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The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics

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Éva Forgács

Chapter 4. First Steps

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  • 1 Gropius, Programme of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar, April 1919; in Wingier, op. cit., p.31.
  • 2 Gropius. Letter to his mother, Berlin, 31 March 1919; In Isaacs, op. cit., p. 207.

1GROPIUS proceeded in a consistent manner to create the formal elements of a guild-like environment. In the 'Bauhaus Programme', a broadside issued at the same time as the Manifesto, he states that 'The school is the servant of the workshop, and will one day be absorbed in it. Therefore there will be no teachers or pupils in the Bauhaus but masters, journeymen and apprentices.'1 Gropius had refused the title of professor for himself; as he wrote in a letter: 'I have decided to refrain from indulging in these formal trappings which I consider outmoded.'2

2The keynote document - the Programme - also specifies that students at the Bauhaus would have to pass a guild-like journeyman's examination in front of the Council of Masters, or invited masters, before attaining Mastery, and receiving the Bauhaus Diploma.

  • 3 Scheidig, op. cit., pp. 17.19.

3The activities of the fine arts academy, for the time being within the Bauhaus, continued to progress smoothly. However, the equipping and launching of the School of Applied Arts, which had been completely evacuated, proved much more troublesome - yet this was precisely where the brunt of the Programme's emphasis lay. The School of Applied Arts, which had been suspended for the duration of the war, had still at its disposal unspent endowment funds and subsidies for art patronage, supplemented by donations solicited by Gropius. From April to October one million marks were amassed, which seems like a large amount, in view of the masters' total annual salary payroll of 67,000 marks; however, within two years, in the course of galloping inflation this amount melted into nothing,3 as did the dreams of financial and artistic independence. In the end, the textile and ceramics workshops could be established only by involving the owners of the equipment in the training. In order to bring in the new ways as planned, Gropius needed not only prominent artists with a modern outlook but expert artisans as well, so that he appointed two instructors for each workshop: an artist, the Formmeister, and an artisan, the Handwerkmeister. The goal - and, in part, this constituted the great experiment of the Bauhaus - was to create in the person of the student an alloy of artist and craftsman, thereby forming a new type of artist-technician, in whom everything learned from the artist and the artisan would ripen into a new kind of knowledge.

4The artist-teacher of the ceramics workshop was Gerhard Marcks. The workshop itself started functioning only in the summer of 1920, at some distance from the Bauhaus, in Dornburg an der Saale, 35 kilometres from Weimar. This is where Max Krehan, the last member of a long dynasty of potters, the Handwerkmeister of the workshop, had his studio.

5To head the textile workshop, Gropius followed the recommendation of a Weimar painter, Johannes Molzahn, and invited Georg Muche, a young painter from Berlin, to be the Formmeister, while as Handwerkmeister he appointed the same Helene Börner who had headed the workshop under the directorship of van de Velde, and who owned the looms and other equipment. Gropius himself was the artist-instructor of the cabinet-maker shop, along with Josef Zachmann as the crafts instructor; Richard Engelmann conducted the sculpture studio, while painting was taught by the academy's faculty - primarily Max Thedy - although Feininger had some students as well.

  • 4 Isaacs, op. cit., p. 260.

6Gropius did not teach architecture, but with the collaboration of his associate and draughtsman Adolf Meyer, Herbert Bayer organized an unofficial architectural work group, which was converted by Georg Muche into an architectural study group. Gropius employed several draughtsmen in his private architectural office, Alfr6d Forbát and Ernst Neufert among them, and he himself followed with interest the ongoing architectural self-education at the Bauhaus.4

  • 5 Frank Whltford, Bauhaus. Thames and Hudson, London, 1984, pp. 67-9.

7Anyone between the ages of 16 and 40 could apply to the Bauhaus, but admission was not easy to obtain. In the course of its life-span, the Bauhaus had a total of 1250 students; usually about a hundred at any one time, and a larger number during the more prosperous periods. Many were admitted conditionally for a half-year probation, after which students were frequently advised not to return. If they stayed on at the Bauhaus, they were required to gain formal admission to the Weimar Chamber of Artisans. Attendance of workshops and lectures by form masters was compulsory, and each stage of the training had to be completed by predetermined deadlines. In order to acquire a sense for everyday realities, students had to do everything possible to create saleable objects. Materials were supplied for free by the school, and everything they made was the property of the Bauhaus, although In the case of a sale, students received a certain percentage as a royalty.5

8This ingenious system of twofold workshop leadership proved fruitful for the students - the apprentices - in creating a completely new generation of technician-artists, along lines somewhat resembling agricultural plant-breeding methods (a solution that, in spite of its success, later turned into a source of numerous conflicts). However, the system also had its roots in Gropius's own personality and abilities.

  • 6 Groplus. Letter to his mother, Medina del Campo, 21 October 1907; quoted by Isaacs (1991), op. cit (...)
  • 7 Nerdinger, op. cit., p. 29, writes as follows: 'If someone wishes to become a composer, and fails (...)
  • 8 June L. Ness (ed.), Lyonel Feininger. Letters to Julia Feininger. Praeger Publishers, New York. Wa (...)
  • 9 Ibid., letter of 23 May 1919. p. 100.

9In spite of his talents as an architect, and his style-creating powers, Gropius had an undeniable shortcoming: he was unable to draw. Even as a student, he had hired a draughtsman, and was forced to interrupt his studies repeatedly. In 1907 he wrote to his mother: 'My absolute inability to bring even the simplest design to paper is casting a shadow on many otherwise beautiful things and often makes me worry about my future profession. I am not capable of drawing a straight line. I could draw much better as a twelve-year-old. It seems to be almost a physical Inability for me, because I immediately get a cramp in my hand and continually break the points of my pencils, so that I have to rest after five minutes. Even my handwriting is the same. It gets worse every day.'6 Although the letter reflects a moment of discouragement, it states the truth. It made Gropius's position all the more untenable that the German school of architecture was famous for the excellence of its draughtsmanship, bordering on painterly virtues. As we can see from his earlier writings, In which he regarded art and technology as two combinable quanta, rather than autonomous qualities with their own laws and chemistries, for Gropius, the plan or concept, on the one hand, and its first embodiment, its drawing, on the other, meant two entirely separate spheres. For this reason the contribution made by his draughtsmen is greater than usual in his oeuvre, and is always credited by name, along with his own.7 We need not exaggerate the significance of this fact, but we cannot ignore it in the case of the initiator of an institution that employed a dual leadership structure, and thought in terms of a dual value system - at first, art and craftsmanship, and later art and technology - that for him it was a given fact, an acknowledged and natural state of affairs, to hierarchically separate artistic conceptualization and practical execution. Naturally the execution - in his case, the drawing - was secondary and subservient to the idea, the artistic concept. At first the studios were so scantily equipped (if they were equipped at all) that during the first semester there was hardly any craft workshop activity at the school. For reports on this period we rely almost entirely on Feininger's letters to his wife. 'The students I have seen up to now look very self-conscious. Almost all have been in the war. It is a new type, a new generation. They are not as timid and harmless as the old professors here imagine them to be. As I see it, I think they are after something new, a new way of expressing themselves in art.'8 Nonetheless, Gropius was the object of animosity and suspicion. In the spring of 1919 open criticism of Gropius was rife in Weimar cafes; Professor Thedy veiled his complaints in conversation with Feininger. On 23 May, Feininger wrote: 'The intrigue against Gropius is becoming very pointed and naturally also against myself... The mere fact of having changed the name of the art school to "Bauhaus" has been enough to enrage them ... These now are the "protectors of the Fatherland", the Pan-Germans! ... The guilds are also afraid of us, of impending rivalry in their field of crafts, and are moving in closed ranks against Gropius.'9

10Feininger made some acute observations regarding Gropius, from the alertly watchful artist's viewpoint vis-6-vis the technocrat, the representative of the other order. Although the two men maintained an informal, friendly contact, a certain amount of distance and reservation is palpable in each line of Feininger's.

  • 10 Ibid., letter of 22 May 1919, p. 99.

11'I cannot very well judge Groplus's deeper relationship to the spiritual meaning of art in our time as we understand it. Sometimes I find myself wondering whether he would not willingly subjugate plastic art to make it serve architecture, and then would agree to the fantastic and decorative side of it only.'10 One week later he continues:

  • 11 Ibid., letters of 30 May and 1 June 1919. pp. 103-4.

You know me to be no less fanatical than Gropius, but he values crafts and the technical aspect. I am concerned with the spiritual side of art - at least at the present - more than he is. But he will never ask me to make concessions, and I, for my part, want to help him and give him all the support in my power. He is a man loyal and frank, full of Idealism, and without any selfishness. His creativity, in the sense that we understand it, doesn't count as much as his personality as an outspoken human being ... Yet It would almost seem as if this sort of life suits him, to be in contact with people constantly, to be important in the weaving of destinies. But it keeps him from doing work of his own.11

12The results of the first semester were summed up by the (private) exhibition of the students' work. Feininger writes:

  • 12 Ibid., letter of 22 June 1919. p. 106.

It was for the first time that I saw an assemblage of student works... Some works simply dumbfounded me and made me feel quite humble at my inadequacy. I felt like a loiterer left behind on the wayside. But, there was also a confusing mass of industrious studies without any sign of talent . . . Gropius had told me privately that he intended to deal harshly and attack certain elements uncompromisingly - and he did. I have to admit that he was perfectly right. He has very precise judgment, and what a man like myself might have cherished out of tradition, he is apt to overthrow. This seems hard, but it clears the road and is stimulating . . . The Thedy class fared the worst. They showed nothing but works in the driest academic character. Thedy was beside himself.'12

  • 13 Gropius, 'Rede bei der ersten Ausstellung von Schülerarbeiten des Bauhauses'. June 1919; In Hüter, (...)
  • 14 Ibid.

13Gropius had indeed used harsh words to criticize the students and their teachers: the moment had arrived when he at last could point at concrete objects to demonstrate more precisely than ever before what he had in mind to accomplish at the Bauhaus. It was obvious that he was not simply judging the individual work displayed; much more was at stake: the academy itself. 'Gentlemen: first of all, the outward appearances. All these fine frames, lavish elaboration, finished paintings - but for whom, actually? I had asked specifically for plans and conceptual sketches. Not one painter or sculptor showed plans for compositions, which, in an institution such as ours, are the most important. Who can afford, nowadays, to paint a fully composed, highly finished picture complete with varnish?'13 To emphasize the kind of profound and fundamental changes he wished to see at the Bauhaus, he referred back to the experience shared by all, the war that had wrought such changes In Germany. 'We find ourselves in a colossal catastrophe of world history, in a transformation of the whole of life and the whole of inner man ... Many students have just returned from the battlefield. Those who have survived a meeting with death came home basically altered... Since I most particularly empathize with all of this 1 do not wish to employ any coercion, on my part. You will accomplish everything voluntarily.'14

  • 15 Ibid.

14At the same time he spared no effort to make the students understand that no compromises were to be made in the area of talent and work ethic. 'These days our state has hardly any money for cultural purposes, and cannot afford to subsidize those who do a bit of work, and desire to promenade forth a bit of talent... Only those among you will remain as professional artists who are ready to starve for it.'15

15Gropius knew full well what was at stake in his speech. What he had floated out in the Manifesto had been a programme wrapped in the mists of Romanticism and emotion. Now, in his capacity as director, he could exercise his full powers clearly, unmistakably and unequivocally to define what he wanted. He knew very well that Thedy and the other professors of academic art would now at last comprehend his full import. Gropius was not judging the quality of exhibited paintings; he made no mention of shortcomings in painterly accomplishment, choice of subject, or technique. He said not a word about the excellence of some of the work. The target of his attack was easel painting itself, as a medium, as an activity inadequate for the age. In other words: fine art itself. Naturally he was not In a position to dismiss the professors of painting, along with those students fuelled by artistic ambition; but in speaking of his plans he explicitly singled out handicrafts and the alliance for the construction of tomorrow's Great Building, so that it was now obvious that the academy as an Institution for painting simply did not exist in his programme. 'We must shed everything that is prewar, for everything was totally different back then,' he said, and it was obvious that this sentence was not aimed at the students.

16He set handicraft training as an absolute necessity in front of the whole school community; he indicated that starting with the coming semester there would be for the students of painting a new decorative painting workshop - that is, a course in applied art - and that he intended to start a similar course in decorative architectural sculpture for students of sculpture. For as long as they have not acquired actual craft expertise, the words apprentice, journeyman and junior master were no more than empty playthings, without the backing of craftsmanship behind them.

17Gropius in fact united two threads of thought in his speech. On the one hand he informed the academic professors that their time was past - he expressed this by means of the image of the war and the deep-seated changes it had brought. On the other hand he addressed the young people whom he had indeed wanted to win over, since he intended to realize his plans through them, and, like Feininger, he too had noticed that they were bursting with creative energy and the desire to innovate. It is to them he offered his programme:

  • 16 Ibid., p. 211.

I propose that, for the time being, we refrain from public exhibitions and work from a new point of departure so that, in these turbulent times, we can collect our thoughts anew and become first of all self-sufficient ... No large spiritual organizations, but small, secret, self-contained societies, lodges. Conspiracies will form which will want to watch over and artistically shape a secret, a nucleus of a belief, until from the individual groups a universally great, enduring, spiritual-religious idea will rise again, which finally must find its crystalline expression in a great integral work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) ... I firmly believe that we are the precursors and first instruments of such a new, universal idea.16

  • 17 Ibid.

18The Great Building, the integral architectural work of art towering above all else, at the same time indicates the special place held by the architect in society. 'Before the war we put the cart before the horse, we went about the wrong way to make art universal. We designed artistic ashtrays and beer mugs, and in that way hoped to work up to the great building. Now things will be reversed ... this great total work of art, this cathedral of the future, will shine with its abundance of light into the smallest objects of everyday life.'17

19Architecture raised to the top of the pyramid of values may have had its roots in the earlier visions of Taut, but it now naturally suggested the nature of the ambitions of the years immediately following the war. The architect was seen as the lord and creator of the supreme work towering above all, glittering with a somewhat mystical aura, the highest symbol for all of society. As the designer of the collective creative endeavour, director of its realization and knower of its secrets, the architect was to be the high priest of a new religion.

20And this was precisely where all that ambition was directed: the aspiring individual of the new age, of the disjointed time, did not desire to be a great scientist, head of state, philosopher, or even the greatest of artists, for he wanted to gain possession of the most precious treasure of the age, that of mystical knowledge, as the wizard and chief keeper of the secret of a spiritual community.

Notes

1 Gropius, Programme of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar, April 1919; in Wingier, op. cit., p.31.

2 Gropius. Letter to his mother, Berlin, 31 March 1919; In Isaacs, op. cit., p. 207.

3 Scheidig, op. cit., pp. 17.19.

4 Isaacs, op. cit., p. 260.

5 Frank Whltford, Bauhaus. Thames and Hudson, London, 1984, pp. 67-9.

6 Groplus. Letter to his mother, Medina del Campo, 21 October 1907; quoted by Isaacs (1991), op. cit., p. 23 and Nerdinger, op. cit., p. 29.

7 Nerdinger, op. cit., p. 29, writes as follows: 'If someone wishes to become a composer, and fails already at learning to play an instrument, one could assume that he would soon give up his planned profession. This was not so in Gropius's case, even though around 1900 a mastery of draftsmanship was not only centrally importont to architectural training (to a different degree than todoy), but this mastery also distinguished the architect. All important architects of his day, from Otto Wagner and Theodor Fischer to Fritz Schumacher, not to mention the trained painter-architects like Olbrich, Behrens or Riemerschmid were splendid draftsmen. Gropius, however, considered the translation of a design concept into a drawing to be a support activity from the very beginning. He simply raised himself above this because of his family connections and the commissions which he gained through them. This "lordly posture" is characteristic of his entire life; but more significant is an awareness of his own importance, demonstrated even at a young age that gave Gropius the lifelong air of a missionary. When Behrens and Gropius had an argument because, among other things, the height of the attic in the Cuno house was not correct - probably because of an error by Gropius - Gropius could no longer maintain his position at Behrens's office. Although he was only twenty-eight years old and had no professional degree, he wrote to Osthaus in his usual unfaltering selfconfldence: "Lately, Behrens and I have come to some differences of opinion which have become so marked that yesterday I found it necessary to forego any further collaboration."
Gropius promptly opened his own office in Berlin and found a congenial co-worker in Adolf Meyer, who directed the "Gropius Architectural Office" until the beginning of 1925. In 1966. Gropius wrote that Meyer had never been his partner, but rather had always been a paid employee. He considered it to his credit that he, contrary to the common practice of the day. mentioned Meyer's name in publications.'

8 June L. Ness (ed.), Lyonel Feininger. Letters to Julia Feininger. Praeger Publishers, New York. Washington, 1974. Letter of 21 May 1919. p. 99.

9 Ibid., letter of 23 May 1919. p. 100.

10 Ibid., letter of 22 May 1919, p. 99.

11 Ibid., letters of 30 May and 1 June 1919. pp. 103-4.

12 Ibid., letter of 22 June 1919. p. 106.

13 Gropius, 'Rede bei der ersten Ausstellung von Schülerarbeiten des Bauhauses'. June 1919; In Hüter, op. cit.. p. 210.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 211.

17 Ibid.

© Central European University Press, 1995

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