Bauhaus. School of Arts and Design // Escuela de Arte y Diseño.

Any mention of the Bauhaus conjures up a sequence of those well-known design objects: a Wagenfeld lamp, a Marianne Brandt teapot, a Marcel Breuer chair. But the Bauhaus was much more than the originator of such now iconic artefacts. It was an idea, a vision of the future, a community of artists and designers whose joie de vivre and dedication made it for a while, until the Nazis killed it, the most celebrated art school in the world.

Marianne Brandt Coffee and tea set, 1924
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin. Photo by Fred Kraus

The concept for the Bauhaus – literally “building house” – came from Walter Gropius, one of the great visionary thinkers of the 20th century and a practising architect himself, from a Berlin dynasty of architects. His famous great uncle Martin Gropius designed the Kunstgewerbe museum, the building now known as Martin Gropius Bau.

The young Gropius’s idea for the Bauhaus emerged from his experience of the first world war in which he served as a cavalry officer on the western front for almost the whole four years. His response to the devastating scenes he lived through was a stark determination to “start again from zero”. Only a new outlook on design and architecture could provide the means for a shattered civilisation literally to rebuild itself.

Vasily Kandinsky Schwarze Form (Black form) 1923

His opportunity came in 1919 when he was appointed master of the school of arts and crafts in Weimar that became the Bauhaus. Gropius’s vision was for the “unification of the arts under the wings of great architecture”. It was a democratic concept of art for the people, art for social betterment in which everyone would share. The Bauhaus aesthetic replaced bourgeois furbelows with a geometry of clarity, sharp angles and straight lines.

The influence of John Ruskin and William Morris, great 19th-century artistic seers, is obvious. But Gropius was too thorough a modernist to put his faith completely in these ancient gods. He was involved as a member or a leader in the myriad small groups of revolutionary artists forming in the European cities of the period. The founding of the Bauhaus took place in the context of a whole movement of European expressionist ardour. The design for the cover of its manifesto, Lyonel Feininger’s jagged cathedral with three spires standing for architecture, arts and crafts, is a masterpiece of expressionist graphic art.

In its early years in Weimar, the character of the school was dominated by the Swiss-born painter Johannes Itten. It was Itten who, as Gropius’s “master of form”, invented the Bauhaus’s most lasting contribution to art education, the Vorkurs, the preliminary training course in basic forms, textures and colours for all students entering the school. It was also Itten, a mystic and follower of the esoteric Mazdaznan faith, who established the Bauhaus reputation for crankiness. Students followed him in shaving their heads, wearing loose robes and taking up the Mazdaznan macrobiotic diet consisting of “uncooked mush smothered in garlic”. In a fascinating essay on cooking at the Bauhaus, in the catalogue of the newBarbican exhibition, Nicholas Fox Weber quotes Gropius’s wife Alma Mahler complaining of all-pervasive “garlic on the breath”.

Gropius’s marriage to the notoriously fickle Mahler exemplifies the social and sexual networking that underpinned the Bauhaus and was indeed part of its success. Alma was married to the already world-famous composer Gustav Mahler, who was 20 years her senior, when she first met Gropius in 1910. Both were taking a rest cure at Tobelbad in Styria. It was a spa romance in which Alma was overwhelmed by the young architect whose saturnine good looks could, she said, have had him cast as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger.

Their torrid on-off love affair destabilised Mahler to such an extent he consulted Freud about the problems in his marriage. Mahler died in 1911. Alongside her equally turbulent affairs with Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and other cultural celebrities, Alma married Gropius in Berlin in 1915. They divorced in 1920. Gropius made use of his enormous range of contacts, including his wife’s lovers, in building up the Bauhaus’s reputation.

Factory A by Josef Albers

Factory A, by Josef Albers (1925-6) Photograph: Tim Nighswander

From the early 1920s there was a change of emphasis. Itten left and the aura of crankiness diminished. “The new unity of art and technology” took over as the Bauhaus became dominated by ideas of standardisation and co-operation with industry. Gropius’s genius as director of the school lay in his ability to recruit a line-up of teachers of extraordinary talent.Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Lázsló Moholy-Nagy: all these were Bauhaus masters. Gropius was also adept at publicising the international scope of Bauhaus design and architecture. Through its publications and its exhibitions the Bauhaus pioneered a truly global language in its use of images and typography.

There was, however, growing opposition to the Bauhaus, with its progressive artistic ideals, as rightwing elements took over in the Weimar state government. Financial support was withdrawn from the school. Gropius made the decision to move the Bauhaus further north, to the industrial estate of Dessau, encouraged by support from the local mayor and by the prospect of links between the school and local industry. Gropius designed a new building for the Bauhaus in Dessau, a radiantly inspiring functional design with a great glass curtain-wall rising high above the city. The interior was fitted by the Bauhaus workshops. The building was immediately hugely influential. It’s one of the real masterworks of international modernist design.

Walter Gropius poses on the roof of the Bauhaus building with other teaching staff in 1926

Walter Gropius (centre, with cigarette) poses on the roof of the Dessau Bauhaus building with other teaching staff in 1926 (detail).

A short walk from the school, on a pleasant woodland site, was Gropius’s own purpose-designed director’s house, alongside three pairs of semi-detached houses for Bauhaus masters. Kandinsky and Klee shared one of these white double cubes; Georg Much and Schlemmer shared another; Moholy-Nagy and Feininger the third.

These were the famous Bauhaus years. According to Klee this was “a community to which each one of us gave what we had”. The communal life was richly experimental in the areas of theatre and creative play. This was “art as life” with a vengeance, as the Barbican exhibition promises to show. There were wonderful parties, with that element of clowning which was central to Gropius’s educational vision. For one fancy dress party Gropius came costumed as his rival modernist Le Corbusier. At the famous Metallic Festival in 1929, Bauhauslers and guests came in metal costumes, jangling, shimmering and glittering, dancing through the night.

The mid-20s saw the evolution in the Bauhaus workshops of such technically sophisticated products as Breuer’s tubular steel Wassily armchair, designs which spoke the unmistakable aesthetic language of the modern world. International visitors arrived in Dessau to admire not just the school itself but Gropius’s plans for the Törten housing estate on the south edge of the city. This estate, consisting of 300 workers’ houses, was his first opportunity for putting into practice his ideas for solving Germany’s acute housing shortage by introducing rationalised building components and standardised methods of construction.

As with all experimental ventures, there were problems. The concept of the Bauhaus workshops as laboratories for industrial production failed to make much headway with large scale German manufacturers. Bauhaus products, far from being art for the people, were still in fact exclusive, handmade products for the wealthy. Gropius had not solved the dilemma that had driven William Morris into revolutionary socialism.

In spite of Gropius’s theoretic championing of sexual equality within the Bauhaus workshops, in practice female students were directed to the weaving class. Although the best of Bauhaus weaving is sublime, there were evident frustrations in a system in which only one exceptionally determined student, Marianne Brandt, entered the product design workshop, producing that whole sequence of tea and coffee services, lamps and metal ashtrays now viewed as archetypal Bauhaus design.

Given time and a more propitious economic climate, such underlying problems might have been resolved. But time was running out. The internationalist tenets of the Bauhaus told against it as German politics became more crudely nationalistic. By 1928 Gropius saw he had exhausted all possibilities in developing the school and returned to Berlin to refocus on his own architectural practice. The architect Hannes Meyer, a communist and formerly professor of architecture at the Bauhaus, became the new director; he was followed two years later by Mies van der Rohe. Political pressure against the school stepped up as the Nazis took control of Dessau city parliament. In 1932 the Bauhaus in Dessau was forced to close.

Mies van der Rohe reopened the school in the Steglitz suburb of Berlin, taking over a disused telephone factory. This phase did not last long. Soon afterwards the Nazis seized control of Germany and Hitler became chancellor. The Bauhaus was marked out as “one of the most obvious refuges of the Jewish-Marxist conception of ‘art'”. In April 1933 police arrived with trucks and closed the school, carting off some of the Bauhaus members. The modernist utopia, or what was left of it, was ended by a regime that viewed the whole spirit of the Bauhaus as degenerate. Gropius and his second wife Ise moved to London in 1934.

An architectural design by Herbert Bayer.

An architectural design by Herbert Bayer.

Gropius was one of many foreign architects, designers and artists taking refuge in London in the 30s. Many of them, unlike Gropius, were Jewish. Others were avant-garde artists who were finding the cultural climate in Germany increasingly hostile to their work. Of the Bauhaus masters Moholy-Nagy and Breuer followed Gropius to England. Gropius and Breuer were found accommodation in Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, one of the few modernist buildings in London at that period, while the constructivist Moholy-Nagy rather improbably lived in Golders Green. The convivial Lawn Road Flats became a social centre for the emigrés, a kind of home-from-home where former Bauhauslers mingled with other Hampstead residents, the artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and leading leftwing intellectuals of the time.

But it was a bitter exile. Life in England was anything but easy for an architect who had once been at the centre of the European avant garde. He was taken into partnership with Maxwell Fry, one of the conditions of his entrée into Britain, but Britain at the time was endemically unsympathetic to the modern. Apart from his still splendidly impressive Impington Village College and some private houses, Gropius found very little work. Schemes for recreating a Bauhaus at Dartington Hall in Devon came to nothing. Attempts to bring Gropius in to restructure design teaching at the Royal College of Art were nervously abandoned. What opportunities we missed.

In 1937 he and Ise left London for the United States. He became director of the department of architecture at Harvard, a post he held for the next 14 years. To some extent he settled into this new environment, becoming a US citizen in 1944. But there were inevitably cruel compromises. In a talk given in London after her husband’s death, Ise Gropius described the special problems encountered in America by an architect-idealist who back in Bauhaus days “had always been his own man in a self-created environment”, operating his own school with hand-picked staff in a building he had himself designed. A Harvard professorship was quite another thing.

In his own architectural practice, The Architects’ Collaborative (known as TAC), Gropius was up against problems of keeping a large office financially viable in a competitive capitalist country. There were some good public buildings, most notably the Graduate Center at Harvard and some beautiful private residences, including Gropius’s own house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. But this was a far cry from his original socialist aspirations for low cost mass-produced community housing. The Pan Am building in Park Avenue now seems more than ever indefensible, and Gropius’s involvement in the London Park Lane building that became the Playboy Club strikes one as a bitterly satiric joke.

The Bauhaus itself had been more or less forgotten by 1968, the year of the last Bauhaus exhibition held in London, at the Royal Academy. It was there I met Gropius, then 85 years old but still a handsome, upright figure, with an aura of glamorous arrogance. You could see why Klee called him “the silver prince”. That exhibition generated a reunion of Bauhauslers, masters and students, as well as a gathering in of Bauhaus objects, scattered since its pre-war closure. At the time it seemed like the exciting rediscovery of a whole lost civilisation.

A set of four stacking tables, designed by Josef Albers

A set of four stacking tables, designed by Josef Albers in 1927.

The visual style of the Bauhaus spoke vividly to people of my 1960s generation, attuned as we were to the hard-edged and the streamlined, the reduction to essentials. The Bauhaus love of simple geometric form mirrored our own desperation to jettison the worn-out design clichés of traditionalist Britain. The first Bauhaus exhibition coincided with the huge expansion of the British art schools and that whole release of anarchic energy. For the students of the time it was surprising to discover that mad clothes and swinging parties were nothing new at all.

That early exhibition was by no means a complete one: in 1968 Germany was divided, with Weimar and Dessau in the eastern block, where attitudes towards the Bauhaus were at best equivocal. Only after German reunification in 1990 did the important Bauhaus art and design collections in Berlin, Weimar and Dessau begin co-operating. What is so exciting about the exhibition at the Barbican is that it draws on all three of them, in depth.

The Bauhaus building in Dessau, badly damaged in the second world war, has been restored immaculately. It is back to being a building full of light and space and hope. Gropius’s own house in the pinewoods, almost totally destroyed, is now being reconstructed and will be opening later in the year. The Bauhaus revival could not be more timely. In a world in which idealism in design and architecture is in short supply, it is good to be reminded of this bold and beautiful experiment in bringing creativity alive.

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“Las escuelas de arte (…) tienen que volver al taller. Este mundo de pintores, dibujantes y artes aplicadas tiene que convertirse en un mundo que construye. (…) Arquitectos, escultores, pintores… ¡Todos tenemos que volver a la artesanía! Porque no existe el arte por profesión“, decían en su manifiesto.

Sólo unos años (de 1919 a 1933) bastaron para que la Bauhaus (en alemán, Casa de la construcción) sobrepasara la función de cualquier centro de enseñanza y se convirtiera en un movimiento, en un referente mundial de la arquitectura, el arte y el diseño, a pesar de los tiempos convulsos que le tocó vivir.

Con la sencillez como norma para la elegancia, crearon desde edificios, pinturas y esculturas hasta muebles, lámparas, vajillas y juegos de ajedrez.  Los objetos que dejaron siguen produciendo admiración y siendo protagonistas de grandes exposiciones, como la que se celebro en el Barbican Centre de Londres.

edificio bauhaus dessau walter gropius

La primera escuela, en la ciudad alemana de Weimar, tenía como miembros fundadores al arquitecto Walter Gropius, al pintor Lyonel Feininger, al escultor Gerhard Marcks, a los pintores Paul Klee y Vassily Kandisky. Oskar Schlemmer —que impartió un revolucionario taller de teatro—, el diseñador y fotógrafo László Moholy-Nagy, el arquitecto y diseñador de muebles Marcel Breuer, el arquitecto Mies van der Rohe… Los creadores que más innovación ofrecieron en sus campos fueron profesores de la Bauhaus.

Al ser un centro de enseñanza público, su permanencia en una ciudad no era estable y cambió tres veces de sede. En 1925 se mudó a Dessau (una ciudad industrial ansiosa por potenciar su oferta cultural) y en 1930 se trasladó a Berlín y cambió de director. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe sólo dirigió la escuela durante tres años: en 1933 el partido nazi ganó las elecciones y una de las primeras medidas que tomó el gobierno tras su llegada al poder fue cerrar la Bauhaus. Tres meses después de que Adolf Hitler fuera nombrado canciller de Alemania, la policía de Berlín clausuró el centro como primer paso para eliminar cualquier rastro de “cosmopolitismo judío” y de arte “decadente y bolchevique”.

Repasamos la historia de la Bauhaus con una selección de personajes que se propusieron reformar la educación artística y crear un nuevo tipo de sociedad.

1. Walter Gropius tenía 36 años cuando se fundó la Bauhaus en Weimar, pero ya era una de las grandes figuras de la arquitectura alemana. La primera muestra de que Gropius se anticipaba a su tiempo fue su primer proyecto, la Fábrica Fagus. El edificio se construyó entre 1911 y 1913 y supuso una innovación por sus grandes ventanales con marcos de acero que dan ligereza a la estructura de ladrillo. El joven arquitecto puso especial mimo en la fachada visible desde el tren que pasaba cerca del edificio.

En la escuela comenzó siendo un director idealista que anteponía los métodos artesanales a la mecanización, creía en los maestros que daban igual importancia a las destrezas técnicas y al desarrollo del carácter del alumno. Diseñador de la sede de Dessau, el centro educativo era su vida y estaba incluso por encima de sus proyectos arquitectónicos: defendió la escuela de los nacionalistas —que sospechaban que era una institución simpatizante del comunismo— y hasta de los artesanos locales de Weimar, que la veían como una amenaza para sus negocios. Los conflictos con la administración pública (que no daba suficiente dinero para material) se juntaron al desencanto del alumnado por la falta de recursos. Algunos profesores también se rebelaron contra Gropius. Tomó decisiones equivocadas en una situación política y social compleja, la falta de dinero y las ideas incendiarias que gestaban el desastre del nazismo eran cada vez más sofocantes.

2. Vassily Kandinsky fue profesor de diseño para principiantes junto con Paul Klee y daba un curso de teoría avanzada. En sus talleres de pintura comenzó a desarrollar sus teorías del color y las formas abstractas, que aplicaba a sus obras en los años veinte, sustituyendo las formas por un lenguaje más subjetivo.

Tenía 56 años cuando comenzó a trabajar para la Bauhaus y su aspecto reservado y distante combinaban a la perfección con su tendencia a teorizar. El conjunto le daba un aire de profesor infalible, que parecía revelar en sus discursos verdades incontestables: los alumnos lo veían poco accesible y excesivamente frío.

Algunos se atrevieron a bromear sobre las enseñanzas de Kandinsky. Un alumno le enseñó el lienzo en blanco: “Maestro. Por fin he conseguido con éxito pintar una pintura absoluta de absolutamente nada”. El artista tomó en serio la propuesta y le preguntó al alumno por qué había escogido el blanco, a lo que contestó que “el plano blanco representa la nada”. “La nada es demasiado. Dios creó el universo de la nada. Así que ahora lo que queremos es crear un pequeño mundo”, contestó Kandinsky. Cogió pinceles y pintura y sobre la superficie vacía hizo una mancha roja, otra azul y otra amarilla. Una sombra verde lateral unificaba los tres colores en una pintura que en cuatro pasos era una síntesis de tonos.

El curso se hizo cada vez más popular y se ofertó hasta que la escuela cerró. Con los análisis de corte científico, muchos estudiantes apreciaron las teorías del color y de la forma y encontraron grandes oportunidades creativas en buscar el equilibrio entre un arte controlado con el intelecto pero emocionalmente expresivo.

3. Oskar Schlemmer era pintor, escultor, diseñador y coreógrafo. En 1923 comenzó a dirigir el taller de teatro de la Bauhaus. La escenografía era una oportunidad ideal para poner en común conocimientos de diferentes disciplinas y además las representaciones eran una oportunidad para la escuela de popularizar sus diseños.

Sus ideas sobre la relación de la figura con el espacio fueron el origen del Triadisches Ballett (Ballet Triádico), su obra más famosa, estrenada en Stuttgart en 1922 y un éxito en el momento. Los personajes iban ataviados como marionetas (que el autor consideraba sumamente expresivas), se convertían en figuras geométricas, danzaban para combinar sus estructuras como en un cuadro abstracto…

Schlemmer veía el mundo moderno guiado por dos corrientes: la mecánica (el cuerpo como máquina) y la de los impulsos primordiales (el espíritu creativo). Su ballet mostraba a personajes que sintetizaban esas dos caras de la existencia humana.

4. Marcel Breuer fue uno de los alumnos de la Bauhaus que se convirtieron después en maestros. Arquitecto y diseñador de muebles, comenzó a estudiar en el taller de ebanistería en 1920 y sus piezas reflejaban el interés de la escuela por las corrientes expresionistas y el arte africano. Comenzó a despuntar por sus diseños de sillas de madera, simples y a la vez de una geometría rompedora. Su mueble más famoso es tal vez la Silla Wassily (bautizada así en honor a Kandinsky), una estructura tubular y curva inspirada en la bicicleta de Breuer. Creada en 1925, era la primera silla de la historia con esas características.

Con la llegada de los nazis, el artista, de origen judío, escapó a Londres y después a los EE UU, donde se convirtió en un arquitecto de éxito.

5. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe fue el segundo y último director de la Bauhaus, un puesto al que Walter Gropius renunció —quemado por las constantes presiones políticas y teóricas— dos años antes de que terminara su contrato.

El recién llegado ya era un afamado arquitecto, admirado por la sencillez de sus líneas y su utilización del acero y el cristal. Recibió una herencia complicada, tenía que restaurar la reputación de la escuela y librarla de las connotaciones políticas de las que la acusaban sus enemigos.

Se vio obligado a adoptar una postura autoritaria para aplacar a los estudiantes más contestatarios con la creciente radicalización de la política en la Alemania de principios de los años treinta. La actitud no lo ayudó a ser popular: muchos veían al nuevo director como el arquitecto de las casas lujosas para ricos que no se interesaba por las viviendas para la clase trabajadora. En la cafetería de la escuela, había reuniones encendidas que amenazaban con convertirse en revueltas e incluso tuvo que ir la policía.

Mies van der Rohe prohibió todo tipo de manifestación política y cargó los programas de teoría, los estudios se estancaron y la producción artística cayó en picado. Los talleres relativos a los muebles, los murales y el metal se fusionaron en Diseño de interiores, todo un símbolo del enfoque esnobista que el director quería darle a la institución.

Aún con el toque formal e inocuo, la Bauhaus tenía un estigma antialemán del que  no se libraba. Los nazis proclamaban que era una amenaza para el paisaje típico de Alemania y que ese cosmopolitismo, que traía estilos de países como EE UU, Holanda y Francia, “contaminaba” las tradiciones. Además, los teóricos del nazismo clasificaban los techos planos (típicos de las creaciones de Mies van der Rohe) como ajenos al clima del norte y típicos de oriente, particularmente de los judíos. El arquitecto intentó salvar la escuela incluso mitigando las diferencias que pudiera haber con el gobierno nazi, no se sabe si por amor a la escuela o por amor propio, pero pronto se dio cuenta de que la emigración era la única salida. La Bauhaus cerró para siempre.

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