Women of the Bauhaus

In “The Other Art History: The Forgotten Women of Bauhaus,” an in-depth piece that was published on July 13, 2018 on Artspace by Jillian Billard, we have the opportunity to understand the enormous impact a group of women visionaries had in shaping the Bauhaus.

We learn from Billard that the Bauhaus was dedicated to “interdisciplinary innovation” by combining design and craft through a new model of fostering community as the basis for learning instead of traditional teacher-student interactions. And with this new model as a defining principle, the Bauhaus community was ripe for welcoming and supporting women artists.

As Billard explains, Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany in 1919, stipulated that the school would be open to “any person of good repute, regardless of age or sex.” So while women were allowed to study at the school, they were directed into practices commonly regarded as “women’s work” –– textiles and weaving — while their male counterparts were encouraged to be architects, sculptors, and painters.

Photo of Alexa von Porewski, Lena Amsel, Rut Landshoff, unknown by Bauhaus photographers Umbo and Paul Citroen), before 1929. Berlinische Galerie, Photographic Collection.

Billard reminds us that the artists most closely associated with the Bauhaus were men, including Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. At the same time, history has treated the women in the movement as the counterparts of these great artists. In the past ten years, as many have revisited the Bauhaus participants in a more accurate art historical context, we have had the opportunity to celebrate the incredible women artists and the contributions they made. 

In “The Women of the Bauhaus,” an extensive thesis presented by Corinne Julius in Blueprint on September 3, 2019, we learn of the rise to prominence of Gunta Stölzl, only one of six students certified as a Master weaver. As head of the department from 1929 to 1931, she ushered in the transition from individual pictorial weaving to modern industrial designs, while also implementing the study of mathematics. Her bold artistic experiments include creating the mercerised cotton and Eisengarn fabric for Breuer’s tubular-steel chairs while leading joint projects with the Polytex Textile Company.

Julius describes Marianne Brandt as a brilliant metalwork artist who joined the Bauhaus as a workshop assistant and eventually took over as acting director in 1928 from László Moholy-Nagy. As both artist and administrator, Brandt helped solidify the role of industrial design 

Wera Meyer-Waldeck entered the Bauhaus in 1927, studying with Marcel Breuer in the carpentry workshop making furniture. Over the next several years, she studied in the construction and architecture departments, and went on to establish a distinguished career with a focus on sustainable housing.

And the list goes on. As we shared in Female Weavers and the Bauhaus, virtually every aspect of the Bauhaus and its artistic practices has been informed by a group of women with talent, vision and unapologetic courage. They, along with their male counterparts, continue to inspire the timelessness of Modernist thinking-and-doing. And in every part of our holistic design thinking at Optima, we celebrate their contributions.

Wera Meyer-Waldeck in the carpentry workshop at Bauhaus Dessau in 1930, photographed by Gertrud Arndt. Credit: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 / Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin

For further reading on 45 luminary women of the Bauhaus, Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective, written by Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler and published in 2019 by Bloomsbury Publishing, is an excellent resource, along with A Tribute to Pioneering Women Artists (Taschen, 2019), written by Patrick Rössler.

Female Weavers and the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus is a renowned institution in the history of Modernist architecture — and art in general. But what may come as a surprise to many: the most commercially successful department of the school was actually the Bauhaus weaving workshop. And even more notable, this workshop was run by a slew of highly innovative, influential female designers.

Anni Albers, Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop. Black-White-Red, 1926–27 (produced 1965). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Anni Albers, Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop. Black-White-Red, 1926–27 (produced 1965). © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Defying Expectations

When the Bauhaus opened in 1919, the progressive school was heralded as an equitable place. In fact, its founder Walter Gropius even wrote in the Bauhaus bylaws: “Every eligible person whose talent and training are considered adequate will be accepted without regard to age and sex.” Gropius’s philosophy was stronger in theory than in action. He later became known for believing men thought in three dimensions, while women only thought in two.

Because of this gender bias, when women applied to the school, they were directed away from heavy craft areas, such as carpentry and metalwork, to a workshop considered more appropriate for women. This was the weaving workshop, which Gropius even referred to as “the women’s section” of the school.

Like many other women in architecture, the female weavers at the Bauhaus wouldn’t be put down by others’ limited perspectives. Designers such as Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and Otti Berger took the two-dimensional textile craft and breathed new life into it. In addition to creating patterns that were both commercially marketable and had deep influence on the fine arts world of the time, these female weavers also played with form and function. They took weaving beyond the two dimensional — inadvertently, defying Gropius’s backwards beliefs.

Claire Zeisler, Free Standing Yellow, 1968, shown at Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Claire Zeisler, Free Standing Yellow, 1968, shown at Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A Collaborative Cohort

While the other workshops of the Bauhaus dealt in the highly theoretical and abstract, and often struggled to succeed commercially, the success of the weaving workshop stood in stark contrast. Besides its practical success, the workshop was also notable in the way that its female members taught to and learned from one another in a deeply collaborative process. Because Bauhaus members like Albers went on to teach their learnings globally, the impact of this collaboration is still seen in the weaving world today on figures like Sheila Hicks, Claire Zeisler and others. 

Most recently, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibit titled Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus, which ran from 2019-2020. The exhibit explored the influence of the Bauhaus weaving workshop across the Atlantic and across the decades. In lieu of traditional placards for each work, viewers navigated the exhibit by reading quote cards from various women in the field, all of whom were in conversation with one another, and with one another’s work. 

The women weavers from the Bauhaus exemplify an ongoing trend in the world of architecture and design: despite the odds or expectations, female designers are always ready and willing to rise to the challenge.

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