Theories and Practices Introduced by Bauhaus Masters such as Josef Albers
The Bauhaus school, founded in Germany by architect Walter Gropius in 1919, was innovative for its time. Translating to “house of building,” the school was more of a community of artists, especially seeing as they all lived together on campus. The philosophy of the school was to bring art to the everyday experience by combining fine art aesthetics with craft products and taking advantage of industrial processes. The school went through several changes over its short fourteen-year life. The initial location was in Weimar under founder Gropius. The school then moved to Dessau in 1925 where he designed the building that would be recognized for trademarks of the aesthetic including a steel-frame, glass curtain wall, and a pinwheel floorplan for maximum efficiency. This structure became a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1996 (Griffith, 2016). In 1928, Gropius was succeeded by architect Hannes Meyer who included architecture into the curriculum. Shortly after, and with pressure from the Nazi party, Meyer resigned and was replaced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies then moved the school to Berlin where it was shut down after a final semester underground in 1933 (Nagle, 2018).
In order to stick to his purpose of creating functional, aesthetic objects, he structured the curriculum to require students first attend the Preliminary Course. This allowed students to become more familiar with their materials in order to understand how they should be formed for a final product. According to Saletnik (2007), “The course served as a creative laboratory where students were to experiment with the foundational elements of design before actually applying these methods and practices to the making of a finished product” (para 3). Once having completed this prerequisite, students would then filter into more practical workshops, and finally, into specialty apprenticeships (Teaching at the Bauhaus). Instructors of this course include Johannes Itten, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Josef Albers. Each of these figures helped shape the curriculum in different ways. When the school was closed in 1933, several of the masters and students fled to other countries including the United States bringing their teaching philosophies to American institutions (Griffith, 2016).
Johannes Itten was the first of these instructors. Considered one of the greatest teachers of color theory, he devoted over five decades to color instruction. Studying under the leading color theorist of his time, Itten found relationships between music and color leading to an interest in abstract color expression in geometrical paintings. He became recognized for his work with his own school in Vienna from 1916-1919 where he encouraged spontaneity with expression in color. Fourteen of his students followed him to the Bauhaus school where he developed the mandatory Preliminary Course. Itten believed that color needed to be explored individually without being tied to an object. Opposing what was traditionally studied in arts academies, he had students develop their own creations with no set goal in mind rather than have them copy from models (Teaching at the Bauhaus). When he left his position at the Bauhaus in 1923, he soon operated another school, this time in Berlin. Many of his teachings from this period can be found in his book Design and Form, the basic course at the Bauhaus. He also founded a school in Krefeld, Germany, School for Textile Design. He continued in several exhibitions and published The Art of Color in 1944 which is considered to be his major publication (Birren, 1970).
Another Preliminary Course instructor from the Bauhaus school was Laszlo Maholy-Nagy who later opened the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937. Saletnik (2007) indicates,
Among his stated instructional aims was to elicit ‘spontaneity and inventiveness’ and hence, to awaken his students’ creative capabilities…he had students perform ‘tactile experiments’ believing that through physical engagement with the tactile, the optical would be developed. (para 6)
He asserted that artists were practitioners and should experiment across disciplines rather than be defined by one particular medium which has influenced contemporary movements (Sturgis, 2006). One such product is that of Apple design. According to Rawsthorne (2006), he believed that art and design ought to be natural and intuitive for the consumer which is the ideal for Apple products. Moholy-Nagy embraced technology within his own art making practices as well. His fascination with light has had an impact on graphic and multimedia art namely by his Light Prop for an Electric Stage, 1922-1930. He felt having an effect on the audience was the primary goal over its creation, which was another radical shift in art practices of the time (Rawsthorne, 2006).
With the close of the Bauhaus school in Germany came Josef Albers who taught the course from 1928 until closing. Albers immigrated to the states to teach at newly founded Black Mountain College which was an experimental university. With a similar concept to that of the Bauhaus school community, it was owned by its faculty, and everyone involved had a hand in its operation. Albers was hired on to be its first art teacher and stayed from 1933 to 1949 molding such influential Abstract Expressionists of the time as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Cy Twombly, and Franz Kline (Black Mountain College). He then left for the position of chairman of the Design Department at Yale University until 1958. Albers is probably best known for his teachings on color theory as seen in his publication Interaction of Color and his Homage to the Square series. However, he still taught students the same ideal that whatever your medium, find how best to engage it. There are parallels between his color squares and that of student Eva Hesse’s fiberglass sculptures. It is evident in her work that he brought with him the concept of the Bauhaus Preliminary Course—a heavy influence on process and materials (Saletnik, 2007).
As a personal reflection, I made a connection of the Bauhaus philosophies to the contemporary art education movement known as TAB, or Teaching for Artistic Behavior. Originally coined Choice-Based Art Education, this strategy developed out of Massachusetts roughly forty years ago. “TAB is the philosophy that grounds this learner-directed model and choice-based art education is the methodology that drives the practice through the use of studio centers” (Teaching for Artistic Behavior, 2018). TAB classrooms, referred to as studios, are organized according to centers. These centers typically revolve around the various branches of media as well as topics such as art history or research. In 2001, Teaching for Artistic Behavior, Inc. was established. This organization intends to create more awareness of art education with students at its core.
I made the parallel between the two philosophies due to their emphasis on allowing and encouraging students to experiment with materials and media prior to the expectation of a finished work. Bauhaus student Hannes Beckmann recounts the methods of Albers in the Preliminary Course when he presented the class with newspapers and instructed them to make something more than they are now, and encouraged them to do so without the use of scissors or adhesives. “Our studies should lead to constructive thinking,” he said (Saletnik, 2007, para 9). Provided in the Teaching for Artistic Behavior’s organization website are several resources including an explanation of the practice, suggestions for structuring the studio space, assessment types, and ideas for the centers themselves. Also provided are a list of twenty-first century skills, critical thinking and problem solving at the top (Teaching for Artistic Behavior, 2018). The organization of centers also mirror practices by Moholy-Nagy and how he believed artists should be well-rounded across multiple disciplines. Like all three Bauhaus Preliminary instructors who wanted their students to access imagination and become actively engaged with the materials themselves by experimentation, other twenty-first century skills include innovation and inquiry.
One particular practice I’ve seen relating to the TAB experience is WOW, or Wonderful, Original Work of art. Starting in Maine by educators Barb Berry and Robin Brooks, this choice-based practice involves lab days in which the student artists experiment while the teacher-facilitator introduces skills and techniques as necessary (Jaquith, 2013). The artists then make a WOW piece that is a culmination of what they’ve discovered. What counts as a WOW piece, though? According to Bae’s study on choice-based art education, WOW art is original, developed from hard work over time, includes details and good craftsmanship, and is accompanied by an artist statement. Mentioned in the Teaching for Artistic Behavior website are assessment strategies including self and collaborative reflections.
I first selected this topic thinking it would help me better understand part of the curriculum for my graphic design course regardless of my general disinterest. I would not have thought that the Bauhaus movement would become one of my favorite historical influences on art education and design today. These influences include technology, furniture, and architecture as well as their underlying aesthetic philosophy, “less is more.” Bauhaus laid the foundation for the following Modernist movement. Mid-century modernism is also making a comeback in contemporary design. Nagle, writer for design blog, Stem, makes the connection of the style and the mass-production of IKEA furniture and user-friendly technology such as Apple products. He explains that the movement is still evident in the way art is taught in schools. Nagle (2018) says, “It wouldn’t be seen as a proper art education if a student didn’t receive lessons in a variety of mediums and foundations of design and color theory” (para, 17).
Bae, Yeon Joo, (2014). Teaching Strategies For Implementing Choice-Based Art Curriculum. Thesis, Georgia State University. https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/art_design_theses/170
Black Mountain College: A Brief Introduction. Retrieved from http://www.blackmountaincollege.org/history/
Craig-Martin, M., Khan, I., Rawsthorn, A., Sturgis, D. (2006). Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World. Tate.
Griffith Winton, A. (2016). The Bauhaus, 1919-1933. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bauh/hd_bauh.htm
Itten, J., & Birren, F. (1970). The Elements of color. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
Jaquith, D. (2013). WOW Faire. Self-Directed Art. Retrieved from http://selfdirectedart.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/wow-faire/
Nagle, T. (2018). Why the Bauhaus movement was so important for modern design. Stem. https://www.stemgoods.com/blog/why_bauhaus_movement_was_so_important_for_modern_design
Saletnik, J. (2007). Josef Albers, Eva Hesse, and the Imperative of Teaching. Tate Papers, no.7. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/07/josef-albers-eva-hesse-and-the-imperative-of-teaching
Steven, J. (2006). Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World. Tate.
Teaching at the Bauhaus. Bauhau-Archiv/Museum Für Gestaltung. Retrieved from https://www.bauhaus.de/en/das_bauhaus/45_unterricht/
Teaching for Artistic Behavior. (2018). Teaching for Artistic Behavior, Inc. Retrieved from https://teachingforartisticbehavior.org/what-is-tab/about-us/