'Bauhaus Beginnings' at the Getty Research Institute

Artists teaching design from first principles.

by Michael Webb
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Jun 4 2019, 5:27pm

The Bauhaus was founded a hundred years ago, and its holistic educational program reshaped architecture and design around the world. Perceptions of the institution and its achievement are constantly expanding. What was, in its turbulent 14 years of activity, an anarchic ferment of conflicting ideas has been sanctified and simplified as the cradle of progressive design.

The tubular metal chairs of Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe, the weavings of Anni Albers, and the silverware of Marianne Brandt are familiar icons of modernism. But what of the mystical teacher Johannes Itten and the Marxist Hannes Meyer, who succeeded Walter Gropius as director of the Bauhaus in 1928 and fled to Moscow when the Nazis shuttered the school in 1933? Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky need no introduction, but what were the students doing when they weren’t reveling at costume parties, agitating, and shocking the bourgeoisie?

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Herbert Bayer: Postcard for 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition. (c) Artists Rights Society/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Getty Research Institute.

Bauhaus Beginnings, an exhibition at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, explores the interaction of masters and students, and the emphasis on the fundamentals of color, form, and materials in the preliminary course. Curators Maristella Casciato and Gary Fox found nearly all the 250 objects in the GRI archives, and they illustrate Gropius’s mission to erode the boundaries between crafts, fine arts, and architecture. He dreamed of creating total works of art, as with the medieval cathedrals, and infusing everyday objects with a sense of wonder.

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Entrance Hall of Sommerfeld House, Berlin: a collaborative venture by Bauhaus masters and students. Getty Research Institute.

He had established his reputation as a modernist before 1914, but amid the revolutionary chaos of post-war Germany, he sought a spiritual re-awakening. The man who would become the personification of rationalism when the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 embraced expressionism in the early years of the school. Lyonel Feininger illustrated Gropius’s manifesto with a woodcut of a Gothic cathedral, a star radiating light from its spire.

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Johannes Itten: Color Sphere. Getty Research Institute.

Though all the shifts in leadership and faculty, philosophy and politics, the Bauhaus’s preliminary course remained a constant. Books and previous exhibitions have focused more on products than process, celebrating the workshops of metalworking, cabinetmaking, weaving, photography and typography. As the emphasis shifted from hand-craftsmanship to machine production after the move to Dessau, weaving became a major source of revenue for the school as the designs of Albers and Gunta Stölzl were licensed to manufacturers.

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Lyonel Feininger: Villa on the Shore, woodcut. (c) Artists Rights Society/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Getty Research Institute.

Bauhaus Beginnings includes images of two early architectural projects—the Sommerfeld House in Berlin and the Haus am Horn in Weimar. Adolf Sommerfeld was a timber merchant, and his house looks back to the arts and crafts movement, combining geometric carving with stained glass windows. Oskar Schlemmer explored the interplay of man and machine in his Triadic Ballet (a reconstruction of which is screened at the GRI), and that may have inspired a student to stage a musical light show.

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Lena Bergner: "Penetration", a study for Paul Klee's course. Getty Research Institute.

But mostly the exhibition comprises works on paper created by students responding to the masters’ practical exercises in juxtaposing colors, constructing models from paper, and taking a line for a walk (as Klee described his own work). Some of their exercises—woodcuts, schematic and freehand drawings, designs for woven fabrics and carpets—could be mistaken for work by the masters. The level of proficiency is remarkable, and it’s extraordinary to find these notebooks and journals preserved in pristine condition. And it’s deeply moving to see the student work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who went on to teach drawing to children in the Terezín concentration camp before she was murdered in Auschwitz. An early painting evokes Marc Chagall, and a paper collage in shades of gray and silver is a triumph of abstraction.

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Oskar Schlemmer: Ambulant Architecture, the Marionette. Getty Research Institute.

Several of the students stayed on to become masters, most notably Breuer and the Albers. The Bauhaus began and ended with the Weimar Republic, and it represents an interlude of enlightenment between the brutality of war and the Nazi persecution. The exodus of Jews and progressives left a gaping hole in the cultural life of Germany while enriching the arts education of America. Gropius transformed the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, Josef and Anni Albers taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; and, in Chicago, Mies enlarged his practice and László Moholy-Nagy headed the New Bauhaus.

To complement its exhibition, the GRI has developed an online study course, “Bauhaus: Building the New Artist,” which offers interactive activities modeled on exercises developed by the school’s instructors. They allow you to imagine yourself as a student experiencing a radical departure from conventional teaching. And, for total immersion, you could take your laptop to Dessau, where frugal studios in the Bauhaus building can be rented for as little as $45 a night. The school is back in operation; the Masters’ houses have been restored; and a new Bauhaus museum will soon open in Dessau, joining the one in Weimar, and the archives in Berlin. Harvard has just published an exemplary new biography of Gropius by Fiona MacCarthy. Far from being a historical memory, the Bauhaus is enjoying a second coming.

Bauhaus Beginnings runs June 11-October 13. Information on this and the online course at Getty.edu.