Sunday 13 May 2012

Bauhaus Women

When the Bauhaus School first opened in Weimar in 1919, it received more applications from women than it did from men. This was no doubt due partly to the attitude of founder Walter Gropius who promised "No difference between the beautiful and the strong sex. Absolute equality, but also absolute equal obligation to the work of all craftsmen".

The context for this statement, (which would probably be considered not quite "correct" in today's discourse) is that until this time women's access to higher education, and especially to universities and academies was extremely limited. Those who wanted to undertake any kind of formal arts based education were channelled into women only establishments and in some cases where co-educational learning was available, were required to pay higher fees than men.

The Bauhaus was something of a pioneer in this as in many other fields and in turn reaped many rewards with some of the 20th Century's best craftswomen and artists working and studying at the school. However, very few of these women are known or written about today. The current exhibition at the Barbican, "Art as life" highlights some of these women, including  Gunta Stolzl, Marianne Brandt and Anni Albers. These and many other women made a very significant contribution to the Bauhaus and to 20th century design.

Gunta Stolzl, born in Munich in 1897 joined the Bauhaus in 1919 after submitting a portfolio from her studies at the Munich art school, which also included drawings of her experiences as a Red Cross nurse during the First World War. She threw herself into her new life, writing enthusiastically about the many parties that took place and which were considered an important part of the Bauhaus experience.

In later years Stolzl would find herself at the centre of the increasingly vicious political conflicts that affected the school, but as early as 1920 she noted in her diary "I arrived in Weimar just in time for some tough fights. It began with the first evening at the Bauhaus for Elsa Lasker-Schuler (a Jewish artist and poet), the evening itself was wonderfully pure eastern Jewish. The challenging behaviour of Jews incited some pupils that evening to spoil for a fight. At first it looked as if the conflict would degenerate into anti-semitism but the danger passed. The racial issue remains of course centre stage, but the Bauhaus ideal must rise above it".

The early Bauhaus workshops were sometimes lacking structure. Stolzl began as a glass painter but found it a "stale old craft", switched to scene painting which at first consisted of helping to renovate the Bauhaus building before moving, in 1920, to what became the weaving workshops. Again, initially very unstructured, the students were left to their own devices, before organisation tightened, a six hour working day was agreed and saleable work was produced to contribute to the running of the school.

In 1921, Paul Klee arrived as a master and heavily influenced Stolzl who was particularly inspired by his approach to form, relationships and colour values. Recovering from a broken relationship with and short lived marriage to painter Werner Gilles, she became completely immersed in her work, writing that she "...could no longer separate my life and destiny from the Bauhaus..." She became the mainstay of the weaving workshop, working with Marcel Breuer to develop seat coverings and in 1922 overseeing the production of the first large scale pictorial wall hanging (since lost). She followed this in 1923 with a twenty foot long knotted carpet with abstract motif which was shown at the Bauhaus Exhibition. Her success continued, being promoted to journey woman in 1924 and when the school relocated to Dessau in 1927 she took over the running of the workshop. Demand for products from the weaving workshop increased significantly with commissions being awarded for fitting out the theatre cafe in Dessau with curtains and wall coverings, furniture fabrics for Breuer's tubular steel chairs and for the Trade Union School in Bernau as well as for selling exhibitions in Leipzig.

In 1928 she travelled to Moscow for an international symposium where she met, fell in love with and went on to marry Arieh Sharon, a Jewish architect living in pre state Israel. Sharon went on to design some of Tel-Aviv's most notable Bauhaus buildings, but the marriage caused Stolzl many problems. She was forced to give up her German nationality and subjected to attacks on her capabilities and character from some of the right wing students. When director Hanes Mayer was expelled from the school in 1930 several left wing students left with him and Stolzl became politically isolated. The complaints against her became more absurd, such as she " unable to distinguish wool from cotton..." or that she " absolutely unsure and ignorant on all technical points...". Vindicated in January 1931, but still subjected to outrageous criticism and regularly having a swatstika placed on her office door , she chose to resign in July after the Mayor of Dessau, a pro-Nazi had the expelled vexatious complainants re-instated at the school. It is worth noting that all of this took place before the Nazis were elected nationally in 1933.

She left for Switzerland where she developed her own successful fabric business over many years although never quite reaching the level of success she enjoyed in her early years at the Bauhaus. She divorced Sharon, married again and died in 1983 aged 86.

Marianne Brandt was born in Chemnitz in 1893 and is today remembered for her work as an early female industrial designer. Her lamps, ashtrays and teapots can still be purchased and have inspired many other designers from the 1930's onwards. Married to Norwegian painter Erik Brandt, she herself trained as a painter until coming to the Bauhaus in 1923. Here she became a student of Hungarian modernist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in the metal workshop, excelling enough to become workshop assistant and then succeeding her teacher as director in 1928. As director she was responsible for negotiating key and lucrative contracts to supply industry with Bauhaus designs and under her guidance the workshop became one of the few turning a profit and helping to fund the school.

From 1926 onwards she experimented with photomontage although most of this work did not come to light until the 1970's, long after the Bauhaus experiment had ceased. Much of this work focused on the position of women in the inter-war years and the tensions between their new found freedoms and the lingering barriers and prejudices that still prevented many from reaching their full potential. Brandt is also remembered for her photographic work - especially her self-portraits which show determined young woman, often distorting the image or "ghosting" her image so that she appears more than once in the same photograph, perhaps to illustrate the continuing challenges faced by women in art and design during this period.

She left the Bauhaus in 1929 and worked for Gropius in his Berlin studio before becoming head of metal design for the company Ruppel. This lasted until 1932 when she lost her job during a financial crisis. Divorcing Brandt in 1935, she attempted to find work overseas during the early Nazi period but returned to Chemnitz for family reasons.  She found it difficult to obtain regular work during the war years but was accepted into the Riechskulturkammer - the official Nazi organisation of artists, in 1939. It is believed that she applied to join in order to obtain artists materials. However, she was never a member of the party. After the war she continued to live in what became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the communist regime dismissed the Bauhaus as a decadent capitalist institution, demonstrating how much this new creed had in common with the one it replaced. However, she was able to earn a living and worked as a teacher of design.  She died in 1983, just a few months short of her 90th birthday.

Anni Albers was born Anneliese Fleischmann, in Berlin in 1899 to a Jewish mother and a Protestant father. Her mother Toni belonged to the Ullstein publishing family whilst her father was a furniture manufacturer. Anni was baptised into the Protestant faith. She developed an early interest in art and at 17 began training with the impressionist painter Martin Brandenburg. She also had some lessons with one Oscar Kokoschka but these did not go well and he was of the opinion she lacked talent.

Undeterred Anni spent two terms at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg studying embroidery but found it uninteresting, before hearing of the Bauhaus and moving on to Weimar. Turned down at first application, she persevered and was accepted at the school in April 1922, completing the compulsory "basic instruction" course before progressing to an introduction to artistic design and then landing in the weaving workshop in her third semester. In the meantime, she met and fell in love with Josef Albers who had arrived at the Bauhaus in 1920. She was eleven years younger than him and described him as "a haggard half-starved ascetic from Westphalia, with irresistible blonde hair". It was the beginning of a lifelong alliance.

Weaving also failed to appeal to the then Fraulein Fleischmann and she echoed the opinion of Stolzl and others that the workshop was extremely disorganised in its early days saying "there was no proper teacher" and "we learned absolutely nothing at the beginning". However, she began to use this freedom to her advantage, experimenting with materials, colour, structure and texture and learning much from her fellow student Stolzl. It was during this period that she created many of her trademark works - large wall hangings with abstract motifs. Also at this time, she developed an interest in technical possibilities, assisting in the dye works and writing  about her theories.

She married Albers in 1925 and they moved to Dessau, where he had become a master having completed his studies. He also continued to create works in glass. From 1925-27 Anni studied design techniques under Wassily Kandinsky and continued these studies under Klee during 1927-28. Like Stolzl she was heavily influenced by Klee describing him as her "god". Completing her studies in 1929 she took on an acting leadership of the textile workshop, securing her diploma in 1930 with an exam piece of a soundproof light reflecting wall hanging which doubled as a curtain. The piece later graced the walls of the aforementioned Trade Union School in Bernau. The piece included an interesting mix of materials - cellophane and chenille.

She went on to work as a teacher at the school and took over the running of the weaving workshop in 1931 until the appointment of Lily Reich. By 1933 and the forced closure of the school, Anni's Jewish background had become a source of increasing danger and so together with Josef, she left for New York. The couple went on to enjoy an extremely successful career in the States with Anni working on for many years both as a freelance weaver and a professor at Yale University, publishing two books on textile design and producing a Holocaust memorial work for the Jewish Museum in New York. After leaving Germany, she undertook extensive travel in Latin America, developing a collection of historical artefacts from Mexico, Peru and Bolivia, fascinated by Aztec and Maya designs. Josef died in 1972 but Anni lived on until 1994 and the age of 94, one of the very last of the Bauhaus greats.

Stolzl, Brandt and Albers all studied at the Bauhaus before going on to teach. Although from different backgrounds and with different life experiences, all three were trail blazers for women in industrial design.   Despite Gropius' speech on equality, most of the Bauhaus women were pushed into the weaving workshop as were Stolzl and Albers, but both found ways of expressing their talents and creativity in this and other fields. Brandt went a step further being one of very few women to make her mark in the metal workshop at the school and her products are still in heavy demand today. It is interesting that these two workshops were amongst the most successful in terms of generating income to support the whole Bauhaus project. Make of that what you will.

They are just three examples of the extraordinarily talented women students of the Bauhaus, but the real heroine of the Bauhaus for me, was the supremely talented but desperately tragic Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. A unique and accomplished artist, her work in teaching the children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp may be her most enduring achievement, but like many Jewish artists of the time she was unable to develop her full talents. Unlike Anni Albers and others who managed to escape, Friedl was deported and gassed at Auschwitz in 1944. The same fate befell Otti Berger, another leading weaver. They are worthy of a separate article - which will be coming soon.


  1. Hi Adrian,
    Thank you for this article! I am researching the women of the Bauhaus and am interested to know if you have any extra information on Otti Berger.
    Kind regards,

  2. Hello Sophie and thanks for the comment. I have been unable to track down any publications solely about Otti and her work but you can find a chapter on her in Ulrike Muller's book "Bauhaus Women", including pictures of her work. There are a also number of images of her and of her work easily available on Google image. Perhaps the best source of information would be the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin.

    Good luck with the research!

  3. Hi is there any chance of references for the quotes that you used?

  4. Hi. The quotes are taken from the excellent book "Bauhaus Women" by Ulrike Muller. It has chapters on both the famous and less well known Bauhaus women artists. Its published by Flammarion and is available through Amazon.

  5. I am researching Otti Berger and would like to learn more about her hearing impairment and her unsuccessful attempts to get a visa. Do you have any information about Edith Eger and if she would have been at Auschwitz in the same time period as Otti?