female applicants applied to study at the Bauhaus than male. Most of the female students attended classes for textile design, weaving, pottery, sculpting and set design – what might be considered the “traditional” subjects for women. They weren’t helped by the views of Gropius, who thought that women only had a two-dimensional view of the world, while men saw in three dimensions!
One woman who broke this mould was the metal worker Marianne Brandt, who designed the famous globe lamp and the Kandem bedside light in 1926. These became icons of the Bauhaus era, along with the famous Model B3 or Wassily Chair designed by Marcel Breuer. Gropius and other prominent “Bauhauslers” were architects, so architecture was central to the Bauhaus project, and in later years it came to dominate.
Even today Bauhaus-inspired buildings are easy to spot, with their flat roofs, all white exteriors and extensive use of steel and glass. (Actually the roofs were usually sloped. They looked flat because they were surrounded by parapets).
Traditionalists disliked the Bauhaus’s mix of utility, industry, and craft. The Nazis loathed the Bauhaus’s modernism, anti¬traditionalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and the large number of Jews both in the student body and in the teaching staff.
After 1933 the Bauhaus shut down. Many of the staff and students fled abroad. Some stayed in Germany and on occasion collaborated with the Nazis. The position of Gropius (who fled in 1934) and Mies van der Rohe (the last director of the Bauhaus, who stayed in Nazi Germany until fleeing in 1937) was at best ambiguous. László Moholy-Nagy, after a period in England where he collaborated (not too successfully, it has to be said) with Alexander Korda on the film Things to Come (1936), moved to Chicago where he established his own art and design college. It is still operating today.
The Bauhaus teaching staff held a variety of views, some coloured by mysticism and oddball ideas. In the late 1920s there was some leftist influence and there were exchanges between artists and designers at the Bauhaus and those from the Soviet Union. Overall, however, the Bauhaus was motivated by what might be called “designer humanism” and a vague and never clearly articulated sense of, somehow, making the physical world a better place to live in.
The fees meant that the student body was middle-class. The creations of the Bauhaus when they were manufactured were not cheap; if they were available to the working class at all, it was only through housing projects initiated by town councils run by the Social Democrats. Today, the famous Wassily chair can stretch you to a neat £1,000. I once visited someone in London who had a Wassily chair in their living room but I was forbidden to sit in it! Designed for its simple beauty and utility, it had now become an art object to be contemplated and revered.
Yet is is partly because of the influence and ideas of the Bauhaus that we probably think more about our built environment now more than at any time in history. The Bauhaus influence can be seen all over the world. “Glory O…” to the Bauhaus!