December 22, 2009

The Bauhaus

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, A XI, 1923, oil on canvas, 52 x 45

Between the world wars, there was a grand experiment in art making and teaching in Germany: the Bauhaus, established to bring a new unity to the many facets of art and design. Artists were encouraged to move from one medium to another, using modernist ideas of design: clarity, and simple form that was highly functional rather than decorative. The Museum of Modern Art has mounted a fantastic show, a generous overview of many stunning objects––some of which are very familiar, such as the Breuer chairs––produced at the school; they've titled the show Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity. (the website is chock full of images, if you'd like to see more.)

A strong feeling I had while walking through the show was amazement at the powerful utopian vision that drove the school, a belief that art should be a part of everyday life through good design. Painting, generally seen as a "high art" didn't have a workshop devoted to it till 1927, called "Free Painting". So, artists such as Moholy-Nagy didn't confine themselves to painting; I was actually surprised to see the beautiful Moholy-Nagy paintings, masterworks of balanced design and subtle color harmonies, having thought of him as a photographer.

Josef Albers, Grid Picture in Green, 1921, glass, iron and copper wire, 13 x 12 inches

There was a workshop at the Bauhaus called "glass painting", and Albers became its technical master during the years 1923-25. The glass pieces of Albers in this show pointed to his later intense involvement with color and color theory in his painting. It was a delight to see glass used in such a straightforward abstract manner, so that we can respond to color and light without the complication of narrative.

Marcel Breuer, Glass-fronted Cabinet, 1926, 78 x 66 x 20 inches

Breuer, most famous for his chairs, designed this cabinet that seems to be an abstract painting in three dimensions. The large colored shapes, intersected by the lines of cabinet and shelves, remind me of a Mondrian painting.

Artist Unknown, Wall Hanging, late 1920s, hand woven wool, cotton, and cellophane threads, 27 x 42 inches

Anni Albers, Wall Hanging, 1925, silk, cotton and acetate, 57 x 36 inches

The weaving workshop at the Bauhaus showed the way to modern tapestry design; everything produced there seems vividly modern, with lively geometries inventively created from simple shapes.

Hajo, Design for a fabric print pattern made from typewriter type, 11 x 5 inches

Heinrich Bormann, Designs for wallpaper, 1931, each design 3 x 2 3/16 inches

One of the biggest treats for me in this show was seeing the designs for mass production, from the workshop called "Interior Furnishings". There were swatches of beautiful upholstery fabrics, but what really caught my eye were the fabric designs using typewriter type and the wallpaper designs from rubbings of textured paper. wow. This is using the ordinary, and generally overlooked, to make extraordinary things.

photograph by Erich Consemuller, artist of sculpture unknown, Exercise for Preliminary Course taught by Josef Albers, c. 1929

Seeing this photo brought back my early art class experiences, when we all had to take basic design––2 dimensional and 3 dimensional––and a color theory class before being allowed to take any other art course. These classes were modeled on the Bauhaus Preliminary Course, which had tremendous influence in art pedagogy for many years. During the time I taught at San Jose State University, from 1991-94, the basic design courses were being phased out, and the color course became an elective. I wonder if art schools are still requiring these basic design courses; even if they are not, the powerful example of the Bauhaus, which produced such strong and varied work, continues to inspire.


  1. What are they teaching freshman art students these days, if not design? I had a number of those 2D and color classes, all of which were very useful. One of my best was as a freshman at MICA. We each picked a common object, and worked with it all year, looking at it in different design and content contexts. I still have those multiple interpretations of a hard-boiled egg cutter.

  2. I think some art students resent having to take design and want to go straight into drawing classes, feeling they can get their design info that way. For instance, I just looked up the curriculum of my alma mater, Brooklyn College, and find that they now have a one semester course called Basic Design, Drawing and Color (all rolled into one). Interestingly, they still have a 3 dimensional design requirement.

  3. Hey, Altoon. Remember Hal and me from San Jose. We were just there this past weekend visiting with our daughter who was born there. I kept thinking I should see you there. Just tripped over your blog as I was doing research for a lesson on quilts, color study and Quilters of Gees Bend for my very urban middle school students. Thanks for the Ani Albers. She offers a good image for comparison. Kim Dickinson