Johannes Itten was an important figure in Zurich’s post-war artistic and cultural life, whose teaching and theories on art have had an international influence. Join us on a journey via Vienna, Weimar, Berlin and the other places where Itten worked, ending in Zurich.
Johannes Itten in Zurich
By the time the 50-year-old Johannes Itten settled in Zurich in 1938, he had already worked in many places. He moved to the city to take over as Director of the School of Arts and Crafts (now the Zurich University of the Arts) and the Arts and Crafts Museum (now the Museum für Gestaltung). From 1943 onwards he also headed the Zurich Textile School (now the Swiss Textile College). These offices enabled Itten to continue in Zurich the work that he had been forced to abandon in Germany in 1938, under pressure from the Nazis.
Zurich also gave Itten the opportunity to manifest his interest in East Asian and African art. Since 1945, he had been negotiating with Baron Eduard von der Heydt for the latter to donate his collection of non-European art to the City of Zurich. Itten set up the Museum Rietberg to accommodate it and served as its Director until 1956.
When he retired, Itten published his reflections on the theory of art and teaching strategies in the successful books “The Art of Colour” and “The Basic Course at the Bauhaus”. “The Art of Colour” became a bestseller in the 1960s and was translated into numerous languages.
Zurich was thus the place where Itten was able to pursue and perfect the core competencies, experiences and interests he had developed and acquired at the various places in which he had lived.
Currently, the following research projects are focusing on Itten’s work in Zurich:
Under the aegis of Prof. Thomas Sieber, a project is currently underway at the Zurich University of the Arts to research Johannes Itten as exhibition-maker and museum director (at the Arts and Crafts Museum Zurich and Museum Rietberg) from the perspective of colonial and national concepts of the self and other.
At the Chair of Art History of the University of Regensburg under Prof. Christoph Wagner, a project has been ongoing for many years to academically appraise Johannes Itten’s literary estate and compile a catalogue raisonné of his artistic oeuvre. The works from the Zurich years are contained in volume II, which was published in 2021. Itten’s activities in Zurich also form the subject of a thesis that is being written in Regensburg.
Here, we examine three areas – teaching, non-European art and colour theory – in greater detail.
One of the central elements of Itten’s art education method is what is termed the “preliminary course” or “basic course”. He developed this trial semester over a number of decades of teaching at various educational institutions, including the Bauhaus in Weimar. He continually expanded and refined his approach to teaching. In 1939, he also introduced the preliminary course at the School of Arts and Crafts Zurich. It remains a fixed component of the curriculum, not just there but also at many other art schools.
The underlying idea is that students should not just be taught a repertoire of forms and rules, as had been the practice at art academies until well into the 20th century, but should be encouraged to use their imaginations, with their talents and creativity being nurtured and allowed to develop. Itten’s focus was on experimenting with materials, breaking free from the historical canon of artists, and finding one’s own form of expression.
Itten’s interest in non-European art had a lasting impact on Zurich: he was partially responsible for the Museum Rietberg opening in 1952. He had campaigned tirelessly to secure a permanent exhibition site for the collection of Baron Eduard von der Heydt in the Villa Wesendonck. Until 1956, he was Director of the Rietberg, the only museum of non-European art in Switzerland.
As Director of the Arts and Crafts Museum, Itten also frequently presented works of African and Asian art to the public. He conducted research into East Asian art and philosophy, in particular through the medium of art; indeed, the posthumous exhibition “Tuschezeichen”, which was shown at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich and in Heidelberg in 1988–89, was devoted to that aspect of Itten’s work.
Itten’s life-long fascination with colour was not only practical, in his work as a painter, but also theoretical. He was particularly interested in its laws and effects. His ideas build on those of other colour theorists, including Philipp Otto Runge, Wilhelm von Bezold, Eugène Chevreul and Adolf Hölzel.
Itten presented his ideas on colour theory to the public for the first time at Zurich’s Arts and Crafts Museum in 1944, placing them in the context of nature, art, science and technology. After retiring in 1956, he devoted much time and energy to getting his colour theory into print. His key theoretical work, “The Art of Colour”, was published by Otto Maier in Ravensburg in 1961. It was translated into many languages and helped to cement Itten’s international reputation. Itten’s colour theory is still taught at schools of art worldwide.
Life and career
Johannes Itten’s literary estate and writings on art theory are held at the Zentralbibliothek Zürich. They have been catalogued and made available for research as part of the “Networking Itten” project. The documents can be researched online via the ZBcollections archive portal and – subject to legal and conservation-related restrictions on access – viewed in the reading room of the Manuscript Department.
Further important holdings related to Johannes Itten can be found in the following institutions:
- Archive of the Museum Rietberg: foundation deeds of the museum, correspondence between Johannes Itten and Eduard von der Heydt
- Archive of the Zurich University of the Arts: Documents of the School of Arts and Crafts and Arts and Crafts Museum Zurich, partly digitally available in the eMuseum
- Swiss Radio and Television (SRF): items on Johannes Itten on radio and TV, searchable via Memobase
- State Archive of the Canton of Zurich: institutional documents of the Zurich Textile School
- Zurich City Archives: further sub-fonds of the Museum Rietberg, the School of Arts and Crafts and the Arts and Crafts Museum Zurich
- Johannes Itten Foundation (based at the Kunstmuseum Bern): artistic diaries and early works by Johannes Itten
- Bauhaus Archive Berlin: correspondence between Johannes Itten and Walter Gropius; institutional documents of the Bauhaus Weimar and Dessau
- Deutsches Textilmuseum Krefeld: Materials and related documents and objects as well as studies from lessons (donation Anneliese Itten)
- Klassik Stiftung Weimar: prototypes of Johannes Itten’s furniture designs
- Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: documents on Itten’s famous textile artwork “Velum”
A three-volume catalogue raisonné containing further research information offers a complete overview of Johannes Itten’s artistic oeuvre and artistic estate. Volume I, covering the works from 1907 to 1938, was published to mark the Bauhaus anniversary year in 2018; volume II, on the works from the Zurich years 1939 to 1967, followed in autumn 2021; and volume III, on the textile works, sculptures and writings on art theory, is scheduled to appear in 2023. From 2023, the catalogue raisonné will also be available in digital form at arthistoricum.net.
The ZB holds not only Itten’s important literary estate but also the Itten Library. Comprising more than 2,000 books and brochures, it includes Itten’s private library, editions and translations of his writings, exhibition catalogues, presentation copies and secondary literature. Many volumes bear signs of having been read and used, such as addresses, purchase and ownership information, dedications, margin notes, underlinings and drawings.
The books and brochures from the Itten Library can be located via swisscovery. Search for the call number “Itten” and limit the search to the Zentralbibliothek Zürich to view all copies. A preset search query can be found at this link.
Holders of a user card can then order the volumes directly via swisscovery and view them within a specified period in the general reading room or rare book reading room.
For questions concerning the contents of the Itten Library, contact PD Dr Lothar Schmitt, art history specialist.
The “Networking Itten” project
As part of the “Networking Itten” project, the documents in the Itten Archive have been categorised, inspected by conservators and treated where necessary, archived and described in the digital catalogue (ZBcollections). Researchers can view and order digitised copies of the documents in the Manuscript Department reading room, subject to legal and conservation constraints.
Since January 2021, a linked open data knowledge platform, the Johannes Itten Linked Archive (JILA), has been under development in a second project phase. With additional contextual information and new search options, researchers in history and art studies will be better supported in their research in the collection. This platform will be based on open linked data and digitised material from the Itten Archive, and will contain cross-references to the digital Itten catalogue raisonné. It will be available to researchers via a graphic user interface. Documents in JILA will initially be made publicly available on e-manuscripta.
On the technical development side, the ZB is working on this project with Swiss Art Research Infrastructure (SARI) at the University of Zurich, as well as the Chair of Art History at the University of Regensburg and the Specialised Information Service for Art of Heidelberg University Library.
Literature on Johannes Itten
A comprehensive online bibliography on Johannes Itten can be found at arthistoricum.net. It includes research literature on Itten’s life, work, circle and influence, and is regularly updated.
Image and text rights
For Switzerland, image rights to reproduce artistic works by Johannes Itten should be obtained from ProLitteris; for other countries, contact the relevant copyright management body. The use of copyrighted documents from the Itten Archive for exhibitions, publications and other purposes requires permission. More information can be obtained from the Manuscript Department of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich.
If you have any questions, Christine Baur, the project manager of "Itten vernetzt", will be happy to help.
All the images on this page are from the Itten Archive at the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, call number: Hs NL 11. We are grateful to the rights holders for granting permission to publish the Itten documents. We have made every effort to identify all other copyright holders, but would be pleased to be notified of any errors or omissions.
None of the images or photos may be reused without permission.
June 2020, updated January 2023