»We just sat down and gave it a try« (Anni Albers) – a journey of ideas among Bauhaus women past and present with Ulrike Müller

On 18 April 2019, the Kunsthalle in Erfurt launched the »Bauhaus women« exhibition displaying thirty artworks by female teachers and graduates from the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. But what is the position of »Bauhaus women« at today’s university compared with historical Bauhaus? Author Ulrike Müller has been giving it some thought – her article can be found here.


I. Female modernism

The Bauhaus Centenary invites a change of perspective. And because the school and the women of Bauhaus are part of the cultural and historical era and movement of modernism in the 20th century, this also represents an opportunity to examine modernism in a new light. The word ‘modern’ comes from the Latin ‘modo’, meaning a new era and a break from the old: conventions, balances of power, human concepts, roles. Society is in motion, a spirit of opposition and new values constantly set the tone—images and utopias of a better life are created – in art, politics, science, everyday culture, and fashion. The first instance of modernity in history was the Early Modern Period, the second was the Enlightenment. During the modernism of the 20th century, new women such as those at the Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar – under the conditions of their previous socialisation and histories – developed different visions of art and life to their contemporaries, which is why I am talking about female modernism. Compared with the historical utopias of the Early Modern Period (e.g. Christine de Pizan: ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’), women primarily associate progress and the ‘new era’ with emancipation, creative activity, social interaction, dominant males, immortal work, and scientific process (e.g. Francis Bacon: ‘New Atlantis’). Despite all of their individual differences, female Bauhaus artists like Anni Albers, Lucia Moholy, Friedl Dicker, and Alma Buscher now strike me as more modern – more flexible, more radically new, more future-oriented – than the majority of their famous male teachers and fellow students, who despite all their revolutionary pathos, ideas and artistic and technical innovations projected the new human as a masculine ‘culture bearer’ and male genius.

II. Historical new beginning for the Bauhaus women
As 84 young women began their education at Bauhaus in 1919, just a few streets away in the same year, 37 women held seats in the National Assembly of the Weimar Republic, democratically elected as members of parliament in Germany for the first time. For female Bauhaus students, the giant leap forward from fraternal freedom and non-female equality in 1789 to women gaining the vote after the devastating First World War in 1919 occurred at the historic moment of the emergence of an experimental educational concept with the promise of artistic advancement and a professional qualification for both men and women. From my perspective, the determination of talented women – generally with an artistic background and made old before their time by the war – to leave their untenable situation behind and use Bauhaus as an opportunity for a new start triggered a wave of creativity, the impact of which still cannot be overestimated today.

III. New paths and old patterns at Bauhaus
Although perceptions of their gender could not be changed overnight, many female Bauhaus students reinvented themselves in both art and life. Ultimately, this did not stop masters’ opposition to women in traditionally male workshops and as independent artists at the school, but women such as Marianne Brandt, Lou Scheper, and Vera Meyer-Waldeck fought for places in their chosen workshops and shaped female modernism in handicraft, industrial design, and architecture. Although other highly talented women in Weimar such as Gertrud Arndt or Anni Albers were relegated to weaving classes, considered a women’s craft, in this community they fundamentally revolutionised the textiles sector.

In addition to making a capitalist-critical examination of terms such as avant garde, innovation, and progress in order to tackle the disappearance of female modernism and the Bauhaus women, this work also recognises dual discrimination of women: firstly during their time at school, and then via the one-sided reception of Bauhaus and modernism. Their undermining of male competitiveness through their deep sense of cooperation and community paired with progressive education – e.g. in the concept devised by Gertrud Grunow (dismissed in 1924), or in the egalitarian teaching of Bauhaus’s only female master Gunta Stölzl (frozen out in 1931) – ultimately failed to be implemented. This can be seen in the continued existence of patriarchal ruling models, even at such a modern school. The reorientation of Bauhaus as a laboratory for developing industrial prototypes and a school of architecture saw the number of women enrolling steadily increase. The long fixation on the reception of masters and ultimately masterpieces away from the process-based and experimental nature of school, plus the false equation of Bauhaus = architecture and its limitation to a dehumanising grid-like, modular structure in both East and West, have for a long time literally obstructed the understanding of modernism and the Bauhaus perspective.

IV. Tell us about yourself, you are applying to the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar...

You are highly motivated to join the Faculty of Civil Engineering, are initially accepted, but then after the introductory semester are moved to the Art Education department because there are not enough internships and the available ones are being given to male students. The reason given: statistics show that female students are more likely to abandon their studies, which according to the results of the latest brain research is due to women’s innate lack of capacity for abstraction, accompanied by worse performance in the fields of physics, mathematics, and computing. However, because women are traditionally the natural people to bring up children (as identified by Rousseau) and primarily at their most creative in indoor spaces and on a small scale (as confirmed by Ernst Bloch), in order to remedy the shortage of teachers, the field of art education at the University (which is dominated by women anyway) will now be run as a separate women-only class. A new degree completed after six semesters is in the pipeline... An inconceivable scenario? This has admittedly been artificially constructed to offer some idea of what female students experienced when starting at Bauhaus, despite Gropius’s promise that ‘all respectable individuals will be accepted regardless of age or gender’. This was due to the masters’ antiquated gender conceptions (for instance Itten, who thought that women should work on flat surfaces because they could only think in two dimensions). The few female teachers in leadership positions at Bauhaus were always paid less than their male counterparts. Now there are equality directives, committed representatives, and gender projects. However, German universities (including the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar) have not yet achieved a 50% ratio of women professors.

V. Bauhaus women left out of the Centenary? 
Since 2017 women have been increasingly organising themselves into the ‘MeToo’ movement, which originated in the USA, gaining thousands of ‘NousToutes’ supporters since October 2018 – people (both men and women) fighting sexual violence and promoting fairness for women in all areas of professional life. As part of the 2019 Centenary, there has been rapidly growing public interest in the women of Bauhaus – the sign of a real change in awareness? Perhaps this interest, along with the search for marketing objects and projection surfaces, has arisen from a culture drowning in excess yet simultaneously producing poverty, fear, hate, and violence for its lost immediacy, freshness, and fervour? Monuments crumble, masterpieces projected onto big screens fade in the open air, and the blockbuster politics of the cultural sector – proven over decades – are disappearing with the changing generations. If anything, modernism is no longer modern enough; postmodernism – which can also be read as a philosophically varnished yawning reflex to a utopically purified, obsolete patriarchal model of modernism – has long since been invented for all circumstances. Art, museums, and media have a pressing need for rejuvenation, which is where the women of Bauhaus come in as old new women searching through the rubble.

Fortunately, experience shows that even moderately sincere motives can produce positive results: Theresia Enzensberger’s debut novel ‘Blaupause’ tackles the ongoing existence of discrimination against women with unconcernedly frugal profundity, feminist Bauhaus researcher Anja Baumhoff was finally invited to TV interviews as an expert after twenty years, and forgotten female artists are now the focus of new research projects (see www.gertrud-grunow.de), exhibitions, press reports, interviews, critical documentaries, and even films. But what is going on here? In the planned TV series by CONSTANTIN Film for ZDF and arte, Dörte Helm has an affair with Gropius: work master Carl Schlemmer invented the false love story in Weimar when he was unable to win the female student over, and director Lars Kraume most likely picked it up to win over a larger audience with post-truth encroachment. The artist Dörte Helm deserves more serious attention, and her daughter – who is still alive – deserves greater consideration.

VI. Bauhaus women – one hundred years new
There are no reruns in life, there is only perseverance, according to Gertrude Stein, who shed a spotlight on the film technique of the slow-motion camera for literary modernism. I believe that there is still plenty to discover, test, utilise, and think out regarding the things that were developed and created in the short period of modernism between the two world wars. I am sure that it is well worth re-examining the female aesthetic and educational offerings at the historical Bauhaus, both as art and as a multifaceted search for answers to inhumane social conditions, which are besieging us more than ever in today’s ‘I am the best, greatest, fastest, richest, most original’ world. It is always worth starting anew with New Vision, rather than taking modernism for a ride in an utopically purified original cantilever chair with your eyes glued to your phone. Perhaps this will result in a few moments that strike a real chord via Bauhaus’s female artists, designers, and teachers, their experimentation and self-experimentation, works, and movements between awakening or success and persecution, murder or exile, and new starts. They should not be treated as saints, just given the appreciation they have long deserved. Some of them might even want to ask today’s female students whether the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar now has women who consider themselves geniuses.