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From the archive: Memories of a Bauhaus Student

From AR September 1968: ‘Soon after I arrived, I noticed considerable unrest, and there was no lack of discussion groups in the canteen, in students’ studios and in cafes, on topics ranging from Mazdaznan to Hegel and dialectic materialism’

I first heard about the Bauhaus and its new teaching methods while I was studying at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and a small exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee, who had just been appointed a teacher at the Bauhaus, made me decide to apply for admission. After being accepted in 1921, I set out for Weimar to start the Vorkurs, the preliminary six month course. 

What made this school of art different from others? Naturally, the group of modem artists teaching there, and the promise of their revolutionary teaching methods were a great attraction: Itten, Klee, Kandinaky, Feininger, Schlemmer and others. But, at that time these artists were not so famous. Some were hardly known at all; yet, the attraction persisted for those who were enthusiastic about modem art and willing to break with tradition. From all comers of Europe, they came to the Bauhaus. True, Gropius had already made a name as an architect, but it seems difficult even today to assess the difference, which at the time seemed so marked, between the other schools of art and the Bauhaus. There were well-known modern artists teaching at various academies in Germany and abroad, but I suppose it was that they were in a minority, and the schools were run essentially on established lines. They taught ‘fine art’ or the ‘decorative’ arts as they were then called. Design, in the sense we know it today, was unheard of. Decoration was something to be applied to the exterior of an object to ‘beautify it’. Fine art was taught in the Academies as Gropius once put it ‘to produce little Raphaela’.

When I arrived, the scene was not very different from when the Bauhaus was founded two years before. The foundation manifesto had made it clear that what the Bauhaus intended to achieve was unity of the crafts in serving architecture. Architects, painters, sculptors were all to return to being craftsmen. Only in this way would they one day be able to ‘rise to heaven’ to erect ‘a crystalline symbol of a new faith’. It was very much a manifesto of Expressionism, of the radicalism needed after a lost war. Looked at in this light there was no question that, when I came, Itten was the outstanding personality among the teachers (Masters, they were called); Klee and Schlemmer had only just been appointed and kept in the background. Kandinsky came later, in 1922, and Feininger took no active part at that time.

Weimar, where Goethe, Schiller, Liszt and Nietzsche had lived, was a sleepy provincial town, full of tradition, museums and retired officials, a Stratford-on-Avon and Cheltenham rolled into one. The school designed by Van de Velde was in a typical Art Nouveau style. During the war, it had been used as a military hospital and all its equipment sold. So Gropius had to start from scratch, and the local government had very little money available. He struggled to get financial support, but he also had to battle with public . opinion which was violently opposed to his experimental school. From time to time, veritable hate campaigns were launched in the local conservative press, and the good citizens of Weimar held protest meetings against us.

Gropius was immensely active, full of ideas and ideals, and a splendid organizer. With his enthusiasm he carried us all away. Itten was in charge of the compulsory preliminary course. At its end you were either admitted as a full Bauhaus student, or not. Itten, Swiss by origin, and a schoolteacher in his early years, decided to become an artist and went to Stuttgart. Together with Schlemmer and Baumeister, he studied under Adolf Holzel, who was the first to teach basic design, colour theory and the analysis of the composition of old master paintings. He had a considerable influence on younger painters. Itten elaborated on Holzel’s theories, and added his own ideas. He was an extraordinary pedagogue, and his methods had a liberating effect on his students. He was the first to recognize the importance of the sub-conscious in creative work, and the first to introduce compositions using different materials into his course: wood, glass, metal, fabric or simply things we were able to find in scrap-heaps.

ltten was singular in being able to free the creative abilities of his students, breaking down our inhibitions and taking a very active and personal part in guiding our development. Unfortunately he became more and more involved with the teachings of ‘Mazdaznan’ a quasi-religious cult of Persian origin, which had a cultural centre in Switzerland. This cult was concerned with the purification of man by dieting, breathing exercises, inner cleanliness, contemplation and the like. Many of the students became Itten’s Mazdaznan disciples. The spirit of mysticism and the smell of garlic penetrated the classrooms. The Mazdaznan diet was introduced into the school canteen – ‘healthy unspoilt’ vegetarian dishes. As we were all very poor and under-fed, the new diet turned out to be quite insufficient. We often preferred to go to the local soup kitchen where for a few pennies, you could at least get an ample bowlful of barley soup. Itten’s preoccupation with Mazdaznan, turned him gradually more and more into a ‘high priest’, remote and aloof from his students.

One evening Itten invited Klee to dinner to offer him a sample of his wonderful diet. After eating heartily, Klee was asked how he had liked it and replied ‘It was delicious, but I feel if I went on with this diet, all my worms would run away from me!’ Poor Itten could not take this at all.

But the majority of students were not by any means converted. Soon after I arrived, I noticed considerable unrest, and there was no lack of discussion groups in the canteen, in students’ studios and in cafes, on topics ranging from Mazdaznan to Hegel and dialectic materialism. We felt dissatisfied with the medieval mystical attitude to the problem of the integration of the arts.

Restlessness started in 1921, and in 1922 the Bauhaus took official notice of the new direction which the students’ thoughts were taking. It was the students themselves who played the decisive role. Poverty and the inflation in Germany kept most of us below the breadline. There were no school fees, no registers. We were at complete liberty to come and go as we liked. Only one day per week was set aside for compulsory tuition in the prelim. course. For the rest of the week, we were free to attend life and drawing classes and lectures. So we all eagerly looked forward to this one day of regular classes, which was always stimulating. We usually had to bring along what we had produced during the week, and we were given projects which were criticized when they had been completed. Much of our free time was taken up by discussion, and there was certainly no need to introduce the ‘15 per cent liberal studies’ which characterize today’s DipAD courses. Much time was also spent in preparation for the dances which became so famous that people travelled five hours by train from Berlin to participate. An enormous amount of energy and inventiveness was spent on decorating some dreary rented hall, and on inventing costumes, masks, lighting, preparing a cabaret and reciting poems. It is a pity that no photographs exist of these early Bauhaus baJls, with our excellent Bauhaus Jazz Band, which used selfinvented instruments under their leader the pianist Andi Weininger. The dances were an occasion when we of the preliminary course could mix freely with the Bauhäusler-as they were nick-named. It gave the other students a good opportunity to get to know us newcomers and find out whether we would fit into their community.

Students were represented on the ‘Council of Masters’ which dealt with all important school matters. Thus when it came to the admittance of the preliminary course students, their vote was very important. Mter six months we placed our work on exhibition at the school, each one having been allotted a space. It was something of an ordeal, and we were all in suspense waiting for the verdict. I remember I could not wait for the official results, and when I met Schlemmer on the staircase, I asked whether he could tell me if I had passed or not. He paused and said in his old-fashioned way, ‘Yes, you have passed, and if I may take the liberty to add, naturally’. I was overjoyed.

We students were a very close-knit community, partly because we were fighting for the same ideals, and partly because of the hostility of the Philistine world around us. For example, I was advised by my mates when looking for digs, not to disclose that I was a student at the Bauhaus, but to say I studied at the Academy of Music, otherwise I would find it very hard to get a room. True, we were a strange sight, dressed for reasons of poverty and individual taste in the most startling garb. Russian-type blouses with belts, trousers often frayed and sandals. The girls had loose hair falling over their shoulders and hand-woven skirts – it must have been galling for the very respectable citizens of Weimar. At our dances, we were noisy but never drunk, because we simply could not afford to be, not even on beer. We got drunk just by abandoning ourselves to the enjoyment of life, movement and rhythm. But it was not all enjoyment and pleasure, we also worked hard. I chose to join the paint workshop under the direction of Kandinsky, and also at this time I joined an opposition group of students.

Dissatisfaction was manifold; we were against the romantic expressionism and its main exponent Itten, against the medieval attitude towards the crafts, and against the passivity of some of the teachers whom we rarely saw-only occasionally meeting them in the corridors of the school; these we nicknamed ‘the corridor-masters’. The lack of classes in architecture, though Gropius occasionally allowed students to work for him in his own studio on his private projects, was also disapproved of. In the opinion of Gropius, the Bauhaus was still too young to embark on teaching architecture, and he thought it essential to learn first a solid basis of crafts in the workshops. But the workshops which were led by technical instructors, the so called Werkmeister, did not come to much. They lacked the essential machinery. The workshops then in existence were: metal, carpentry, pottery, sculpture, stage, wallpainting and weaving. Each had a technical instructor who worked jointly with one of the ‘Form-masters’.

Gerhard Marcks, a sculptor, was in charge of pottery, Klee of weaving, Schlemmer of sculpture, Feinniger of metal, Kandinsky of wallpainting and an expressionist artist, Lothar Schreyer, of the stage workshop. Schreyer did not last very long, as his work was rejected by students and masters alike. Eventually Schlemmer took over. Itten and a young painter, Georg Muche, were in charge of the preliminary course.

All these artists were personalities in their own right and yet, though one could not by any means call them a collective unit, the common denominator, the idea and ideal of the Bauhaus, forged them together as it did the students. I remember Kandinsky’s oldworldly politeness. He was always very neatly and conventionally dressed in contrast to us students. He came sporadically to set his students projects and criticize their work. Sometimes he came with Klee, a completely different personality. Klee’s dark piercing eyes seemed to look through you into a distant dream world. It was difficult to follow his expositions, he sometimes jumped abruptly from one theme to another, and often we could not see the link; it was there, though almost imperceptible. ‘An artist does not render the visible – he renders visible’. This is one of Klee’s sentences which could not be expressed with greater precision or economy. Klee was also an outstanding violinist, and the concerts he occasionally gave in the lecture hall, accompanied by his wife at the piano, remain unforgettable.

Schlemmer was perhaps the most accessible of all the teachers. His friendliness, patience and charm made him popular with all. As an artist and stage designer he explored the relationship of man and space in classical proportions, with some romantic connotations. Apart from his painting and sculpture his ballet designs were especially beautiful, and technically most interesting.

In 1922, the crisis among the students came to a head. At that time Theo van Doesburg started his lectures in Weimar. Possibly he hoped to get an offer from Gropius to teach at the Bauhaus, but in any event he lost little time in making contact with us and perhaps it was this that prevented his being appointed in the end. He was editor of the Dutch magazine De Stijl, which represented the ideas of the group of painters, sculptors and architects round Mondrian. Doesburg was the main propagator of Mondrian’s theory of neo-plasticism, a theory which we had heard of before he arrived. Naturally we had seen some of Mondrian’s paintings; they seemed to us the answer we were looking for; the complete integration of painting, sculpture and design with an architecture based purely on horizontals and verticals, excluding any naturalistic associations or sentiment. Doesburg was an interesting man, who could state things clearly with a mixture of sarcasm and aggressiveness. He gave us a series of lectures outside the Bauhaus, demolishing and ridiculing many of our activities, whilst still retaining a certain admiration for a school which was so much more progressive than any other schools of its time. In contrast to the medieval crafts idea he favoured designing for industrial mass-production. No wonder many of us fell under his spell and influence. Itten had become more and more remote and involved with Mazdaznan. His wife had recently given birth to a son, and in the carpenters’ workshop, a cradle was made, handcarved and covered with colourful mystical symbols. Doesburg seized on this and ridiculed it as mystical nonsense, individualistic and anachronistic. The opposition group of students had at last got something to chew on. In the meantime Gropius himself had abandoned Expressionism. The Bauhaus turned towards a more rational outlook, and it came to an open break between Gropius and Itten.

A big exhibition of students’ and teachers’ work was planned for the summer of 1923. This was, for once and for all, to silence the many enemies of the Bauhaus, and show the world what we could do. It was a most ambitious and precarious undertaking just four years after the start of the Bauhaus; which itself had to take place under such difficult and frustrating conditions. Once again we were carried by the enthusiasm which Gropius was able to provoke. We had soon overcome the Doesburg interlude; stimulating and liberating as it was, we still felt it was too formalistic in its insistence on horizontals and verticals and its adoration of the square. It was no accident that the group called itself the ‘Stijl’. What we wanted was to get away from any ‘stylistic efforts’ and free ourselves from preconceived shapes. In short, we wanted what was later to be labelled ‘functionalism’.

For the exhibition we worked really hard. There was a model house to be built, designed by the painter Muche, an exhibition of painting and sculpture by the Bauhaus Masters to be held at the local museum, the paintings and graphic works of students to be displayed in the school building, and products designed by them in the different workshops. Furthermore there were concerts planned, and a cabaret to be performed in the theatre built by Gropius in nearby Jena. In the last weeks before the opening, we all worked at fever-pitch. I had decided to design, together with a colleague, a ballet in which I was also the main dancer. Abstract shapes were attached to our bodies, which were clad in black against a black back-cloth, so that strange, abstract shapes were seen moving in slow or quick rhythm across the stage. The music was specially written by the composer Stuckenschmidt. Post-cards, leaflets, posters, were sent out internationally, to attract the widest possible range of visitors.

When it came to the opening, artists and critics came from all over the world. Gropius’s motto for the exhibition was ‘Art and Technology, a new unity’. We trembled in our shoes – would it be the success we all hoped for! Yes, it was an undeniable success, though much of the criticism in German conservative papers was negative. The spirit of enthusiasm in which we had worked had imparted itself to the general public, and for the first time the Press, not only in Germany, had taken note in lengthy articles. The Bauhaus had put itself on the map. In the meantime Itten had resigned and left. Moholy-Nagy had taken over, and it seemed clear that from now on the direction the Bauhaus had to take was fairly straightforward.

What happened then is familiar. In the local elections, the Nationalists gained a majority over the Social Democrats and with the change in local government all subsidies to the Bauhaus suddenly came to an end. The protests of internationally famous artists, architects and scientists, Einstein among them, were of no avail. The Bauhaus had to close down. Gropius was able to resurrect it at Dessau in the province of Anhalt in 1925, but, eight years later, when the Nazis came to power there, one of their first acts of state was the dissolution of the Bauhaus. A short time under Mies van der Rohe followed in Berlin, and then came the end.