Johannes Itten

It is taken for granted today that the design of everyday objects is an art form, but in 1919 this was a radical notion. The Bauhaus succeeded in breaking down hierarchal notions of art disciplines, and believed that there was no difference between the artist and the craftsmen.

Textbook by Johannes Itten "Die Farbe," 1944.

Johannes Itten, “Die Farbe” (The Color), 1944.

Johannes Itten was one of the main pedagogical forces behind the Bauhaus and taught a foundation course in craft through the study of color and form. He originally trained as an elementary teacher before moving on to painting and color theory. During his studies of education and psychoanalyses, Itten began forming his unique theories on the creative spirit and how best to nurture it. A particular influence was Friedrich Frobel, “the inventor of Kindergarten”, whose pioneering ideas included young children’s desire for creative expression and the natural tendency to learn through play. At the time, this was considered groundbreaking pedagogy.

Image of Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus in 1921. (Image by Paula Stockmar)

Johannes Itten (1888-1967) shown here in 1921. (Image by Paula Stockmar)

In developing his curriculum for Vorkurs, the “preliminary course” at the Bauhaus, Itten placed emphasis on spiritual openness and peace of mind as a means to free expression. He began class by practicing gymnastics and meditation. Itten’s course was required for all students at the Bauhaus; all the masters believed that a foundation in color, material and composition was crucial to the pursuit of any artistic endeavor.

The students were given raw materials – in Itten’s book Design and form: the basic course at the Bauhaus and later, he wrote, “It might have been wood, metal, glass, stone, clay, or textile that inspired in [them] the most creative work”. Students were then asked to improvise with the various materials. The course also included analysis of the painting masterworks; these were broken down by color and composition, reducing the image to squares of color. Itten said, “Color is life; for a world without color appears to us as dead. Colors are primordial ideas, the children of light.”

Color Sphere by Johannes Itten in seven light stages and twelve tones.

Itten’s “Color Sphere” in seven light stages and twelve tones, 1921.

Today, introductory courses at many art schools around the world concentrate on color analyses and are a direct descendant of Itten’s “preliminary course”. These color theory courses are prevalent in America, most likely due to the numbers of Bauhausers who found positions in American universities.  Most notably is Josef Albers who headed the Department of Design at Yale. Albers had been Itten’s student at Bauhaus and went on to become the better known color theorist, though Itten was the originator.

The early days of the Bauhaus were marked by a Universalist approach — a belief held by both Itten and Gropius that the craftsperson is the true artist and everyone must learn by starting with the basics. This ideological harmony did not last long. Itten’s increasing interest in eastern philosophy, meditation, and Zoroastrian fire cults began to rub the clean-cut “silver prince” Gropius the wrong way. The students’ devotion to Itten served to further annoy Gropius.

"Horizontal Vertical," painting by Johannes Itten, 1915.

“Horizontal Vertical” (1915), by Johannes Itten.

At the same time, Gropius was embracing new industrial technologies and took an interest in the potential of mass production. Itten rejected this believing that one must make individual work with no thought for the “outside world” or “industry.” Itten was particularly against receiving commissions for the school’s work.

But the tide was turning, and it was turning away from individual creation and towards a brave new glass and chrome future, replete with commissions. Gropius’ direction for the school forced the highly-principled Itten to resign in 1923. He was promptly replaced as foundations master by the technophile photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Johannes Itten in a class with students in the Bauhaus in Weimar. (Image courtesy of We Are BNC)

Itten giving a class at the Bauhaus in Weimar. (Image courtesy of We Are BNC)

After leaving the Bauhaus, Itten established a small art and architecture school in Berlin, and hired Ernst Neufert as an instructor – Neufert formerly served as the chief architect under Gropius for the Bauhaus buildings. The Nazis closed the school in 1933, and Itten went into a sort of design oblivion. Despite being one of the strongest early ideological influences on the Bauhaus school, he is not widely remembered.

"Farbkreis," by Johannes Itten, 1961.

Itten’s “Farbkreis” (Color Circle), 1961.

FURTHER READING: - Johannes Itten. The art of color: the subjective experience and the objective rationale of color. Wily & Sons, 1970. MOMA/P.S. 1 | Lessons from the Bauhaus

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