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The preoccupation with Cubism led to the development of a new current within abstract art at several different places in Europe, which proved to be one of the major international art movements of the 1920s. Bound to the leitmotiv of a geometrical constructivist form, these works distinguish themselves by the rigorous systematics of their compositions and their serial concepts. Devised quite independently of any natural impressions, the abstract elements that make up these compositions are arranged so as to achieve a harmonious balance of forces which, unlike lyrical abstraction, is by and large free of emotional values.
Many of these works convey a concept of Concrete Art in which the pictorial elements no longer have any meaning beyond their own selves. This concentration on the formal aspects of the composition led to a close link with the applied arts and industrial design.
The founding of the Bauhaus in 1919 in Weimar gave the decisive impulse. Under the direction of Walter Gropius and with a mandate from the state, the city's art school was combined with the school of arts and crafts to create a new German art institute with a specifically pedagogic mission: the training on the intellectual/artistic side was to be combined with training in technical/craft skills, and a practical cooperation was to be initiated between art, industry and social development. The pedagogical programmes rested on the idea of joint teaching by one "form master" and one "craft master", as well as the introduction of a foundation course in which the students were confronted with the basic concerns of design and with their own creative potential. The teaching in the fields of architecture, painting, sculpture and dance artists was done by such artists as Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer.
Paul Klee, Main Road and Side Roads, 1929, oil on canvas, 83,7 x 67,5 cm, Museum Ludwig 1976 description of the image
The appointment of these representatives from different European art movements made the Bauhaus a hub of the international avant-garde in the 1920s. During its start-up phase, the Bauhaus initially set out to dissolve the traditional division between the art and crafts, according to the model of the mediaeval guilds. The artistic training at this time was largely given by representatives of Expressionism. With the appointment of the Constructivist Moholy-Nagy in 1923, a second phase was ushered in that was largely informed by the principle of functionalism, in which art was placed far more in the service of industrial design. This reflected not only the goals of the Russian Constructivists introduced by Moholy-Nagy, but also the influence of the Dutch De Stijl movement, whose programmatic ideas were circulated at the Bauhaus by Theo van Doesburg during his lectureship there from 1921 till 1922.
Theo van Doesburg had already become absorbed by the idea of abstraction in 1914 after reading Kandinsky's texts, and after his meeting with Piet Mondrian they agreed that a clear geometrical order can also give universal validity to subjective feelings. This was followed in 1917 by the founding of the art journal De Stijl, which lent its name to the movement and ran until 1928. The members of the De Stijl movement aspired to a universal visual language by concentrating on elementary compositional forms and creating a balanced relationship between surfaces and in the distribution of the colours, while strictly avoiding symmetry. The harmony of the universe was to be visualised by the geometrical simplicity of elementary proportions, and in that way more harmony injected into society. The basis for this was the idea of an autonomous, collectively valid order in which "the rule-abiding, the constructive and functional" was conveyed through the exclusion of arbitrariness and aimlessness. One of their major goals was to shape the entire human environment according to the principles of "Neoplasticism", which involved transposing the elementary proportions from their painting to architecture and interior design, thus also promoting the marriage of art and design. This led to a row within the De Stijl movement about the primacy of architecture over other arts.
In 1925 van Doesburg embarked on a new attempt to introduce a kind of "elementarism" into painting, in analogy to the scientific insights into particle motion and the laws of gravity. After the appearance in 1930 of his Manifesto of Concrete Art, he was regarded as the movement's founder: "Concrete and not abstract painting, because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a surface."
In 1931 a number of abstract artists joined together in Paris to form the international association "Abstraction Création", which at times had as many as 400 members. The declared aim of the group was to promote non-objective art by means of joint exhibitions, which were mounted regularly up until 1936 and helped abstract art to its breakthrough. Although the members included representatives of quite different abstract persuasions, from Constructivist approaches to lyrical and expressive abstraction (Gabo, Pevsner, Mondrian, Lissitzky, Kandinsky, Freundlich, Arp, Kupka, Magnelli, Baumeister etc), the balance shifted steadily in favour of Concrete Art, which placed the importance of form higher than that of colour. Apart from theoretical reflections, the group occupied itself with physically based visual effects, such as three-dimensional colour vision, or the flicker effect, which were visualised by means of geometrical colour compositions and painterly colour studies.
Together with the development of Russian Constructivism, an international avant-garde spanning Paris and Moscow came about in the 1920s whose common denominator was a new concept of reality that was informed by scientific insights into the relationship between time and space, and between the cosmos and the building blocks of nature.