T his year, the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of the most influential art and design school in history. The Bauhaus – founded in the German town of Weimar in aftermath of the First World War – lasted just 14 years, but in that time it offered an entirely new way of looking at the designed world, one that celebrated modern ideals of efficiency, industry and the purity of raw materials.
Prussian architect Walter Gropius founded the school in 1919 by merging two existing institutions: the Academy of Fine Arts and a more recently established School of Applied Arts. From the beginning, the Bauhaus was defined by bringing together what was formerly separate. It encouraged collaboration and shattered distinctions between fine art and craft, combining disciplines like furniture-making with architecture, poster design and urban planning.
The First World War had not only wreaked destruction across Europe, it had also ushered in a new age of mechanisation and industrial efficiency. The appropriate cultural response to the horrors of the war had to consider both of these facts equally. So, when it was established in 1919, the Bauhaus created entirely new “principles of living”, says Angelika Nollert, Josef Straßer and Xenia Riemann-Tyroller, the curatorial team behind Reflex Bauhaus. 40 Objects – 5 Conversations, which opened at Die Neue Sammlung in Munich on 1 January. Bauhaus designers wanted to create functional products for the real world. They used materials like glass, wood and metal to create clean geometric shapes that could be easily replicated and mass-produced.
Painters such as Lyonel Feininger, who was Gropius’s first faculty appointment at the Bauhaus and became the head of its printmaking workshop, applied the gestural marks of German Expressionism to the more orderly aesthetic principles of the the school. Feininger often used subdued colours and angular, geometric shapes in his work. His 1915 painting Brücke II (Bridge II), which is included in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 26 February, reveals how the ideas of the Bauhaus began to emerge – four years before the school was founded.
Dating from 1921, László Moholy-Nagy’s Segments was painted two years before Walter Gropius invited the artist to join Bauhaus, and anticipates the ideas that he would go on to teach at the school. The painting’s geometric forms are similar to the work abstract photograms he became famous for at the while at the academy, exposing light-sensitive paper with objects laid upon it.
Oskar Schlemmer’s Tischgesellschaft (Group at Table), which dates from 1923 and also features in the upcoming sale, shows how the geometric principles of Bauhaus could equally be applied to figurative works depicting the human form. Schlemmer was a choreographer as well as an artist, and painted this shortly after creating Das Triadische Ballett (The Triadic Ballet) with composer Paul Hindemith, which premiered in Stuttgart in September 1922. His attention to the physical body in space – a key tenet of Bauhaus design – is carefully rendered through the combination of sharp lines and round figures.
Painted in 1928 while he taught at the Bauhaus, Wassily Kandinsky’s Vertiefte Regung (Deepened Impulse) is typical of the artist’s fascination with circles. His obsession with the shape was not only aesthetic; he once stated that the circle “points most clearly to the fourth dimension”, and in this work the black background and brightly coloured, overlapping forms recall diagrams of outer space.
The Bauhaus was forced to close its doors in 1933 by the Nazis, but almost immediately its influence began to pop up in design across Europe. “After 1933, about 30 Bauhäusler [members of the Bauhaus group] came to the Netherlands,” says Mienke Simon Thomas, curator of The Netherlands – Bauhaus: Pioneers of a New World at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
It would be wrong to try to pin the Bauhaus down to one particular aesthetic idea. “The Bauhaus itself changed every year during its 14 years of existence,” Thomas says. More than a set of aesthetics or a series of principles, the Bauhaus was a community of people. It replaced the traditional teacher-pupil model of education with one based on mutual learning, a non-hierarchical group of artists all working together. “[It was] the network that was instrumental in giving new ideas and new designs,” Thomas says. “[This is] how cultural developments work in practice: through people who meet people.”