Bauhaus Teil I

A photo in the entrance hall of the Weimar Bauhaus museum captures some of the school’s spirit

I am writing this post from Germany, where I am currently conducting research at the new Bauhaus museums that opened last year in Weimar, where the Bauhaus was established in 1919 by Walter Gropius, and in Dessau, where it moved in 1925. Both museums were opened last year to celebrate the Bauhaus’ 100th anniversary. (While I am here I am also spending some time with my parents; as I wrote in one of my first posts, I grew up in a small town close to Weimar in former East Germany. Since my parents still live there I have had many occasions to visit and see the changes that have happened since 1989, some good, some not so good – most recently Thueringen, the state where Weimar is located, made worldwide headlines when a premier was elected with the help of the far-right AFD party, in the process breaching one of Germany’s political taboos. Comparisons to pictures of Hitler and Bismarck show the worrying historical parallels).

Having been interested in the Bauhaus and in the role of design for development for a while, I always felt that there might be some kind of a connection, also to creative teaching, and this visit is definitely confirming this. The Bauhaus was a fascinating educational experiment with many parallels to today and I am trying to figure out what we might learn from it about creativity, education and the search for alternatives. The information below come from museum displays and a number of informative books about the Bauhaus (Whitford 1984, Forgasc 1991, Dorste 2019); there are also fascinating novels and films in English and German).

The outside of the museum, in modernist style and adjacent to one of Weimar’s more classical buildings

The new museum in Weimar is pretty stunning. It is housed in new building by the German architect Heike Hanada, occupying a square with significant historical interconnections. Throughout its history, Weimar has been home to a great number of progressive artists and thinkers (such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johan Sebastian Bach, Rudolf Steiner and Friedrich Nietzche). However, one can also see the Glockenturm of the former Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald from one of the museum’s windows. The Bauhaus itself was founded during a time of great social, political and economic upheaval. After WWI, decommissioned German soldiers and sailors returned, many of them deeply scared but also harbouring visions of a different, alternative future. The November 1918 revolution that overthrew the monarchy led to radical left groups, inspired by the Russian revolution, battled with reactionary vigilante groups in the streets of Berlin and other mayor cities. That is one of the reasons why Weimar, a quieter and at the time progressive town, was chosen as the birthplace of Germany’s first democracy, leading to the Weimar Republic. Ongoing conflicts led to hyperinflation, worsened by the 1929 Great Depression and ultimately the rise of Hitler. The increasing polarisation between left and right and the violence that comes with it, the rise of populist rhetoric and leaders and the corresponding rejection of foreign ideas and people have strong resonances to today.

The Bauhaus opened in 1919 through the merging of two already existing schools of Fine Arts and the Art and Crafts. Gropius named it Bauhaus in a modern take on the medieval guilds of craftspeople called Bauhuetten, and the school was marked by a the clash of old and new, tradition and radicalism, from the beginning. At its heart was a utopian vision of the role of education in creating a new society, in which art, design and technology would play central roles. To get things going, Gropius wrote the Bauhaus Manifesto, in which, according to the museum, he developed a vision of ‘a promising future . . . one that invited young people to become part of a community that was unafraid to address the urgent challenges of the time.’ The Manifesto was sent around the world to attract students, who came in the hundreds to join this radical experiment. They were taught by the most avantgarde artists of the time: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, George Muche and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The latter’s motto, that ‘every person is gifted,’ echoes the ideas of everyday creativity I wrote about in previous post. In addition, they had to pass a rigorous Vorkurs initially taught by Johannes Itten, who incorporated bodily and sensorial exercises to awaken the students’ holistic experiences of colours, shapes and materials. This course is the predecessor of today’s foundation courses that often reshape how art and design students perceive the world.

Amongst much material hardship, Bauhaus students also experimented with new form of communal living, including growing their own food and a community canteen, living together in communal quarters and celebrating student life (the Bauhaus parties were famous and ultimately pushed Weimar’s deeply conservative burghers, who saw the Bauhaus as alien, un-German and Bolshevik, over the edge). Early on, they formed a cooperative and started plans to build their own Bauhaus settlement. Even though the settlement did not materialise for financial reasons, the questions the students asked – how should we dwell and how should we live together in new ways – are as if not more relevant today. The Bauhaus was therefore a living academic and social experiment, aiming to awaken students’ free creativity and collective efforts to build a better future. Most students embraced the Bauhaus ideals, enthusiastically participating in creating a utopian community after the ravages of war that many of them had experienced.

One of the inner halls of the museum, with the famous Bauhaus cradle in the front

Here are some student quotes I have found in a good book by Boris Friedwald that attest to students’ awareness of being part of a history-making educational experiment:

  • we do not want to become artists, but human beings, and intensify our looking, experiencing and sensing’ (Gunta Stoelzl)
  • for me the value is not in what is taught but in how it is taught, that one first trains and educates people who think and act for themselves before one conveys the necessary knowledge to them’ (Vera Meyer-Waldeck)
  • most people come with the genuinely serious intention of entering a community which differs fundamentally from the contradictory world around them, where they can develop new points of view for the systematic creation of a new society’ (Albert Mentzel)

Although the Bauhaus was an art and design school, with artistic creativity at its heart, I do believe that in it social aims and the ways in which it was trying to realize these aims in times of great challenges it can provide ideas and inspiration for creative teaching today. There is still a Bauhaus University in Weimar, in the building where the original teaching took place and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was going to visit its Open Day, but that was unfortunately postponed because of the corona virus. So now I am off to visit the model house that was built for the 1923 exhibit.

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