Joost Schmidt, Mechanical stage design, 1925-1926, Ink and tempera on paper, 64 x 44 cm1a

Bauhaus color

Here are some hard-to-find color renderings by Bauhaus students (Herbert Bayer, Farkas Molnár, Joost Schmidt, Peter Keler), with text by Tadeusz Peiper.

At the Bauhaus

Tadeusz Peiper

Bauhaus, the one in Dessau. So, off to Dessau. Three hours by passenger train from Berlin. We’re already there by 5 p.m. Even the feet on the stairs in the hallway of the station make it clear we’re in the provinces. But not in the Prussian provinces. Prussian towns differ only in the size of their population, not in their essence. There is almost no trace of Berlin left here. We are in the capital of the duchy of Anhalt. Small one- and two-story houses, almost like those in the Szweska district of Cracow or in the Elektoralna district in Warsaw. Around the city tall red smokestacks shoot up. We are in one of central Germany’s coal-mining centers.

A café. Frankfurters. Malevich has three cups of tea. Call Kandinsky, not home. Stop in front of every lighted store window. Sighs of longing from Malevich at overcoats, tablecloths, and suitcases. We pretend to purchase a bed. Call Kandinsky, still not home. Back into the street. Damned rain.

No time to lose. Call Gropius, the director of the Bauhaus. We go into a cafe. I call. He’s home! He is very pleased, offers us to let us spend the night at his home, drives up to the cafe in the director’s car. A noble face, veiled in fatigue, hardened by truth.

We are at his place. Entry hall. A wall that consists of a thin, sandy cloth curtain behind which stands — as we will see the following day — the dining room, which is directly connected to the kitchen, with a sliding window between the two. The walls are painted to match the architectonic divisions of the room precisely. Just as the room is divided into two sections, the ceiling is divided into two rectangular fields of color. One of them is black. Flooded by the milky light from the horizontal ceiling lamps, this black fills the hall with a cool repose. At the edges of an architectonic section the surfaces are equal. Everywhere a taste for the flattest walls possible. No cabinets; everything is in the walls. Even the bookshelf in front of me arouses the ire of the man of the house, who is already thinking of ways to hide this piece of furniture. We sit comfortably in armchairs that really ought to be called sitting apparatuses. Their form differs vastly from that of traditional furniture of this sort. They recall medical instruments. That fact suggests that the physiology of the human body was the source of their inspiration. On a skeleton of nickel steel tubes supports and rests have been arranged according to the needs of the seated human body, dispensing with any high-flying invention. We sit comfortably, very comfortably. Frau Gropius enters: pretty, her eyes and mouth simply first-class. We talk about the armchairs. With an easy movement of the hand, Frau Gropius turns my chair into a settee, then sits down on it. Unfortunately, only to demonstrate that the armchair can be moved back and forth effortlessly.

We had arrived on the first day of the Easter holiday. Many of the professors had already left Dessau. Gropius telephoned those still in town to get them together. One by one they arrive. First the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy, painter and photo-former. As he spoke his face seemed to be shrunk together by his overexposed teeth. A few moments later the Swiss architect Meyer arrived. The healthy face of a master. Everyone was very interested in Malevich. One of the first professors at the Bauhaus had been Lissitzky, a student of Malevich who had spoken a great deal about his teacher there, translated his articles, and disseminated his ideas. At the mention of the name Malevich at the Bauhaus, hats are removed in profound respect. Even so, the distance between him and the artists gathered here was no less than that between Leningrad and Dessau: Malevich speaks neither French nor German. This only increased the interest in his personality. After personal information had been exchanged the confrontation over ideas began. Malevich distinguishes between architecture and architectonics; the first has use value, the second only artistic value. Architectonics produces forms that are concerned solely with the artistic combination of spatial forms: the resulting works are not supposed to be inhabited (and therefore architectonics is not concerned with the placement of doors; windows garner attention only because tight influences the plasticity of spatial forms). Gropius — who, unlike the sculptor Malevich, is a professional architect — pursues other goals. For him the type of structure is closely dependent on the building’s function; the essence of a building determines the technique, and the technique determines the form of the building.

Herbert Bayer, Design for kiosk and display boards, 1924, Gouache, ink, pencil, and cut-and-pasted print elements on paper, 57.7 x 48.4 cm

Herbert Bayer, Design for kiosk and display (1924). Gouache, ink,
pencil, and cut-and-pasted print elements on paper, 57.7 x 48.4 cm

Malevich, by contrast, would be happy if the builders would simply erect structures according to his sculptural models. Strange. Something created for a specific purpose should serve another one! A system of spatial forms based entirety on artistic goals should fulfill the tasks of a utilitarian object! This opposition is perhaps made a little clearer by an anecdote that Malevich told a few days later at lunch. Once for fun he broke a cup into two pieces along its vertical axis. It was a time when his money stretched neither forward nor backward; his wife made a scene. But he liked one half of the cup so much that he kept it. One day he discovered it was no longer in its place. His wife was using it to transfer flour or sugar between containers. This anecdote was intended to demonstrate that something that was not originally created with a utilitarian purpose in mind could turn out to be a utilitarian object. Gropius heard the anecdote and said nothing. One could have objected that flour can be transferred more easily with a little tin scoop than with half a cup. Let’s remember that we are in the realm of things. Here other rules apply than in the world of art. Because they serve many purposes, as befits the nature of ideas, artworks, however much they may conform to the laws of pure art, doubtless form the reservoir from which the collective life energy is nourished. A poem, if it is a good poem, no matter how “removed from life” it may be, nonetheless serves life. We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that architecture transports us into the world of things. Just as the proper goal of an artwork consists in awakening artistic feelings, so the proper goal of an object lies in its utility. The life of things begins with their use. Like everything created by human hands, a utilitarian object fulfills its purpose when it fulfills it as well as possible. In order to fulfill it as well as possible, it must exhaust all the possibilities that the present age has to offer.

Malevich, however, does not acknowledge the circumstances of our time. A couple of days before we left Dessau we were visiting the German architect Mies van der Rohe. Malevich was making the point that architecture, like the applied arts and art in general, developed exclusively under the influence of aesthetic ideas, independent of historical (social, economic, and other) factors. He told how he had build architectonic models constructed from new architectural elements but according to the Gothic system. Mies remarked that these Gothic buildings weren’t suited for anything today. “Who knows!” Malevich replied, and his reply was considered “extraordinarily interesting” by those present. Then he said that the form of furniture would never have changed if not for a transformation in aesthetic perspectives. Mies replied with the assertion that for example, today’s armchair had changed because today’s athletic people sit differently than their predecessors. Continuing the topic of the needs of the organism, which someone else had raised, I remarked that the changes in the form of the armchair, and so on, are dependent even on medical perspectives, even where these relate to breathing and digestion, that is to say — presupposing a universal context for scientific ideas — the form of the armchair will depend on science in general. I reminded them of the visible influence of bacteriology on interior design.

The conversation, which was meant to serve to get to know one another, bubbled over. There was an excess of controversial questions, and one by one they slipped into silence. It was enough just to touch on them. Gropius called Kandinsky. He was already on his way. One might have expected a curious, if not effusive, greeting between the Russian working in Germany and the Pole working in Russia. But no. Kandinsky made a violent bow, touching the floor quickly with his hand, and its trace disappeared immediately. Even the hope that Kandinsky might at least relieve me of the dull task of translating for a while came to nothing. Of his conversation in Russian with Malevich, Kandinsky translated only the parts that pertained to his own recent failure in Russia.

Twelve o’clock. Sleep! We depart. Herr and Frau Gropius lead us through the apartment. It is smooth and shiny, as if it were made of unbreakable porcelain. The guestroom is on the second floor. Hidden away: two old beds.

The following day a tour of the Bauhaus. The buildings are divided into the trade school, the workshops, and the student apartments. The workshops are an important element of the Bauhaus, and there metalwork, carpentry, architecture, and wall painting are practiced. The overview is impressive. Unusual formal and material effects. Each perspective offers another set of solutions. If more proof is needed of the epochal value of achievements of the new art, here it is. Iron, reinforced concrete, and glass.

The Bauhaus is a school of design. Through instruction in forms, through training in crafts, and through technical instruction it enables the student to build houses, to design interiors and prototypes for industry, and to work in the crafts. The relationship between the instruction in easel painting and the other scientific goals of the Bauhaus is not entirety clear. When they show us works that students have created with paper, we understand their significance, even when they do not have any use value whatsoever. The point is to become familiar with the laws of the materials. When the student makes various things from a particular piece of paper and is asked to take care that not even the tiniest edge goes to waste, he comes to know the modern principle of economy of material, while also learning the properties of the material. But the painting instruction?

The question arises whether artistic forms influence technological forms. Should art influence the design of factory products, or should it leave these things to the laws of technical production? Should the artist, even in matters pertaining to very simple forms, be asked to advise on designing forms for products, or should the product be solely the result of technology and its possibilities? For everyone who acknowledges the realities of time, this question is dependent on the era. Malevich’s standpoint of timelessness leads to solecisms here too; the assertion that it is sufficient to pick up a catalog with illustrations of products from America in order to solve the questions of industrial form design takes into account neither the level of industrialization nor the living conditions current in Poland or Russia. The products from the United States correspond to a great extent to the level of industry there. In countries where industry is far less developed, they could neither be produced and nor utilized in daily life. Such use is also dependent on the era. In countries with a modest level of industrial development, in countries in which the logic of industrial production has not attained some degree of purity, one finds that the products of technology still show influences from the crafts and from the cultural taste of the age of crafts. The art of the present time easily does away with that taste. (It should be noted that the art of the present time is not the same as the art of the present day. The present day is a term borrowed from the calendar; the present time is a term borrowed from physiognomy. Those for whom the present time and the present day are interchangeable speak of the present time as a name; my concern is the present time understood as a description of a person. Need I add that for me the most important rubric in this description of a person is that of “unique features”?). If the art of the present time has the effect of suppressing the artistic influences of the past in the design of factory products in countries with a modest level of industrial development, it can guide machine production to its own essence. With time and with the progress of industry, the laws of amortization and labor productivity become the imperatives of machine and chemistry, which have become intertwined in an irresolvable knot of necessity and will not permit artistic factors to have their say, and certainly that voice would be superfluous at that point anyway. Whether the Bauhaus, in the face of the present development of German industry, is already in arrears, I do not know. To answer that, I would have to know Germany better. For a country like Poland, however, the Bauhaus is still an island of dreams.

Herbert Bayer, Cover of Bauhaus Dessau college of design, prospectus, Dessau Bauhaus 1927, Letterpress and offset on paper, 20.8 x 14.6cm

Herbert Bayer, Cover to Bauhaus Dessau college of design
(1927), Letterpress and offset on paper, 20.8 x 14.6cm

Another part of the Bauhaus is the professors’ houses. They, too, were built by the city and are its property. The lie in a secluded boulevard, far from the school buildings, separated from them by a large section of the city. Their walls are a white glow, surrounded by the green glow of the lawns and trees. Flat roofs — a horizontal line — press them cheerfully down to the ground. The windows find the light where they can. The overhangs catch the shadows. Air and heat bow and scrape on the platforms and terraces. For the first time I see the new architecture not as an illustration but in its inspiring material existence. I look around, pleased, and in all the admiration and all the joy I feel a special satisfaction arise within me that I cannot immediately explain. It swells and swells within me and Of course, now I know. Personal satisfaction. The relationship between the rhythm of this architecture and the rhythm of my poetry. If rhythm has a literary function in my work, then here it has an architectural function. The windows are not placed according to predetermined “feet,” nor do they follow “free verse,” but rather their arrangement is strictly determined by the logic of the building. The same rhythm in relationship between earth and surface. The “personal rhythm” with which I was concerned in Neuer Mund (“Poetry as Architecture”) could, mutatis mutandis, be applied to this architecture. There, too, this rhythm finds a new confirmation. Aaaah.

After lunch with the Herr and Frau Gropius, a trip to Törten, where Gropius is building workers housing. Two long rows of small houses, each with four small rooms, comprising a dwelling. Modern methods of serial production reduce the costs to such an extent that a work who pays a thousand Reichmarks at the beginning and then the normal rent will be the owner of the little house he occupies after a period of fifteen years. The housing colony in Törten has so many new things for us that we choose not to return for the tea with which Kandinsky awaits us. We return to Dessau half an hour before our train departs. Final farewells in the Bauhaus. Dash over to see Kandinsky in the workshop. We leave. Frau Kandinsky would like to show us the apartment that is “painted using criteria of fine art painting.” What to do? The train! The proposal is made a second time. Malevich isn’t listening; I am. Fine. “Would I like to see the apartment? With the greatest pleasure.” I see it, admire, groan. And then I excuse myself to rush out to the entrance by the shortest possible path and force Malevich into the car. The train!

Originally published as “Im
Bauhaus,” Zwrotnica 12 (1927)

Translated from the Polish by Steven Lindberg.

From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930

(The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

4 thoughts on “Bauhaus color

  1. Pingback: Bauhaus color | Research Material

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  3. Pingback: Object lessons from the Bauhaus | The Charnel-House

  4. Pingback: Bauhaus color | Mid-Century Modern Furniture Then and Now

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