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Johannes Itten
Blazing Red, 1955

Oil on fibreboard
80 x 60 cm
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Photo: Gerhard Sauer


The Swiss artist Johannes Itten left behind an important and astonishingly divers body of painting. It includes not only representational compositions but also abstracts based on a clear, geometrical language of forms. The artist is also renowned for his decades of teaching work, not least at the Bauhaus, as well as for his theoretical texts on form and colour. Already while a student at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, the foundation stone was laid for his considered use of colour and his interest in constructivist composition. He received his first important stimulus to tackle the questions of form and colour from his teacher Adolf Hölzel, who had developed a colour theory based on the principle of contrast. Itten's studies were followed by long years of intensive deliberation on the questions of form and colour design. One result of his investigations into the laws and effects of colour was the so-called “colour star” that he developed.


Johannes Itten was a charismatic teacher who could draw on a wealth of knowledge when conveying his ideas. He adhered to a holistic approach in his teaching and did not limit himself to questions of art and technique. Influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion, especially the Mazdaznan movement that was in vogue at that time in intellectual circles, he aspired to a synthesis of a practical lifestyle, spiritual interests, and creative acts. Itten played an important part in determining the style of teaching at the Bauhaus, not least through his foundation course in design in which he brought home the principles of design in form and colour. At the subsequent stations of his teaching career, which included the Itten-Schule in Berlin, the Höhere Fachschule für textile Flächenkunst in Krefeld, and the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, the theories of form and colour remained an essential ingredient in his classes, in which he continued to pursue his holistic approach.


In the mid-1950s Johannes Itten began gradually to withdraw from his numerous official duties, and found the necessary peace and quiet to return with renewed vigour to his own painting. The result was a late work of considerable quality and size, which in large stretches draws on his earlier production. Two basic groups of works can be distinguished: the gestural, expressive pictures, which pick up on elements from the artist's earlier pen and ink calligraphies; and the geometrical, abstract colour compositions. The picture Leuchtendes Rot [Blazing Red] belongs to the second group.


In the oil painting Leuchtendes Rot from 1955, a number of different coloured but virtually identically sized square fields have been placed next to one another in continuous rows to produce a finely-balanced composition. Warm shades of red create the overall impression of the painting and lend it its great luminosity. The artist has combined the red forms with others in muted secondary colours, cool shades of blue, and a deep black. Somewhat atypical of Itten's work is the double painted border around the poetic play of colour at the picture's centre. In this vertical format painting, the artist has drawn on compositional principles from his early geometrical works from 1915 to 1917, as demonstrated for instance by the horizontals and verticals that structure the piece. In addition, the regular arrangement of the painting recalls the typical characteristics of the paintings by the Zurich Concretists, who were working at the same time, although Johannes Itten's composition lacks their rational stringency and geometrical precision. Similarly, the colouring of the square fields does not follow any recognizable system, and appears to be based more on chance and intuition.


Johannes Itten

1888 born in Süderen-Linden (CH) 
1967 died in Zurich