|What we call abstract art today existed in Germany around 1920 as a part of the general concept of expressionism. In the beginning abstract and concrete were synonymous; later the two notions separated -- concrete and abstract opposed each other. The split showed up in a controversy between Marc and Kandinsky who then couldn't agree on the meaning of abstraction. After 1924 the picture became even more confusing. Men of different nationalities came to Germany and brought their various backgrounds to the meaning of abstraction. Klee was German -- though he was Swiss also. Itten, the first director of the Bauhaus, was Swiss. Kandinsky, as everybody knows was Russian; Feininger (though he lived in Germany from his early years) American; Moholy-Nagy, Hungarian.
One asks oneself. Where are the Germans? And a further question: Why were all these foreigners so much attracted to the abstract efforts in Germany? The answer is obvious: there was one phenomenon in Germany which stood out, namely the 'Bauhaus'. The Bauhaus was recognized by everyone as a unique point of congregation and at the same time as something characteristic of the revolutionary spirit of art in Germany.
There is no room to delve into the importance of the Bauhaus, which aroused the special anger of the Nazis and which later was re-established by Moholy-Nagy as the Institute of Design in the United States. The painter Muche built the first Bauhaus (there were several). He used mathematical and strictly economical forms, proceeding from the 'square'; Muche's ideas had been influenced by the Stijl group in Holland (Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg), and last but not least by the suprematists and the constructivists Gabo and Pevsner. The ideological development of the Bauhaus was complicated. It underwent many changes, and when Gropius took over -- shortly before the arrival of the Nazis -- it had come to a certain decline and possibly to an end. When the Nazi furor prevented the continuation of the Bauhaus, nearly all its members went abroad; among the most important were Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Joseph Albers, Max Bill.
If we try to understand the abstract movement in Germany, we have to start with the 'Sturm' (founded by Hervard Walden), a unique center of modern ideas in art. One can say that the impact of the Sturm worked in the direction of what is generally called expressionism, though this concept has various meanings. Expressionists like Marc, Macke, and others and the participants of the association called 'Der Blaue Reiter' (which originated in Munich) were not completely abstract. Many other elements and experiences had to arrive to found the abstract movement in Germany. The expressionist beginnings of abstraction in Germany -- the influence of Marc and Kandinsky -- were always vivid and sometimes the cause for an easy reversal of German abstraction toward expressionist ideas.
Among the leaders of 'pure' abstractionism in Germany were Lothar Schreyer, Willi Baumeister, Erich Buchholz, Max Burcharz, Otto Nebel, Thomas Ring, Johannes Moltzahn, Walter Dexel, Oskar Schlemmer, Oskar Nerlinger, Edmund Kesting, and Otto Freundlich.
The uncertainty of the basic ideology showed itself in the different development of these personalities. It is only today, after several earth-shaking cataclysms, that we are able to understand them. Some -- like Max Bill, Vordemberge-Gildewart, Buchholz -- remained 'pure'. Others deviated, and some became 'heretics'. Outside circumstances in a country like Germany -- where the economic situation was always difficult -- determined the course of personal development. Max Burcharz became a teacher at the Folkwang school for painting; also Georg Muche. Walter Dexel works as a teacher of modern painting in Magdeburg. Kurt Schwitters, of world fame, worked in the pure abstract sense only from 1924 to 1926. His powerful imagination drove him toward dadaism and surrealism.
The closer we study personalities, the more we see that the basic concepts tend to diverge, though everything is kept together under the undefinable term 'abstraction'. Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, and Schlemmer -- all 'offsprings' of the Bauhaus -- became part and instrument of the world-wide movement against representational art. All of them, in a continuous state of transcendence, had to assert themselves through a certain aggression which would occasionally reflect on the quality of their work. There has never been greater instability than in the German period of' abstract painting; these creative men pierced through a veil of prejudices and conventions to arrive at abstraction, though they differed thoroughly in their approaches, working often through developments that carried them to extremes.
Baumeister, an old Bauhaus follower, showed many different stages. His early murals were influenced by the Stijl. Later the pictures became loose with surrealist suggestions. Schlemmer doesn't seem to be abstract at all, but the structural quality of his work puts him in this category. His deeper concern with man might have caused Schlemmer to become interested in the theatre, where he planned and executed the 'Triadisches Ballett' (ballet triadique).
In the beginning of the movement there were hardly any sculptural developments. Buchholz alone showed three-dimensional structures, using colored glass planes and other materials. In 1922 examples of constructivist sculpture arrived from Russia. And from the north came movies made by Viking Eggeling, who later met Hans Richter in Berlin. Both continued to use the film medium for the projection of their abstract ideas.