Verena Bornmann

Primary colors and shapes at the Bauhaus

Bauhaus members studied primary colors and shapes extensively and assigned them to each other on the basis of certain characteristics.

The artist and Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky, who was prominently represented in the early documenta exhibitions, is regarded as the founder of these color-shape associations, which he tested with his students. Today, the yellow triangle, the blue circle, and the red square are unmistakably connected to the Bauhaus.

When one thinks of the Bauhaus, one invariably thinks of the primary colors blue, red, and yellow, as well as the basic shapes triangle, circle, square typically used at the institution. The teachers and students of the Bauhaus school dealt intensively with the relationships between shapes and colors.

Their interplay played an essential role for many Bauhaus teachers, including the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s color theory was probably their main model.

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Circle of colours to symbolise the "human spirit and soul life", 1809

© Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Foto: David Hall

Wassily Kandinsky, who was later prominently represented at the early documenta exhibitions, carried out the characteristic assignment of colors to shapes that is still the hallmark of Bauhaus today. He assumed that colors have a certain effect and differentiated them according to degree of warmth and cold as well as brightness and darkness.2/9, 4/9, 9/9

He attributed certain properties to the colors, describing, for example, the color yellow as eccentric and prominent and, in contrast, the color blue as concentric and receding. Yellow was classified as warm, blue as cold. According to Kandinsky, the color red lies between the colors blue and yellow and was therefore classified as medium warm.

He assigned the basic shapes triangle, circle, and square to the primary colors yellow, blue, and red. Yellow was assigned to the triangle because the acute-angled shape was also perceived as warm. According to Kandinsky's theory, the more pointed the respective shape is, the warmer it is; and the more blunt the angle of the respective shape, the colder it is. The circular shape was therefore assigned to the color blue, since the circle has no angles and was therefore classified as a cold shape. The rectangle, not as acute as the triangle, but also not devoid of angles like a circle, was thus combined with the color red.

This classification was based on Kandinsky’s subjective feelings and would later be proven empirically by means of a questionnaire at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Although this color-shape attribution was not based on any scientific evidence, the majority of the students adopted it. This could, however, have been due to the formulation of the questionnaire and the location of the survey at the Bauhaus itself, where the theory was taught. In this respect, the measure was not entirely free of influence. Nowadays the same results would probably no longer be achieved. (Stack of pictures)

The designers of the visual identity of the early documenta exhibitions also repeatedly resorted to primary colors, whether as a conscious or unconscious reference to the Bauhaus3/9.

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