Stepping Stone to the New Times

Christopher Turner

  • Bauhaus: Art as Life

The Bauhaus stank of garlic. Alma Mahler, the wife of its founder and director Walter Gropius (and the ex-wife of Gustav), found the smell intolerable. She refused to eat the ‘obligatory diet of uncooked mush smothered’ in cloves of the supposedly purifying allium. The students and teachers who did eat it suffered bilious, flatulent attacks. After one meal, the painter and Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee, who prided himself on being a good cook, worried that ‘even his worms would leave him’.

The man responsible for the Bauhaus’s garlic problem was the Swiss expressionist painter Johannes Itten, a friend of Alma Mahler who had run a private art school in Vienna. Gropius, impressed with Itten’s unconventional methods, invited him to Weimar to teach the six-month preliminary course at the Bauhaus, a training in the principles of form and colour that all students had to take before they could learn a particular craft. Itten was a member of the cult of Mazdaznan, which fused Zoroastrianism with Christianity, and out of the first cohort of 120 Bauhauslers, as the pupils were known, about 20 were Austrian disciples of his. At the start of each class Itten made his students meditate and do breathing and ‘glandular’ exercises to help them unlock their creative potential, and encouraged them to follow his Spartan regimen, which included sleeping on straw pallets, fasting, bloodletting and colonic irrigation. He also persuaded the Bauhaus kitchen to serve only a Mazdaznan, garlic-heavy diet.

‘Marcel Breuer and His Harem’ by Erich Consemüller (1927).
‘Marcel Breuer and His Harem’ by Erich Consemüller (1927).

A photograph of Itten in the Barbican exhibition, Bauhaus: Art as Life (the largest and most comprehensive on the school to be shown in Britain since 1968, with exhibits previously hidden behind the Berlin Wall), shows him wearing a crimson robe of his own design. He has a shaved head like a monk, round gold-rimmed glasses and an intense stare. The only trained pedagogue at the Bauhaus, Itten had originally been a primary schoolteacher. He introduced some of the theories of Friedrich Froebel – the founder of the Kindergarten movement, who pioneered the use of educational toys – and encouraged his students to reconnect with their inner child. At the start of one term Itten told them that they would be making games for the next month, deliberately dispensing with the academic tradition of drawing from the nude or nature, so as to ‘lead all creative activity back to its roots in play’. His pupils learned to dissolve the world into patterns and forms, seeing everywhere Froebel’s Spielgabe: the pyramid, sphere and cube. Josef Hartwig created a chess set, still on sale today, with pieces solely composed of these shapes.

Itten’s motto was ‘Play becomes celebration; celebration becomes work; work becomes play.’ In this spirit Klee made hand puppets out of found materials such as beef bones and old electric plugs, some of them with physiognomies modelled on the Bauhaus staff. The Barbican curators, Catherine Ince and Lydia Yee, present the Bauhaus in part as an avant-garde playpen for adults. Parties, festivals and masked balls formed a large part of the curriculum, each marked by a frenzy of preparation. Gropius sought to encourage ‘friendly relations’ between students and teachers, who competed with one another to create the most outlandish, abstract costumes and decorations based on Bauhaus principles of geometry, space and colour. The nocturnal lantern processions and kite festivals they staged were representations, according to one observer, of ‘the joy of two hundred big and little children’.

‘Cathedral’ by Lyonel Feininger (1919).
‘Cathedral’ by Lyonel Feininger (1919).

Gropius, a 35-year-old architect and decorated officer just back from the front, founded the Bauhaus in 1919 by fusing two existing arts and crafts schools in Weimar. In a climate of postwar shortages and uncertainty, and against the background of the punitive Treaty of Versailles and the Spartacist uprising, he hoped to lay the cornerstone of a ‘Republic of the Spirit’. When we think of the Bauhaus not as an institution but as a style – the tubular furniture, sleek household appliances, lowercase fonts and glass-walled, flat-roofed buildings satirised in Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House – it is easy to forget Gropius’s original messianic ambition. His Bauhaus manifesto attracted the utopian and disaffected with its call for a unity between art and craft that would ‘rise one day towards heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystalline symbol of a new faith’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in