Bauhaus Utopia, Paul Klee and Some Character Design

 Haus party … students at the Bauhaus in 1931. Photograph: Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Haus party … students at the Bauhaus in 1931. Photograph: Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau


Bauhaus canteen,Bauhaus canteen, Dessau 1930 Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb

Bauhaus canteen,photography, Dessau 1930 Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb

Personally I had a pretty intimate experience with the term “Bauhaus”. I graduated from an old liberal art college in New York who followed a Bauhaus course arrangement in their undergraduate Art Department. I lived in a new Bauhaus style dorm in my first year there. I later studied post-war architecture history with an emphasis on Bauhaus.

I didn’t like it at the time. I did not take all the required classes in art department. I did not like the dorm’s height or contour that blocked my view when I was walking. I did not like the inner design of it that did not serve its purpose. I did not like the Bauhaus slides in my favorite architecture history class because they were impressively ugly.

To some extent, coming across this term in art history study aroused my memory at the east coast. Now given this chance, I seriously revisited this term and felt refreshed towards it.

 Bauhaus Story

Lucia Moholy Photograph by Michael von Graffenried 1987

Lucia Moholy
Photograph by Michael von Graffenried

Bauhaus 1919-1933 – A Chronology

The Bauhaus occupies a place of its own in the history of 20th century culture, architecture, design, art and new media. One of the first schools of design, it brought together a number of the most outstanding contemporary architects and artists and was not only an innovative training centre but also a place of production and a focus of international debate. At a time when industrial society was in the grip of a crisis, the Bauhaus stood almost alone in asking how the modernization process could be mastered by means of design.

Founded in Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus rallied masters and students who sought to reverse the split between art and production by returning to the crafts as the foundation of all artistic activity and developing exemplary designs for objects and spaces that were to form part of a more human future society. Following intense internal debate, in 1923 the Bauhaus turned its attention to industry under its founder and first director Walter Gropius (1883–1969). [16]

Henry van de Velde’s building of 1904, housed The Bauhaus from 1919 to 1925.

Henry van de Velde’s building of 1904, housed The Bauhaus from 1919 to 1925.

Dessau Period 1925-1932 – Prosperity of Bauhaus

The Dessau phase of the Bauhaus is characterized by the consolidation of its orientation towards the new unity of art and technology, which was initiated in Weimar in 1923. In Dessau, the Staatliches Bauhaus became the Hochschule für Gestaltung (school of design). In a departure from craftsmanship, there were now professors and students in place of masters, journeymen and apprentices. In the aspiring industrial city of Dessau, the Bauhaus found the ideal environment for the design of models for industrial mass production. [17]

Surprisingly, following the politically motivated closure of the Bauhaus in Weimar, the change of location to Dessau did not result in a crisis in the school. If anything, it fostered its consolidation on the path to the design of new industrial products for the masses.[17]

On Gropius’s recommendation, the director’s post was handed over to the Swiss architect and urbanist Hannes Meyer, previously the head of the architectural department established at the Bauhaus in 1927. Cost-cutting industrial mass production was to make products affordable for the masses. His rallying cry at the Bauhaus was, “The needs of the people instead of the need for luxury.”[17] Despite his successes, Hannes Meyer’s Marxist convictions became a problem for the city council amidst the political turbulence of Germany in 1929, and the following year he was removed from his post. [17]

With Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1930, the Bauhaus acquired its last and – in contrast to Gropius and Meyer – least politically minded director. The school’s orientation towards architecture grew under his direction; however, there was also an increasing lack of socio-political reference.[17] The students were most affected by the ban on any type of political activity and the discontinuation of production lines. Under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus developed from 1930 into a technical school of architecture with subsidiary art and workshop departments.[17] After the Nazis became the biggest party in Dessau at the elections, the Bauhaus was forced to move in September 1932. It moved to Berlin but only lasted for a short time longer. The Bauhaus dissolved itself under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. [17]

Walter Gropius’ building for Dessau Bauhaus.

Walter Gropius’ building for Dessau Bauhaus.

Recently I read The Bauhaus Ideal: Then and Now. In the book, William Smock presented a vivid overview of the Modernist design and its legacy. I got to know more about the famous Bauhaus dictums “form follows function”, “truth to materials” ,”less is more”.

The Bauhaus story first started out as a school of design. Walter Gropius was the first director of this modern art and design school called Bauhaus. It was an invented word: BAU = Building , HAUS = House. He wanted to unify arts, combining fine art and design. So people could see and use aesthetically pleasing, yet functional artworks/products. However, the Bauhaus school had to go through ups and downs. It had altogether three directors which represented three different periods. It was controlled by Nazis and forced to shut down for good during WWII. Later, it got rebuilt as “the Black Mountain College” in the USA. During this process, it kept changing and widely affected our modern design and aesthetics.  [1]

Masters in House

bauhaus staff

The Bauhaus masters on the roof of the new Bauhaus building. 1926. From left: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer,Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger,Gunta Stolzl, Oskar Schlemmer. From

When I read the Chinese version of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism [18], I saw other sides of those masters who created a new wave of design movement in the early 20th century. I realized that they all had their own belief and personality. The Bauhaus “internal” path was not at all as smooth as we could imagine. What amazed me was their collaboration in building the Bauhaus utopia. Even though they were all giants in their fields, they all served a greater purpose: art enlightenment. This openness of artists’ teamwork truly moved me. Working with others, sharing ideas, not fear of losing credit would happen when the whole team valued growing together and becoming better. The timelessness of Bauhaus was a testament to their achievement.

Paul Klee

Reading the book of The Bauhaus: Masters and Students by Themselves [2], I became very fond of Paul Klee’s works. Since the Bauhaus contained a wide range of styles and values, I chose to study Paul Klee’s art and do a formal breakdown of his work.

Klee said, “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.” [3] In Klee’s art, I saw an “untutored simplicity”[9]. This might be a result of his admiration for children’s “positive wisdom” [10]. “The more helpless these children are, the more instructive their art, for even at this stage there is corruption ‐ when children start to absorb, or even imitate, developed works of art, ” he once said.[10] He tried to break the traditional rules constantly. He didn’t want to have any anticipation or presumption in his creating process. He wanted to stay free and discover things along the way.

Indeed, I always thought that his work is poetic. As I read his book did I recall that when I was a very little kid, it was his painting that I pointed at a music note in it and sang to my parent. I knew nothing about him or that image at that time. But I felt it. Then I read about his theory of “active lines” and “passive planes” in the book[3], I could still feel the same individual behind it – to me, his works were happy, carefree melodies. Therefore, I was not surprised to know that he was also a musician. He played violin to a professional level, yet his father, a music teacher, always encouraged his passion in art. He was a gifted and diligent artist who naturally related drawing to music. He often practiced the violin as a warm up for painting.[7] From 1921 to 1924/25 in Weimar, Klee taught classes in elemental design theory as part of the preliminary course. [8] In his Bauhaus lecture, he even compared the visual rhythm in drawings to the structural, percussive rhythms of a musical composition by the master of counterpoint, Johann Sebastian Bach. And yes, he succeeded in doing so.[7]

Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” [3] Klee tried to reveal his vision. As a Modern master, he said, “formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are other, more latent realities…”[11] But how to make the unseen seen? “Klee challenged traditional boundaries separating writing and visual art by exploring a new expressive, and largely abstract or poetic language of pictorial symbols and signs.”[12] That’s why I still remembered a music note in his painting. He used symbols as a language to describe his poem or song; but he used the symbols so simple that even a child could spot them out. I believe this was one of his ways to reveal something invisible to us. But were those jargons?  He did not shout out any definition of his vision if he only used abstract symbols. He might be hiding, or he was simply open to any explanation that the viewers would have. He delivered a vague situation for the audience to experience. I believe this was another reason that his works stayed expressive and provoked interaction.

On the other hand, Martin Heidegger commented Klee’s work that something never seen before was visible in these paintings.[13] This might be another way to make the unseen visible. Klee once said, “Art should be like a holiday: something to give a man the opportunity to see things differently and to change his point of view.” [6]

What were those things never seen before? Well, here I found some other comments on Klee’s works.

“Klee’s career was a search for the symbols and metaphors that would make this belief visible. More than any other painter outside the Surrealist movement (with which his work had many affinities – its interest in dreams, in primitive art, in myth, and cultural incongruity), he refused to draw hard distinctions between art and writing. Indeed, many of his paintings are a form of writing: they pullulate with signs, arrows, floating letters, misplaced directions, commas, and clefs; their code for any object, from the veins of a leaf to the grid pattern of Tunisian irrigation ditches, makes no attempt at sensuous description, but instead declares itself to be a purely mental image, a hieroglyph existing in emblematic space. So most of the time Klee could get away with a shorthand organization that skimped the spatial grandeur of high French modernism while retaining its unforced delicacy of mood. Klee’s work did not offer the intense feelings of Picasso’s, or the formal mastery of Matisse’s. The spidery, exact line, crawling and scratching around the edges of his fantasy, works in a small compass of post-Cubist overlaps, transparencies, and figure- field play-offs. In fact, most of Klee’s ideas about pictorial space came out of Robert Delaunay’s work, especially the Windows. The paper, hospitable to every felicitous accident of blot and puddle in the watercolor washes, contains the images gently. As the art historian Robert Rosenblum has said, ‘Klee’s particular genius [was] to be able to take any number of the principal Romantic motifs and ambitions that, by the early twentieth century, had often swollen into grotesquely Wagnerian dimensions, and translate them into a language appropriate to the diminutive scale of a child’s enchanted world.

“If Klee was not one of the great form-givers, he was still ambitious. Like a miniaturist, he wanted to render nature permeable, in the most exact way, to the language of style – and this meant not only close but ecstatic observation of the natural world, embracing the Romantic extremes of the near and the far, the close-up detail and the “cosmic” landscape. At one end, the moon and mountains, the stand of jagged dark pines, the flat mirroring seas laid in a mosaic of washes; at the other, a swarm of little graphic inventions, crystalline or squirming, that could only have been made in the age of high-resolution microscopy and the close-up photograph. There was a clear link between some of Klee’s plant motifs and the images of plankton, diatoms, seeds, and micro-organisms that German scientific photographers were making at the same time. In such paintings, Klee tried to give back to art a symbol that must have seemed lost forever in the nightmarish violence of World War I and the social unrest that followed. This was the Paradise-Garden, one of the central images of religious romanticism – the metaphor of Creation itself, with all species growing peaceably together under the eye of natural (or divine) order.“- From Robert Hughes, “The Shock of the New” [4]

Now let us look at some art.

Formal Analysis of Paul Klee’s Work Senecio (An old man)

Senecio, Paul Klee, 1922, oil on gauze, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel

Senecio, Paul Klee, 1922, oil on gauze, 15.9 x 15 in , Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel

Shape & Line

We see many lines, either hard contours or edges of colors. A big circle, triangles, ellipses and rectangles depict the subject – a human. Proportions are way off. With the face being divided into two halves, basic geometric shapes lay out unsymmetrically. Two halves of the face look unbalanced. Because of the nose shape happening on the left side, we can almost guess that the two halves are separate sides of the face ( This reminds me of Picasso’s works that reveal all the hidden aspects of a figure at the same time ). Lines join together to create eye stopping points. We see shapes mainly divided by flat colors. The lips are abstracted into two squares. The left brow forms a sharp triangle while the right brow remains a smooth curve. Their difference creates different rhythms on the two parts of the face. Apart from the centered eye area, we generally see lines in vertical and horizontal directions, which is overall unified.

Color & Value

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 11.59.17 PM

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 11.59.17 PM

Primary warm colors, red, yellow and white, take the lead. We see pink, purple and orange colors too. Colors do not respond to value changes. Values do not respond to light and volume changes. However, the right side’s yellow is higher in saturation and brightness than the left one’s; the orange down below head is less saturated and darker than the upper area background. Also, the value palette shows that there is only one or two darker hues. It is very much possible that Klee uses value to separate colored shapes. High contrast colors accentuate the playfulness of his patterns.


We see texture of rough brushworks everywhere except for the pupil areas. In the pupils, we see flat rouge. Also, the eye and eyebrow areas have line contours. They are connected, leaning towards one side. Their content density creates our focus.

Character Design

As the saying goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. After studying the Bauhaus story and ideal as well as Paul Klee’s work, I fell in love with the Bauhaus age. It had its limit, yet so full of youth and vigor. How I wish to go back to the Bauhaus “golden 10 years” (1923-1933) to witness the masters’ glory. However, time flies only forward. Today, when I look at the master’s work, there is something I can do more than merely looking at the beautiful surface of the final product. I did formal analysis and guessed his process, pretending that I would have been one of his students in the Bauhaus workshop. Hence, when I create something in the master’s style, instead of simply mirroring what I see, I can explain what I do.

Now I am designing characters based on the Bauhaus ideals after studying Paul Klee’s vision of form and color. 

Paul Klee also made some puppets for his son. When making my designs, I looked at some images from this book below. “The artist neither counts them as a component of his oeuvre, nor does he list them in his catalogue raisonné. Thirty of the preserved puppets are stored at the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. ” [5]

Paul Klee Hand Puppets Edited by Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Foreword by Andreas Marti, Texts by Christine Hopfengart, Aljoscha Klee, Felix Klee, Osamu Okuda, Tilman Osterwold, Eva Wiederkehr Sladeczek English 2007. 152 pp., 182 ills., 86 in color 23.00 x 26.60 cm hardcover ISBN 978-3-7757-1740-3

Paul Klee
Hand Puppets
Edited by Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, 
2007. 152 pp., 182 ills., 86 in color
23.00 x 26.60 cm
ISBN 978-3-7757-1740-3

I want to mix those element with geometric shapes and flat colors. Going after Paul Klee’s belief, I will intentionally mimic children’s artwork. When composing my lines and colors, I will connect ambiguous shapes and forms with minimal details. Applying textures to those simple, crisp shapes will result in a collage-like style, which is a lovely trick for eyes that the modern digital media can make. In this sense, I respond to the tech reality of my age, the digital media.

Here are my character designs of a male figure and a female figure:

Character Design by Yunxia 2015

Character Design by Yunxia 2015

How my design reflects my knowledge and their ideas:

Design comment by Yunxia

Design comment by Yunxia


1. William Smock, “The Bauhaus Ideal: Then and Now”, Academy Chicago Publishers, 2004

2. Frank Whitford, The Bauhaus: Masters and Students by Themselves, October 1, 1993

3. Klee and his teaching notes(Chinese Edition) (Chinese) Paperback, Chongqing University Press Pub. Date :2011-6-1, January 1, 2000


5. Daniel Kupper: Paul Klee. p. 81

6. As quoted in the film Der Bauhaus, produced by TV-Rechte in Germany (1975)

7. Andrew Kagan, Paul Klee: Art and Music , Cornell Univ Press, 1983


9. Paul Klee, On Modern Art , Faber & Faber, 1966

10. Susanna Partsch, Klee 1879 ‐ 1940 , Taschen, 1999. p 17

11. Fred Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, Volume 2 , Clark Baxter, 2009. p 948

12. Rocky Mountain, Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels , Denver, CO, June 2012. p. 2

13. Watson, Stephen H., Heidegger, Paul Klee, and the Origin of the Work of Art , Academic journal article from The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 60, No. 2

14. Art in Theory: 1900-1990, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, pp. 338-343

15. Paul Klee – Making the Visible, Nedaa Elias, January 22, 2014



18. Nicholas Fox Weber, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism,ISBN:9787111409199,Jixiegongye Press Pub. Date: April 1st, 2013


One response to “Bauhaus Utopia, Paul Klee and Some Character Design

  1. Pingback: THE ARTISTS, POETS and PROFESSORS of BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE (the college featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE) Part 12 artist Wassily Kandinsky | The Daily Hatch

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