Groundbreaking School of Modernist Abstraction
The Bauhaus—Germany’s legendary school of art, architecture, and design—was founded in Weimar in the spring of 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who assembled an international group of faculty members including Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and László Moholy-Nagy. The school relocated twice during its brief existence (to Dessau in 1925 and Berlin in 1932) before its closure by the Nazi regime in 1933, but its aesthetic of geometric abstraction—and its stated goals of collaboration across disciplines and harmony between form and function—have had a lasting impact on the fields of architecture and industrial and graphic design.
Segments of Circle with Cross Segments of Circle with Cross (about 1923) by László Moholy-NagyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy moved in 1920 from Budapest to Berlin. There, he exhibited in avant-garde circles and met the Russian Constructivist painter El Lissitzky. In 1923, Walter Gropius invited him to join the Bauhaus in Weimar, where he would further Gropius’s vision of a new unity between art and industry. He taught the foundation course along with Josef Albers, headed the metal workshop, and oversaw the production and graphic design of a series of Bauhaus publications.
Untitled Untitled (1939) by László Moholy-NagyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
A photogram is a camera-less photograph made by placing objects on or near light-sensitive paper and exposing them to light. The oldest and most direct type of photography, it was a medium that fascinated Moholy, and in his hands it became a lyrical abstract art form—what he called “the materialization of light.” Moholy made this photogram in 1939, two years after his arrival in Chicago. Its compositional elements—overlapping, transparent planes that float in a void—also appear in his paintings and graphic work.
Kleine Welten IV (1922) by Wassily KandinskyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
Russian painter and printmaker Wassily Kandinsky relocated from Moscow to Munich at the age of thirty. He subsequently played an important role in the development of modernism in Germany, in particular in the transition from representational art to abstraction. This lithograph is from his portfolio of twelve prints Kleine Welten (little worlds), printed at the Bauhaus in 1922. Conceptually, the set was divided into three parts—four lithographs, four woodcuts, and four drypoints—with half the plates in color and half in black-and-white.
Kleine Welten VI (1922) by Wassily KandinskyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
This print from Wassily Kandinsky’s Kleine Welten portfolio is a woodcut. As Kandinsky stated in the poetic text that accompanied the prints, “four of the sheets were created with the help of stone, four with wood, and four with copper.” In six cases, the compositions were “content with only black strokes or black flecks,” while the rest “called for the sonority [klang] of other colors.” In all twelve cases, the little worlds “received in lines and marks the language they required.”
Lithograph No. III (1925) by Wassily KandinskyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
This Kandinsky lithograph dates from 1925, and like his Kleine Welten portfolio was printed at the Bauhaus in Weimar.
Untitled (1926) by Wassily KandinskyMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, the school did not reestablish a printmaking studio. Kandinsky continued making prints at the new location, though the plates would have been printed elsewhere. This delicate drypoint from 1926, one of his more elegant compositions, is barely the size of a playing card.
Self-Portrait (1917) by Josef AlbersMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
Josef Albers made this brooding self-portrait while still in his twenties, three years before enrolling as a student at the Bauhaus in 1920. He remained with the institution as an instructor until its forced closure in 1933. Although Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Klee, and Feininger all published numerous prints during their tenure at the Bauhaus, Albers chose to explore other media, including working with glass. He only took up printmaking again after leaving the Bauhaus, briefly in Berlin in 1933 and then in earnest after his immigration to the United States later that year.
Multiplex A (1947) by Josef AlbersMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
After the closure of the Bauhaus, Albers accepted a position at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where he taught from 1933–49. This print from the series of four woodcuts Multiplex was made near the end of his tenure there. Albers contrasts the stark white linear elements he has cut away from the block with the softer, natural forms of the woodgrain itself.
Astatic (1944) by Josef AlbersMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
The wave-like woodgrain pattern featured in the Multiplex series is even more pronounced in Albers' 1944 print Astatic.
Graphic Tectonics: Shrine (1942) by Josef AlbersMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
This lithograph is based on a set of drawings in pen and ink on graph paper that Albers made during the spring of 1941 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where his former colleague Walter Gropius had invited him to spend a semester teaching. Using only unmodulated black lines, Albers set himself the task of making drawings that look more machine-made than hand-made, but nevertheless resonate with an uncommon dynamism and sense of depth. The compositions reflect his admiration for the forms of pre-Columbian architecture.
Church at Gelmeroda (1918) by Lyonel FeiningerMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
American painter and printmaker Lyonel Feininger was born in New York, but moved to Germany at the age of sixteen. He developed his mature style in the years before World War I, after initial encounters with Cubism and the German Expressionists. While in Weimar, he developed an affinity for relief printing, making more than 100 woodcuts in 1918 alone. The following year, he was appointed by Walter Gropius as one of the first faculty members at the Bauhaus, where he led the printmaking workshop from 1919 until the school’s move to Dessau in 1925.
Daasdorf (1918) by Lyonel FeiningerMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
In this woodcut and the previous work, Feininger turns the small village churches of Daasdorf and Gelmeroda, both located on the outskirts of Weimar, into monumental, towering visions.
Tightrope Walker (Seiltänzer) (1923) by Paul KleeMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
Swiss painter, draftsman, and printmaker Paul Klee spent the early part of his career in Munich, where in 1911–12 he participated alongside Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky in exhibitions of their group the Blue Rider. He shared their belief in the spiritual nature of the artistic endeavor, and drew inspiration from the authenticity and directness of the art of children and the untutored. A violinist himself, Klee was keenly interested in performance—from the theater, opera, and concert stage to the popular entertainment of the circus.
Serpent's Prey (Schlangenbeute) (1926) by Paul KleeMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
No two works by Klee look alike, but each one is instantly recognizable as his own, and all share his unique sense of whimsy. Unlike the previous lithograph, which was published in a portfolio of Bauhaus prints, this pen and ink drawing is unique.
Glasses and Bottles, a Composition in Red, Yellow, and Black (1945) by Richard FilipowskiMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston
The work of Boston area artist and teacher Richard Filipowski exemplifies the long reach of Bauhaus design principles. A Polish immigrant who began his artistic training in Toronto, Filipowski arrived in Chicago in 1942 to study with Moholy-Nagy at the newly formed Chicago Bauhaus. In 1950 he was invited by Walter Gropius to develop and direct the Fundamentals of Design program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He subsequently taught design in the Department of Architecture at MIT (1952–88).
Text written by Patrick Murphy, Lia and William Poorvu Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings.
All Photographs © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Object credits in order of appearance:
• Wassily Kandinsky, Lithograph No. III, 1925. Color lithograph. Gift of Susan W. and Stephen D. Paine.
• Josef Albers, Graphic Tectonics: Shrine, 1942. Lithograph. Promised gift of Richard E. Caves. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
• László Moholy-Nagy, Segments of Circle with Cross, about 1923. Linocut or wood engraving. Museum purchase with funds donated by Claire W. and Richard P. Morse.
• László Moholy-Nagy, Untitled, 1939. Photogram, gelatin silver print. Museum purchase with funds donated by Virginia Herrick Deknatel.
• Wassily Kandinsky, Kleine Welten IV, 1922. Color lithograph. Bequest of W. G. Russell Allen.
• Wassily Kandinsky, Kleine Welten VI, 1922. Woodcut. Gift of Lois B. Torf in loving memory of Barbara B. Goldberg.
• Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled, 1939. Drypoint. Gift of Susan W. and Stephen D. Paine.
• Josef Albers, Self-Portrait, 1917. Transfer lithograph. George Peabody Gardner Fund and Fund in memory of Horatio Greenough Curtis. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
• Josef Albers, Multiplex A, 1947. Woodcut. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michael K. Torf. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
• Josef Albers, Astatic, 1944. Woodcut. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michael K. Torf. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
• Lyonel Feininger, Church at Gelmeroda, 1918. Woodcut. Lee M. Friedman Fund. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
• Lyonel Feininger, Daasdorf, 1918. Woodcut. Bequest of Florence S. Gerstein. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
• Paul Klee, Tightrope Walker (Seiltänzer), 1923. Color lithograph. Bequest of W. G. Russell Allen.
• Paul Klee, Serpent's Prey (Schlangenbeute), 1926. Pen and black ink. John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund.
• Richard Filipowski, Glasses and Bottles, a Composition in Red, Yellow, and Black, 1945. Gouache and graphite on paper. Virginia Herrick Deknatel Purchase Fund.