The Female Pioneers of the Bauhaus Art Movement: Discover Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Anni Albers & Other Forgotten Innovators

You’d be for­giv­en for assum­ing that the Bauhaus, the mod­ern art and design move­ment that emerged from the epony­mous Ger­man art school in the 1920s and 30s, did­n’t involve many women. Per­haps the famous near-indus­tri­al aus­ter­i­ty of its aes­thet­ic, espe­cial­ly at large scales, has stereo­typ­i­cal asso­ci­a­tions with male­ness, but also, Bauhaus’ most oft-ref­er­enced lead­ing lights — Paul Klee, Wal­ter Gropius, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlem­mer — all hap­pened to be men. But if we seek out the women of the Bauhaus, what can we learn?

“When it opened, the Bauhaus school declared itself pro­gres­sive and mod­ern and advo­cat­ed equal­i­ty for the sex­es, which was rare at the time,” says Eve­lyn Adams in her short video on the Women of the Bauhaus above. “Val­ue was placed on skill rather than gen­der. Class­es weren’t seg­re­gat­ed, and women were free to select whichev­er sub­jects they want­ed.”

This had an under­stand­able appeal, and in the school’s first year more women applied than men. But alas, “in real­i­ty, despite hav­ing rad­i­cal aspi­ra­tions, the men in charge of the school rep­re­sent­ed the soci­etal atti­tudes of the time. If every­one was wel­comed as equals, then why did none of the women reach the same lev­el of recog­ni­tion as Paul Klee or Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky?”

The sto­ry of Gertrud Arndt, one of whose self-por­traits appears above and one of whose tex­tiles appears below that, sheds some light on the answer. “She must have felt so opti­mistic,” writes the New York Times’ Alice Raw­sthorn, when she arrived at the Bauhaus school of art and design in 1923 as “a gift­ed, spir­it­ed 20-year-old who had won a schol­ar­ship to pay for her stud­ies. Hav­ing spent sev­er­al years work­ing as an appren­tice to a firm of archi­tects, she had set her heart on study­ing archi­tec­ture.” But because of a “long-run­ning bat­tle between its found­ing direc­tor, the archi­tect Wal­ter Gropius, and one of its most charis­mat­ic teach­ers, Johannes Itten, who want­ed to use the school as a vehi­cle for his qua­si-spir­i­tu­al approach to art and design,” the Bauhaus’ house, as it were, had fall­en out of order.

Alas, “Arndt was told that there was no archi­tec­ture course for her to join and was dis­patched to the weav­ing work­shop.” In recent years, the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin has put on shows to hon­or female Bauhausers like Ard­nt, tex­tile design­er Beni­ta Koch-Otte, and the­ater design­er, illus­tra­tor, and col­or the­o­rist Lou Schep­er-Berkenkamp. “The sit­u­a­tion improved after Gropius suc­ceed­ed in oust­ing Itten in 1923,” writes Raw­sthorn, hir­ing Moholy-Nagy in Itten’s place. “Hav­ing ensured that female stu­dents were giv­en greater free­dom, Moholy encour­aged one of them, Mar­i­anne Brandt, to join the met­al work­shop. She was to become one of Germany’s fore­most indus­tri­al design­ers dur­ing the 1930s,” and her 1924 tea infuser and strain­er appears just above.

Art­sy’s Alexxa Got­thardt has the sto­ries of more women of the Bauhaus, includ­ing Anni Albers, whose 1947 Knot 2 appears just above. Her oth­er work includes “a cot­ton and cel­lo­phane cur­tain that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly absorbed sound and reflect­ed light” and tapes­tries that “would go on to have a con­sid­er­able impact on the devel­op­ment of geo­met­ric abstrac­tion in the visu­al arts.” Alma Sied­hoff-Busch­er, writes Got­thardt, dared “to switch from the weav­ing work­shop to the male-dom­i­nat­ed wood-sculp­ture depart­ment,” where she invent­ed a “small ship-build­ing game,” pic­tured below and still in pro­duc­tion today, that “man­i­fest­ed Bauhaus’s cen­tral tenets: its 22 blocks, forged in pri­ma­ry col­ors, could be con­struct­ed into the shape of a boat, but could also be rearranged to allow for cre­ative exper­i­men­ta­tion.”

Bauhaus art and design took crit­i­cism in its hey­day, as it still takes crit­i­cism now, for a cer­tain cold­ness and steril­i­ty — or at least the work of the men of the Bauhaus does. But the more we dis­cov­er about the less­er-known women of the Bauhaus, the more we see how they man­aged to bring no small degree of human­i­ty to its artis­tic fruits, even to those of its most rig­or­ous branch­es. “There is no dif­fer­ence between the beau­ti­ful sex and the strong sex,” Gropius once insist­ed in a some­what self-defeat­ing pro­nounce­ment, but the dif­fer­ences between the male and female Bauhausers — in their per­son­al­i­ties as well as in their work — make the move­ment look all the rich­er in ret­ro­spect.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books & Jour­nals for Free: Gropius, Klee, Kandin­sky, Moholy-Nagy & More

3,900 Pages of Paul Klee’s Per­son­al Note­books Are Now Online, Pre­sent­ing His Bauhaus Teach­ings (1921–1931)

Kandin­sky, Klee & Oth­er Bauhaus Artists Designed Inge­nious Cos­tumes Like You’ve Nev­er Seen Before

Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Bal­let in Bril­liant Col­or, the Tri­adic Bal­let First Staged by Oskar Schlem­mer in 1922

32,000+ Bauhaus Art Objects Made Avail­able Online by Har­vard Muse­um Web­site

Bauhaus, Mod­ernism & Oth­er Design Move­ments Explained by New Ani­mat­ed Video Series

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Patricia Hyatt says:

    Let’s iden­ti­fy one of my favorite pho­tos, the geo­met­ric plan­ets cos­tumes from Oscar Schlem­mer’s Das Tri­adis­che Bal­lett 1922 by Bauhaus The­ater, which toured Europe in the 1930s. The clum­sy cos­tumes inten­tion­al­ly lim­it­ed move­ment.

  • Dana Jackson says:

    Mar­guerite Wilden­hain and the Bauhaus: An Eye­wit­ness Anthol­o­gy. Dean and Geral­dine Schwarz.

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