Pure Chauvinism! Bauhaus was about women, too - By Hanjo Seissler
The Bauhaus style is celebrating its 90th anniversary. It is again only the men around founder Walter Gropius that are in the limelight. But what about the women?
It is all rather strange. At the outset of the 20th century, men and women alike began to throw off the shackles imposed on them by European society. These men and women began rejecting the roles forced upon them including in matters of good taste. They were independent, self-reliant and self-confident - they emancipated themselves. And partly responsible for laying the groundwork for the emancipation of the arts particularly through architecture and design was Walter Gropius, who founded The Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar in 1919.
What is strange about the 90th anniversary of Bauhaus, a movement mostly based in Dessau since 1926, is that women and their works are hardly ever mentioned. That must have something to do with Gropius.
Already back then, young architects in the U.S. viewed Gropius as an extremely flashy character, wrote American author, art and architecture critic Tom Wolfe in his essay collection "From Bauhaus to Our House." "[Bauhaus] was more than a school; it was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus."
When the Bauhaus opened its workshops - where art and craft were supposed to join forces - specializing in furniture, ceramics, weaving, graphic prints, painting, glass and metal design to prospective female and male students, more women than men were interested in the program. That was apparently not quite to Gropius' liking, the man whom Swiss painter Paul Klee referred to as the "Silver Prince," as Many people - and not all of them feminists - said he was worried that too many female students would give the institution a reputation as one for "female arts and crafts."
Most of the female students were, as a result, placed in the weaving program. That amounted to plain and simple chauvinism. The work they produced along with their personal reflections proved they had far more to offer than their male colleagues gave them credit for.
Among the female students and teachers during those first years were Gertrud Grunow (1870-1944), Helene Börner (1870-1938), Ida Kerkovius (1879-1970) and Gunta Stölzl (1897-1938); the ceramic artists Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein-Marks (1899-1990) and Marguerite Friedländer-Wildenhain (1896-1985); and the multi-talented painters, graphic designers, sculptors and stage designers Ilse Fehling (1896-1982), Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944) and Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp (1901-1976).
Then there were the interior designers, furniture, toy and metal designers Lilly Reich (1885-1947), Alma Siedhoff-Buscher (1899-1944) and Marianne Brandt (1893-1983), all of whom contributed to the rising fame of Bauhaus. And let us not forget the masters of photography and diarists Florence Henri (1893-1982), Grete Stern (1904-1999), Ise Gropius (1897-1987) and Lucia Moholy (1894-1989).
Many of these female artists were convinced, like their male colleagues, that art always begins at zero. And if there were any justice in this world, these women would have long ago been accorded their rightful place on commemorative plaques alongside such celebrities as Marcel Breuer, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Gerhard Marcks, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, László Moholy-Nagy, Georg Muche, Oskar Schlemmer, Wilhelm Wagenfeld and of course that famed "Silver Prince."
"Today, nobody thinks that women can only do applied arts," says student Clemens Beier, 20, who is in his second semester of the Media Architecture program at the Bauhaus-University Weimar. In his opinion, this university differs from other institutions in the extraordinary freedom it grants its students.
Everything that he and his fellow students - there are 20 women and 20 men - begin to work on is still shaped by the mantra of "beginning at zero." That boosts courage along with the desire to develop new ideas and to try out new things. And as Gropius wrote in his own manifesto: "The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! ... Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts! ... The artist is an exalted craftsman." Those words are as non-dogmatic as anything Bauhaus teachings have offered since its beginning 90 years ago.
The Bauhaus style has much less influence today on architecture, design and the fine arts than it did in the early 20th century. Back then, Bauhaus was a synonym for modernism. What students and instructors are creating and developing at the Bauhaus school today is seen by those who are confronted with the works as part of a whole that can be created anywhere in the world with no regard for borders. They call it functionalism, classical modernism, new objectivity, international style, new building. At the beginning of the 21st century, this marks another step on the path away from the interdependence of different art forms.
Picture above: A lady present: At the opening of the Dessau Bauhaus on Dec. 4, 1926, there is only one woman among the masters of the institution - Gunta Stölzl, a master weaver. The Bauhaus ID card of Stölzl, who became the weaving director from 1927 to 1931 (below).