With 2019 marking the centenary of the Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, there has been ample opportunity to revisit and re-examine the impact and legacy of the school. Built on Gropius’ vision for a radical place of learning for art, design, and later, architecture, the school has had a profound impact on twentieth and twenty-first design. Through its association with the design of many iconic cantilever chairs, the use of block colour and sans-serif typography, the Bauhaus embodies the essence of modern design. Likewise, individuals associated with the school, such as Kandinsky, Breuer, Mies and Moholy-Nagy have become so ingrained in design theory and everyday life that their full names need no mention.
Lesser known and celebrated, however, is the output of many of the Bauhaus’ female staff and students. Though Gropius’ vision for the Bauhaus was supposedly based on arts education for all, this was not the case: women, he believed, were better suited to the decorative arts according to their inability to think in three dimensions like men. Just as the women of the Bauhaus were relegated to the more ‘feminine’ arts of weaving, ceramics and toy making, they have been noticeably absent from the ways in which the school’s legacy has been historicised, despite the fact their work within the weaving workshop and beyond, was transformative and fundamental to the school’s success.
There has been a noticeable shift, more recently, to recognise the women of the Bauhaus and to provide the space to critically engage with their production, as last year’s Anni Albers retrospective at the Tate Modern did, and as the Bauhaus 100 celebrations this year have consciously sought to do. New perspectives have emerged that recognise the value, the skill, and the complexities involved in weaving as a mode of production – so it remains to be asked, how did the work of the weaving workshop get left behind in the story of the Bauhaus? For, in many ways, it would seem as though the diaphanous qualities that can often be found in weaving have justified the threadbare histories that have been told of the Bauhaus women.
Crucial to the retelling of the Bauhaus women’s story is the fact that many students arrived at the school with expectations far beyond the decorative arts. When Gertrud Arndt, who had worked as an architect’s apprentice, enrolled at the Bauhaus in 1923, she hoped to further pursue her interest in architecture. On finding that the subject was not then offered, Arndt was moved into the weaving workshop, with other avenues closed off. Had architecture been available at that time, Arndt’s situation would not have been much different; when architecture was later introduced in 1927, female students needed not apply.
Yet, Arndt thrived at her trade and her work was recognised at the time; a photograph of Gropius’ office in Dessau taken by Lucia Moholy, for instance, shows a rug designed by Arndt adorning the school Director’s floor. Of course, however radical the Bauhaus espoused to be, it was nonetheless a product of a period in time that, particularly in the aftermath of war and national economic devastation, was attached to a traditional understanding of gender roles – despite the proliferation of the sexually-liberated, unconstrained and professional figure of the Neue Frau who ran rife throughout the German press in the 1920s. Nonetheless, situating the gender politics of the Bauhaus within wider contemporary confusion over liberation and equality in Weimar Germany does not justify Gropius’ reluctance to value the skills of female students. Rather, it highlights further contradiction between attitudes to women’s roles at the school.
It is possible to pinpoint a defining moment in the contrasting histories of Bauhaus men and women by looking back to the ways in which the legacy of the Bauhaus was shaped. The school’s iconic status has been projected through photography. This is not without deliberate consideration: the continued influence of the Bauhaus on art, design and architecture owes itself to Gropius’ own careful preservation of the school’s image through iconic photography. The Bauhaus 1919-1928 exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in December 1938 – January 1939 was instrumental in both forging and, subsequently, sustaining and furthering, the school’s international renown. It was through photography that the Bauhaus was brought to an American and English-speaking audience.
Yet, credits attributed to the photographer responsible for many of the images on show, Lucia Moholy, were omitted; nor was Moholy aware, at that time, that the glass photographic negatives she presumed lost to the flight from fascism had been taken without permission by Gropius. Though Moholy would later receive recognition for her work as one of the instrumental photographers of the Bauhaus, many of her glass negatives were smashed due to the nature of their fragility.* Gropius’ actions reflect his disregard for women at the Bauhaus. The materiality of Moholy’s craft bears an uncanny resemblance to the stories of female students and staff at the Bauhaus, and the ways in which their roles at the school have been (un)documented over the past century. Along with Moholy’s missing negatives, the impact of the Bauhaus women was lost to history, whilst photographs of iconic design pieces remained and saturated design culture.
The industrial production of high quality design for a mass audience was one of the guiding principles of the Bauhaus. Incidentally, it was in the weaving workshop that the Bauhaus was able to achieve this goal; fusing creativity, innovation, and, most importantly, profitability, through the production of their designs and labour. The technical possibilities of weaving with synthetic materials were also advanced by the weaving workshop; by Anni Albers who, as part of her diploma project in 1929, incorporated cellophane into fabric in order to craft an acoustic-proof wall covering for the Bundesschule Auditorium in Bernau, Germany; by Gunta Stölzl who innovated investigations in dyeing processes and increased weaving’s viability as master and, later, director of the weaving workshop; and by Otti Berger, who undertook experiments that challenged the limits of fabric design and achieved considerable industrial success. Perhaps tellingly, many of the Bauhaus weavers found success after the closure of the school and, therefore, outside of the fabric of the story of the Bauhaus’ legacy. Both Stölzl and Benita Koche-Otte led successful careers within the textile industry, whilst Albers’ collaborative work for Knoll Textiles demonstrates a successful synthesis of the Bauhaus vision for mass-produced high quality design.
And yet, over the last century, the far-reaching and long-lasting innovation and production of the Bauhaus weavers has come second to legendary status of the school, despite the fact its doors closed for good in 1933. Though the stories of many of these women have disappeared with almost no trace, there is a resilience and subversiveness to the Bauhaus weavings that extended far beyond Gropius’ vision of the ‘beautiful sex’ as decorators and decorations. Beyond the surface, the Bauhaus weavers’ work crafted resilient and subversive masks, both figuratively and literally. In the series Maskenselbstporträts, Arndt photographs herself in a series of disguises, using mesh, lace and other fabrics to transform herself into different versions of ‘woman’. Through their manipulation of material and textile production, the Bauhaus weavers were able to utilise the Bauhaus to their benefit. To paraphrase Anni Albers, it’s not ‘just these threads’, after all.
*See Robin Schuldenfrei, ‘Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Negatives and the Construction of the Bauhaus Legacy’, in History of Photography, 37.2 (2013), pp. 182-203.
- Lucia Moholy, Walter Gropius’ Office at the Bauhaus, Dessau, photograph, c. 1924
- Gunta Stölzl, Slit Tapestry Red/Green, wall hanging, 1927-8
- Otti Berger, Textile Book, textile samples, c. 1930s (Photo: The Met Museum)
- Anni Albers, Eclat, silkscreen on woven fabric (Photo: Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Knoll Textiles)
- Gertrud Arndt, Mask Portrait, No. 16, photograph, c. 1930.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ellen Brown is a writer, who recently graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art, with an Masters specialising in early twentieth-century modernism in Weimar Germany.