By Tyrus Miller
This April, one of the most internationally famous art and design schools of the 20th century, the Bauhaus, celebrates its 100th anniversary. Around the globe, the school and its extraordinary group of artists and architects are being celebrated, reimagined and reinterpreted.
The founders of Bauhaus wanted to teach their students how to redesign our world from the very building blocks of visual experience, to put the fine and applied arts on a level playing field, to reunite creativity and manufacturing, and to bring art to the masses through everyday objects. Often facing opposition from conservative communities and harassment from right-wing city governments around the school, the Bauhaus had to change locations three times, from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin. The National Socialists shut down the school 14 years after its founding and the school and its followers dispersed to Tel Aviv, Turkey, the United States and elsewhere. There was even an attempt to found “The New Bauhaus” in Chicago in the late 1930s; it still exists as the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
But even today, Bauhaus continues to influence in ways that many do not recognize. It’s more than just a subject of a Tom Wolfe book.
Defining the Bauhaus aesthetic
But what is Bauhaus? The aesthetic that we have come to know emphasized clean, clear, elemental shapes appropriate to the function of the object, whether that object was a household implement or a piece of furniture or a building. When people imagine a Bauhaus building, they typically think of a white cube or a rectangular skyscraper of glass; or they may be familiar with the famous bent metal tube chairs of Marcel Breuer.
The Bauhaus even changed the appearance of the alphabet, making posters and graphic designs with letters free of curly-cues and added ornamentation. In fact, we could say that the IKEA furniture in many of our houses and apartments would be unthinkable without the Bauhaus’s clearing out and cleaning up of the heavily ornamented design and architecture that still predominated at the time of their founding. They wanted to make our world modern, and the first step for them was getting back to the elements of shape, color, and construction.
They also saw their mission in social terms. “Modern” for them also meant opposing the irrational, mythicizing reactionary views of the German right. Most of the artists associated with the Bauhaus, to a greater or lesser extent, saw themselves as socialists or as contributing to a society that was evolving towards socialism. Some eventually joined the communist party.
However, it’s important to realize that the Bauhaus was anything but monolithic, either artistically or politically. It included painters such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers, who were pioneering figures in abstract and related tendencies in modern art; world-famous architects Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who helped to define the “international style” of modern architecture; and restlessly interdisciplinary artists such as the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy, who made films, experimented with moving light, and used unusual materials like plastics and plexiglass to revolutionize visual experience.
A compelling international influence
From its founding, the Bauhaus was an internationalist project. Kandinsky came from Russia; Klee from Switzerland; Moholy-Nagy from Hungary, just to mention three key figures. It attracted students from all over Europe, and in turn it influenced architecture and design in countries ranging from Romania to the Soviet Union, Israel, Turkey and the United States.
We can see Bauhaus ideas, for example, in the U.S. in the “Met Breuer” museum building designed by Marcel Breuer; the Lake Shore Drive buildings of Mies van der Rohe in Chicago; or the unusual aluminum housing Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius designed during World War II for Alcoa aluminum workers in Pittsburgh.
The current exhibitions, which are literally being put on around the world, reflect the continuation and deepening of this global flourishing of an originally internationalist idea.
What is the Bauhaus legacy today?
Despite the difficulties the Bauhaus suffered in realizing its huge ambitions, it nevertheless left many traces on our lives today. Whether we consider the aesthetic of our iPhone or the minimal design of many of our everyday spaces, we experience the Bauhaus influence.
Even as a failed experiment, the Bauhaus can inspire us to think in big, bold terms about culture, creativity, and education. It was an amazing school, with extremely innovative ideas about pedagogy in the arts—a systematic attempt at training perception and formal creativity to bring something new into the world. We should not lose sight of anything in our recent past that inspires us to keep trying new things in this spirit.
More somberly, too, the Bauhaus reminds us that creativity and culture are, in times of reaction and extremism, all-too vulnerable. Art and education alone can’t save the world. For better or worse, the fate of our world is often decided by politics, and in the case of the Bauhaus, tragically, it was the politics of National Socialism that won.
Tyrus Miller is the dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine.