Marking the Bauhaus centenary: a major print exhibition in Dublin

National Gallery show features prints from the 20th century’s most innovative art school

The Bauhaus was established in the German city of Weimar on April 1st, 1919. Although it was in existence for just 14 years and in three different locations, the Bauhaus – literally, building house – school of art and design was one of the most ambitious, unorthodox, innovative and influential academic institutions of the 20th century.

Central to its importance is the fact that, while it is in many respects synonymous with modernism, it did not promulgate any single core style or aesthetic: the impetus was to equip students as capable, creative individuals who could bring their creativity to practical problems.

With characteristic ambition, the workshop embarked on a programme of producing five portfolios of new European graphics.

And while it is mostly associated with a modern, coolly rational approach to design, virtually everyone involved, while they may have invoked logic and exhaustive research, was at heart distinctly irrational, spinning elaborate, wildly speculative theories of their own. As for modernity, the core of the Bauhaus approach was developed from the medieval example of the art and craft workshop – a group of skilled practitioners making individual contributions but also pooling their talents.

As the educator and historian Kurt Rowland put it in his History of the Modern Movement, the Bauhaus aimed “to give irrational drives rational forms”. Practically everyone involved had a spiritual, even mystical dimension to their thinking. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, had served in the first World War as an army officer, an experience that may have enhanced his moral vision. But his moral, evangelical view of architecture pre-dated the war, when he wrote of art flourishing “when the happiness of a new faith descends on men”.

When the abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky joined in 1922 (feeling unwelcome in Russia), he brought his ideas concerning spirituality in art. Paul Klee, another visionary – “Artists know a great deal, but only afterwards,” he wrote – was already there at that point.

A major shift occurred when Johannes Itten, the school’s first leading teacher, was succeeded by László Moholy-Nagy in 1923. Itten was deeply committed to craft skills and believed students learned by having to deal directly with different materials. But all was preparation for setting the spirit free, and the creative process was unconscious, automatic and shot through with a mystical quality.

In essence, Moholy-Nagy did not depart from this approach, but he brought a certain rigour to the design process. He was one of those free spirits who delight in pure possibility, untethered by preconceptions, and while it is often hard to pinpoint in the work of others, there is no doubting his profound effect on creative thinking in a wide context.

He generated a spirit of challenging, disconcerting openness. In 1922, for example, he made a painting via telephone, issuing instructions to an enamel factory using its colour card and a grid template.

Printing workshop

The printing workshop was the first functional department at the school. It exemplified and encouraged the international solidarity of the artistic community  concerning the Bauhaus’s aims. With characteristic ambition, the workshop embarked on a programme of producing five portfolios of new European graphics.

In the event, four of the five were produced and the process was beset by difficulties. Against a background of runaway inflation, hopes that the portfolios might generate funds for the school were dashed. Apart from anything else, the art market effectively collapsed, and the project did not even cover its production costs.

The unpublished and incomplete second portfolio was intended to feature French artists, but the political climate had soured. Still, four portfolios, incorporating a total of 52 prints, were published.

The first featured work by those associated with the school, the third other German artists, the fourth Italian and Russian artists and the fifth well-known German artists. Works from the four published portfolios from the collection of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, a 1970 bequest, make up the National Gallery exhibition.

The Bauhaus may have enjoyed the goodwill of the arts community across European borders, but not everyone approved of the international dimension. From the beginning it was a target for the antagonism of more conservative forces, expressly opposed to any perceived dilution of a specifically German culture. Opposition was not purely theoretical. Once a right-wing government gained power, it set about dismantling the Bauhaus, cancelling contracts and slashing the budget.

The Bauhaus found a welcome in Dessau, where Gropius designed its new home. But the right-wing political tide was rising inexorably. Within a few years, Gropius decided it was time to move on. His successor, Herbert Bayer, who refashioned the printing workshop, effectively doing away with fine art prints, was soon under immense political pressure, while the charges against the Bauhaus included the inevitable accusation that it was “Jewish”. When Bayer was dismissed, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became the school’s last director and had to relocate it, in diminished form, to Berlin, until the Nazis took control in 1933 and closed it down.

As those associated with the school dispersed, especially to the United States, their influence grew across the fields of education, art, design and architecture. Bauhaus ideas have become part of the fabric of the modern world to the extent that they are taken for granted.

Art schools still hanker after its elusive, magical flair, but none has quite managed to capture it.

Bauhaus 100: The Print Portfolios is at the Print Gallery, National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Sq/Clare St, Dublin, until December 1st. A programme of events, including film screenings, in co-operation with the Goethe Institute, run throughout the exhibition.

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