The provincial town with ‘charming worldliness’
According to the great writer Goethe, one of Weimar’s many famous residents: “Where else can you find so much that is good in a place that is so small?” Today home to no fewer than twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Weimar has an enormously rich cultural history. The list of artists and designers whose former homes are dotted around Weimar – Henry van de Velde, Walter Gropius, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laslo Moholy-Nagy and more – attests to the city’s attractions in the early 20th century as a place to work and create.
Five hundred years before this group, Lucas Cranach the Elder, who made Weimar his final home, became the foremost German artist of the Middle Ages. His house on Market Square is now a theatre. Nearby, the Hotel Elephant, at some 300 years old the oldest in Weimar, has its own art collection. Signatures in the guest books include writer Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and film-maker Wim Wenders.
Set in the state of Thuringia in the green heart of Germany, Weimar’s biggest attractions include the homes where the two giants of German classical literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, lived and died, while the city’s most famous musical residents included Franz Liszt and Johann Sebastian Bach, who was organist at the Weimar Palace Chapel (destroyed by fire in 1774), where he was required to compose a cantata every month. He wrote 25 in all and is celebrated in the annual Thuringia Bach Weeks.
Weimar is best known as the birthplace of the most influential design school of the 20th century, Bauhaus (literally, ‘building house’). Combining minimalist aesthetics with functionality, the movement’s influence reached into furniture, household appliances, ceramics, graphic design, interiors, theatre sets and costumes, lighting and even children’s games.
On a rise above the vast Ilm Park (named after the small river which runs through it), the Haus am Horn was built as a show house for the first major Bauhaus exhibition in 1923. A milestone in 20th century domestic architecture, its pioneering design by Georg Muche was a prototype for modern living. It is the only original Bauhaus building in Weimar.
All the furnishings, textiles and light fittings in what critics thought looked like a “house for Martians” were products of the Bauhaus workshops.
Nearby is the Goethe Garden House, the first home in Weimar of the eminent writer. Original furnishings, including a standing desk, give it a ‘lived in’ feel and evoke the atmosphere of an author’s workspace. A keen botanist, Goethe designed the garden himself.
On the opposite side of the park, the Roman House commands a sweeping view. Modelled after ancient temple architecture, it was built by Duke Carl August as a personal retreat, where he took up residence in 1797. The Duke’s friend Goethe supervised the construction, inspired by his visits to Italy.
Beyond the park is another forerunner of modern design, the Haus Hohe Pappeln (the House of High Poplars, although the trees are no longer there), which the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde built in 1907 for himself and his family while appointed to the court of the Grand Duke as a modernising artistic consultant.
Not so concerned with the building’s exterior (it is asymmetrical and the facade was left rough, which was considered unfashionably rustic at the time), Van de Velde built his house from the inside out based on a ‘rational’ (plain and functional) approach. It is also subtly ornamental right down to the screws. In the garden, which Van de Velde also designed, is a fountain by the Belgian sculptor George Minne.
Van de Velde’s time in Weimar is considered the most productive and successful phase of his career. He founded the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, where he taught, and also designed part of the Nietzsche Archive and the main Bauhaus University buildings.
Back in the city centre, a few minutes from one another are two complementary museums which link the emergence of early Modernism with the full-blown development of Bauhaus.
One of Germany’s first purpose-built museums, opening in 1869 in its neo-Renaissance building, the Museum Neues Weimar (New Weimar Museum) is dedicated to art developments from 1860 to 1918. Like much else in Weimar, the idea for a museum can be traced back to Goethe, who as early as 1809 advocated a public exhibition of artworks from the ducal collection. After suffering WWII damage and being threatened with demolition during the GDR time, the building was restored for Weimar’s year in the limelight as the 1999 European Capital of Culture.
The permanent exhibition uses examples of realist, impressionist and art nouveau works from its collection to trace the emergence of the Modernist movement and its role as a precursor of Bauhaus. Says curator Sabine Walter: “The Bauhaus did not come out of nowhere.”
The many highlights include: Monet, Rouen Cathedral; Max Liebermann, The Artist’s Wife at the Beach and Woman Gathering Potatoes; Max Beckmann, Young Men by the Sea; and Moritz Schwind, The Glove of Saint Elisabeth.
The colour scheme in each room is inspired by its contents – for example, light grey for the Weimar School room to reflect the mood of the paintings or dark green for the room of furniture from Wartburg Castle to match the salon where the items were located in the 19th century. The main staircase was designed by the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren.
Nearby, the suitably stark, cuboid Bauhaus Museum displays items from the world’s oldest Bauhaus collection. It moved into its new building in 2019, the Bauhaus centenary year.
In the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto, founder Walter Gropius declared: “Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity.” It is the ultimate example of a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total work of art).
Based around Gropius’ question, “How do we want to live?”, the centrepiece is a display of 170 objects he personally selected as the finest examples of the marriage between design and functionality. He directed that they be left in Weimar when the Bauhaus institution moved in 1925 to Dessau, a more industrial city with better facilities.
The view from the museum’s staircase takes in the rolling countryside and the memorial tower which marks the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the gates of which were designed on the orders of the camp commandant by prisoner – and former Bauhaus student – Franz Ehrlich, who was interred as a Communist. As an act of resistance, he designed the lettering on the gate (‘To each his own’, referring to the Nazis’ power of life or death over the inmates) in a Bauhaus style, which the Nazis had denounced as ‘degenerate’.