Books and Influences: Bauhaus

Bauhaus by Magdalena Droste (2006)

While he was the director of Bauhaus, Walter Gropius stood by a few fundamental ideas of design — laws of proportion, beauty and spacial distribution. (11) He also tackled the problem of resolving art and technology (10). EG, what makes a great piece of furniture? Is it in its utility and beauty or only in its utility? Initially, I saw this problem as mostly resolved, or I took it for granted that we are living with both in our everyday lives and assumed it was a balance maintained by individuals.

I want to say I choose what I surround myself with but schools of thought like Bauhaus had an impact on how we see the spaces we occupy and everyday objects that fill those spaces.

Magdalena Droste, in her book Bauhaus, takes a snapshot of different aspects of Bauhaus, each 1-2 pages. It provides a historical context and descriptions of the school’s components: “the preliminary course,” “apprenticeship and diploma,” and “The Workshops,” and “Form Training — Craft Training.”

The school was far from perfect.

There was an interesting problem with the workshops: having contradictory goals of being a place to learn on the one hand and creating prototypes for products that could be sold on the other. If you are thinking about selling your work, you may not allow yourself full freedom to explore and take risks, so that the fear of making mistakes may have an undue influence on the choices you make. Some might say that because one’s art requires an audience, the fear of making mistakes and forfeiting a potential audience is inherent in the work itself, but if the environment revolves around the notion of furthering a dialogue, it would encourage the students to share and be apart of a dialogue. Selling to somebody requires more. The buyer likely has to think about whether the object fits well with other pieces, whether or not it might be too distracting for wherever it goes, and if it’s a piece of furniture, its utility.

The school was constantly in flux. It enjoyed experimenting with pedagogy and as it changed directors, the design of its courses and programs also changed. You could say the rise of Bauhaus may be a lesson in fighting traditions. Borrowing strategies from the avant garde of mid 19th century France, like forming groups and publishing manifestos, Bauhaus took its place next to Expressionism, Futurism and Dada, all of whom continually redefined what it meant to be avant gard. (15)

Some of the artists who taught at Bauhaus took a holistic approach and linked the aims of their work with the aims of everyday living. Johannes Itten and Georg Muche believed in an ideal “new man” and worked toward fulfilling that ideal and developing “reformed living” as apart of the Mazdaznan movement. I am weary of subscribing to any idea of an “ideal” man (or woman); however, like Gerhard Marcks, I think art can “have a higher value for human development.” (25)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s approach, specifically, intrigues me: “For him the production of art was a mental process, not a question of craftsmanship.” (25) It sounds similar to my own approach; unfortunately, the book doesn’t say much else. (It’s a very quick read.)

Before moving onto its own mantra, “art and technoloty — a new unity,” (31) Bauhaus invited Theo van Doesburg, one of the founders of the De Stijl movement, to give lectures, offer De Stijl courses and exhibit his own work. Years ago, Chess Players had attracted my eye and even now, looking at examples of Doesburg’s work, I am moved by them and want to emulate them. But reading about his approach to art, I am surprised by how extreme it sounds.

In a De Stijl course, artists were discouraged from depicting their feelings, “but instead should recognize their responsibility to create a world of uniform design… Creative design entailed striking a balance between contrasting means of expression: black and white, yellow and blue, horizontal and vertical, empty and solid.” (32)

Being aware of what the goal was, I feel obligated to consider why I was moved by Doesburg’s work. I say obligated because I believe looking at my own psychology as audience is a fundamental step towards achieving an understanding of my own approach as artist. This is not to reduce the De Stijl movement to what can move an audience. Doesburg believed “an equilibrium between polarities would allow truth and beauty to become manifest in the universe, raising the art of De Stijl to the realm of Platonic thought. This was accompanied by a faith in the machine.” (32 – 33)

On the one hand, my eye is attracted to the balance between two opposing elements (color, direction of line or occupation of space) and the visual rhythm created by these elements. On the other hand, to put one’s feelings aside while creating one’s work would have an artist neglect oneself; and to move forward as an artist, one has to develop as a human being. Or I see such a role in my own work.

I like an approach that does not necessitate an integration with all other aspects of life but does not create a false boundary between art and oneself. I like to have art as a way of thinking so it is not entirely for its own sake even though what I enjoy about the product is a balance struck by the elements, a quality that exists with or without an audience.

Droste seems to imply that Bauhaus was driven by a desire to stay away from “everyday bourgeois existence” and refers to “artistic proletariat” and “dilettantism” as products of their traditions. (15) It sounds like a response to the problem of letting one’s ego overshadow the value of one’s art or the thing that supposedly brings one glory.

I don’t see the glorification of art as a problem. It becomes a problem when it leads to stagnation and the inability to distance oneself from one’s work to gauge whether or not one is making progress. This, I believe, is crucial in maintaining a place in an ongoing dialogue, whatever the issue may be. I believe we create art so that we can engage with others. We share our thoughts and responses to personal experience and abstract ideas alike. We do so to form community. I don’t think community is merely a by-product of what an artist does.  

Below are Composition II and Composition III, which I drew in 2009. I was getting my first glimpse at work by Wassily Kandinsky and just like the idea of drawing compositions.

Books and Influences

I’ve been thinking about my influences lately and I realized I may be stuck in that advent of modern art sweet spot, in which artists were enthralled by the idea of finding a subject’s essence.1 

When we talk about an abstract of a long academic paper, we mean something that is composed of the main points of the actual paper. When Picasso deconstructed the image of a bull, he was leaving only the main points that without anything else could still represent the idea of a bull. When we think of abstract art today, I think we’ve gone beyond this; even though, at the same time, it is what we have always been doing when creating abstract art.

When we recreate what we see, it is in the fashion of what one sees. When an artist can acknowledge this, she can be guided by more than the idea of a given object. When she sees a vase, for example, she might not just see a vase but something about that vase, and it is that something that she can try to convey.

It could be a mood or an indefinable quality like charisma or elegance. It could be “pretty” without anyone being able to explain why.

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While in school, I would love browsing the library and found myself returning to a specific aisle in the book stacks and introducing myself to Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso and Van Gogh. I knew that what I was looking for would not be found in The Impressionists and in hindsight I think I was looking for structure and good line work.

I would later find out that many of the artists from the 1920s were influenced by Japanese art prints.

When I look at Hiroshige’s abstractions of human figures, birds and flowers, I think Hiroshige was trying to convey not a mood or quality that stood outside the idea of an object. He looked instead at the lines themselves. When looking at a flower, for example, it is like looking at the design of that flower. The line work is very purposeful and neat. It is also meant to be seen. Each piece within an object is like a building block that helps compose an overall idea.

There’s a balance. It’s almost mathematical.

Sketch of flower from Horikiri no hanashobu by Hiroshige3

When I look at the flower above, I don’t imagine it toppling. It looks poised. It maintains what Klee might describe as a “balance of proportions,” which he discusses in the second section of his Pedagogical Sketchbook, II Dimension and Balance. There’s a great line from the next section2 and that is “To stand despite all possibilities to fall.”

I marvel at the flower because it is supported not just at the base but by the imagined weight of the leaves and the relative sizes of its parts. Each part, moreover, is outlined in black ink and highlighted as an individual piece with its own qualities of line and flow, which in turn follow a path that responds to and influences the disposition of its surrounding pieces.

In words this sounds complicated but in appearance it’s very simple. Or it’s very simple for an audience to see everything at play, all at once. It may not have been so simple to compose the flower to begin with.

When drawing this flower in my sketchbook, I was always tempted to draw the lines longer than they were so as to accentuate the flow of the line, but doing so disrupted the balance of proportions. So I had to redraw and shorten the line while maintaining the flow of the line.

I believe the art of Hiroshige’s drawings are in this balance: maintaining the qualities of multiple aspects — line, form, balance of proportions and color — while creating a scene a viewer can take in all at once.

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1 I’ve written about this before and spent some time arguing how one may be inherently biased, the essence of a subject may not exist and therefore whatever we might believe is the essence of anything may only be something one imagines.

2 Section III Motion and gravitational curve

3 Melanie Trede, et al. One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Taschen, 2015