To mark the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, we are running of day of sessions at the Festival of the Future City and linking to other related events. This blog tells the often-overlooked story of the women of the school.
The Bauhaus art school was to make ‘no distinction between the fair and the strong sex’ (p. xxv Bauhaus Bodies). So promised founder Walter Gropius in a speech to the school’s first cohort of students in 1919. Over the next decade and a half, the school was to make good on its promise of training creativity across the sexes, turning out a remarkable cadre of female artists, most prominently the photomontage and metalwork artist Marianne Brandt and the textile artist Anni Albers, whose work is soon to receive a major retrospective at Tate Modern. Indeed, the idea of the Bauhaus female artist was recognisable enough that in April 1930 the German magazine Die Woche could write of the Bauhausmädel (‘Bauhaus Gal’) (p. xxv Bauhaus Bodies) – an icon of liberated female creativity and ‘New Woman’ lifestyle.
Of course, the real story of the Bauhaus women was more complicated. More than the light-hearted Bauhausmädel, taking up lovers and dazzling in fancy dress at the famous Bauhaus costume parties (though they did both these things), the Bauhaus women’s careers reveal remarkable journeys of creation in the face of impossible hurdles. Some of these came from the Bauhaus men, who as well as being teachers, students, mentors and husbands, could often prove obstacles to the women’s work and aspirations.
Lucia Moholy, wife of the renowned photographer and painter, László Moholy-Nagy, coined the term ‘Meisterfrauen’ (wives of the Bauhaus ‘Masters’), who were so often expected to work for free, helping with the administration and running of the school. Women students were also often corralled into menial tasks such as preparing and serving food for Bauhaus expositions and events.
Elsewhere female students bristled against attempts to direct their training into seemingly traditional feminine pursuits. For all that Gropius spoke of making no distinctions, in reality the ‘fair sex’ was increasingly directed towards weaving workshops, encouraging ‘no unnecessary experiments’ with respect to other forms of art (p. 42 Women’s Work). Indeed, scholars have noted how the share of female representation at the Bauhaus peaked in the early Weimar period, as under subsequent directors its focus shifted further and further towards architecture – from which women were largely marginalised. The relative fame of Marianne Brandt is in part due to her role in bucking this trend, becoming the first woman to complete studies in the metalwork workshop, where her pieces received the greatest number of industrial commissions. She would go on to lead the workshop in 1928.
More serious than the constraints posed by Bauhaus men however was the opposition of the rising Nazi party, whose branding of the Bauhaus as ‘degenerate art’ would eventually lead to the school’s closure in 1933. Lesser-known than Brandt or Albers, but equally telling of the difficulties and ingenuities of the Bauhaus women, are the careers of Otti Berger, whose application to the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste (the Reichs Chamber for the Fine Arts) was denied by Joseph Goebbels on the grounds of being ‘a foreign non-Aryan’ (p. 122 Women’s Work), and Gunta Stölzl, who was pressured out of the Bauhaus in 1931, following her marriage with the Jewish Arieh Sharon and automatic loss of her German citizenship (chap. 2 Women’s Work). In a remarkable example of the artistic resilience of the women, Stölzl opened her own studio – Studio Flora – in 1937, in Switzerland (chap. 10 Women’s Work).
Perhaps the most poignant example of artistic courage in the face of privation is the case of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Dicker-Brandeis’ work at the Bauhaus was focused on children – making designs for modernist toys and architectural plans for kindergartens – and this focus remained when she was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. For two years, before her ultimate murder in Auschwitz, Dicker-Brandeis pioneered an early form of art therapy, providing drawing lessons to help incarcerated children understand their experiences of the camp. Two suitcases of over 4,500 drawings smuggled from Dicker-Brandeis are now some of our deepest insights into life, and death, in Theresienstadt.
Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus on the concept of Gesamstkunstwerk – the ‘total’ work of art – in which art was, more than being ‘salon decoration’, an integrative part of life itself. But it was the women of the Bauhaus that, more than many, were faced with the limits of trying to reconcile the injustices and constraints of life with the beauties and possibilities of art. In the freedoms that they carved out within the spaces allowed them, the lives and careers of Brandt, Albers, Dicker-Brandeis and many others exemplify the Gesamstkunstwerk vision that was the Bauhaus’ legacy.
Otto, Elizabeth, and Patrick Rössler, editors. Bauhaus Bodies : Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School. Bloomsbury, 2019.
Weltge-Wortmann, Sigrid. Women’s Work : Textile Art from the Bauhaus. Chronicle Books, 1993.
Bauhaus and Women
Wednesday 16 October 2019, 6.30 – 8.00pm, £3.77 / £5.89, Spike Island
The Bauhaus declared equality between the sexes and accepted both male and female students into its programmes. More women applied than men to join the school when it first opened. But it’s the men who are better known, despite the many women involved with the movement. Over the past decade – most recently in the case of Anni Albers – the women of the Bauhaus have been getting more attention through major exhibitions and books devoted to their work. What was the impact of the women of the Bauhaus? And what can we learn today from their lives and work?
100 years on from the founding of the original, can we reimagine the Bauhaus for 2019? This interactive, provocative day of dialogue and stimulation will bring together diverse expertise from art to architecture, psychiatry to economics and will ask; had the Bauhaus not been closed down by the Nazis, what would it be doing now for cities and their citizens?
The Bauhaus in Bristol
This exhibition commemorates the little-known but highly significant partnership between one of the Bauhaus’ most celebrated figures, the architect and designer Marcel Breuer, and Bristol entrepreneur and furniture retailer Crofton Gane. It includes rare archive material and images, Breuer-designed and Gane-manufactured furniture, and artefacts.