Bauhaus: Internal Tensions

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Contradictions within the Bauhaus

In the most recent scholarly work on the Bauhaus, Bauhaus. Workshops for Modernity. 1919-1933, Museum of Modern Art, 2009, for the Museum of Modern Art, Barry Bergdoll wrote about the contradictions that existed within the Bauhaus. In my view, these contradictions were deeply and unavoidably embedded in the school’s heritage and its intentions. The cultural inheritance that the Bauhaus was working with came from an old way of thinking that may or may not have been capable of being modified for the modern world. Take the grid, for example. The grid became the basic ruling concept of the Bauhaus. Obviously, despite the impact of De Stijl, the grid is far older than the paintings of Piet Mondrian and had long been the underlying structure of any composition. But with the Bauhaus the grid comes to the foreground and determines the module that was mobilized for advertising and for furniture and for architecture. Gropius proposed the Baukasten as a cubic element that could be deployed for pre-fab architecture. However, the architect was a visionary but Germany itself was still in the process of standardizing systems of measurement and it would take years for modular units in building to become an international norm.

Another case in point is the Bauhaus interest in redefining the “book,” a very old object that needed to be updated. For the Bauhaus, the urgency of this self-assigned task could not be clearer. The urban dweller of the twentieth century was inundated with visual images through film, illustrated magazines and newspapers, and advertising. One saw in a flash and read quickly in small graphic units. People were seeing and thinking in visuals as in no other time in history. The development of a “new vision” in typography and advertising was perhaps the most impactful contribution of the Bauhaus. László Moholy-Nagy took up the task of redesigning the format of books and the traditional gray page of blocks of print, breaking up the monotony of lines with graphic insertions.

In order to design the forms appropriate for mass communication and mass advertising everything had to be rethought. Herbert Bayer attempted to drag Germany into the twentieth century by bypassing the traditional Germanic medieval script in favor of a simplified and updated Roman font. In eliminating frakur, Bayer sought to eradicate culture and nationality for a more rational system. The German language is characterized by the capitalization of nouns, which, as with all capital letters, violated the basic tenets of language—to simply translate a sound into letters. Bayer proposed an all lower case form of print, imposing universal regularity with modern ruler and the French curve. This “universal script” became the familiar architects’ writing, still prevalent today.

However beautiful the productions of the Bauhausbücher, publishers who used mass production faced demands inherent in the proposals of Moholy-Nagy and Bayer, which depended upon handwork. For a conventional publisher, the old fashioned book was efficient and cost effective. Stopping the presses to insert some sort of graphically attractive addition or hand-setting hand-made lettering, no matter how “universal,” was simply not conducive to modern methods of manufacture. Despite the fact that it is clear to us today that the artists and architects of the Bauhaus could see into the future and guessed correctly the needs of future industry and accurately predicted the desires of future consumers, the Bauhaus was caught in a time lag. Much of the work done by the faculty and students were very dependent upon handwork and upon old-fashioned craft. Only in advertising did the technology exist to adapt itself to Herbert Bayer’s ideas, simply because there was a profit motive for the profession. Otherwise, it would take decades for technology to catch up with the Bauhaus vision.

The mission of the Bauhaus of a New Vision and a Standard Grammar collided directly with an old idea that simply refused to die: the role of the artist as creator. Faceless murals of Oskar Schlemmer and his mute and masked theatrical production, The Triadic Ballet, all insist upon the anonymity of “The Bauhaus.” But, for some, the nameless modernity of the Bauhaus was simply too challenging, as was the notion that the school “owned” anything the student designed. Inspired by the construction of a bicycle frame, Marcel Breuer invented the cantilevered chair, now known as the “Breuer chair” and introduced a new controversy over who “owned” “Bauhaus designs,” the Bauhaus, the home base of the students, or the students who came up with the design? Although Breuer fought to retain his rights to the famous chair, the art designed by the Bauhaus students was always labeled “The Bauhaus.” Regardless of who owned the lamps, ashtrays, teapots of Marianne Brandt or not, her work still stands for The Bauhaus.”

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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