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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.

Illustrations by Ellen Surrey
Illustrations by Ellen Surrey

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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.

Read the Bios HERE >>> Source: Curbed Celebrating six trailblazing Bauhaus women

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