The Swiss painter and art teacher Johannes Itten was one of the first masters to be appointed by Walter Gropius at the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar. From 1919 to 1923, with the preliminary course which he had developed, Itten influenced the principles of education in design at the Bauhaus.

Portrait of Johannes Itten, photo: Paul Stockmar. Kunstmuseum Bern, Itten-Stiftung / © Itten-Stiftung, Kunstmuseum Bern.
Portrait of Johannes Itten, photo: Paul Stockmar. Kunstmuseum Bern, Itten-Stiftung / © Itten-Stiftung, Kunstmuseum Bern.

In 1918, building on his studies with Adolf Hölzel at the art academy in Stuttgart, Johannes Itten ran his own private art school in Vienna. At the Weimar State Bauhaus, he devised a contemporary method of teaching based on insights gained from the progressive educational movement and the artistic avant-garde. Instead of urging his students to start by copying other artworks as was customary at the traditional art academies, Itten encouraged his students to explore their own subjective feelings and to bring creativity to design. His course was divided into three sections: studies of nature and materials including colour and form theory, analyses of the old masters and life drawing.

Contrast Study with various Materials from Johannes Itten's Preliminary Course, author: Moses Mirkin / reconstruction: Alfred Arndt (1967), around 1922. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.
Contrast Study with various Materials from Johannes Itten's Preliminary Course, author: Moses Mirkin / reconstruction: Alfred Arndt (1967), around 1922. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.

Itten’s classes began with exercises in concentration, breathing and rhythm, the momentum of which was to flow into the students’ creative work. He gave the students material studies and contrast exercises to complete, which they had to evaluate on their own. In the process, Itten set store by subjective perception and objective understanding. The students were only permitted to choose a workshop for their main course of study after they had passed the preliminary course.

Carline Thistle Composition Study from Johannes Itten's Preliminary Course, author: Margit Téry-Adler, around 1920. Klassik Stiftung Weimar / © Judith Adler-Moller, Wesen (Switzerland).
Carline Thistle Composition Study from Johannes Itten's Preliminary Course, author: Margit Téry-Adler, around 1920. Klassik Stiftung Weimar / © Judith Adler-Moller, Wesen (Switzerland).

Itten was ridiculed by some of the students and colleagues at the Bauhaus because of his eccentric clothing and his belief in the Mazdaznan cult, an American sect with elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism that was also active in Europe. Nevertheless, Itten had a lasting influence on the teaching of the principles of design.