What was the Bauhaus art movement?
Published on June 27, 2022 / Updated on January 5, 2024
If you don’t have a background in history, art or architecture, the word Bauhaus may only bring to mind a rather obscure and ephemeral artistic movement from 1920s Germany. You could also be forgiven for mistaking it for the British rock band or the German hardware store that has adopted the name. Yet for some, the Bauhaus movement has also come to represent the breathless creativity, modernity and looming tragedy of Germany’s Weimar Republic – the first attempt at democracy prior to the rise of Nazism. The revolutionary spirit of Bauhaus, which Hitler’s dictatorship tried so hard to extinguish, was one of the twentieth century’s most influential architectural and design movements.
The Bauhaus (literally “building house”) was an art school founded in 1919 in the city of Weimar by the architect Walter Gropius to foster all forms of creative work. In his Proclamation of the Bauhaus, Gropius laid out his philosophy for a school that would bring about a unity of the arts into a single mode of creative expression.
By bringing together architecture, painting, sculpture and design, Gropius elaborated an almost utopian vision for the future of art, in which function and form, utility and beauty, would go hand in hand. Gropius imagined art and architecture together would become a force for social regeneration and meaning in a modern, industrialized world.
The Bauhaus also set out to pioneer a new form of artistic pedagogy, where teachers did not make disciples of their students. The school took the form of a creative laboratory, where teacher and student could learn from, and inspire, each other.
From the outset, the Bauhaus produced an atmosphere of artistic experimentation and versatility. You need to look no further than the names of the key figures who taught at the school to see how remarkable the convergence of talent at the German Bauhaus school was. They include many of the great painters of the early twentieth century: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Lyonel Feininger, for instance, saw some of their most productive and innovative years at the Bauhaus school. In the 1920s, the great Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius, Adolf Meyer and Mies van der Rohe made enormous innovations in architectural design, and the buildings they designed almost a century ago still feel modern, if not futuristic, even today.
The Bauhaus teachers and alumni include artists of a wide variety of other crafts as well, such as Oskar Schlemmer, who is best known as a painter but was also a talented and influential sculptor, designer and choreographer, or László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian painter and photographer and a number of textile artists, such as Anni Albers. Beyond this the Bauhaus school has had lasting influence in theater, typography, furniture design, art theory and pedagogy.
To the extent that one can identify a distinct Bauhaus style, the aesthetics of the school eschewed elaborate decoration in favor of basic geometric shapes like rectangles and spheres and simple color schemes. Its architectural and furnishing designs often feature practical yet elegant features, such as rounded corners and walls.
Even before the rise of the Nazi party, the Bauhaus’ avant-garde assault on traditional design, art and architecture, not to mention the Bohemian lifestyles of its followers, had drawn the scorn of the political right and conservative traditionalists. Despite having prohibited political agitation amongst its members for fear of conservative backlash, it was politics which drove the Bauhaus firstly from Weimar to Dessau in 1925, and finally to Berlin in 1932 for its twilight year.
When Hitler took power in the Spring of 1933, the Bauhaus was an early victim of the dictatorship. Denounced as un-German purveyors of “degenerate art”, a term used to imply that the creative and moral spirit of the work was in decline, the Berlin Bauhaus was closed in April 1933.
Although the Bauhaus school ended with the rise of National Socialism, not even the catastrophe of German fascism could stamp out Walter Gropius’s dream. Bauhaus became a diasporic art movement, carried across the world by those exiles who fled Nazi repression. Many went to the United States, where key Bauhaus figures like Gropius, Breuer, Albers and Moholy-Nagy taught at major universities, carrying on the Bauhaus spirit to a new generation of great artists, architects and designers who have indelibly shaped our modern world.
The Bauhaus concept of design can be seen around us everyday, from modern furniture and the buildings we live in to the pedagogy of art. The breadth, some might even say nebulous nature of the Bauhaus movement’s objectives, fuelled by an irresistible idealism about the potential of progressive design to return meaning to modern life, have made it an inspiration to creatives of many diverse persuasions right up to the present day.