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Johannes Itten - Important Art

Swiss Painter, Designer, and Teacher

Johannes Itten Photo
Movement: Bauhaus

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

Died: March 25, 1967 - Zurich, Switzerland

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)

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.

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

By: Moses Mirkin

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.

Tower of Fire (1920)

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-20th 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.

Related Artists and Major Works

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

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

Movement: Bauhaus

By: László Moholy-Nagy

To design and realize this motorized sculpture - described by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl as a "twentieth-century utopian icon" - Moholy-Nagy collaborated with the engineer Istvan Sebok, the technician Otto Ball, and the theatrical lighting department of the German electric company AEG. The innovative use of modern materials to create the work, which was initially intended for commercial use in theatres, epitomizes the Bauhaus emphasis on mass production, the machine aesthetic, and the use of modern technology to make works of functional art. The artist himself said that his Light Prop was designed for "creating special lighting and motion effects". It also expressed Moholy-Nagy's interest in light itself as a creative agent, capable of forging new perceptions of space. He used the machine both for his own works of abstract theatre and in his short experimental film Lightplay: Black, White, Gray (1930), in which the Light Prop is the central 'actor,' casting reflections and shadows on a myriad of surrounding surfaces.

Moholy-Nagy onace stated that "to be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century." After he became the director of the Bauhaus's preliminary course in 1923, these ideas played a leading role in the school's development along the rationalist, Constructivist lines for which it is now remembered. He felt that the Bauhaus's early emphasis on Gesamtkunstwerk or the total work of art - influenced by the Expressionist philosophy of Itten - should be redirected toward an ideal of Gesamtwerk, a total work, which he identified with life's biological unity. Artistic experience was not to be partitioned off from life, but was to take its place as an integrated aspect of a broader, embodied perceptual process. Light Prop for an Electric Stage exemplifies this philosophy: Moholy-Nagy felt that its use of motion and time-bound light-patterns - dependent upon the viewer to create their own unique, narrative experience of the work - would transform his audience from passive recipients into active participants within an immersive creative environment.

The idea of an immersive artistic environment was highly attractive to the second-wave avant-garde movements of the 1960s, and sure enough, Moholy-Nagy's Light Prop received great interest during that decade. It was seen as a forerunner of the Kinetic Art movement which was by that point in full swing, and was included in several exhibitions of kinetic sculpture, as well as being exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1968. Two working replicas of the Light Prop were made in 1970, and the Tate constructed a third in 2006. The work therefore indicates the influence which Bauhaus themes and forms would have on the modern spirit of later avant-garde art movements.

Homage to the Square: Dissolving/Vanishing (1951)

Movement: Bauhaus

By: Josef Albers

This canvas, one of hundreds created as part of Albers's vast Homage to the Square project, contains several squares, declining in size and oriented toward the lower edge of the pictorial frame. The red of the central square is, perhaps, only apparently red, as the viewer's perception of it is influenced by the hues of the outer squares: an example of what the artist called "the interaction of color". As Albers put it in his influential 1963 book of that name, "[i]f one says 'Red' (the name of a color) and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different." Due to the interaction of the color and the placement of squares within squares, the image can also paradoxically appear to both advance and recede, subverting the two-dimensional pictorial plane.

Josef Albers, born in Westphalia, Germany in 1888, initially enrolled to study at the Bauhaus in 1920, having previously worked as an art teacher. In 1923, Gropius asked him to take over teaching of the intermediary werklehre course focused on functional techniques, and Albers continued to work at the school until its closure, following it from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin. In 1933 he emigrated to America, where he became the director of Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He described Homage to the Square, which was made up of over a thousand paintings, as a set of "platters to serve color." He began the series in 1949, when he already was sixty-two years old, and continued to work on it until his death in 1976, by which point it had become the culminating achievement of his career.

Through his work at Black Mountain and subsequently at Yale, Albers was hugely responsible for the transferal of its creative principles to North America in the decades following the school's closure. Through his work at those two institutions, and through monumental late works such as Homage to the Square, Albers influenced a whole swath of late-twentieth-century art-movements, including Op Art, Conceptual Art, Color-Field Painting, Hard-edged Geometric Abstraction, and Minimalism, as well as artists such as Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Duo- 2 (1967)

Movement: Op Art

By: Victor Vasarely

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.

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