Swiss painter, textile designer, teacher, writer and theorist. He trained first as a primary school teacher in Berne (1904–6), where he became familiar with progressive educational and psychoanalytical ideas. He was, however, interested in art and music, and in 1909 he decided to become a painter. He enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva but was so disappointed that he returned to teacher training in Berne. He read widely and developed an interest in religion and mystic philosophy. After qualifying he returned to Geneva and greatly enjoyed the course on the geometric elements of art run by the Swiss painter Eugène Gilliard (1861–1921). After travelling in Europe, in 1913 Itten went to Stuttgart to study at the academy of Adolf Hölzel, a pioneer of abstraction who was also convinced of the importance of automatism in art. Greatly impressed, Itten absorbed his teaching on colour and contrast and his analyses of Old Masters paintings. Encouraged by Hölzel, he made abstract collages incorporating torn paper and cloth.
Itten avidly read the journal Der Blaue Reiter and in 1915 painted his first important pictures, fusing his interpretations of Cubism and Expressionism into paintings such as the Good Samaritan (artist’s estate, see Rotzler, p. 109). Others such as the Bach Singer (1916; Stuttgart, Gal. Stadt) were strictly geometric in emphasis and used bold, contrasting colours rather than a muted Cubist palette. The Bach Singer relates to his interest in analogies between art and music. In the same year he painted his first abstract compositions, including Horizontal-Vertical (Berne, V. Loeb priv. col., see Rotzler, p. 118) and The Meeting (Zurich, Ksthaus). He taught privately and in 1916 had his first one-man exhibition at the Sturm-Galerie in Berlin and moved to Vienna; there he established his own art school, where he developed a highly unconventional method of art education, which drew on the insights of progressive educationalists such as Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel (1782–1852), Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Maria Montessori (1870–1952) and Franz Cizek. These included the idea of the child’s creativity and of learning through play. Despite his relative uncouthness he was soon absorbed into sophisticated Viennese society. Through Alma Mahler he was introduced to the musical circle of Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg and others, which fuelled his interest in analogies of form and colour. In March 1919 Adolf Loos arranged an exhibition of his work, which comprised increasingly fragmented and dynamic compositions, for example the Holy One (1917; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.).
In October 1919 Itten was appointed to the Bauhaus at Weimar on the recommendation of Alma Mahler, Walter Gropius’s wife at the time. He swiftly gained control of the carpentry, metal, carving, stained-glass and mural workshops. He also devised and taught the Vorkurs, an obligatory six-month preliminary course, which aimed to liberate students from preconceptions and develop their latent creative powers. The materials exercises sought to heighten students’ sensitivity to their different qualities through paired contrasts such as rough-smooth, coarse-fine. Many different techniques were used, from highly naturalistic pencil drawing to two- and three-dimensional collages of waste material. In Itten’s analyses of Old Masters the emphasis was not on formal composition but on the painting’s underlying structure. When drawing from the nude the students were encouraged to capture what they considered to be the characteristic expression of each pose, often in rhythmic gestures.
Itten’s charismatic personality came to dominate and then divide the school. A key issue was his allegiance to Mazdaznan, a life-system based on the ancient wisdom of Zoroaster and one of many cults that flourished during the Weimar Republic. He initially embraced it in 1909 to cure his dietary difficulties, but he soon became completely committed and incorporated it in his teaching. He introduced Mazdaznan breathing exercises for simultaneous relaxation and concentration on Vorkurs exercises and drew heavily on its conception of polarity. A devoted group of converts alienated the other students with their shaven heads, prayer, fasting and conviction of the insubstantiality of this world. Even the Bauhaus kitchen yielded to the Mazdaznan diet, and by summer 1921 the school was seriously divided.
Irreconcilable differences in approach had arisen between Itten and Gropius: whereas Itten wished to preserve the school as a contemplative enclave, Gropius had come to believe that the school must look outwards and establish contact with industry. In 1922 Itten withdrew from his teaching responsibilities, moving to the Mazdaznan community at Herrliberg in 1923, where he set up a weaving workshop with Gunta Stölzl (1897–1983). Some of the designs he produced here reflected his earlier abstract painting, for example a red woollen carpet of 1925 (artist’s estate, see Rotzler, p. 147). From this point on his work as a teacher and administrator took precedence over his production as an artist. In 1926 he left to set up his own school for painting, graphic art, photography and architecture in Berlin. In 1932 he also took on the direction of the Flächenkunstschule in Krefeld, where he educated designers for the textile industry; the school closed in 1938. In 1937 his work, deemed to be ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, was represented in the Entartete Kunst exhibition (see Entartete Kunst), held in Munich at the Archeologisches Institut. Itten emigrated to the Netherlands, where he taught briefly before returning to Switzerland to become director of the Kunstgewerbeschule and Museum in Zurich (1938–54). He joined the Swiss Werkbund and became closely involved with the textile industry, taking the post of director of the Textilfachschule in Zurich (1943–60). He was also involved in museum work, including the foundation of the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, of which he was director from 1952 to 1955.
In 1955 he began to paint intensively again; he frequently worked with decorative patterns based on natural forms and the idea of natural cycles, for example Autumnal Structures (chalk and pastel, 1963; artist’s estate, see Rotzler, no. 828). He also returned to some of the abstract motifs of earlier works, such as the chequerboard composition, seen in Composition (Easter Morning) (1967; Locarno, Civ. Mus.).
- Kunst der Farbe (Ravensburg, 1961; Eng. trans., 1961, R 1970)
- Gestaltungs- und Formenlehre. Mein Vorkurs am Bauhaus und später (Ravensburg, 1963, 2/1965; Eng. trans., 1964)
- H. M. Wingler: Das Bauhaus (Bramsche and Cologne, 1962, rev. 1975; Eng. trans., 1969, rev. 1976)
- E. Roters: Die Maler am Bauhaus (Berlin, 1965; Eng. trans., 1969)
- M. Franciscono: Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar (Urbana, 1971)
- W. Rotzler, ed.: Johannes Itten: Werke und Schriften (Zurich, 1982)
- R. Wick: Bauhauspädagogik (Cologne, 1982)