Patrick Rössler's Bauhausmädels and Elizabeth Otto's Haunted Bauhaus
Two books bring the Bauhaus women and mystical practices out from the margins.
Left: Patrick Rössler, Bauhausmädels: A Tribute to Pioneering Women Artists (Taschen, 2019)
Right: Elizabeth Otto, Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics (MIT, 2019)
Open only for 14 short years from 1919 to 1933, the Bauhaus school taught and popularized an approach to design that is widely considered the most influential design movement of the 20th Century, still celebrated today for its rational modernism and elegant marriage of form and function. The centennial has ushered in a non-stop barrage of Bauhaus discourse, books and exhibitions, hot takes and cold. Among this onslaught of content are a pair of new releases, Bauhausmädels (Taschen) and Haunted Bauhaus (MIT Press). Both refuse to present the standard narratives, status quo, or any stories we’ve heard before. Instead, they ask: how much do we really know about the oh-so-famous Bauhaus? And why do we think we know the things that we think we know?
Both the power and resonance of the Bauhaus legacy have been consistently diminished by the sterilized, incomplete tellings of its history; finally, these two books bring the margins into the center. In Bauhausmädels (or “Bauhaus Gals”) author Patrick Rössler highlights the oft-overlooked female population at the Bauhaus. In Haunted Bauhaus, historian Elizabeth Otto discusses the women of the school, and then widens her scope to include its little-known cultures of mysticism, sexual exploration, and queer identities. Rössler mostly lets photographs speak for themselves, which ends up being a less successful strategy, while Otto relies on her essays to do the arguing, allowing for more complex stories of the Bauhaus women to emerge.
In the introduction to Bauhausmädels, Rössler writes that his focus is on neither the artwork nor the careers of the young women who studied at the majority-male Bauhaus, but instead on portraits and images from private collections and personal archives from around the world. The book features 87 artists and artisans, first presented in short biographies followed by pages of photographic portraits of the young female students. He includes some of the most well-known women, like Anni Albers and Marianne Brandt, but also features women like Friederike Dicker, who designed theater sets after matriculating and died in Auschwitz at 46. He reminds us of the breadth of young women who wanted an excellent education and access to a creative life. Despite the school’s progressive ideals, strong gender bias pervaded the institution, evident in the higher admission standards for women and systematic encouraging to take a “special women’s class,” which eventually evolved into a textiles workshop. Rössler seeks to right these wrongs by inserting the gals into the historical narrative. Unfortunately, the exclusion of their artwork leaves his book feeling more like a yearbook than an art book, once again prioritizing the appearances of these young women over their work and ideas.
But there is also something haunting in Rössler’s selection of smiling black-and-white glamour shots, allowing for emotional resonance in its melancholy celebration of these boundary-breaking girls. Many of the images, given a new life here, were originally used for promotional purposes: “Girls want to learn something,” reads the ad for the school in a 1930 issue of German national conservative magazine Die Woche. The three-page spread included photos of pretty young women, smiling and posing, trying on costumes, playing a ball game, sitting in class. Very quickly, life is about to change for these women, for Germany, for the world. Most women in the photographs will marry, many will become involved with Nazi organizations like the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), some will find their way to the United States, others will perish in concentration camps. Few will be remembered as integral to the 100-year-old behemoth that defined a century of design.
Haunted Bauhaus encourages us to forget what we remember, and consider the Bauhaus completely anew. In the first pages of Haunted Bauhaus, Otto outlines her argument: the experimental subcultures at the institution that have been examined as anomalies or exceptions should instead be understood as inherent to its project. Her book details the school’s engagement with occultism, radical politics, and gender and sexual fluidity. Organized into five succinct chapters (“Bauhaus Spirits,” “New Visions of the Artist: the Artist-Engineer and Shadow Masculinity,” “Bauhaus Femininities In Transformation,” “Queer Bauhaus,” and “Red Bauhaus, Brown Bauhaus”), this slim volume asserts that both the students and teachers at Bauhaus were concerned with much more than sleek rationality and functionality.
Otto begins with a photograph she discovered in a box of student work at the Getty Research Institute: a double-exposed photograph, with the faint image of a spectral-seeming man seated on a Marcel Breuer-designed chair—an iconic design of the institute, one that exemplifies its ideals of rectilinear functionalism. This, she argues, is a Bauhausian iteration of a spirit photograph—the popular 19th century photos twice-exposed to depict spirits and mediums—that demonstrates student experimentation beyond the realm of relentless rationalism, and a desire to explore art beyond reason. Selections of drag portraits and “grotesque” nudes produced by the school’s photography students suggest a willingness to play with gender, expectation, and the disturbing. Collages of male nudes by famed graphic designer Herbet Bayer gifted to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius allude to expressions of male love and queer attitudes. Example after example, Otto expands our view of a legendary institution, finally freeing it from the limiting confines of a tired old narrative. It’s about time, she convinces us, to widen and refocus the scope of scholarly inquiry into the Bauhaus in order to truly understand its contemporary significance.
Together, Bauhausmädels and Haunted Bauhaus illustrate that the Bauhaus was an experiment deeper, wider, and richer than many historians have suggested, and to forget its radical commitment to profound change is to misunderstand its essentiality. Trapped between two epoch-defining wars, a haven for the young and creative, the men and women of the Bauhaus were searching for utopia. Did they find it? Not quite; but they relentlessly investigated spirit, body, identity, and politics in their attempt. They embraced contradictions and experimented with all dimensions of life. 100 years later, it’s finally the right time to take a closer look at the Bauhaus.