German Expressionism  

It was Walter Gropius’ intent to bring the many different approaches to art,
architecture and design under one roof.  He radically reformed the
Deutscher
Werkbund
into the Bauhaus in 1919.  He broke away from the rationalistic lines of
Muthesius and Behrens to create a design program loosely based on a medieval
guild, in which students were expected to learn various crafts so that they might
eventually be able to combine them in the articulation of living spaces and buildings.  

Gropius hired
Johannes Itten, a Swiss painter, to lead the Vorkurs (foundation
course).  Itten infused the program with a spiritual quality, which was largely an
extension of Kandinsky’s theories as set forth in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  He
encouraged meditation and other forms of self-discovery that gave the Vorkurs a
primitive quality.  The aim was to strip away the layers of European academic tradition
and provide a new beginning through experimentation with natural materials and
abstract forms.

At the middle level, students were exposed to
Formlehre (study of form) under such
masters as Kandinsky, who had finally achieved a total abstraction of art into a
Grammar of Forms, where “the elements of drawing and the plastic elements stand
in a constant relationship to each other.”  He referred to these inner forces as
tensions, which hold the composition together.  Colors were codified much to his
colleague
Oskar Schlemmer’s chagrin, but Kandinsky was looking for a universal
system of absolutes, which led to dissension among his peers.  The principal aim
was to give students a greater sensitivity in general aesthetic matters.

At the final level, students served as apprentices in the workshops, which included
joinery and fitting, wood carving and stone sculpture, metalwork, ceramics, wall
painting, weaving, printing and advertising, photography and theater.  These
workshops were led by established artisans such as
Marcel Breuer, who first
became famous for his chair designs,
László Moholy-Nagy, who came from a
Constructivist background and assumed numerous roles in Bauhaus, and Oskar
Schlemmer, an Abstract artist who headed up the wall painting workshop.  

Over the life of Bauhaus, 1919-33, many leading architects, artists and designers
passed through its doors giving the school a vitality which few other schools enjoyed
at the time.  Gropius was hoping to redefine cultural attitudes in a post-war society by
encouraging an open lifestyle and all-embracing work ethic that eventually led to a
new form of
Expressionism that would be characterized in the free-form designs of
Erich Mendelsohn.  

Mendelsohn reworked many of the previous expressionistic themes of the pre-war
generation into a very personal style best seen in the
Einstein Tower (1920-4) at
Potsdam, outside Berlin.  He had been experimenting with free forms since 1915, as
seen in his numerous sketches, but this was the first concrete example of his tactile
architecture.  The tower is an observatory, in which he was able to infuse much of the
cosmology of Kandinsky into a dynamic structure, loosely based on Einstein’s
themes of matter and energy.  He used spectral light as the line of force which bound
the forms together.   While the building served a specific function, Mendelsohn
wanted to give it a quality of life that united intellect and feeling, Curtis noted.

Rudolf Steiner went even further than Mendelsohn, ascribing an Anthroposophic
philosophy to his work, which would inspire a cult following.  The
Goetheanum (1925-
8) served as the headquarters of his movement.  It was entirely made from concrete,
taking on a “mineralogical” form with multiple facets, expressing the attitude that the
outside form was an expression of inner and invisible processes.  The building took
on a theatrical quality with the play of light on the rough concrete surfaces.  

But most of these expressionistic visions were difficult to realize at the time, as was
the case with Mies van der Rohe’s
Friedrichstrasse skyscraper (1921).  He treated
the tall building as a prism, reducing the structure to steel and glass and breaking it
up into facets, which would have reflected light in numerous ways.  He embued the
tall building with the same progressive fervor as had Louis Sullivan, evocative of a
new state.  He would experiment with other tower designs, before returning to
domestic themes, in which to express his themes of infinite space.

His project for a brick villa (1923) was one such example.  Van der Rohe seemed to
absorb some of the lessons of Frank Lloyd Wright and de Stijl in creating an open
plan broken up by towering masses and planar elements, which extend far beyond
the superficial enclosure of the house.  It was a very effective translation of painterly
ideas into architecture, which he would incorporate in the
Barcelona Pavilion (1928-
9).

Gropius would revamp the Bauhaus curriculum in 1923, as it once again stressed a
machine aesthetic.  Gropius designed the new Bauhaus school at Dessau, which
was completed in 1926.  He had distilled many of the different currents of
architectural thought into a thoroughly modern work that ushered in the golden age of
the school.  Bauhaus saw its greatest output during these years, which caught the
attention of the public. It seemed as though the expressionist resurgence had served
its purpose, providing a brief period of experimentation that was now supplanted with
a more rationalist approach learned from these lessons.   Gropius now stressed
models for standardized mass production, some of which were quite elegant in form,
such as Breuer’s steel-tubular chairs.

Gropius was now gaining more architectural commissions as Germany was
emerging from its recession.  He passed the reins of Bauhaus to
Hannes Meyer, a
long time collaborator, in 1928, who assumed an even more functional approach,
stressing mass production at the expense of quality design.   Meyer subsequently
passed the reins to Mies van der Rohe, who saw the Bauhaus closed down in 1933
with the ascension of Hitler to chancellor of Germany.  Like Stalin, Hitler had no time
for modern design and closed the school because of its “decadent” and “subversive”
tendencies.  The staff scattered to other parts of Europe and to America, while Hitler
imposed his own brand of Neo-Classicism on the German masses.

Bibliography

Banham, Reyner, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Italy: Futurist
Manifestos and Projects,1909-1914, Holland: The Legacy of Berlage: De Stijl, 1912-
1925, Architectural Press, Oxford, paperback edition 1972

Cooke, Catherine,
The Avant-Garde: Russian Architecture in the Twenties,
Architectural Design, Academy Editions, London, 1991

Curtis, William J.R.,
Modern Architecture since 1900, Cubism, De Stijl and New
Conceptions of Space, Walter Gropius, German Expressionism and the Bauhaus,
Architecture and Revolution in Russia, Phaidon, London, paperback edition 1996

Fielder, Jeannine and Peter Feierabend,
Bauhaus, Preparatory Teaching and
Workshops, Könemann,  Cologne, 1999

Giedion, Sigfried,
Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition,
The Research into Space: Cubism, The Research into Movement: Futurism, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, hardback edition 1969

Gowing, Sir Lawrence, editor,
A History of Art, Fauvism and Expressionism (Peter
Vergo), Cubism and Futurism (Nicholas Wadley), Abstract Art (Alan Bowness),
Andromeda Oxford Limited, England, 1995

Page  1   2   3   4                                                                         return to reading room
Charlotte Voepel,
color composition
Erich Mendelsohn,
Einstein Tower
Mies van der Rohe,
Friedrichstrasse skyscraper
Marcel Breuer, “Wassily”
tubular steel chair
Abstraction in Art and Architecture