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Art education from the famous past came
out of a solid foundation of ideas. During the Russian Revolution and the Weimar
Republic, artists brought their worldview into their classrooms. Can we teach graphic
design today without such a foundation?
Graphic design today acknowledges two influential schools of style: the
Bauhaus style of geometric abstraction and constructivism, the expression of Russian
revolutionary theory. Both schools based their courses on theories of art developed
by original thinkers such as Oskar Schlemmer in Germany and Varvara Stepanova in
the Soviet Union. What those two shared was an overflowing richness of mind. From
the depth of thought that motivated their own lives and actions, theoretical richness
overflowed into teaching. At the Bauhaus it was intellectual-spiritual-mysticalrational;
at Vkhutemas it was polemical-political. Both ideologies arose from
allegiance to grand ideas that existed before any
Schlemmer was the master considered by some to be closest to Walter Gropius’s
thought in founding the Bauhaus. So, it is not surprising that a month after Schlemmer
joined the Bauhaus in Weimar, Gropius asked him to develop a Schlemmer
wrote his wife: “Gropius says he would like to start drawing from the nude for
sculptors and would I take it over. I have agreed gladly and he says he will propose it.
They should study the nude. Something may come of this. I am pleased about it.”1
What came of it was one of the most remarkable classes in the Bauhaus or any art
school curriculum—Schlemmer’s course on “Man.” As a platform for this course, the
theoretical foundation on which his lectures and twice-weekly classes were based,
Schlemmer drew upon philosophers, poets, psychologists, and natural scientists all the
way back to Heracleitus, with stops at Voltaire and Lao-tzu or any other thinker that
had something to say to him. Over two hundred pages of notes—some of them typed
syllabi, some of them charts and diagrams—survived and were later published.
“Man,” as a course, is a richly confusing attempt to divide the study of a
human being into areas of the natural sciences, philosophy, and psychology, based on
man’s trinity of mind, nature, and soul or mind, nature, and psyche (sometimes called
normative, biological, and philosophical)—and a tumultuous outpouring of notes and
sketches. Impossible to follow as a curriculum, the notes Schlemmer left indicate the
intensity of his interest in the subject and his will to completely rethink the education
of artists through drawing. Schlemmer endorsed the Bauhausler’s cry, “We the modern
moderns,” and accepted the challenge of defining the “new life” of modernism.