Karel Teige’s “Ten Years of the Bauhaus” (1929-1930)

Translated from the Czech by Irena Žantovská Murray.

From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,

1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •

It is already twenty semesters, or ten academic years, since the Bauhaus school for modern design began its activities.  This represents an anniversary of sorts, for this advanced architectural and industrial school of art — a new type of school that underwent a rather dramatic and very instructive development in the ten years of its existence — has experienced many changes, redefining and reforming its own program for work and pedagogy.  The Bauhaus has evolved into one of the most important centers of the international modern movement and has quickly become an institution whose work is closely followed in all of Europe and America.  Ten years — not a long period but rather an insignificant fragment of history — does not seem to be a sufficient pretext for an anniversary, and yet these ten years of activity represent an entire era in modern architecture and design.  Ten years of the Bauhaus that, in essence, is the history of the modern movement in Central Europe.

The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 in Weimar by Walter Gropius.  The new school originated as a merger of the Academy of Fine Arts and the School of Applied Arts, both of which were schools where van de Velde had taught years before.  It is as if the ghost of van de Velde were still present.  In its initial activities the Bauhaus could not free itself from formalism and decorativism and was hindered by a modern form of Jugendstil.  As its name indicates, the Bauhaus was supposed to be a new type of architectural school, a school of architecture in the broadest sense, an institute of modern constructional design; nevertheless, in its early years it remained merely a modern version of a school of applied arts.  At the time when the Bauhaus was founded, the cultural and ideological situation of Europe was more chaotic than at any other time in our era: a general uncertainty and unrest prevailed, caused by the series of economic and social upheavals that were sweeping through a war-weary Europe.  In the domain of art it was the moment of expressionism’s demise, of the emergence of the first proposals of the Suprematists and the Constructivists in the Soviet Union and those of the neoplasticists from the De Stijl group in Holland.  The Bauhaus became a kind of crossroads for these tendencies.

In his new school Walter Gropius succeeded in engaging an Outstanding and truly representative teaching team, composed of the most important artists of the time.  Names such as [Paul] Klee, [Wassily] Kandinsky, [Lyonel] Feininger, Georg Muche, O[skar] [633] Schlemmer, [Lothar] Schreyer, Johannes Itten, and [László] Moholy-Nagy represented an elite of contemporary German painting.  The Bauhaus architectural school was led by Gropius himself, together with his collaborator Adolf Meyer.  Adolf Meyer died in the fall of 1929; until recently, he had been active in Frankfurt.

In the beginning, the Bauhaus was viciously attacked by reactionary critics.  Yet, the work itself and the names of its teachers helped to gain early and visible success and almost universal recognition.  Perhaps by its very ease, this early victory prepared the ground for the later problems of the Bauhaus.  Gropius formulated the program of the new school under the slogan the new unity of art and industry; it represented an alliance of all the arts in the service of the highest cultural tasks — for architecture.  This represented a new triumvirate of the plastic arts under the protectorate of architecture.  The Bauhaus ideology was full of internal obscurities, and these theoretical obscurities in turn caused profound confusion in practice.  The unity of art and industry is clearly no more than a somewhat rejuvenated expression of Ruskinism: the union between art and craft.  It is a slogan that might have been formulated by van de Velde but one that is an expression of tendencies opposed to modern design, an expression of decorative and applied industry.  To have this slogan inscribed above the door of an educational institution that intended to become the center of modern constructive production might have led the institution astray.

In 1923 the Bauhaus produced the first comprehensive exhibition of its work for the international public.  Walter Gropius organized an exhibition in Weimar of the first four years of the Bauhaus, which was combined with another exhibition on the new architecture to become one of the first postwar architectural exhibitions organized on an international basis.  The exemplary residential house “Am Horn” built in Weimar by G. Muche and Adolf Meyer (see Bauhausbücher 3, Ein Versuchshaus des Bauhauses) was also part of this exhibition.  This was an attempt to reintroduce a Pompeian floor plan into modern housing.

On the occasion of the exhibition a large-scale, exquisitely designed catalog was also published: Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, 1919-1923, was the first great publication of the modern movement and the first review of Bauhaus activities for the international public.  (The Czech periodical Stavba published an extensive review of both the publication and the working and pedagogical system of the Bauhaus.  Its criticism was subsequently borne out by further developments at the Bauhaus.  See Stavba 2, No. 12.).  By this time the last remnants of expressionism had been dynamically overcome, but Constructivism and neoplasticism, with their preoccupation with form, were becoming competing trends.

In this period of formal decorativism, the Bauhaus produced furniture (à la [Gerrit] Rietveld) as abstract sculpture; rooms were decorated with nonobjective compositions by Mondrian, van Doesburg, or [Kazimir] Malevich; objects of daily use (pots, glasses, carpets, and even toys and chess pieces) were infused with “art”; albeit modern (or rather, modernistic).  The prescribed unity of art and industry became in practice nothing but decorativism according to the latest fashion.  Malevich’s or van Doesburg’s square also became a symbol of this latest fashion.  At this time the Bauhaus betrayed a very strong influence from members of the de Stijl group.  Theo van Doesburg went so far as to found a kind of counterschool in Weimar.  The influence of the neoplasticism of de Stijl on the Bauhaus and on Gropius himself was healthy in the sense that it helped to eradicate the surviving expressionist tendencies, but at the same time this imbued its work with the new “orthogonal” formalism.  The architectural work of the Bauhaus was then already more advanced than the work of other furniture and design workshops, but it too was subservient to the formula of the square and the cube.  However, this architecture was visually powerful and capable of gradually overthrowing the ballast of formalism.

[634]

Shortly after the change of government in Saxony the Bauhaus was dissolved by the new right-wing government (in the winter of 1924) for no other reason than political opposition (because it was founded in 1919 under the Socialist government!).  The dissolution of the Bauhaus turned into a major scandal.  Soon afterward (in the spring of 1925) Gropius succeeded in moving his school to Dessau where he designed and built the outstanding school buildings as well as the less-distinguished housing for its professors.  In Dessau the Bauhaus continued its work and clarified its theoretical program.  Between 1925 and 1927 the Bauhaus reached the summit of the first stage of its activities: its work was internationally recognized, obtaining wide success and even fame.  This success had its downside as well.  It gave rise to the so-called Bauhausstil, a modernistic fashion that spread through Germany and Central Europe; disseminated by numerous and eager epigones, it became a caricature of the best intentions of the institution and its leaders.  The phenomenon of a Bauhausstil and the fact that the school became a nursery for epigones indicated problems both in the pedagogical method of the school and in its theoretical and practical program.

This situation required a radical revision.  In 1927 the Bauhaus was in turmoil.  In 1928 its founder Walter Gropius left the institution, and Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer went with him.  Hannes Meyer became the director of the school.  Mart Stam, [Anton] Brenner, [Hans] Wittwer, and [Ludwig] Hilberseimer held temporary or permanent positions in the architecture department, and a deep, almost revolutionary change took place in the life and work of the Bauhaus.  The Bauhaus was reorganized and became a school worthy of its name: a school of Constructivist design, not just in architecture but in photography, typography, and advertising.  The painters’ studios operated under the leadership of Kandinsky and Klee as a quasi-separate entity of the Bauhaus.  The school quickly divested its work of aesthetic and formalistic speculations and chose rather to build upon a sociologically determined and truly vital oeuvre.  Hannes Meyer instituted an in-depth study of the sociology of building, and his students even spoke of “biological architecture.”   On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of its existence the Bauhaus organized an important major exhibition, not as a retrospective but as a current event.  The exhibition demonstrated and described the work of the Bauhaus from the two preceding years.  In Dessau it remained open for merely a week but enjoyed numerous visitors.  Evening lectures and information sessions took place in the Bauhaus auditorium during the week.  From Dessau the exhibition was sent to Essen, and from there it is just about to begin its pilgrimage through many large towns of Central Europe.  It would be highly desirable if we could succeed in bringing it to the major cities of Czechoslovakia.  This is why it merits a more detailed report.

The core of the exhibition consists of architecture, furnishings, and workshops for photography, typography, and advertising.  The exhibitions of painters (students) take second place to the former.  In every section of the exhibition the work of both students and professors is shown.  The architectural exhibition is naturally led by Hannes Meyer.  Among his projects in the exhibition are the little-known design for the Workers’ Bank in Berlin (unfortunately not realized, though of considerable interest), and photographs of the Workers’ School in Bernau near Berlin, which is currently under completion.  It is most interesting to study the work of the pupils of Hannes Meyer.  It demonstrates that the director of the Bauhaus is as outstanding a pedagogue as he is an architect, a concordance of abilities that is truly rare.  Hannes Meyer teaches without any formulas.  He wants, as he says, “biologisches entfesseltes lebendiges Bauen” [biological, unleashed, living building].  He teaches the understanding of architecture as a work stemming organically from life and from social conditions; he teaches his students to analyze the environment and the particulars by which each building is determined.  The students analyze, for instance, the conditions of [635] workers’ housing at the periphery of industrial districts: the direction of wind (smoke, soot), visibility, dust from the road, and noise of transportation.  All of this is considered and evaluated before the project itself is undertaken.  For example, the students undertook a detailed analysis of the Luneburg Heath region: geology, climatology, and meteorology; ground cover, fauna, and vegetation in the region; characteristic landscape images.  The result was a realization that this piece of land is extraordinarily suitable for the building of resorts, and that schools, sanatoriums, and the like, are ideally situated here.  That it is a real Erholungslandschaft [landscape for relaxation].  Thus the project of the school in this area included the maximum number of open spaces and the perfect integration of the school’s interiors with the natural surroundings.  By contrast, a school on the periphery of an industrial district requires a measure of isolation from its surroundings.  Another example: in the planning for a garden district the students analyzed the garden as an extension of the living space, as well as the cultivation of vegetables, fruits, and poultry.  Such analysis included both the sensuous and the psychological impressions created in the garden.  Some studied how the garden makes the experience of the different times of the year more intense; others detailed the social hierarchy of the garden from the flowerpot to the royal park, and so on.

Next to Hannes Meyer, Ludwig Hilberseimer is another important architectural faculty member at the Bauhaus.  The display of designs by his students is of a very high standard and many of the student projects stand out for the maturity of their conception.  An integral part of the Baulehre [architectural teachings] is also a course given by the engineer Alcar Rudelt, a course that is a novelty at the Bauhaus.  It is here that some of the deficiencies in the architectural education of the earlier Bauhaus, in which the technical aspects were the weaker side of the curriculum, have been radically eliminated.

Next to architectural exhibits we find the work of the so-called Ausbauwerkstatt, the workshops for interior design into which are integrated the former departments of furniture making, metalwork, wall painting, and so on.  The workshop of interior design is now led by [Alfred] Arndt. Among the most remarkable products of the workshop is the excellent “people’s dwelling,” complete furnishings for a low-cost minimum dwelling, destined for the Museum of Hygiene in Dresden.  Among the individual furniture pieces are several remarkable chairs and armchairs designed by [Josef] Albers, a chair by [Peer] Bücking, as well as a kitchen and a workshop chair.  The “Bauhaus wallpaper” manufactured by Rasch & Co. in Hanover, inexpensive and — thanks to its durability — much more economical than a painted wall, is also among the products of the workshop.  The textile workshops, now led by Gunta Stölzl-Sharon, devote much less time to “art” than before.  Instead of tapestries and carpets with neoplasticist decoration, the workshop today produces “geriffelte Silberstoffe,” that is, cellophane fabrics that reflect light and are intended as wall coverings.

The printing and advertising workshops exhibit a number of very interesting publicity brochures, typographical studies, and so on.  In addition, photographs of several exhibitions designed by the workshop for the Junkers factory, as well as display windows, are shown here.  The workshop includes a photographic studio led by Walter Peterhans, whose work is of outstanding quality.  In terms of technical perfection, W. Peterhans is without peer among today’s photographers.  In addition to these technically perfect shots, Peterhans also exhibits here a number of photographs of an almost poetic beauty.

The department of stage design, formerly led by O. Schlemmer, has now become an amateur theater for the students.  Among many lively activities, short performances are periodically organized and directed by Albert Mentzel.  A series of photographs of the sets, as well as shots of backstage, are included in the exhibition.

[636]

Also worthy of note is the “Vorkurs” led by J. Albers.  This introductory course teaches materials science.  Exhibited are a number of interesting material studies, sculpture made of glass, wood and cardboard, montages and compositions, which are often of remarkable artistic value in themselves.  The course of analytical drawing taught by Klee and Kandinsky also belongs among these proseminars.  The use of modern pedagogical methods in aesthetic education is truly remarkable.  It is a sort of school of elementary and experimental aesthetics.  As far as pure artistic design is concerned (which is secondary to the main mission of the Bauhaus), Klee, Kandinsky, and Feininger exhibit larger collections of paintings.  This is an elite trio of painters, and the hall in which their works were installed was an exhibition unto itself.  It is a genuine rarity in Germany for truly outstanding modern painting to be so powerfully displayed in such a small exhibition.

Recently (in January 1930), Feininger’s exhibition came to Prague.  Feininger remains faithful to his beliefs and is thus an exception among German artists.  He has been in effect the only cubist in Germany and as such stands out sharply amid the former expressionists (now the Neue Sachlichkeit) who, unfortunately, represent German painting.  Still young, though over sixty, Kandinsky, the first painter of abstract and nonobjective paintings and a onetime leader of Der blaue Reiter group, shows affinity in his most recent work with the new works of Paul Klee.  It is impossible to describe the paintings of Paul Klee in words.  We can merely say that, together with the works of [Pablo] Picasso and [Giorgio] de Chirico, they represent the most poetic values of contemporary art.  Exhibiting together with the trio of Klee, Kandinsky, and Feininger are also Joost Schmidt (with his very original abstract sculptures) and Albers (with his compositions on glass).

As a whole, the exhibition gives a very positive picture of today’s Bauhaus and its work.  It demonstrates that following the departure of Gropius and several other teachers, the Bauhaus not only survived but is very much alive and experiencing healthy development.  Its influence abroad has become stronger.  The Bauhaus, a school that is unique and unrivaled anywhere, has now grown into an institution that still has every opportunity to become the model school of architecture and of Constructivist design, if this has not happened already.  Today more than two hundred students from many different countries work here.  There is no intention of introducing a regressive quota system; rather, the Bauhaus strives to attract the highest possible number of foreign students.  One-third of the student body (including seven from Czechoslovakia) are foreigners.  The Bauhaus has become a real Babylon and cosmopolis.

Today’s Bauhaus works assiduously on its educational program, refining and modifying it.  The school is poised to undertake any needed reforms; it is not a petrified institution with an obsolete curriculum.  Even the ambience is livelier and more attractive than in other schools.  It is full of optimism and gaiety.  It is not just a place for architecture but also for sport, photography, dance, even carnivals…  After its first ten years the Bauhaus is younger, freer, more enterprising and friendlier than ever before.

The Bauhaus Hochschule für Gestaltung [Bauhaus School for Design] is an institution whose work engages the entire international intellectual community of modernists.  A traveling exhibition that can display the most recent results of the work of the Bauhaus to many viewers will undoubtedly be received everywhere with interest.  Certainly it is one of the most significant exhibitions taking place in Central Europe today.  It would be most desirable that it should also come to our country.

[Originally published as “Deset let Bauhausu,” Stavba 8 (1929-30)]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “Karel Teige’s “Ten Years of the Bauhaus” (1929-1930)”

  1. […] of this is considered and evaluated before the project itself is undertaken.”  Teige, Karel.  “Ten Years of the Bauhaus.”  Translated by Irena Žantovská Murray.  Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European […]

  2. […] of this is considered and evaluated before the project itself is undertaken.”  Teige, Karel.  “Ten Years of the Bauhaus.”  Translated by Irena Žantovská Murray.  Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European […]

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