Bauhaus, the School of Modernism: Where Were the Women?


Group photo in the weaving workshop, Dessau Bauhaus, 1928© Ariane und Maurizio Stam, Krimpen, NL / Photo © Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin

In Germany during the 19th century, a century in which modernization was somewhat slower than in countries such as England, new ideas began to emerge alongside a desire to experiment with industrialization. This would occur at the end of the century with the founding of the Reich. As for art, these new ideas of modernity were not entirely well received, as craftsmanship would be severely affected. In spite of this, the Jugendstil movement thrived: it sought racticality, material savings, the new, the libertarian as opposed to an old academicism and historicism previously found in the ideas of the German people (Droste, 2006).

Mural workshop, Bauhaus Dessau, 1926

In this context, the ideas of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, a symbol of the rationalization and modernization of everyday living space and art, emerged. Gropius understood art as the "union of craftsman and artist" (Droste, 2006), which is reflected in the way he structured the school's curriculum. Despite this significant union between art and craftsmanship, for Gropius the "major art" par excellence was architecture, leaving disciplines such as ceramics, textiles, and decorative arts in the background and designating them as "minor arts". His curriculum was structured to focus on workshops, which were the heart of the school.

Annelise Kretschmer: Elisabeth Kadow, portrait en face, c. 1929 © Museum Folkwang Essen/ARTOTHEK

The textile workshop was one of the most important because it was built exclusively for women -especially the wives of artists who studied higher art at the school. Entering the textile workshop was the only way for women to enter the Bauhaus educational curriculum, despite the fact that at first Gropius conceived the school under a universal principle where no distinction was made on the grounds of race, religion, or gender. Architecture, considered by many as the discipline par excellence of the Bauhaus, was considered purely masculine, since it required a creative capacity and intelligence that was believed - even in the 20th century - to be almost extinct in the female gender. Artists such as Vasili Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Moholy-Naghy are well known and studied, and there is an extensive bibliography on their work. However, names such as Gertrud Arndt, Alema Buscher-Siedhoff, or Anni Albers will perhaps be unfamiliar to us, as art history has largely forgotten them, leaving them in the shadows of their artist husbands.


In 1928 Meyer took over the direction of the school, bringing with him some changes that seemed to benefit female artists. The 1929 promotional brochures read "Are you looking for true equality as a woman artist?"(Neyra, 2019), which attracted a large number of artists who wanted to integrate into a world dominated almost entirely by the male gender. They wanted to be trained in design, to experiment, to stand out, but before this time it was the ideas of founder Gropius about the distinction between the "fair sex" and the "stronger sex" that defined the course of artistic education for the women of the Bauhaus (Neyra, 2019). It was thought that women should be engaged in work focused on the two-dimensional realm because it was man - or the Superman in the words of Nietzsche and Gropius himself - who had the ability and strength to make representation spatial, while women were simply incapable. It was thought that the belief that women were superior at the two-dimensional was because they had a better ability to play with and delve into surface detail (Josenia, 2015). It is for this reason that many of the women who sought to be part of the Bauhaus were directed to the textile workshop, although they were gifted in other disciplines. The creative soul and spatial vision were masculine issues at that time. Is this still the case today? The feminist struggle continues, and within Art History, however, there are new debates and discussions about those great forgotten women.


Bauhaus women in action - a photo by Katt Both Privatbesitz Nachlass Katt Both

The key to the success of the weaving workshop was cooperation and common strategy (Weltge, 1993). Teamwork was fundamental, even more so than in other workshops within the school. Synchronization, planning, and communication among the weavers were necessary for the running of a loom. Obviously, there were discussions and interpersonal conflicts, but mostly, the sense of teamwork was quite palpable.

While an individual piece may grow organically on the loom, an industrial textile needs a plan that can be repeated or altered. Construction, weave drafts, composition, and choice of colour for warp and weft are important considerations. In the design process, the end product dictates the starting point (Weltge, 1998).

The above quote from author and researcher Sigrid Wortmann Welge sums up the spirit and importance of this teamwork perfectly.


The 'fabric girls'. Gunta Stölzl and the Bauhaus weavers.

As mentioned above, many female artists who managed to enter the Bauhaus textile workshop did not have this discipline as their vocation. This is the case, for example, of Gertrud Arndt, who wanted to study architecture but was assigned to the textile workshop. In 1927 she was certified, and never worked in this field again. What if Gertrud had had the opportunity to demonstrate her abilities in architectural education? What would have changed? Has Art History missed out on brilliant minds? Undoubtedly the answer is yes. Her abilities were curtailed because of sexism.


Gertrude Arndt. Untitled (Masked Self-Portrait, Dessau). 1930.

Another example is that of Alma Buscher-Siedhoff, who managed to leave the textile workshop and set off in a different direction. In 1922 she started with fabrics but quickly realized that it was not her thing, so the following year she managed to change to the carpentry workshop. This was no doubt quite a feat because people thought women were not strong enough to work in this field. Upon joining the workshop, Alma began to make toys and furniture for children, one of her most representative works being the children's room in the Haus am Horn. Although this artist achieved a breakthrough in terms of the vision of women at the Bauhaus, her creations were still seen as purely feminine, as the children's world was linked to her gender, which did not cause misgivings among her male colleagues. So it wasn't really seen as a problem that Alma was in the carpentry shop. The male carpenters continued to believe women were no match for them.


Throughout Art History, female artists have remained not just in second or third place behind men, but many of them today are not even recognized for their work. From the art of the antiquity, to the Renaissance the names of women are very rarely discovered, and until recently also in the history of the Bauhaus. Gradually the names of these artists are becoming known, even though their artistic development was limited by the gender politics of the time. Today, research is still being done on them: their complications, their aspirations, and their pieces of art. It is a long, difficult task with many obstacles, but with a great reward - to give life to those who have lived in the shadows.


Sources:

  • Droste, M. (2006). La Bauhaus: 1919-1933: Reforma y vanguardia. Taschen.

  • Josenia, H. y H. (2015). Las Mujeres de la Bauhaus: De Lo Bidimensional Al Espacio total. Diseño Editorial.

  • Neyra, A. (2019, February 13). Las Mujeres de la Bauhaus que la propia Bauhaus Olvidó. El País. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/02/04/icon_design/1549295232_577771.html

  • Weltge-Wortmann, S. (1998). Bauhaus textiles: Women artists and the Weaving Workshop. Thames and Hudson.

  • Weltge-Wortmann, S. (1993). Women's work: Textile art from the Bauhaus: Textile Art from the Bauhaus. Chronicle.

Image Sources:


Author Photo

Valentina García Márquez

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