On April 1, 1919, just five months after the end of World War I, Berlin-based architect Walter Gropius opened a new school in Weimar, Germany, called the Bauhaus. Encompassing a vision for arts education in which craftsmanship, spiritual expression, form, and function were fully incorporated, the Bauhaus provided artists, architects, designers, and thinkers with formal training in what was considered a new and holistic approach to the practice of art.
Gropius’s manifesto for the new school captures this vision and its significance for a generation of artists grappling with the losses suffered during World War I. In his view, there was no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman—any perceived difference was an artificial barrier created by class distinctions. The mission of the Bauhaus, then, would be to “desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity.”
To achieve this goal, the Bauhaus followed the model of medieval guilds, in which preeminent artists and designers taught as masters, and students worked as apprentices. Masters led apprentices through a dual-phased curriculum, introducing them to the fundamental aspects of design through a six-month “Preliminary Course,” then expanding their skill sets in seminars and specialized workshops.
Individual Bauhaus masters held somewhat divergent ideas about what should be prioritized in the school’s curriculum, whether methods, materials, or theory. But the faculty all ascribed to a central pedagogical tenet: that teaching should focus on experimentation and problem-solving.
Painter and former Bauhaus apprentice Hannes Beckmann recalled that during his Preliminary Course, master Josef Albers once came to the studio with a bundle of newspapers under his arm and told the students to “pick up the newspaper and make it into something meaningful, taking account of its particular qualities.” Albers added that if they could make something without the use of scissors, knives, or glue, so much the better, and then told them to “have fun!” Returning to the studio hours later, Albers dismissed the majority of the students’ work as “nursery toys,” but singled out one design as capturing the essence of the assignment: a newspaper, simply folded lengthwise and balanced upright, to form a pair of wings.
This process of testing students’ understanding of artistic expression and exploring the innate qualities of both materials and form, all within the cooperative environment of the workshop, became a defining feature of the Bauhaus program. In the minds of Bauhaus faculty, such training would ultimately transform each student into a new type of artist, one capable of contributing to a collective “total work of art.”
Bauhaus Archives at the Getty
Outside of the Berlin-based Bauhaus Archiv, which holds the world’s largest collection of Bauhaus documents and artifacts, the Getty Research Institute has one of the preeminent Bauhaus collections in the world. Here scholars can access archival materials related to all three phases of the Bauhaus, from its origins in Weimar (1919–25), to its relocation in Dessau (1925–32), to its final transfer and eventual forced closure by the Nazis in Berlin (1932–33). Highlights from the Research Institute’s extensive collections of Bauhaus material include student exercises, masters’ teaching aids and notes, and rare prints, drawings, and photographs.
The Research Institute’s collections include rarities such as the full series of fourteen Bauhaus Bücher publications designed by László Moholy-Nagy and Gropius to present, justify, and explain the work done at the Bauhaus. Beautiful examples of Bauhaus masters’ prints can also be found in several portfolios held by the Research Institute.
While these masterworks form a key aspect of the Bauhaus collections, curators made their richest discoveries in the archives of the Bauhaus masters and student work. The Vassily Kandinsky Papers, for example, contain teaching materials the master used between 1925 and 1932 when the Bauhaus was located in Dessau. Teaching notes within the collection document the thought process that underpinned Kandinsky’s theoretical articulations of “Abstrakte Formelemente” (Theory of Form), color, and line-point-plane composition, while teaching aids such as vividly colored paper cutouts illustrate how these ideas were mobilized in the classroom. Student notebooks and exercises from Kandinsky’s, Albers’s, and Paul Klee’s courses represent Bauhaus students’ efforts to work through these concepts and document the development of their own positions.
The Getty archives also contain the work of other Bauhaus masters, such as artists’ books by Johannes Itten and Lothar Schreyer and a collection of photographs of faculty and students documenting both the work and communal lifestyle of the Bauhaus. Other highlights include textile designs and woven samples students produced in the weaving workshop.
Rarely seen selections from these archives will feature in two exhibitions at the Getty Research Institute this year: Bauhaus Beginnings at the Getty Center from June 11 to October 13, 2019, and Bauhaus: Building the New Artist, presented online. Both will present master and student work and explore the innovative philosophy of the Bauhaus, which combined intellect and craft, thinking and making.