Itten practiced the Mazdaznan faith, a religious health movement based on a combination of Christianity and Zoroastrianism that emphasized vegetarianism, breathing exercises, and the cultivation of the body. Before starting each class, Itten would make his students perform gymnastic exercises to loosen them up and free their bodies as much as their minds for his teachings. Itten wanted his students to feel color in their bodies as much as see it through their eyes and experience it in their minds. His book, The Art of Color, contains many of his almost mystical ideas on color and still inspires students today. In works such as Die Begegnung (above, from 1916), Itten put his theories into practice, creating images remarkably similar to those of the Orphic artists Frantisek Kupka and Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
Today, Itten is a forgotten figure, known only as a color theorist to intrigued specialists or as one of the many colorful characters who passed through the doors of the Bauhaus during its heyday. Space Composition I (above, from 1944) shows both Itten’s strengths and his weaknesses. In Space Composition I we see Itten composing an intricate web of color contrasts and dissonances, choosing each color with the surrounding colors in mind, maximizing each piece for maximum effect. Itten plays games with color like a chessmaster, thinking many moves ahead and seeing the whole board in a way that others simply can’t. I’ve tried to untangle for myself Itten’s color theories, but he is light years beyond me, which may be his weakness. Tied to such powerful ideas about the use of color, many of Itten’s works look like school exercises—elaborate color wheels rather than organic works of art. I just can’t feel the color in his works the way he hoped one would, which is probably more my weakness than his.