Life and Art
Today, the Bauhaus is generally viewed as a formal canon or style. However, the historic Bauhaus embraced much more than just the design of objects and artefacts. Its goal was the design of a new modern living environment that – following the social adjustments brought about by the onset of industrialisation in the 19th century and the horrors of WWI – was to embrace people as individuals and social beings with their inherent human identity and dignity. The Bauhaus aimed to accomplish this through a synthesis of art and life, work and play.
The Bauhaus was not alone in this regard, but it was the first place where the European avant-garde’s longing for social renewal was institutionalised and authorised by the state in a school of design. Without the social and political vacuum created by the national turmoil between the German Revolution of 1918/19, the dissolution of the monarchy and the ratification of the Weimar Constitution on 11th April 1919, the foundation of this type of institution with such far-reaching goals would have been inconceivable. With the establishment of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius ultimately intended nothing less than to educate and shape a new type of designer and human being, who would contribute to changing the world.
This attitude also characterised life at the Bauhaus. Here, education did not focus on the strictly academic mediation of knowledge, but on an open and empirical-analytical experimentation and learning through collaboratively gained experiences and insights. Of course, the friendly and committed union shared by the Bauhaus’s students and masters – from the teaching staff to the apprentices – also crossed over into their leisure time, and this was explicitly set out in the founding manifesto of the Bauhaus, drafted by Walter Gropius in 1919: “Cultivation of friendly interaction between masters and students outside of work, including theatre, lectures, poetry, music, costume parties. Development of a celebratory atmosphere at these gatherings.” The parties at the Bauhaus especially became legendary events.
The open and integrated character of the Bauhaus in the generally chaotic circumstances that prevailed during the early Weimar phase also offered plenty of scope for the metaphysical and the esoteric. In particular, the initial return to craftsmanship and the medieval masons’ guilds as a metaphor for the idealised artists’ community formed the basis for this.
Homage was paid to the Far Eastern Mazdaznan cult around Johannes Itten, the most important master of the early Bauhaus years. In addition to a special Bauhaus costume, other liberties such as nude bathing in the Ilm river, parades through the city and, last but not least, extramarital sex severely tested the disposition of the Weimar province. Even the Bauhaus’s programmatic shift towards industry beginning in 1922 and the more abstract formal world of Constructivism did nothing to change this tempestuous desire for freedom. Although such tendencies were already widespread in the youth and life reform movements that preceded the founding of the Bauhaus, the new and shocking aspect was that a state school – from teachers to students – had declared this model of life to be the basis for educating generations to come. Obviously, the bourgeoisie, with moral values and concepts influenced by the Wilhelmine era, felt attacked. In the provinces, far from the excitement of the big city, conflicts were unavoidable, and these continued after the move of the Bauhaus to Dessau.
These fundamental tensions between the young Bauhaus community and bourgeois society also occurred in the shadow of political and economic developments in the Republic, which was just as young and fragile. Although most of the students came from comfortable backgrounds, for them the early Weimar era was also characterised by the repercussions of massive inflation, great poverty and social destitution. Walter Gropius and the student representatives of the Bauhaus undertook everything imaginable – from the organisation of charity meals, letters requesting donations and participation in the revenues from sales of Bauhaus products to the temporary conversion of workrooms into sleeping areas – in order to maintain the existence of the little school with its approximately 130 to 150 students. Despite the short-lived rise in prosperity in the Weimar Republic in the “golden twenties”, the poverty of the students remained a constant theme, even in Dessau. Nevertheless, the brief economic upswing in Germany during the mid-1920s was reflected in the lived-in worlds and product designs of the Bauhaus Dessau. However, this pattern was repeated during the subsequent economic downturn in the Weimar Republic with its escalating political and social radicalisation. This ultimately led to the end of the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1932 and its dissolution in Berlin in 1933.
Daily life within the small Bauhaus “cosmos” was also rife with conflict. For example, the Bauhaus’s statutes included the goal of equality between men and women – but in reality, things looked different. An extra weaving class was established for female students, and they had a hard time making inroads into traditionally male domains such as metal design and architecture. Such conflicts between formulated aspirations and actual reality also manifested themselves in many other places in the institution and erupted in varying intensities – to the point of intrigues.
Given the heterogeneous biographical and social backgrounds of the Bauhaus’s students and masters, this was no surprise. Differences were part of everyday life at the school. Although the Bauhaus had a select society of handpicked teachers and students, the goal of their union was not the formation of a committed social group but the development of the individual’s creativity in a pluralistic and lively community. With this aspiration for the development of individual creativity to the greatest possible degree, the Bauhaus clearly distinguished itself from other artists’ communities or reform and cooperative movements of the era.