PRINT March 1970

The Bauhaus Show in Toronto

FEW PUBLIC ART EXHIBITIONS HAVE offered as varied a bill of fare to as widely dispersed an audience as has the 50 Years Bauhaus jubilaeum.1 Organized and first seen in Stuttgart, West Germany, it then traveled to the capital cities of England, the Netherlands and France, proceeded next to North America for stops at Chicago, Toronto and (the present spring) Pasadena, and will also visit Tokyo and who knows where else before the marathon ends. By including more than 1500 items and through sponsorship by the Federal Republic of Germany, this omnibus exhibition has attracted much publicity and public interest. Indeed, it has been sold to the public as a one-session course in why the modern home and city look the way they do; thus, the casual visitor may be excused for anticipating the spectacle of a trade fair as much as the more placid atmosphere of an art exhibition. Due to its principle of organization, the exhibition does, in fact, reward this expectation. The visitor is confronted first with the educational system embodied in Bauhaus teaching, especially as exemplified by the six-month Preliminary Course required of all students no matter what their previous training. Next one encounters a series of exhibition segments devoted to the various art forms which resulted from or accompanied this pedagogical activity. Apart from the paintings produced by various distinguished masters––this subject never was taught as such at the Bauhaus––one finds sections devoted to such workshops as typography, weaving, furniture, stained glass (later dropped from the curriculum as economically unfeasible), photography, metalwork, and even advertising. As if this range of activities were not inclusive enough to satisfy all basic family needs in a technocratic society, there was added a dis play of children’s toys and a stage with life-size costume dummies from Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet of 1920–22.2 And since, to quote the famous dictum of Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus founder, “Architecture is the final aim of all activity in the plastic arts,”3 the exhibition itinerary culminates in a selection of photographic blowups of Bauhaus-related architectural plans and executed designs and of some models. Alas, the viewer no longer may return home in the elegant 1928 Adler automobile designed by Gropius, but, if the visible intentions of the exhibition organizers have succeeded, he will depart believing that little within his man-made modern environment owes no debt to the theories and practices of Bauhaus artists and architects.

Rather than to challenge the enormously ramifying structure of what sometimes is called the Bauhaus or Gropius myth (i.e. the omnipresent influence of the Bauhaus in all phases of 20th-century life), a task in any case as self-defeating for the fanatic Bauhaus apologist as for his paranoid opposite who smells a Bauhaus conspiracy in every critical mention of the school and every architectural plan based upon straight lines and the right angle, we should achieve more critical results by examining only a single, although a major, aspect of Bauhaus activities: the preponderant role of abstraction in the art of Bauhaus teachers and students. This attempt at first glance would seem obviated by the well-known insistence of Gropius that there was never any program to create a “Bauhaus style”4 and by the later statement of the last Bauhaus director, Mies van der Rohe, that the Bauhaus principally “was an idea.” Was this actually the case? If Bauhaus teaching was as stylistically undirected as is claimed, then where is the wealth of Dada, Surrealist and “School of Paris” influence that one normally might expect to find at a leading art school during the 1920s? Why were abstract artists so obviously favored for teaching positions? The most summary viewing of this exhibition or its catalog suffices to indicate the overwhelming bias in favor of geometricizing abstraction which pervaded the Bauhaus by 1923 at the latest. If the younger men, such as Josef Albers, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Max Bill epitomize this tendency most clearly, the previously more lyrically expressive styles of Kandinsky and Klee also become subject to greater stringency of means and a diagrammatic use of pure line and color during their tenures on the Bauhaus teaching staff. The habitual reference by Bauhaus historians to the earlier styles of these two painters, and their Blaue Reiter colleagues Feininger and Johannes Itten, as “Expressionist”, in fact, serves further to emphasize how strict the definition of abstraction in art had become by the 1920s, if such lyrically abstract prototypes and the more universally geometricizing abstraction prevalent at the Bauhaus after 1923 could be thought of as polar opposites. In short, whether intended or not, not only did the Bauhaus of Weimar and Dessau function historically as a bastion of abstract style within a sea of hostility or indifference, but during the 1930s and 1940s, particularly for the United States in the persons of Albers and Moholy-Nagy, its disbanded members continued to help sustain interest in abstract art until it again would achieve the widespread importance accorded it in the art of the mid-20th century.

The original infusion of abstraction into Bauhaus programs resulted from a confluence of partly fortuitous historical circumstances. World War I had so dispersed the momentum of the Parisian Cubist movement that it was in the neutral Netherlands and revolutionary Russia where fully abstract forms of art first could be explored as the basis of a group, perhaps a national, style. Despite the need for research which clarifies the stylistic interrelationships within the Dutch De Stijl and the so-called Russian Constructivist schools, their combined influence at the Bauhaus scarcely can be doubted. Not only did Kandinsky return to Germany after his Russian stay employing a newly-fashioned, anti-painterly form of abstraction, but the style of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, whose appointment to the Bauhaus teaching staff in 1923 followed that of Kandinsky by only one year, was even more clearly dependent upon Russian Constructivism. The appointment of Moholy-Nagy, in effect, symbolized the receptivity to purely abstract design which by that date widely informed student and staff opinion at the Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy was a known admirer, indeed collaborator, of the De Stijl group, and his art also evidences contact with the Proun concepts of El Lissitsky, then active in Hannover. In fact, Gropius may have chosen Moholy-Nagy as an alternative substitute for Theo van Doesburg, the De Stijl editor, whose educational and propaganda activities at Weimar during the years 1921–22, while resulting in his own disqualification for acceptance on the Bauhaus staff, nonetheless helped assure the appointment of someone who favored pure abstract design to replace the supposedly mystical and expressionist Johannes Itten.5

There is both irony and historical import in the events surrounding the dismissal of Itten. As three major paintings from the years 1915–17 well illustrate, the irony is that Itten already had produced art of an abstract geometric purity which was in advance of what had been created by other artists, including Klee and Kandinsky, then active in the German-speaking cultures of central Europe. It may be true that the development embodied in these paintings progresses away from the starkly abstract Horizontal-Vertical of 1915, to culminate "ultimately in the primitivizing naturalism of the 1922 Portrait of a Girl now at the Zürich Kunsthaus.6 Yet Itten’s well-known charts on teaching from the Bauhaus days indicate how he continued to conceive the elements of pure color, line and form as the essential basis for art, whatever the style or medium chosen. Apparently deriving to some extent from the theories of Adolf Hölzel, Itten’s own teacher at the Stuttgart Academy, this stress upon an abstract basis for design was at the core of the Preliminary Course training from a date anterior to the supposed crisis over abstraction caused by van Doesburg’s presence in Weimar circa 1922. That Men’s pedagogical approach, in this respect at least, outlasted his own departure is amply evidenced by the exhibition segments devoted to the teaching of his successors as well as in the similar emphasis placed upon abstract design elements in Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook and Kandinsky’s From Point and Line to Plane.

But Itten’s early work should be studied in its own right as something more than the interesting stylistic aberration it is generally thought to be. Whether or not a work of consummate quality or profound influence, the Horizontal-Vertical, for example, does predict many aspects within the future evolution of abstract painting in this century. Its originality lies in the artist’s undivided intention systematically to explore the various properties of color: hue, value, saturation and extension (area). Just to right of center one finds a six-tiered scale of the three primary hues and their complementaries arranged in terms of the prismatic spectrum. Throughout the remainder of the canvas, but less systematically ordered, one discovers a wide variety of tones, shades and intensities of these same basic hues. Presumably the chromatic variations and also a visible progression of planes in depth leading to the prismatic core at the furthest point of spatial recession represent a subjective artistic contribution upon the necessity for which Itten also insists. Like his frequently illustrated color sphere from Utopia of 1921,7 with its twelve subdivisions of hues and opposing poles of black and white, this painting conceptually is dependent upon the early 19th-century color theories of Philipp Otto Runge and presumes a knowledge of the theories of Goethe and Chevreul as well. The possibility that Itten was sympathetic to the “mystical” associations which color had for German Romanticism notwithstanding, it is presented here as a primary phenomenon, a thing “an und für sich.” It does not function as an attribute of an object from nature, nor even of such cosmic images as the suns, moons and mountain outlines which provide a residual landscape symbolism to the Orphic Cubism of Robert Delaunay and the work of Blaue Reiter artists. Although the stylistic influence of both these latter sources is clearly apparent in the Country Festival of 1917, this need not imply that, like his models, Itten abstracted pure forms from nature rather than began with the pure forms and colors and then constructed a painting with representational subject matter.

Whatever importance one attaches to the influence of Itten, his early emphasis upon the perceptual data of abstract form and color anticipates a major factor within the subsequent history of abstract art in this century. Whereas for Mondrian and Malevich at least, the elements of pure form and color were thought to contain the distilled essence of an exalted world-view, for a younger generation they could be treated merely as the given materials from which a pictorial image was created. Indeed, as the existential raison d’être which justifies creating works of plastic art in the first place. What for the first generation of abstract painters, including Kandinsky as represented in his 1912 Concerning the Spiritual in Art, was a metaphysical quest, becomes for the generation of Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers an epistemological exercise. Thus, while Mondrian would describe the after-image effect of “popping” created by the crossing of black lines on a white ground as an unavoidable by-product of his compositional methods, for Albers the optical principle of the after-image along with those of irradiation and various perspective inversions, would provide the very pretext for a lifelong career of research and creativity. Unfortunately, the lack of concern in the present exhibition for historical analysis was no more apparent than in the predominance of quite recent works by Albers, Max Bill and even Itten over those from the actual Bauhaus days and the intervening years (although Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky were represented almost exclusively by works from the 1920s). A better apportioned survey of the development of each of these artists surely would have helped clarify both the debt which present day modes of abstraction, such as so-called “optical” painting, owes to the Bauhaus tradition, and also the differences of approach between the two which must exist. Ironically, the imbalance in favor of recent work by these artists compromises the very claim which Bauhaus apologists otherwise so insistently pursue: that, whereas other, rival, art movements, such as the Dutch De Stijl and Russian Constructivism, did not survive their heyday in the 1920s, the Bauhaus has survived even suppression by Hitler and is alive and well again, especially in the campuses, architectural offices and art galleries of the United States.

Certainly it is the epistemological or perceptual, rather than the earlier metaphysical conception of abstract art which has dominated critical analysis since the 1920s. For this fact we have largely the Bauhaus to thank and particularly its character as an educational institution. It was an extraordinary feat that artists of the rank and maturity of Klee, Kandinsky and Feininger could work in harmony and produce a mutually reinforcing educational program despite the obvious differences in personal style. Neither did the crises relating to Itten and van Doesburg prevent Moholy-Nagy from publishing the latter’s theories along with those of Mondrian and Malevich among the series of Bauhausbücher. A feature of this series is that one can read most of these texts as making common cause for a form of abstraction in art which is belied in the diversities of style and background of the artist-authors. Perhaps partly through a wish to support each other’s efforts, but also, the present writer senses, because of a common attempt to formulate a didactic method, these publications preserve little overt mention of the esoteric world-views and stress on religious values which actually had played an important role in the founding stages of the abstract movement. Kandinsky’s From Point and Line to Plane scarcely hints at his previous interest in Theosophy, and, while his reduction there of color to the three primaries and of form to three geometric shapes ultimately probably shares a trinitarian symbolic association with comparable elements in the theories of Itten and Mondrian, his argument is presented in the soberly analytic terms of a scientific textbook. The same didactic approach characterizes Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, which is more a practical primer in the expressive potential of various lines, shapes and colors than a philosophic treatise on the nature of abstract art. The latter approach is, in fact, also taken by Mondrian, van Doesburg and Malevich in their Bauhausbücher but here too the emphasis is upon the self-sufficiency of abstract plastic means with little reference to the abstruse philosophic background in which the theories first were formulated.

No wonder, then, that the younger generation reading these texts would come to see abstraction largely in perceptual terms, as an autonomous stylistic jargon, an artistic Esperanto with no roots in the traditions of Western art and culture. Such readers could no more be expected to understand Mondrian’s objection when the younger van Doesburg introduced the diagonal line in his Elementarist works than apparently could some of Kandinsky’s students share their teacher’s objections to a certain combination of black and white.8 Both objections doubtless resulted from a philosophic conviction which was alien to the empiricist and relativist generation which grew to maturity following the faith-shattering experience of World War I. Yet, since the younger generation at the Bauhaus accepted the anti-naturalistic style and the general formal means advocated in print and the classroom by their mentors, one cannot conclude that a profound antagonism between the two approaches to the use of abstraction in art, which is frequently summed up in the polarity Conceptual vs. Perceptual, truly existed at the Bauhaus. As we have seen, the “mystical” Men was the first Bauhaus teacher to make perceptual visual data the fundamental concern in a work of art. The many perspective witticisms intruding into the work of Klee while at the Bauhaus and his exploitation of the properties of color, as in Evening Farewell: Diametrical Gradation in Blue-Violet and Yellow-Orange, also provide a prototype for the experiments of someone like Albers. Nevertheless, the newer perceptual approach would be the one preserved and carried forward into the art of the post-World War II period by Bauhaus students and admirers, thanks significantly to the influence they have had on educational theory and practice in recent years. If all important art is based upon a creative misunderstanding of its antecedents, the educative process founded at the Bauhaus already has had an effect far in excess of the results encompassed in the present exhibition.

A second tradition of interpreting abstraction in art to which the Bauhaus contributed, albeit in large part inadvertently, is the frequent identification between abstraction and Marxist socialism. The basic cause of this, of course, is the early acceptance of abstract art in Communist Russia. After the official reaction had produced a diaspora of abstract artists, of which Germany was the chief beneficiary, however, the Bauhaus quickly became associated with left-leaning political ideology in the minds of the public and of the conservative or reactionary regimes which continuously harassed its directors. Doubtless many Bauhaus students, some faulty and one director, Hannes Meyer, were sympathetic to socialism. Yet, unless one views practices such as the inclusion of students on curriculum councils and the blurring of any distinction between the fine and the applied arts as socialist, rather than merely as democratic, there is little about Bauhaus activity that strikes a specific political stance. In truth, the Bauhaus cooperated with the capitalist system in providing designs for industrial products and the posters to advertise them. As a state-supported institution and because of familiarity with the Russian experience, the Bauhaus staff had every reason to fear disruption from the revolutionary left as much as from the reactionary right. But since it was the National Socialist government which forced the final closing of the Berlin Bauhaus in 1933, unwittingly many persons have accepted the naïve association of the Bauhaus and abstract design with leftist political persuasions.9

The third major area in which the Bauhaus has influenced our thinking about abstract design is summed up in Gropius’ famous dictum, “Art and Technology, a new unity.” Consistent with both the original Bauhaus exhibition of 1923 in Weimar and the Gropius inspired 1938 Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the current exhibition presents this theme as the connecting link among its various compartments. Here there can be no doubt about the seriousness of Bauhaus conviction. Gropius’ pre-World War I Fagus Factory and Cologne Werkbund Exhibition Building genuinely predict his slogan of the early Bauhaus days, although only with the Dessau Bauhaus and subsequent structures at the nearby Törten Estate would he realize his plans for an architecture appropriate to the “modern machine age.” These last-named residences in particular, with their introduction of standardized parts, search for economy of means and stress upon the utility of function seem to epitomize the ideals which were held highest at the Bauhaus and are comprised in the term Functionalism. Although it is not this writer’s intention to review the endless debate about which architects, buildings or theories most contributed to the birth of Functionalist attitudes, the relation of this term with abstract forms of design is an historical phenomenon in need of closer definition.

That technological innovation was a principal goal of Bauhaus teaching cannot be gainsaid. In the photographic experiments of Moholy-Nagy and the tubular steel chairs of Marcel Breuer we have examples of a general Bauhaus penchant for invention which today is thought to be the very hallmark of the German mentality and which doubtless facilitated the ready assimilation of Bauhaus teachers and their methods in the land of Charles Edison. Apart from its debts to the arts and crafts movement of William Morris, facilitated as this connection was by the pre-existence in Weimar of the Arts and Crafts School directed by Henri van de Velde, the Bauhaus rightly is considered the initiator of a new era in art education based upon an acceptance of machine production to complement or replace production by handicrafts. The teaching of typography, photography, advertising design and graphics, but not painting, indicates a decision in favor of art forms susceptible to mass production of a sort. And, although instituted at too late a date to achieve many concrete results during the 1920s, architectural instruction according to Bauhaus traditions consistently had accented the twin goals of efficiently mass-produced parts and utilitarianism in function.

However real and consequential such Bauhaus achievements, an historical reexamination of the term Functionalism and the stylistic presuppositions for a wedding of Art and Technology is now due. For example, it is particularly distressing to find in the exhibition catalog and in other works by Bauhaus historians a characterization of De Stijl artists, including the paintings of Mondrian and van Doesburg, as Constructivist.10 Neither Constructivist nor Functionalist thinking is traceable in the Bauhaus publications of either artist. No matter how important in terms of clean, unadorned design was De Stijl for the development of International Style architecture, not excepting the Dessau Bauhaus, the work of Robert van’t Hoff, J.J.P. Oud and even the Schröder House by Gerrit Rietveld contributed little in terms of structural innovation or the use of mass-produced, standardized parts. Both Rietveld and van Doesburg, the stylistically purest among De Stijl architects, originally lacked the technical training necessary to make major contributions in terms of engineering. Thus occurs the further irony that Bauhaus historians, otherwise so loath to acknowledge debts to the Dutch abstract group, nonetheless credit them where it is least due, in the realm of technology rather than correctly in that of esthetic sensibility.

However dubious theoretically, the Bauhaus appropriation of abstraction as the style of the modern technological world is of profound symbolic significance. It added a new iconographic dimension to the history of abstract art. No longer could culturally aware people consider a Rococo tea service or Persian carpet as practical household objects, despite the fact that they may have proven quite durable and useful in the past. The “clean lines” of furniture by Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and, retrospectively, Rietveld would quickly become ideograms of modern efficient design, regardless of how costly and difficult to utilize intelligently they sometimes are. And despite the fact that machines are capable of producing rounded or ornate and rectilinear patterns with equal efficiency (factors such as materials, labor, marketing and transport usually proving more relevant to cost than does design), acceptance of the Bauhaus vocabulary of symbolic form for a whole generation of progressive critics relegated all historical styles, especially 19th-century machine imitation of earlier periods, to one great waste-bin of useless luxury. This was once more the message which the present Bauhaus exhibition strove to render convincing, and it seems probable that the average visitor leaves a convert.

Hence our conclusion’ that one of the most fundamental consequences of Bauhaus activity is the altered symbolic associations of abstract art which it helped to inculcate in the public mind. Today everyone recognizes a chair, lamp or tea-kettle as modern only if it embodies the diagrammatic economy of outline which is also recognized as the basic, though not invariably loved, insignia of “modern art.” As in Le Corbusier’s effective capsule phrase, “The house is a machine to live in,” the mundane, secularized function of art is stressed to the exclusion of those philosophic and religious values which informed the inaugural phase of abstraction in the work of Mondrian and Kandinsky. Although a reading of the early treatises of these and certain other early abstract artists still prompts a number of critics and practicing artists to speak vaguely of “abstraction” and “spirituality” in one breath, clearly such mid-century phenomena as “Op Art” and the widespread dominance of formalist criticism in the art magazines have their roots instead in Bauhaus practice and art theory. Despite the constant disclaimers by Bauhaus historians that “the Bauhaus had no style,” one can recapitulate the theme of the present exhibition as: “Art and Technology, a new unity in abstraction.” For better or for worse, they have only themselves to blame.

Robert Welsh



1. Catalog, by Ludwig Grote, Hans. M. Wingler et al, 364 pages, approximately 1500 illus.

2. Incidentally, the visually most striking display in the exhibition.

3. Catalog, p. 13, where the original German, “Das Endziel aller bildnerischen Tätigkeit ist der Bau!” is badly translated as, “The complete building is the final aim of the visual arts.”

4. Catalog, p. 14.

5. The documentary evidence relating to van Doesburg’s stay in Weimar and relationship to Gropius are reviewed by Leering in the important catalog, Theo van Doesburg, Eindhoven, Stedelijk-van Abbe Museum, 1968.

6. Color ill. No. 19, p. 55 in Eberhard Roters, Painters of the Bauhaus, London, A. Zwemmer, 1969.

7. Catalog, p. 41.

8. Both the vertical-horizontal and black-white polarities being deeply imbedded in a Romantic philosophical dualism.

9. Also, of course, because of the wide acceptance, among New York critical circles beginning in the 1930s (see Meyer Schapiro, “On the Nature of Abstract Art,” Marxist Quarterly I:Jan.–Mar., 1937) of an equation between the Marxian historical dialectic and the evolution of 20th-century painting through Cubism to Abstraction.

10. e.g. Catalog, pp. 18–20 (L. Grote).