Explore examples of female image makers and their contribution to Bauhaus through 5 defining photographs.
Today, efforts to unearth women’s contributions at the Bauhaus endure. Although interest in the female graduates hailing from the famous art school has surged in recent years – including a string of exhibitions and books that coincided with the 2019 centenary – ample ground for exploration into these progressive women remains.
One subject that still seems attributed to male counterparts – in particular, László Moholy-Nagy – is photography. Practiced at ‘free will’ by the Bauhauslers until 1929 – when it was officially added to the curriculum due to the employment of Walter Peterhan – the machine presented the quintessential modern expressive outlet. A machine that could be used to make art; it answered to the Bauhaus aspiration to reach a symbiosis between traditional craft and modern apparatus.
First motivated by the avant-garde approach of the New Vision – encouraged by teacher Moholy-Nagy – and later taking a more utilitarian approach under the teachings of Peterhans, women of the Bauhaus explored, at great length, the capabilities of the medium, proving to be formative photographers with enduring impact on contemporary practice.
Here we look at 5 female image makers that fell into obscurity, illustrating their contribution through 5 defining photographs. Going beyond the machine’s documentative capabilities, these women push the limits of the medium, developing new image-making techniques, visualising their political motives and revealing the less exposed faces of the Bauhaus.
Enrolling at the Dessau Bauhaus in 1926, Lotte Stam-Beese was the first woman to join the Department of Architecture – a division of the school that had long discouraged or outright denied female participation. Female students with hopes of studying architecture were often redirected to more domestically perceived studies, such as weaving or ceramics, as part of a gender bias that would inform the fabric of the school throughout its existence.
Although a complicated personal relationship with director Hannes Meyer resulted in an early departure and thus a failure to obtain her diploma in the subject, Lotte amassed a name for herself, working for architecture firms in Berlin and Czechoslovakia – a testament to her prowess in the field – and later settling in Amsterdam where she founded her own architecture office in 1935.
Her creative output during her time at Dessau extends further than history has led us to believe, and her lesser known photographic works demand attention for their inquisitive approach into the camera’s capabilities to perceive and mystify. One such photo – a portrait of fellow classmate, Albert Braun – embodies the playful Bauhaus approach to creating, using reflection to both reveal and conceal.
In this portrait, a handheld mirror obscures one side of Braun’s face whilst reflecting the unconcealed half, resulting in a false “completed” image of the subject’s face. His reflected eye playfully meets the camera lens extending his vision and creating a metaphor for the camera’s ability to bare witness. A radical portrait, it is both joyful and bewildering to engage with.
Of the 462 women enrolled in the Bauhaus, Etel Fodor-Mittag, who joined the school in 1928, was one of the few women able to gain commercial success in photography outside of the school’s walls. Having established a footing in graphic arts at the Graphic Research and Education (Grafische Versuchs- und Lehranstalt) in Vienna, she joined the Dessau campus to further her practice under the teaching of Josef Albers, it was here she discovered a new communicative vehicle that would spark her interest: photography.
Although the medium wasn’t officially added to the curriculum until 1929, Etel had begun both documenting what she saw and challenging the limits of the lens early in studies. Among her output are expressive portraits and group shots of fellow Bauhauser’s, which attest to the vibrancy of life at the famous school, alongside a selection of still-life compositions which appear steeped in symbolism and political intent.
Spearheaded by Peterhan, the newly introduced photography course taught commercial product photography skills, which utilised the still-life artistic style. Going beyond the purely aesthetic arrangement of objects, Etel began gathering allegorical props, which were arranged and shot to reflect her socialist values.
No image better illustrates this narrative discourse than one early still-life in which a toy gun appears to have just been fired; 3 sugar cubes emanate from the pistol as a twist of wire creates the illusion of smoke; the blow is sweetened; the act of shooting becomes child’s play. Here we can interpret a message of peace from Etel and perhaps a taunting at the childish acts of those in power, expertly told through a clever use of props and their refined composition.
When Ivana Tomljenovic stepped foot in the Bauhaus in 1929 she saw it as fertile ground in which to both flourish creatively and further her growing revolutionary ideologies, alongside like-minded comrades. With a career largely set on advancing the communist cause, her oeuvre centres around highly politicised graphic posters which employed photomontage and collage to great effect.
Born into an affluent middle-class family in Yugoslavia, Ivana was accomplished in many facets of life; a semi-professional athlete, a graphic designer and later a skilled photographer, she was spirited and fearless to top it all off. This intrepid streak permeated her photographic output at the Bauhaus, and following enrollment in Walter Peterhans’ advanced photographic course she began directing her lens at all aspects of Bauhaus life, including those lesser known after-class moments.
Capturing the dynamic atmosphere of the Bauhaus, one image in particular presents a rare insight into an underrepresented facet of school life. An expression of gender fluidity, her photograph, ‘Preparing for a Party’ shows two Bauhauser’s – David Feidt and Tibor Weiner – adorned in make-up and dress, performing for the camera in a display of campness.
A subversive gesture, it demonstrates how artists questioned and experimented with gender identity at Dessau, of which there are few examples. A subject which Elizabeth Otto explores in Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, images such as shed light on the school’s secret history and the untold dimensions of an institution famed for rationality.
Another overlooked female Bauhauser, Elsa Thiemann joined the Bauhaus in 1929, training in painting under Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and photography under Walter Peterhans, a proponent of the Neues Sehen (New Vision) movement. Settling on photography she pursued the medium with free will, intent and an interdisciplinary approach that rang true to Walter’s teaching and the principles of the rapidly popularising movement.
No one photographic work better orchestrates this than her photogram wallpaper; an ingenious and overlooked contribution to both the medium and the schools output. Working in response to a brief set by German wallpaper manufacturer Gebrüder Rasch, Elsa set out producing several designs for a new “bauhaus collection”. Working with the camera-less photogram process – popularised by Man Ray and achieved by placing objects on photosensitive paper and exposing them to light – Elsa created a recurring pattern ornate and unique.
Flowers and stems create abstract shapes that curve across a black background; the pattern is dark and New Vision in its unconventional aesthetic and its experimental coming about. Elsa’s outcome, however ingenious, was too ornamental for the tastes of the Bauhaus – who favoured the linear and denounced the ornate – thus her design was never produced. Reconsidered today, Elsa’s work needs acknowledging for its intelligent use of process and alluring aesthetic.
Beginning her photographic studies in Paris at the École de la Photographie, Judit Kárász joined the Bauhaus at the age of 18. She was ready to develop her skills in line with modernist concepts which advocated new perspectives, subjects and ways of developing photographs. Her output was rich and varied, ranging from abstract studies of material structures, birds-eye shots of daily-life at the school and portraits of those around her.
Judit’s most famed image – a double exposure of fellow student Otti Berger merged with a Bauhaus facade – presents a powerful reminder of women’s place within the school. Today the photograph reads as a metaphor for where we place women in the history of the Bauhaus; they are seen but only just. This well executed double exposure, takes a portrait of Otti – textile artist, weaver and Bauhaus teacher – and places her visually and figuratively within the school, although present, her image is faint and illusionary.
A well respected and revolutionary Bauhauser, Otti, was one of few women who joined the faculty, transforming the weaving department through progressive teaching in material and process. A core component in the school’s success, Otti’s work is largely overlooked, and we can, through this portrait be reminded of her presence and that of many other Bauhaus women whose contribution remains in the shadows.
Words: Frankie Moutafis