In 1919 Walter Gropius, one of the leading contemporary German architects, founded in Weimar the Staatliches Bauhaus (State Building House), a grouping together of the schools of fine arts and crafts. The inaugural manifesto concluded with these words: ‘We seek to form a new body of craftsmen who will no longer know that pride of class that erects a high wall between artisans and artists. We must desire, devise and work together to prepare the new edifice of the future, which will harmoniously unite architecture, sculpture and painting. This edifice will be raised by the hands of millions of workmen — a crystalline emblem of the new faith in the future.’
Stemming from the historical and social conditions of defeated Germany, the Bauhaus showed a desire for positive, rational reorganization, as a reaction against expressionist individualism. Its conscious ambition was to revive the lost unity of all the arts, in relation to modern architecture on the one hand and the concrete needs of our industrial civilization on the other. The ‘ Bauhaus’, according to its programme, ‘wishes to re-establish the harmony between the different artistic activities, between craftsmanship and artistry, and bind them all together in a new conception of building.
Our final but still distant aim is one unified work of art — the magnum opus — where there will no longer be any distinction between monumental and decorative art.’ It was at the same time a School of Fine Arts, and a School of Arts and Crafts, with a broader and more modern spirit than the old, backward-looking institutions of the same name. It was a self-contained centre of artistic instruction and culture, with tremendous breadth of scope.
The leading teachers, together with Gropius, were artists of the first rank: Lionel Feininger (from 1919 to 1933), Paul Klee (from 1920 to 1929), Oskar Schlemmer ( 1921 to 1929), Wassily Kandinsky (from 1922 to 1932), and Ladislaus Moholy-Nagy (from 1923 to 1928). Klee taught theory, then painting on glass and tapestry. He summed up the basic essentials of his method in his book Pedagogical Sketchbook, published in 1925. Kandinsky gave lessons in general theory, but concentrated more on abstract composition and monumental painting.
The influence of these two great artists was tremendous at the Bauhaus but, despite their will to discipline, there was a certain contradiction between their romantic instincts and the clearly architectural and purist tendencies which dominated the group and which suited Feininger, Schlemmer and Moholy-Nagy better. In the spirit of the Bauhaus the latter two renewed the technique of working in metal and plastic materials, the arts of the theatre and the ballet, photography, typography, publicity, and so on. But it was undoubtedly Feininger, faithful to the Bauhaus from its first day to its last, who best exemplified the constructivist aesthetic doctrine in its flexibility and its purity (vide Feininger, Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Schlemmer).
In 1929, under reactionary pressure, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau where, a victim of National Socialism, it had to close down in 1933. Gropius, who gave up the management of the Bauhaus in 1928, and Feininger settled in the United States in 1937, where their work and influence continue. Moholy-Nagy joined them there, and tried to revive the tradition of the group, founding a New Bauhaus in Chicago. Two complete retrospective exhibitions have been held, one in New York in 1938, the other in Munich in 1950.