The Bauhaus art connoisseur that I chose as a subject to study is Johannes Itten. He was a visionary color and art theorist who developed color wheel and stars which are widely studied by art students. He also delved into spiritual and psychological aspect of color. I feel deeply connected to his work as the first step towards understanding art is to understand color. I feel Johannes Itten’s simplistic approach towards embracing color and portraying his sensitivity in his artwork is quite palpable and that is the reason I feel the need to learn more about his artwork and color theories.
Where are they located? When were they born? What was the world like when they were working?
Johannes Itten was born on 11th Nov, 1888 in Südern-Lindern, Switzerland in a school teacher’s family. After realizing his passion for Arts he moved to Vienna for art studies in 1916 and then moved to Weimar in 1919 to teach in the Bauhaus.
It was a competitive world when Johannes Itten lived. Europe was war trodden and people laid more emphasis on wages and savings then cultivating artistic aptitude. Although Johannes Itten somehow escaped the horrors of war, most of the artist, painters, architect during that period had to forcibly enrol in the war. In the art world people were sceptic of new ideas and that was one of the main reasons of his expulsion from the Bauhaus. Art and craft was thriving in that period and graphic designing grew bold with experiments in typography, calligraphy and photography etc which led to a sudden interest in graphic designing.
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Did they go to school? Where? What did they study?
Since Johannes Itten was a teacher’s son he trained as a primary school teacher to pursue a career in the field. Itten however realized that teaching primary school was not his thing and that he has predilection for color and arts. Under parental pressure he decided to take Diploma in mathematics and science to teach at a secondary school, but not before taking a semester at Geneva Ecole des Beaux – Arts in Genf. It was after studying there that he realized his inclination towards arts. He then studied under Adolf Hölzel in Stuttgart.
After finishing his studies he moved to Vienna in 1916 where he met Walter Gropius in 1919 (founder of the Bauhaus) who extended him the invitation to lecture at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In 1926, however, after falling out with Gropius Walter, Johannes Itten established an art school in Berlin to train architects, artists, painters and photographers. From 1932 to 1938 Itten taught at the Krefeld School of Textile Design, where he edified industrial designers. He became the director of the Museum and Institute of Arts and Crafts in Zurich before retiring in 1955.
Having being fully dedicated to the teaching institutes Itten never found much time to devote to his own creations until 1955, after retirement however he became more prolific then before. He died in Zurich in 1967.
Can you define the designer’s philosophy in his/her work (i.e. did they follow or create a certain movement?) What type of work did they do?
Frank Whitford (Bauhaus, 1984) describes Johannes Itten as ‘a man of strange beliefs, a teacher of unconventional brilliance and a perplexing mixture of saint and charlatan’.
His philosophy and teaching methods is said to have been highly influenced by Friedrich Froebel’s tutelage of ‘education through play’. Johannes Itten started the foundation course at Bauhaus which later turned out to be crucial and Itten as one of the major pedagogical force, as the teaching program was based on Froebel’s principals. The course included presenting students with discarded materials like wire, cardboard, newspaper, blade, matchbox etc, and challenges them to improvise something. Course also encompassed studying materials like wood, metal, feather etc, by looking, feeling and drawing them until they can be drawn from memory. The idea behind formulating such a course was to surpass realistic reproduction to achieve interpretative design instead of mere ersatz.
Itten taught in the Bauhaus till 1923, emphasizing mainly on the concepts of creating and focussing on form and color. It was while teaching the foundation art course that Itten formulated his theories on color which later found their way in his much acclaimed book – The Art of Color. In March 1923, Itten left the Bauhaus because Walter Gropius no longer approved of his teaching method – in particular the preparatory meditative exercises and because he followed an far eastern mystic faith called Mazdazhan which involved him wearing a long robe and shaving his head. With the departure of Itten brought the end of the so called ‘Romantic’ or the ‘Universalistic’ era of the Bauhaus.
Johannes Itten wrote several books during his lifetime. One of his most acclaimed work is ‘The Art of Color’ which deals with color contrast, saturation and hues. He defined and identified strategies for successful color combinations. He also created Color wheel, triangle and tetrad which are widely studied in the color theories and largely incorporated into computer systems where it organizes color. Johannes Itten worked extremely hard till the day he retired in 1955 and it was after this that he started producing his own work in the form of books and paintings e.g. ‘My Preliminary Course at the Bauhaus’ and ‘Art and Color’ mentioning few among the many.
How does the designer’s philosophy and their iconic work fit into the contemporary design scene? Show visual examples of contemporary works from designers who have drawn inspiration from your chosen designer.
Johannes Itten philosophy involved embracing color as he believed “to become the master of color one must see, feel, and experience each individual color in its endless combinations with all other color”. It involves defining and identifying strategies of different color combinations.
Although Johannes Itten was not the sole originator of color wheel, his is one of the most widely studied one. Color wheel was first invented by Sir Issac Newton focussing on continuum of color, was later expanded on by Goethe who concentrated on the psychological aspect of color. It was Johannes Itten who termed color wheel as simple and easy to understand.
His color wheel contains twelve colors: three primary colors, three secondary, and six tertiary colors.
Primary Color: These are the building blocks of all other color. They cannot be made by mixing other colors – Red, Yellow, and Blue.
Secondary Color: These are made when primary color is mixed together – Orange, Green, and Violet.
Tertiary Color: These are mixed when Secondary color is mixed together – yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, and blue-green.
Farbkreis by Johannes Itten (1961)
Color Theory: Johannes Itten formulated the ‘The seven methodology’ for combining colors using different hues, contrast and saturation of colors – explained below.
The contrast of saturation The contrast of light and dark The contrast of extension
Contrast of saturation Contrast of light and dark Contrast of Extension
The contrast is formed by combination of light and dark color and their relative shade and tint.
It refers to the ratio of colours used in visual art. E.g. ratio of green to purple in the image above.
The contrast is formed by combining light and dark color.
The contrast of complements Simultaneous contrast The contrast of hue
Contrast of complements Simultaneous contrast Contrast of hue
The contrast is formed when two adjacent color of the color wheel are placed together. E.g. red and blue flowers when are placed bordering each other appear green and orange.
The contrast is formed by combination of hues across the color wheel. Increasing the distance between the hues increases the contrast.
The contrast is formed by combining corresponding color across the color wheel. Mixing such color result in neutral tones such as grey or black.
The contrast of warm and cool
Contrast of warm and cool
Warm color like red, yellow, orange when combined with cool color like blue, green, violet create the contrast of warm and cool.
Roy Newell: Though Roy Newell’s paintings mostly are abstract and not expressionist like Itten’s, still I felt a connection in the work of the two legends. If we study Roy’s ‘The private myth’ I believe Roy uses variation in color with respect to intensity of respective hues e.g. use of different shades of green and red varying from light to dark, which illustrates the definitive approach of color theory used by Itten.
The Private Myth
Mark Rothko: This painting of Mark Rothko shows the same use of warm and cool colours as depicted in Itten’s Color Theory. The white, yellow, orange belonging to warm colors while red, pink and black belonging to cool colors.
Red Orange Tan and Purple 1949
Paul Klee: While studying Johannes Itten’s ‘Group of Houses in spring’ I found a striking similarity in these two painter’s style of painting. I believe both ‘Temple Gardens’ and ‘group of houses in spring’ uses geometric shapes and different hues of color in various ways to make beautiful piece of art. Paul Klee’s ‘Double tent’ uses the Johannes Itten’s color wheel to show color interaction by using hues along with tints and shades.
Temple Gardens 1920
Double tent 1923
Frank Stella: In my opinion this painting has taken inspiration from Itten’s Color wheel as it forms contrast by using the relative saturation of light and dark color, and as well as takes inspiration from his color theory as it uses warm and cool colors with increasing and decreasing intensity.
Samples of Johannes Itten Visual Art
These are Visual examples of him using the contrasting properties of color to produce phenomenal expressions like depth, illusion and dimension. What is unique in all these samples is that Itten used geometrical shapes to express his art. Contrast is created in these samples by using warm color like yellow, red and orange and cool color like blue and black. Also use of opposite color across the color wheel also creates contrast which can be seen here in the bold use of yellow and blue.
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Johannes Itten, Depths 1915
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Johannes Itten, Group of homes in spring, 1916
Johannes Itten, The Bach Singer, 1916
Johannes Itten, Horizontal Vertical 1915
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