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Johannes Itten Photo

Johannes Itten

Swiss Painter, Designer, and Teacher

Movement: Bauhaus

Born: November 11, 1888 - Suderen-Linden, Switzerland

Died: March 25, 1967 - Zurich, Switzerland

Johannes Itten Timeline

Important Art by Johannes Itten

The below artworks are the most important by Johannes Itten - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

The Encounter (1916)
Artwork Images

The Encounter (1916)

Artwork description & Analysis: Although Itten painted this color abstraction prior to his arrival at the Bauhaus, it includes many of the fundamental principles that would be central to his teaching there. His use of geometric shapes, including the dominant spiral and repeated circles and rectangles, along with his exploration of the color spectrum preview his later interests.

While non-objective, Encounter is layered with both personal and symbolic meaning. It forms part of a series of paintings of similar composition and palette, completed between 1915-16, that Itten's correspondence linked to the suicide of his girlfriend, Hildegard Wendland. This work, which has also been titled Meeting, centers on two intertwining spiral forms. This particular shape has more universal significance as a Theosophical archetype of geometric forms in nature and a symbol of transcendence beyond the physical, concrete world.

The painting can also be understood as a study in dynamic contrasts of color, created from a comprehensive range of hues. The striped horizontal section of the lower right color features gradations of bright colors, from yellow to blue. It is flanked above and on the left, by vertical metallic stripes that are superimposed by the dominant form of the double spiral, which creates a rhythm of dark and light. One half of this spiral catalogues colors, the other values of gray, until they meet in a center of gray and pastel yellow. The result suggests a cosmic catalogue of different hues, swept together in a united geometric arrangement. Itten's emphasis on primary shapes and primary colors drew from the influence of Kandinsky, but would influence other Bauhaus students and instructors, including Paul Klee and Josef Albers.

Oil on canvas - Kunsthaus Zurich

Study of Contrasts(reconstruction of student project) (1920)
Artwork Images

Study of Contrasts(reconstruction of student project) (1920)

Artist: Moses Mirkin

Artwork description & Analysis: This student work was completed in Itten's Vorkurs preliminary course, highlighting the class's emphasis on experimentation with materials and studies in contrast and form. This was a dramatic break with traditional art education, which emphasized copying from plaster casts and prints. Trained as an elementary school educator, Itten was deeply influenced by the pedagogy of Friedrich Froebel, who argued that learning was accomplished through play. Itten would propose a visual or structural challenge, often based on the exploration of ordinary materials, and his students would have several days to prepare their models. They were forced to work intuitively, in response to the materials, to develop creative solutions. Rather than grading individual efforts, which he believed could stifle this creativity, Itten would speak to general errors made by students and then allow the class to choose the most successful work. This model of open-ended experimentation, group dialogue, and individual expression has become a cornerstone of art education.

When this sculpture was reproduced in the 1923 Bauhaus catalogue, it was described as "combined contrast effect, material contrast (glass, wood, iron), contrast of expressive forms (jagged-smooth); rhythmical contrast. Exercise to study similarity in expression using different means of expression simultaneously." Itten's teaching was often grouped around such contrasts, encouraging students to discover the "essential and contradictory" characteristics of different materials. This emphasis on materiality would then extend beyond this introductory class, to guide the students through the Bauhaus curriculum, which was organized by medium.

Various Materials - Bauhaus Archives, Dessau, Germany

Tower of Fire (1920)
Artwork Images

Tower of Fire (1920)

Artwork description & Analysis: The founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, was an architect by training and architecture remained the ultimate goal of Bauhaus pedagogy, as a unification of all other media. Itten designed several architectural structures during his tenure at the school, most of which were based on elementary geometric forms in dynamic arrangements. Indeed, this architectural sculpture was a prototype for a never-realized public monument. Descriptions of the proposed project in Itten's diaries suggest that it might have been intended as a beacon for the Weimar airport. The model was installed outside of Itten's studio at the Bauhaus.

The tower rises around a central core, with repeating projections of yellow, blue, and red leaded glass. The stacked cubes were intended to be formed from three different materials: the lowest four from clay or stone (to connect to life on earth); the middle four were to be metal forms that concealed bells (Itten's notes do not elaborate on this meaning); the upper four cubes were to symbolize the four essential elements of earth, water, air, and fire. The number twelve had significance from Itten's own color theories, as well as contemporary tonal experiments in music and both the traditional and zodialogical calendars. These cubes are circled by a series of ascending, concentric, conic forms that were also layered with symbolic importance, drawn from Theosophy and mystical geometries. The spiral was a form of transcendence, rising above materiality to embrace a higher level of consciousness. It was also a primal form, recurring in natural forms, suggesting a continuum of the ancient and possible future utopias.

Itten's Tower is similar to other utopian designs of the early twentieth century, including Bruno Taut's glass architecture and Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. While Itten was opposed to the growing industrialization of the Bauhaus, he incorporates these modern materials to create an expressive and organic structure here.

Reconstructed by Michael Siebenbrodt



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Johannes Itten Photo

Related Art and Artists

Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light Space Modulator) (1930)

Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light Space Modulator) (1930)

Movement: Bauhaus

Artist: László Moholy-Nagy

Artwork description & Analysis: Moholy-Nagy worked with engineer Istvan Sebok and technician Otto Ball to realize the Light Prop. Uniting the artist's enthusiasm for the look of machines, and for material innovation, it is one of the most famous early examples of kinetic art. It went on to be presented in many different ways: as a free-standing and immobile sculpture, as a device for experimental theatre, and as the protagonist of a short experimental film, in which it is shot from different vantage points. The film captures the reflections and shadows created by the spinning sculpture, at times giving the impression of a functioning machine, a factory, or even an urban landscape.

Aluminum, steel, nickel-plated brass, other metals, plastic, wood, and electric motor - The Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University

Homage to the Square: Dissolving/Vanishing (1951)

Homage to the Square: Dissolving/Vanishing (1951)

Movement: Bauhaus

Artist: Josef Albers

Artwork description & Analysis: Josef Albers described his most famous series, Homage to the Square, as "platters to serve color." He began the series in 1949 and worked on it until his death in 1976. This early version demonstrates his systematic approach to investigating the optical effects of colors. With this series, Albers explored how colors change depending on their placement within the composition. Although the series was created several years after the Bauhaus movement, the work is typical of the experimental, modernist approach to form and color that underpinned Bauhaus teaching. Teachers at the school believed that colors and forms could be reduced to essentials and analyzed as separate components. That analysis would yield understanding about the character and effects of these components, and that understanding would result in better design.

In 1999, Howard Singerman wrote: "Over and over again in the teaching of art at the Bauhaus and in its teaching in America, the re-creation of design as vision is represented by the field or, more familiarmly, by the picture plane as the gridded, ordered, law-bound rectangle with which, and on which, art fundamentals begin. The rectange marks the teaching of modernism as the visual arts, displacing and containing the human figure that stood at the center of the academic fine arts."

Oil on masonite - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Duo- 2 (1967)
Artwork Images

Duo- 2 (1967)

Movement: Op Art

Artist: Victor Vasarely

Artwork description & Analysis: The contrasting warm and cool shades here create the ambiguous illusion of three-dimensional structures. Are they concave, or convex? The illusion is so effective that we are almost led to forget that it is a painted image, and made to think it is a volumetric construction. Although black and white delivered perhaps the most memorable Op images, color also intrigued many Op artists. The scientific study of color had been central to teaching at the Bauhaus, and Vasarely certainly benefited from his education at what was often called the "Budapest Bauhaus." Bauhaus teachers such as Joseph Albers encouraged students to think not of the associations or symbolism of colors, which had so often been important in art, but simply of the effects they had on the eye.

Gouache and acrylic on board - Private Collection

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Archino
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