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Celebrating six trailblazing Bauhaus women

As the Bauhaus turns 100, we turn the spotlight on the school’s extraordinary women, whose experiences are still instructive today

Walter Gropius published the founding manifesto of the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919. Both the Lyonel Feininger woodcut of a cathedral on the cover and the first line of the four-page leaflet exalted architecture: “The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building!” he wrote. “Architects, painters, and sculptors must recognize anew and learn to grasp the composite character of a building both as an entity and as separate parts.” Gropius’s new school would reunite craftsmen and artists in the modern era, allowing them to work in tandem toward a common goal as they had building medieval cathedrals.

But collaboration, and craft, didn’t mean an end to old hierarchies. If the ultimate goal was the building, then the architect (all of the directors of the Bauhaus were, in fact, architects) would sit on top of the design hierarchy. When we think of the Bauhaus today, the image is often still a building: the one Gropius designed for the second incarnation of the school, in Dessau. It is only as we look to the interiors of that building—to its lamps, to its curtains, and to the credits on the photographs of all of the above— that we can see the work of women.

As Sigrid Wortmann Weltge writes in the introduction to her book Women’s Work: Textile Art from the Bauhaus, female students “arrived at the school with an astonishing diversity of talents, convinced that this avant-garde institution would accept them as equals.” Alas. Many of these students had already studied art elsewhere—and they were eager to learn from masters like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy—but “they were segregated and given their own workshop, the Weaving Workshop, regardless of talent or inclination,” Weltge writes.

Initially, female students far outnumbered men; the administration soon instituted quotas in order to better balance the classes. After completing the first-year co-educational foundation course, women were shunted into weaving, while men could choose sculpture, metalwork, graphics, photography, stagecraft, and other fields which ebbed and flowed over the school’s history. Each workshop was led by a so-called “master,” and former students like Marcel Breuer (furniture) and Herbert Bayer (graphics) eventually became junior masters. Of course, many women flourished there! A photograph of Bauhaus masters taken that year on the roof of the Bauhaus building shows 12 men and one woman—Gunta Stölzl, weaving master.

And still others rationalized their segregation as a kind of natural order: “The artistically active woman applies herself most often and most successfully to work in a two-dimensional plane,” wrote Helene Nonne-Schmidt (wife of Bauhaus master Joost Schmidt) in 1926.

Thinking about the experience of the Bauhaus women is still instructive today. You’ll still find more women doing fiber arts than painting, more interior design than architecture. You’ll still find more women writing about, curating, and supporting art than making it. One prescient historic example is Ise Gropius—Walter’s younger second wife—who was never a student, but who had an outsized influence on the reputation of the Bauhaus. It is partly through her PR efforts, her letters, her edits, and eventually her donation of the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, to Historic New England, that the Bauhaus lives on. The Gropiuses’ double desk (her side has the typewriter) is one of the first things you see when you walk through the Lincoln house’s front door.

Things have changed in the last 100 years, but the most rapid change has occurred in the past 10. Now weaver Anni Albers can have a solo retrospective at the Tate Modern. Now Lucia Moholy’s photographs can be treated as works of art in themselves, not, as documentation of other people’s genius, as some of her more famous colleagues thought. But it took so long, and these stories remain so frustrating.

Writing short biographies of just six of the dozens of Bauhaus women, it doesn’t feel as if they are long gone—their struggles are now. Designing women continue to seek a world in which they can be properly recognized and paid for their contributions. They continue to seek a world where craft is considered as ambitious a field as art or design. Design as a profession continues to struggle with the idea of collaboration and all makers being equal.

Gunta Stölzl

When Gunta Stölzl (1897-1983) became master of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus in 1927, she crossed out the word “student” on her school identification card and replaced it with the word “Meister,” rather than the feminine Meisterin. As the first and only female master, nominated not by fellow faculty but by her students, she no longer had anything to prove.

Stölzl’s work—vibrant abstract wall hangings, hard-wearing industrial fabrics, lush carpets—shows the range of expression and experimentation possible within weaving. Though that discipline may not necessarily have been her, or her students’, choice, they pushed traditional forms of “women’s work” like embroidery, applique, and flat-weaving into new directions. Anni Albers took up the workshop’s direction after Stölzl was forced out by student anti-Semitism in 1931. After leaving the Bauhaus, Stölzl (luckily) moved to Zurich and established a handweaving business; by the late 1960s she devoted herself exclusively to tapestry weaving.

Once Stölzl’s work has been pointed out, it is hard to un-see her presence, even in spaces more often attributed to the male superstars of the school, Walter Gropius (director from 1919 to 1928 and designer of the Bauhaus buildings in Dessau) and Marcel Breuer (student, then master of the furniture workshop, from 1923 to 1928). In the Prellerhaus, or student dormitory, in Dessau, the spare student rooms were enlivened by 100 identical striped blankets, all woven in the weaving workshop to Stölzl’s design.

When Breuer’s tubular steel club chair was introduced in 1926, it wasn’t just the frame that was pioneering. The chair, now known as the Wassily, wouldn’t work without the fabric stretched between the metal framework of its seat, arms, and back, and that fabric, known as Eisengarn (iron-yarn), was developed in Stölzl’s weaving workshop. “In the archive at Harvard we have four different samples of this Eisengarn in great colors, orange, blue, gold,” says Laura Muir, curator of the exhibition “The Bauhaus and Harvard.” “Today they only produce it in black, and it is through black and white photographs that we know the Bauhaus.”

When museums show original versions of the chair, there should actually be two credits on the label—Breuer, who bent the tubing, and Stölzl’s students, who wove the upholstery.

Alma Siedhoff-Buscher

Alma Siedhoff-Buscher (1899-1944) entered the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1922 and was, like her female classmates, assigned to the weaving workshop. A year later, she asked for a transfer and was accepted into the wood-carving department—but only because her area of interest was design for children. Play was an important element of the Bauhaus curriculum: Johannes Itten, the master who created the school’s first-year Vorkurs, was a former kindergarten teacher; Josef Albers would take it over after Itten’s departure in 1922.

The Vorkurs, or preliminary course, asked students to explore the fundamentals of material, form, and color. One of the most famous exercises asks students to create a three-dimensional structure from a sheet of 8.5-by-11-inch paper. The simple design tasks were not unlike the exercises undertaken by children as part of Friedrich Froebel’s revolutionary kindergartens, where children as young as four learned about symmetry, abstraction, composition, and mathematics from boxes of wooden blocks. Later Buscher would design two coloring books to teach children Bauhaus ideas about form and color.

Buscher’s first designs were toys created for sale, and her toys, including colorful wooden blocks and a geometric wooden ship-building model, as well as the products of the female-dominated weaving workshop, provided income for the entire school. In 1923, she designed a suite of furniture for the nursery at the Haus am Horn, a showhouse built in Weimar that year. Pieces included a cupboard with black, ball-shaped knobs and a variety of bright wooden boxes, some on wheels, that worked as large-scale building blocks, a puppet theater, and toy storage. After the exhibition closed, British curator Nikolaus Pevsner bought the furniture for his own house, making the little Pevsners among the first 20th-century children to inhabit the primary-colored environment of interchangeable parts of architects’ dreams.

Buscher was killed in a World War II air raid near Frankfurt in 1944.

Marianne Brandt

Marianne Brandt (1893-1983) also escaped the weaving workshop, encouraged by László Moholy-Nagy to work in metal. She was a skilled photographer, experimenting with photomontage—often of the machined, shiny objects she created. She and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, best known for his glass teapot and Kubus stacking storage dishes, soon set themselves apart, creating new models for housewares in simplified, unornamented shapes. Her tea infuser, designed in 1924, is circular in plan, with an inset circular lid and a semicircular ebony handle riding the back like a tiller.

When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau and sharpened its focus on industry collaborations, Brandt and her male colleagues created light fixtures that were sold by the school as well as installed everywhere in Gropius’s building. These were also made of shiny circular shapes, with cords and switches incorporated as seamlessly as possible. Her Kandem lamp, created with Hin Briedendieck in 1928, remains one of the Bauhaus’s best-selling products. Originally produced in copper, with an adjustable arm and a sturdy base, the Kandem is timeless, and the inspiration for the Anglepoise, the Luxo, and decades of other architect-beloved lamps. Today you can buy Brandt’s metal ashtrays, sugar bowls, and egg cups from Alessi.

Brandt taught art and design after the war in Berlin and Dresden, eventually moving back to Chemnitz, then in East Germany, where she practiced painting, weaving, and sculpture.

Anni Albers

Anni Albers (1899-1994) was initially unhappy at being forced into the weaving workshop, but soon turned her studies there into the kind of experiments with materials that the men (and Marianne Brandt) were doing in furniture and architecture. While we often associate plastic and nylon with postwar modernism, Albers was weaving with transparent cellophane and shimmering copper wire in the 1920s. Her geometries in thread closely paralleled Josef Albers’s abstractions in glass, showing both of them pursuing similar compositional strategies with regard to structure and color.

In 1933, the Nazi party, which saw the Bauhaus’s modernist emphasis (and its many Jewish and Communist faculty members) as subversive, forced the design school to close. Anni and Josef Albers were invited to teach at Black Mountain College, a newly formed, multidisciplinary art school outside Asheville, North Carolina, that would become one of several “new Bauhauses” in America.

In 1949, Anni Albers was the first woman weaver to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. The architectural display showcased striking handwoven screens in horsehair and rayon; cotton, aluminum, and jute; and walnut lathe. MoMA also showcased her jewelry fashioned from hardware store parts (still an excellent DIY) alongside creations in precious metals by Alexander Calder and Ward Bennett. Albers continually pushed the envelope on materials and structure. After 1951 she would also design industrially produced textiles for Knoll, where co-founder and designer Florence Knoll was looking for unfussy, modern furniture fabrics to outfit the offices of the future.

Marguerite Wildenhain

Marguerite (Friedlaender) Wildenhain (1896–1985) was part of the first class of students at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1919. She had to overcome the resistance of the ceramic workshop masters to female apprentices, but eventually prevailed and was allowed to study. She was eventually certified as a master potter and led the clay workshop at another art school—but not the Bauhaus. She also met her husband, fellow ceramicist Frans Wildenhain, at the Bauhaus, and they married in 1930.

In 1933, Marguerite, who was Jewish, was forced to resign from teaching, and she and Frans moved to the Netherlands. In 1940, she was allowed to emigrate to the United States, while Frans was drafted into the German Army. They would not see each other for seven years, a separation that led to artistic conflict and, eventually, divorce.

"Don’t trust men,” a former student reported her saying. “Pots will never let you down.”

Like Albers, Wildenhain would find another multidisciplinary community in the United States. In her case, it was the Pond Farm Workshops, which she co-founded in 1949 in Guerneville, California. Wildenhain’s American work had a naturalist streak. While her 1930s dinnerware for the royal German porcelain maker KPM was all clean lines and dramatic silhouettes, her postwar work is earth-toned and spotted, carved, textured, and streaked, influenced by travels in Central and South America, as well as the Southwest. In 2014 Pond Farm was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and efforts continue to preserve the structures there as working artists’ studios.

Lucia Moholy

One of the best ways to see the work of Brandt, Buscher, Stölzl, and the weavers of the workshop is through the photographs of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989), first wife of master László Moholy-Nagy. In the Harvard exhibition, Muir says, “we are trying to underscore the importance of these photographs in promoting the Bauhaus idea of modern living, creating coordinated harmonious environments where architecture, objects, furnishings all worked together.”

Lucia Moholy never had an official relationship with the school—by the time she and her husband arrived in Weimar, she was already working as an editor and photographer—but she used first a large-format camera, and then a more flexible Leica, to document the work in the studios. Once the school moved to Dessau, she documented the new buildings, making prints of her negatives for sample books, publicity, and publications, spreading the Bauhaus aesthetic both through reproduction and through her choices behind the camera, which emphasized the graphic qualities of the architecture and objects.

When she photographed Buscher’s infant changing table, for example, the camera was at a 45 degree angle, which foregrounds its sharp corners, free of ornament. The doors and drawers are half open, suggesting the flurry of activity around such a piece of furniture, rather than presenting it as a static luxury object.

“The way Julius Shulman creates the lifestyle of California, she creates the lifestyle of the Bauhaus,” says Robin Schuldenfrei, lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and author of Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Negatives and the Construction of the Bauhaus Legacy. “The way she frames the balconies, the way she shows a window cracked open, makes you look more carefully. She makes the building more comprehensible through her photography.”

Moholy found Dessau provincial. She and Moholy-Nagy moved back to Berlin and eventually divorced, and she took up with the Communist Theodor Neubauer. When he was arrested by the Nazis, she fled to Prague, Paris, then London, leaving more than 500 glass negatives behind. Those negatives would become a small scandal, well told in a 2016 episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible.

She thought they had been lost until she saw new publications about the Bauhaus, including the 1938 Museum of Modern Art catalog, that used her photographs without attribution. She wrote to Walter Gropius, by then head of the architecture faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Design, asking him for her negatives. He replied, “Long years ago in Berlin, you gave all these negatives to me … You will imagine that these photographs are extremely useful to me and that I have continuously made use of them; so I hope you will not deprive me of them.” She eventually got some of them back, but continuously fought for credit alongside the subjects she showcased so beautifully, eventually writing a book on her and Moholy-Nagy’s work in 1972 from her home in Switzerland.

Today we can better see architectural photography as a separate interpretive art. We also better understand the value of publicity: The Bauhaus closed in 1933 and had its first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, and Gropius and Charles Kuhn, curator of what is now the Busch-Reisinger Museum, began setting up an archive at Harvard soon after the end of World War II. The Bauhaus remained continuously influential via those images and archives, as well as the diaspora of its masters and students—to Harvard, to Black Mountain College, to the New Bauhaus in Chicago established by Moholy-Nagy, and even as far as the Pond Farm Workshops in rural California.

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