Johannes Itten in his studio, 1958 (Hs NL 11: Ba 11)

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.

Johannes Itten with a Chinese devotional stele from the von der Heydt collection, Museum Rietberg, 1952 (Hs NL 11: Cj 3.16)

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.

Johannes Itten, The Genesis of the Twelve-Part Colour Circle, autograph manuscript (Hs NL 11: Fd 11; <a href="">Digitalisat</a>)


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.

Still life with lines, from the Itten School in Berlin (Hs NL 11: Hc 7)

Non-European art

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.

Photograph of the exhibition “Tuschezeichen” at the Haus zum Kiel, Museum Rietberg, 1988 (Hs NL 11: Gc 7.7)

Colour theory

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.

Johannes Itten, Experiment on the contrast of colour in itself, colour course, Wattwil, 1940 (Hs NL 11: Fc 1.2; <a href="">Digitalisat</a>)

Life and career


Thun, Bern and Geneva

Johannes Itten was born on 11 November 1888 in Süderen-Linden in the Bernese Oberland. Following his father’s death in 1892, he moved home frequently, but remained in a rural environment until he went to live with his uncle in Thun at the age of 10. Itten wanted to be a teacher like his late father, and so attended teacher training college in Hofwil near Bern. He also took drawing lessons and studied the methods of progressive education. After working for a little over a year as a village schoolmaster, he made a speculative application to the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva to study art. He returned to Bern in 1910, without completing his studies, to become a secondary school teacher. Thereafter he travelled to cities including Paris, Munich, Cologne and Mannheim, where he visited the great art exhibitions of the day. He then decided to study for a further semester at the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. Itten’s interest in, and aptitude for, art and teaching were already becoming evident.

Johannes Itten at the École des Beaux-Arts, Geneva, 1909 (Hs NL 11: Ca 1; <a href="">Digitalisat</a>)



After seeing a painting by Adolf Hölzel in Munich, Itten resolved to travel to Stuttgart and study under Hölzel at the Academy of Fine Arts. He was accepted into Hölzel’s masterclass in 1914. Hölzel’s theory of contrast, his investigations into the laws underlying the construction of artworks, and his colour theory greatly influenced Itten’s own work. Itten studied Expressionism and Cubism and created his early abstract image compositions.

Itten was also inspired by his exchanges with fellow artists Ida Kerkovius, Oskar Schlemmer, Willi Baumeister and Hermann Stenner.

In 1916, on Hölzel’s recommendation, Itten began giving private drawing lessons.

Johannes Itten in his studio with Oskar Schlemmer, Stuttgart 1913, with his early abstract paintings in the background (Hs NL 11: Ba 3.7; <a href="">Digitalisat</a>)



Encouraged by his pupil Agathe Mark, Itten left Stuttgart for Vienna in 1916. There, he pursued his non-representational art and continued giving private art lessons – so successfully, in fact, that the number of students steadily increased and Itten switched from giving private tuition to teaching classes.

During this period, he made an extensive study of theosophical and other esoteric writings, and frequented the art and avant-garde circle of Alma Mahler. There he met artists, musicians, architects and literary figures such as Adolf Loos, Josef Matthias Hauer, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka as well as Hildegard Anbelang, who later became his wife. It was Alma Mahler who persuaded her then husband Walter Gropius, Director of the newly founded Bauhaus in Weimar, to employ Itten at the Bauhaus. According to Itten she said to Gropius: “Walter, if you want to make something of your Bauhaus idea, you must recruit Itten!”

Letter from Johannes Itten to his pupil and muse Anna Höllering, Vienna, 1917 (Hs NL 11: Eb 1.6; <a href="">Digitalisat</a>)


Bauhaus in Weimar

Itten accepted Gropius’s invitation to join the new art school in Weimar. There he introduced the preliminary course, a trial semester during which students were given the chance to explore the means of creating pictures in depth and work in unconventional ways.

Itten ran various workshops as a form master at the Bauhaus. He taught his celebrated preliminary course in the Henry-van-der-Velde building. He installed his studio in the Tempelherrenhaus, a neo-Gothic building in the Park an der Ilm. Here, he also had his students perform breathing and concentration exercises as well as yoga, in accordance with his social reformist ideas.

Artistically, Itten moved further and further away from non-representational painting and instead produced figural and representational works such as his famous “Kinderbild” on the birth of his son Matthias in 1920.

At the Bauhaus in Weimar, he also continued his investigations into colour theory and designed his celebrated colour sphere, also known as the colour star, in seven light values and twelve tones.

Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus, Weimar 1921, with his colour star in the background (Hs NL 11: Ba 6)



Itten left his post as a master at the Bauhaus at the end of 1922, in the wake of growing differences with its Director Walter Gropius. He turned his back on Germany and settled with his family among the international Mazdaznan temple community in Herrliberg. There, he devoted himself entirely to the Mazdaznan teachings. These combined ideas of vegetarianism and a theory of breathing and hygiene with a religious philosophy that sought to unite Eastern wisdom with Christian messages of salvation.

Itten created the Ontos hand weaving and carpet-making workshops within the community in Herrliberg, where he also taught art.

Gradually, however, tensions emerged within the community over moves to reorient the Mazdaznan movement. As a result, Itten left Herrliberg for Berlin in October 1925.

Johannes Itten in Herrliberg, 1923 (Hs NL 11: Ba 7)



In Berlin, Itten established his own private art school – the Itten School – which quickly became very successful and a serious rival to the Bauhaus. At the end of 1929, Itten moved his school to a recently constructed building very much in the “Neues Bauen” style, with a large roof terrace for gymnastics and breathing exercises.

As with the Bauhaus, the main aim of his school was not to train independent artists but to tutor creative artists for practical occupations as photographers, architects, advertising and pattern designers. Former Bauhaus students worked as teachers in Itten’s school; they included Georg Muche, Gyula Pap, Lucia Moholy and Max Bronstein. In April 1934, the Itten School followed the Bauhaus in closing down under pressure from the Nazis.

The Itten School at Konstanzer Strasse 14, Berlin, 1929 (Hs NL 11: Ba 8)



In 1931, Itten was appointed by the Krefeld velvet and silk industry as Director of the Textile School, holding the post while continuing his work in Berlin. The Prussian School of Textile Art Krefeld, as it was officially known, was transformed by Itten from a vocational school of textile art with a purely technical approach to an art college where textile designers were trained. It was also here that he met his second wife Anneliese Schlösser, a former pupil and later teacher of pattern weaving.

In 1938, Itten was dismissed from his post, having fallen under suspicion for being both a foreigner and a former associate of the Bauhaus. The “Degenerate Art” exhibition that was staged in Munich in summer 1937 during the Nazi dictatorship included two pieces by him. Itten was regarded as a “degenerate” artist, and his works were removed from public collections in Germany.

Two photographs of exhibitions at the School of Textile Art in Cologne and Krefeld, 1936 (Hs NL 11: Cj 1.2)



Following his dismissal, Itten left Germany and began searching for new occupations, mainly in America. Initially, however, he went to Amsterdam, where he eked out a living giving painting lessons and lectures. Itten viewed his stay in the Netherlands as no more than a temporary stopover on his way to the US. Soon, however, he was commissioned by Willem Sandberg, Director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, to design a large cloth – a velum – for the glass roof of the museum’s entrance hall. Itten created a textile work of art that gained widespread fame but is no longer preserved.

While still in Amsterdam, Itten heard from the Swiss art historian Sigfried Giedion that the position of Director of the School of Arts and Crafts Zurich and the Arts and Crafts Museum was vacant, and sent in his application.

Montage des Velums in der Eingangshalle des Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1938 (Hs NL 11: Ch 3.1.40; <a href="">Digitalisat</a>)



Having been successful in his application to the School of Arts and Crafts Zurich and the Arts and Crafts Museum, Itten took up his new post as Director of both institutions in December 1938 and remained there until his retirement.

In 1939, he began teaching his form and colour theory in the general preparatory course. His lessons were designed to liberate the students’ creative forces and nurture their individual gifts. This intellectual approach characterised the School of Arts and Crafts Zurich throughout Itten’s term of office.

In 1943, he also took over as Director of the Zurich Textile School. By the time he left, the school of silk weaving had become a specialist college, training new recruits for the various branches of the textile industry: master weavers as well as textile technicians, salespeople and designers. From the 1950s onwards, the development of the Museum Rietberg allowed Itten to pursue the strong interest in non-European art that had been a constant since the start of his career.

Following his retirement, Itten focused on getting his two successful theoretical works “The Art of Colour” and “Basic Course at the Bauhaus” published; the former appeared in 1961, the latter in 1963. A retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1964 and his participation in the Venice Biennale in 1966 brought him wide recognition. Johannes Itten died in Zurich in 1967 and was buried in Höngg Cemetery.

Advertisement for the post of Director of the School of Arts and Crafts and the Arts and Crafts Museum Zurich, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 11.07.1938 (Hs NL 11: Cj 1.1)


Johannes Itten, manuscript on the colour theory, probably 1950s (Hs NL 11: Fd 12; <a href="">Digitalisat</a>)

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:



Outside Switzerland

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

Itten Library

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.

Drawing by Johannes Itten on the flyleaf of the book: Herbert Kühn, Die Kunst der Primitiven, Munich 1923; Itten Library, Itten 259

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.

Students at the Itten School in Berlin in front of their works, photo taken between 1925 and 1934 (Hs NL 11: Ba 8)

Literature on Johannes Itten

A comprehensive online bibliography on Johannes Itten can be found at 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.

Letter from Johannes Itten to Anneliese Itten, 1965 (Hs NL 11: Ec 4)


If you have any questions, Christine Baur, the project manager of "Itten vernetzt", will be happy to help.

Bamboo leaves, ink drawings by Johannes Itten, around 1960 (Hs NL 11: Cj 3.7.4)

Picture credits

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