Bauhaus: Building the New Artist

The Getty Research Institute

Color triangle (ca. 1925 - 1933) by Vassily KandinskyThe Getty Research Institute

Considered one of the most influential schools of art and design of the twentieth century, the Bauhaus forged a unique educational vision that blended theory with practice in order to cultivate a new generation of artists and designers. Bauhaus: Building the New Artist, a digital exhibition by the Getty Research Institute, invites visitors to explore the school’s history, learn about its theoretical underpinnings, and experience firsthand what it was like to learn as a student of the Bauhaus through interactive exercises.

Inaugurated in Weimar, Germany, on April 1, 1919, the Bauhaus was a state-sponsored school first led by the German modernist architect Walter Gropius. Only 35 years old at the time of his appointment, Gropius laid out a bold new vision for the institution in an internationally circulated manifesto. In a text laden with spiritual and romantic imagery, the architect outlined a model of education that bridged the fine and applied arts. The director hoped that various forms of artistic practice, including painting, sculpture, architecture, and design, could work in harmony to produce socially and spiritually gratifying collective work—what he deemed the “building of the future.”

Accompanying the text was a woodcut by artist Lyonel Feininger, one of the first Bauhaus masters (as teachers were known). Feininger illustrated Gropius’s future-oriented vision somewhat counterintuitively by depicting a Gothic cathedral with flying buttresses, pointed arches, and rays of light emanating from its steeples. A preindustrial building form, the cathedral represented the total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), in which designers, artists, and artisans worked together in service of a single spiritual goal. In this way the manifesto idealized the medieval past as a model for the transformation of modern arts education, a vision that attracted would-be students from as far away as Japan.

Farbenkugel (Color sphere) (detail) (1810) by Philipp Otto RungeThe Getty Research Institute

But what was an education at the Bauhaus like?

The Swiss painter and early Bauhaus master Johannes Itten initiated what he called the Preliminary Course in 1920 in order to establish a shared foundation of basic knowledge among students. All students in their first semester enrolled in the compulsory course, which tasked them with investigating concerns like form, color, and material—considered to be fundamental to any artistic endeavor. The course included specialized seminars devoted to further training in key areas such as the study of nature, the study of materials and tools, and theories of color and form.

Color theory remained a central focus at the Bauhaus throughout the school’s fourteen-year existence. Committed to understanding the nature of colors, instructors and students produced countless graphic systems of wheels, triangles, grids, and spheres to examine how colors relate to one another. The resulting schemes were used to explore key concepts, such as the relationships between primary and secondary colors; the nature of affinities and contrasts; the effects of saturation; the gradients of tints, tones, and shades; and other systematic interactions. Despite fundamental differences of opinion—Bauhaus master Josef Albers, for example, believed that color was absolutely relative, while the artist Vassily Kandinsky argued colors connoted specific spiritual and emotional meanings—Bauhaus masters agreed that the study of the general principles of color would be applicable to every artistic and design medium.

Light-dark contrast study for Johannes Itten's Preliminary Course (1919) by Friedl DickerThe Getty Research Institute

Students investigated the implications of color theory through exercises designed to test interactions among two, three, or four colors. In an effort to get students to think of color as a phenomenon independent of form, Johannes Itten devised a system of colored cutouts, which could be placed side by side or on top of one another. His students placed these cutouts amid other media, like charcoal, to explore the spatial effects and the changes to hue, value, or intensity brought about by arranging and combining colors. Vassily Kandinsky similarly championed the use of cutouts in an effort to develop students’ visual acuity, having them position colored rectangles, squares, and circles in various configurations. Exercises often tasked students with arraying these cutouts on a grid or within a square, constraining formal possibilities.

Survey distributed at the wall-painting workshop investigating relationships between forms and colors (1923) by Vassily KandinskyThe Getty Research Institute

Masters at the Bauhaus argued that each primary shape—the square, circle, and triangle—possessed a unique character. First-year students in the Preliminary Course discovered these principles through iterative exercises that challenged them to understand the distinct internal dynamics of each form. Exercises in subdividing squares, for example, pushed students to consider how the placement of elements and the choice of colors within a composition might create tensions, rhythms, contrasts, and proportional relationships. Other exercises challenged students to think about the visual impact of two-dimensional shapes through linear analyses highlighting aspects of movement within planar forms.

These exercises, produced in multiple, encouraged students to consider how subtle variations might affect compositions. Through this iterative process, masters hoped to hone students’ visual acuity and their ability to think through form. Johannes Itten argued that within any given geometry there might be an “infinite number of possibilities” for design.

Video tutorial for an interactive exercise based on designs by Josef Albers, Getty Research Institute, 2019, From the collection of: The Getty Research Institute
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Video tutorial for an interactive exercise based on designs by Josef Albers. From the Getty Research Institute’s Bauhaus: Building the New Artist digital exhibition.

Students in the Preliminary Course were also expected to develop a familiarity with a wide variety of materials including wood, glass, fiber, paper, and metal, priming them for entry into a specialized workshop. Both Itten and Albers contributed to the development of material studies in the Preliminary Course. Each considered the learning process to be experiential and tactile, foregrounding the sensorial comprehension of materiality, textures, and contrasts. Based on nineteenth-century ideas about learning through play, Itten asked students to develop collages and assemblages from found materials. Sticks, wire, fabric, paper, and glass were arranged to engage the sense of touch, the feeling of texture, and the perception of the materials’ essences. Albers’s material studies, by comparison, highlighted key properties of single materials. Albers insisted that students work in harmony with the true character of a material.

Albers was especially fascinated with paper: though somewhat fragile, the material acquires strength and rigidity through cuts and folds. Owing to these possibilities for experimentation, exercises in cutting paper became a key addition to the curriculum when Albers became director of the Preliminary Course. Students recall that Albers asked them to respect the material and its inherent characteristics, working without glue or waste.

After completing the Preliminary Course, students enrolled in specialized workshops where they applied the foundational principles developed in the first year to the practical, hands-on production of design and craft. Products from the workshops included ceramics, weaving, carpentry, printing, metal, and stagecraft, all of which mobilized the theories of color, form, and material that had been foregrounded from the earliest phases of Bauhaus education. In the stage workshop, for example, students reconsidered the human form through choreography and costume design and experimented by placing performers in multimedia and multi-sensory stage sets. Such experiments brought together many forms of artistic practice, enacting a key goal from Walter Gropius’s 1919 manifesto.

Explore the human form, part of an interactive exercise based on Oskar Schlemmer’s The Triadic Ballet, Getty Research Institute, 2019, From the collection of: The Getty Research Institute
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Credits: Story

This text is adapted from an online exhibition about the Bauhaus produced by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California, with help from yU + co design studio. Learn more and view project team:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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