The “Bauhaus women”
Female apprentices required – but not too many!
There are many myths on the subject of women in the Bauhaus. Author Theresia Enzensberger points out that where women’s equality is concerned, the school might have been progressive – but the inclusive attitude remained incomplete.
When #MeToo reached the art world, this is how it read: “We are not surprised when curators offer exhibitions or support in exchange for sexual favours. We are not surprised when gallerists romanticise, minimise, and hide sexually abusive behaviour by artists they represent. We are not surprised when a meeting with a collector or a potential patron becomes a sexual proposition. We are not surprised when we are retaliated against for not complying. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.” The open letter, which was published on 30th October 2017 in The Guardian and was signed by thousands of people involved in the art industry, clearly demonstrates how long overdue a discussion about power relations was in this field too. But there are things in the art world that make this reconditioning particularly difficult: the genius myth for instance, the occult social capital, or the fact that the avant garde movement considers itself to be especially progressive and therefore has comparatively big problems when it comes to even entertaining the possibility of power abuse or sexism within its own ranks.
These blind spots are nothing new. Today the Bauhaus is viewed as one of the most important institutions in the modern world, pioneer of social architecture, progressive school and hotbed of talent. None of this is wrong, but it isn’t complete. When Walter Gropius founded the school in 1919 in Weimar, his agenda was as follows: “Any respectable person is accepted as an apprentice regardless of age and gender, whose talent and educational background is considered to be adequate by the Masters’ Council.” The predecessor of the Bauhaus, the Grand Ducal-Saxon Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar, was one of the few art schools at which women were accepted even before the foundation of the Weimar Republic. Gropius’ announcement was well received: in the summer semester of 1919 the proportion of women enrolled at the Bauhaus was just over fifty per cent, with 84 female and 79 male students. The Masters’ Council was overwhelmed by the huge onslaught, Gropius called for a “strict segregation immediately after admission, especially where the over-represented female sex with its excessively high numbers is concerned.” Generally speaking, this segregation manifested itself in terms of restricting women to designated areas and accommodating them in the weaving workshop, which by that time was being referred to as the “women’s class”.
Some women found this working scenario to be a thoroughly positive experience: the other masters usually didn’t interfere in the workshop’s affairs, and there was a sense of self-determination and solidarity. Gunta Stölzl, who was in charge of the “women’s class” briefly in 1920, was well-suited to this textile work because her talent matched the role she occupied. In 1927 she became junior master of weaving at the instigation of the students, and thus its sole head. She remained the only Bauhaus master craftswoman. Anni Albers, who originally wanted to be a painter, also found weaving to be a medium in which she could live out her creative potential. She experimented with abstraction, viewed the rigid grid structure of the loom as an inspiration, and was extremely innovative in her approach to textiles: she completed her Bauhaus diploma in 1930 with a soundproof and light-reflective wall covering made of cotton and cellophane.
But not all women were in the weaving workshop through choice. Gropius’ segregation was showing its effects: in the years after the Bauhaus was founded, the number of women was decreasing constantly. Weaving was considered a handicraft, which meant it had a very low status in the art and design hierarchy. It’s a bitter irony of the story that the weaving workshop was the only one to run at a profit for many years – so that it helped to finance the artistic flights of fancy in the male-dominated areas as well.
Oskar Schlemmer, form master in fresco painting, expressed his appreciation in these words: “Where there’s wool you’ll women find, weaving just to pass the time.” But women were making progress in his workshop too, for example Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, who despite instructions from the master craftsman that the outside area was only to be used by the men, could often be found on the scaffolding. Marianne Brandt also secured herself a place in the male domain that was the metal workshop, and is responsible for some of probably the most famous Bauhaus designs: the round ashtray with triangular opening, or the MT49 tea infuser are just two examples. Even the architecture course, which was only established in 1926, wasn’t safe from the women. Lotte Stam-Beese was the first women to be accepted onto the course. Admittedly this unusual event was preceded by an affair with Hannes Meyer, the new Bauhaus director – and things didn’t end well for her: when her relationship became public, he asked her to quit her course.
These lone warriors are remarkable, but life was not easy for them. One area in which gender relations were not yet finally established, and which created a certain amount of freedom for women at the Bauhaus, was photography. Women like Gertrud Arndt and Lucia Moholy were able to reinvent themselves within these free spaces.
Closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis in 1933 was followed by crazy, chaotic and in some cases tragic years for many of those formerly involved with the school. Six female Bauhaus members were murdered in concentration camps, one lost her life during a bomb attack. A succession of women artists were able to flee into exile: Gunta Stölzl founded a hand-weaving business in Switzerland, Anni Albers taught at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, United States, from 1933 onwards, and Lotte Stam-Beese found a new home in Holland.
So what’s left of the Bauhaus women? A well-known photo by Lux Feininger shows a group of young women on the steps of the Bauhaus building in Dessau. They have short hair, are wearing trousers, and are looking at the camera with wild, uninhibited expressions. Progressive though that may seem, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be misled and perpetuate the blind spots of the past – instead we should view these women as artists in their own right. Far too often you still hear people saying: “Wasn’t that the wife of Joseph Albers, Mart Stam, László Moholy-Nagy?” The fact that more and more one-off exhibitions are being dedicated to female Bauhaus artists, that they are getting their own Wikipedia entries, that art historians are writing about their lives, allows a glimmer of hope that all this will stop soon.