The women of the Bauhaus
Women may not have been able to pursue as many fields as men at the Bauhaus, but this did nothing to hamper their astounding creativity, explains Corinne Julius
Words by: Corinne Julius
For generations, the Bauhaus has been seen as a largely male affair. Although female students have been acknowledged, it’s often merely as the wives of their male fellow students or masters — and their contribution has been viewed as relatively insignificant and hardly central to the contemporary understanding of the influence of the Bauhaus. In the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of its founding, it’s time to re-evaluate the part played by women at the school.
The Bauhaus emerged in the Weimar republic, which in 1919 afforded women the same civil rights and duties as men and the Bauhaus’ admissions policy officially encouraged women. It stated: ‘Any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex, whose previous education is deemed adequate by the Council of Masters, will be admitted as far as space permits.’
Gunta Stölzl, head of weaving at the Bauhaus from 1927 to 1931 and the only woman to become a Master, photographed at Bauhaus Dessau in 1927. Credit: Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin / Courtesy Taschen
In its first year, more women than men applied to study there, causing founder and director Walter Gropius to become concerned that too high a proportion of female students would reduce the new school’s credibility — and so he unofficially restricted the number of women students. Indeed as Patrick Rössler writes in the newly published Bauhausmädels: A Tribute to Pioneering Women Artists (Taschen, 2019), there is evidence that ‘[Gropius] actively prevented a female student participating in the building of a house, because he feared that the hostile local media would whip it up into a moral scandal.’
Local Weimar citizens were shocked just at the idea of women and men learning, living and working alongside each other, let alone at their partying and nude sunbathing. They questioned funding such activities, so Gropius’ concern was not altogether unreasonable. However, Gropius energetically propounded his belief that women were not physically and genetically qualified for certain arts, because men thought in three dimensions, whilst women could only cope with two.
Anni Albers in 1922. Credit: 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Courtesy Taschen
As a result, in 1920 a special women’s class was introduced and subsumed into the textile department. It was soon considered the woman’s area of work, although whether women were forced to do weaving or merely ‘encouraged’ is disputed. Later, under the Bauhaus’s second director Hannes Meyer, some women could study architecture, but under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe the masculinisation of the Bauhaus increased, as he concentrated on architecture, a field from which women were by then again excluded.
Whilst amazing work was to emerge from the workshop, the school’s structure prevented women from sharpening their artistic skills to the same extent as men. In addition, unlike other workshops, it did not lead to a professional qualification. According to Anja Baumhoff, author of The Gendered World of the Bauhaus (Peter Lang, 2001), 13 men studied weaving, against 128 of the 462 female students at the Bauhaus. Only 36 women took the building theory course. Of female students who completed more than the Vorkurs (a foundation course), getting on for half (46.4%) were in the weaving workshop.
Double exposure of Otti Berger with the facade of the Atelierhaus, Dessau, in 1931. Credit: Géza Pártay / Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin / Courtesy Taschen
Some of the women undoubtedly enjoyed not being pitted against male students. This is not to underestimate the success of the weaving workshop, which became a byword for the school’s modernist approach. Not only were its textiles used in architectural environments, but they were commercially significantly successful and innovative in terms of exploring new materials like cellophane and weaving on mechanised Jacquard looms.
Only one out of the six students allowed to become a Master, was a woman. Gunta Stölzl (1897–1983) became head of weaving from 1927 to 1931, piloting the move from individual pictorial weaving to modern industrial designs, while also implementing the study of mathematics. Her own designs were complex patterns of undulating lines that became kaleidoscopes of colour. Her experiments include creating the mercerised cotton and Eisengarn fabric for Breuer’s tubular-steel chairs. Her stewardship of the weaving workshop oversaw joint projects with the Polytex Textile Company and included a revolt by students in her favour against the male head, Georg Muche. Stölzl was driven out in 1931 following her marriage to a Jewish fellow student, Arieh Sharon, who would go on to masterplan the new state of Israel. Fleeing to Switzerland, Stölzl continued to create textiles for the remainder of her life.
Metalwork designer Marianne Brandt in a double-exposure self-portrait, 1930. Credit: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 / Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin
One of her most talented and innovative students was Otti Berger (1898–1944) who was briefly head of department. ‘She was a star of the weaving workshop,’ says Alan Powers, author of Bauhaus Goes West (Thames & Hudson, 2019). ‘She was an exceptional figure, from the moment she entered the Bauhaus in 1927.’ Berger later established her own pioneering studio in Berlin (closed by the Nazis) and worked with companies such as De Ploeg in the Netherlands and Helios in Britain. She produced highly technical fabric for the automotive and aeronautical industries and patented a number of her textiles. Becoming deaf after an accident, colour and texture became especially important to her: ‘One must listen to the fabric’s secrets, track down the sounds of materials,’ she wrote in a treatise on textile production.
Berger intended to join the New Bauhaus in Chicago and tried initially and unsuccessfully to get full-time work in the UK, finding it difficult, because of her hearing impairment. She went home to Croatia in 1938 to look after her mother but as a Jew she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
A teapot designed by Brandt in 1924. Credit: The Trustees of The British Museum
Anni Albers (1889–1994) joined the Bauhaus in 1922 wanting to paint, but was ‘persuaded’ to become a weaver. She explored the functional and architectural possibilities of textiles, designing a cotton, chenille and cellophane fabric that could absorb both sound and light. Forced to leave Germany, she became an influential teacher at Black Mountain College in the US, worked extensively with Philip Johnson to develop interior textiles, created fabrics for Knoll, as well as developing her non-functional ‘Pictorial Weavings’.
Her overall achievement, says Ann Coxon, co-curator of the 2018 Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern, was to show ‘how weaving can be a valid modernist art practice. Her work is not decorative, it’s conceptual.’ Briony Fer, professor of art history at UCL, adds: ‘Through her weaving she was able to develop a model of abstraction that was vivid and viable for contemporary forms of life... That her “female” textile is “male” art, is only now being fully recognised.’
Margaret Leischner (1907–1990) was particularly interested in the experimental use of yarns at the Bauhaus. Later escaping to Britain, she worked for Helios. Despite being interned by the British, she nevertheless established a career as a designer of woven textiles, often with highly specialised technical specifications for aircraft and automobile seating, and designed carpets for Tintawn. Leischner ultimately became professor of weaving at the Royal College of Art. ‘She made a significant contribution to teaching and to designing for industry, but remains relatively unknown,’ says Alan Powers.
Lucia Moholy in a self-portrait from 1930. She taught photography to students for free and took pictures documenting the Bauhaus and its Community. Credit: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 / Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin / Courtesy Taschen
One of the most successful in resisting stereotypes was Marianne Brandt (1893–1983). ‘She was one of the major designers of the Bauhaus, male or female,’ says Eric Turner, curator of contemporary metalwork at London’s V&A museum. ‘Her first designs were ruthlessly geometric and have since become icons of the Weimar Bauhaus. Her lighting was extraordinary and very successful.’ Brandt trained as a painter, but joined the Bauhaus in 1924 to study metalwork. She became the workshop assistant and subsequently took over from László Moholy-Nagy as acting director in 1928.
Brandt helped to gear both the tuition and workshop practice to the requirements of industrial design. ‘She negotiated some of the most important commercial contracts with industry for the school, which helped to fund it,’ says Turner. ‘Her aluminium lights for Körting & Mathieson and Leipzig Leutzsch, her geometric metal ashtrays and tea and coffee services are some of the highlights of Bauhaus design and continue to be much in demand.’
Brandt subsequently became the head of metal design at the Ruppel Company, but lost her job in the Great Depression. She tried to leave the country, but family responsibilities, as was often the case with other Bauhaus women, meant she had to remain. She never regained her former status, although she produced a body of photomontage work on the situation of women in the interwar years. Her striking self-portraits depict her as the new woman of the Bauhaus. She died in straightened circumstances in Kirchberg, East Germany.
Student Wera Meyer-Waldeck in the carpentry workshop at Bauhaus Dessau in 1930, photographed by Gertrud Arndt. Credit: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 / Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin / Courtesy Taschen
Gertrud Arndt (1903–2000) was a frustrated architectturned- weaver, but her major contribution was as a photographer. Her ‘Mask Portraits’ were precursors to works by Cindy Sherman. Like some other Bauhauslers, she eventually lived in East Germany, so had little outlet for her creativity. Photography at the Bauhaus was also greatly influenced by Lucia Moholy (1894–1989), wife of László Moholy-Nagy. She taught both her husband and students for free and took the photographs that personify the Bauhaus and its community. When she fled Germany for Britain, she was ‘forced to leave her 500 glass plates in the care of Gropius,’ says Alan Powers. ‘He subsequently used them in his 1938 exhibition at MoMA according little of the credit to Lucia.’
Margarete Heymann (1899–1990) refused to join the weavers and pushed Gropius to allow her to study ceramics. Like Brandt, she worked to geometric designs, producing ceramics using constructivist patterns and colourful glazes. She left after arguing with her department head and set up Haël-Werkstätten ceramics with her husband. Forced to sell her company, she emigrated to the UK, started Greta Pottery and later became a painter.
Marguerite Wildenhain (1896–1895) also studied and subsequently taught ceramics. Fleeing to the US, she became head of the ceramics workshop at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, before founding the Ponds Farm artists’ colony and ceramics company, 75 miles north of San Francisco.
The weavers on the stairs in Bauhaus Dessau, 1927. Credit: Estate of T. Lux Feininger / Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin / Courtesy Taschen
Women at the Bauhaus were tolerated, rather than enthusiastically welcomed. The majority of women saw themselves as equal, on a par with their male colleagues in a bohemian environment, something that aroused hostility in the bourgeois media. ‘The new Mädels [girls]’ as portrayed in the press, explains Patrick Rössler, ‘were unconventional, interested in a career and doing all that men could do.’ These independently minded women were photographed on the steps of the Bauhaus with bobbed hair, lipstick and trousers. Nevertheless, the Bauhaus community was a kind of marriage market with a quarter of the female students — and one third of those who studied for three semesters or more — meeting their future husbands at the school.
Their difficulties in being taken seriously were created by their confinement to craft-based disciplines, yet women from the weaving workshop alongside Marianne Brandt, were extremely successful in understanding and designing for mass manufacture. Sales of their designs helped finance the school.
It’s impossible to mention all the women who made an impact, and — had circumstances been different — might be better known today. So many of the women didn’t get their due, because they married male students, or had to flee the country and subsequently found it harder than the men to gain employment or teaching posts. Their archives were left in Germany and in their new homes they were not taken seriously enough to have their new works protected, although some are now finally being rediscovered.
These women’s designs were not completed in concrete, but in more transitory materials, less valued and more prone to wear and tear. Even where their work still exists, it is often misattributed — as happened to Lucia Moholy — and for a significant number, their responsibilities to family prevented their escape.
This article was originally published in Blueprint issue 365, a special issue dedicated to the Bahaus centenary. You can buy it here, or subscribe to Blueprint