Foto: Marianne Brandt, Self-Portrait, 1929
A glance through the lens of the female photographers at the Bauhaus
Revising and reassessing history is an ongoing process. In the context of art history, probably the most important process of reassessing history is that of feminist art history. Exposing the female artists that have been overshadowed by a male dominated canon of art history has been in progress ever since the 1970s. The concept of a male dominated canon could also be applied to the Bauhaus, one of the most influential art academies throughout art history, that was established in Weimar Germany. Many female students who have attended the Bauhaus and who have produced an interesting body of work have been overshadowed by their male colleagues for a very long time. During the existence of the Bauhaus, they did not receive equal opportunities and treatment. Also, there are not that many traces to be found of the female students in written literature.
Throughout recent years there has been done more research on female artists at the Bauhaus and how they experienced a different treatment than their male colleagues. Especially the weaving workshop, where most women were sent off to after their application, has been the subject of several accounts of academic research. Women were excluded from the ‘higher’ arts that were considered to be more suitable for men. But, what happened when the female students turned to a more accessible medium, like photography? During the time that the Bauhaus existed, almost every student was in the possession of a camera which allowed them to create art in the shape of photography outside the workshops as well.
Mirrors and masks in the (self-)portraits of the Bauhaus-women
When delving deeper into the photographic oeuvres of the female students at the Bauhaus, it becomes clear that there are different categories in which these photographs could be classified. First of all, the camera at the Bauhaus served partly as an instrument for the registration of the Bauhaus objects and architecture. This results in many photographs that look like modern still lives; they present an interesting composition of as an example teapots from the metal workshop. This way of using the camera also served as the base for the foundation of the photography workshop by Walter Peterhans in 1929. As a part of the advertising department, this workshop taught photography as a means of providing a certain image in order to sell the style of the Bauhaus objects. A second category can also be extracted from the Bauhaus photography. Since cameras were relatively affordable for the students, these were also used for the documentation of daily life at the Bauhaus. Although it is important to be aware of a possible loss of photographs throughout certain archiving processes, these categories dominate the most photographs. Within the documentation of daily life at the Bauhaus by the female photographers, a lot of the images are shaped by (self-)portraiture. Although we have to keep in mind that we do not have access to the entire body of work created by the female photographers, it is safe to say that (self-)portraiture dominate their photographic practice. These images feature the students surrounding them or constructed self-portraits.
The way of portraying other women could also be seen as a reflection of the artist’s vision on female stereotypes and emancipation at that particular time, as could the pose of the portrayed person. Due to the availability of affordable cameras, photography as a medium formed an opportunity for an easy outlet of the conflicted gender ideals projected on the female students of the Bauhaus. Since these images were being created in the spare time of the students, they experience a certain freedom which allows them to express themselves freely through photography regardless of restrictions posed on them by the teachers of their workshops.
Analysing the photographs that could be categorised as (self-)portraits, the way the photographers make use of photography as an outlet becomes clear in different ways. For instance, the portraits of Irene Bayer and Ellen Auerbach show images of women that find themselves in a very self-conscious pose. Irene Bayer even stares directly in the eyes of the viewer. They seem completely aware of the way their identity comes across in this image.
This self-awareness of the subject becomes even more apparent when looking at self-portraits. A self-portrait is, even more than a regular portrait, a staged image that can tell us a lot about the way the photographer would like to portray herself. The female photographers at the Bauhaus have produced many self-portraits. Some of them share an interesting iconographical feature; the usage of a mirror. Of course, mostly the usage of a mirror could be seen as a practical solution for the desire to take a self-portrait. But, the presence of a mirror in these photographs could in most cases
also be regarded as an important object that the subject acts upon as a creative means of expression. Thus, the mirror in these photographs is mostly clearly present which tells us that it was a conscious decision to portray themselves. An interesting example is the way that Marianne Brandt and Grit Kallin-Fischer, who were part of the male-dominated metal workshop, portrayed themselves through a shiny metal ball; they identified themselves with their profession.
Another interesting category of (self-)portraiture is a category that is shaped almost entirely by photographs shot by Gertrud Arndt. From 1929 to 1931 she produced a series of Maskenfotos. This series contains numerous self-portraits in which Arndt is dressed up in a different extravagant way in every photograph. This series needs to be regarded as a series of self-portraits in which Arndt each time performs a different role that all could be regarded as stereotypes of the female identity. However, it is never confirmed that these photographs actually should portray different female stereotypes, it sure looks like it. The costumes Arndt wears are extremely different from theatre costumes at the Bauhaus, therefore the pictures will most certainly not refer to an act of theatre. Besides this, in some photographs it becomes quite clear that these portraits shape an exaggerated image of different types of women that existed during the life of Gertrud Arndt. As an example, one of the most famous photographs of the series portrays Arndt as something that reminds us of a 1920s flapper girl who stares the viewer right in the eye; this makes Arndt look like a provocative party girl.
Whether these self-portraits were just the photographic registration of a and private dress-up session or the actual embodiment of female stereotypes, we can surely state that Arndt plays with the idea of female identity. Through these pictures we have no idea who the real Gertrud Arndt is, just like there is not such a thing as a ‘real’ woman, there are only representations.
The position of women at the Bauhaus and in the Weimar republic
The Bauhaus as an art academy, together with its fundaments, is up until today still considered to be extremely revolutionary and has proved to have an enormous influence on the artistic practice of the following years. It is however true to the nature of revolution that it provokes indignation. In the context of the Bauhaus, this meant a lot of negative response from conservatives who were longing for order in Weimar Germany because of the painful effects of World War I. In the eyes of the inhabitants of Weimar, the Bauhaus posed a threat to the order they wished for, but not only with Walter Gropius’ revolutionary education system. They also dismissed the behaviour of the students; the short skirts of the female students, the relationships between masters and students and the plays by Oskar Schlemmer in which gender roles were reversed. These outings of, in their eyes, sexual depravity were linked to the existence of a certain chaos in society.
However, regarding the rather sexist policies of the Bauhaus towards female students, it is fair to say that the common perception towards gender roles throughout the Bauhaus was rather conservative and not revolutionary at all.
‘No distinction between the beautiful and the strong sex. Absolutely equal rights, but also absolutely equal duties.’
Looking at the way Walter Gropius addressed his future students in 1919, it becomes clear that this sexist phrase stands in conflict with the way that outsiders looked upon the Bauhaus. From the outer world, the female Bauhaus student was a sexually immoral woman who wore short skirts without stockings, but from inside the fate of women was to be beautiful as opposed to the male ability to be strong.
Gropius’ beliefs can be held accountable as a representative opinion for most men of the Bauhaus, since the masters who taught workshops at the Bauhaus shared a similar train of thought. The masters, or ‘werkmeistern’, who led the workshops, obtained the status of a father-like figure. The masters shared their gendered opinions with Gropius. Women were thought of as supplementary forces which could only provide help for male artists.
The prevailing gender ideology at the Bauhaus did not just lead to a smaller amount of female students, it also interfered with the aspirations of these students. Regardless of what the aspirations of the female students were, they almost automatically enrolled in the weaving workshop. By the time the photography workshop was established by Walter Peterhans in 1929, as a part of the advertising department, female students were allowed to participate. Some of these students even received a great amount of appreciation for their produced body of work.
However, there is one aspect that was probably even more important for the position of female photographers throughout the Bauhaus. During the interwar years cameras started to be developed towards a compact and portable object. It also became affordable for the middle-class. Almost every other student at the Bauhaus owned a camera which allowed women to operate their own artistic practice through this medium; photography was accessible and therefore something that they could experience with also on a personal level. They did not need the consent of the masters to buy their own camera and experiment; the camera provided them with a different sort of freedom that women could not always experience throughout the workshops at the Bauhaus.
Constructed gender roles in the Weimar republic and sexism at the Bauhaus
Constructed gender roles and expectations of female artists at the Bauhaus did not only depend on the way Walter Gropius and the masters looked at the role of women in the art academy. The female artist has to be viewed in a broader perspective that also relates to the role of women in the Weimar republic.
The interwar period in Germany was characterised by a great amount of political chaos. The Weimar republic, that existed from 1919 until 1933, had to deal with hyperinflation, resistance towards the government, the economic crisis and the rise of the National Socialist Party. But, all the political upheaval provided fertile ground for a flourishing cultural climate. The industrialisation together with the new cultural climate provided the base for a modern society in Weimar Germany. This tumultuous period also made it very difficult for women to find their position in society, especially in regard to the impact of the first world war on their lives. Due to the death of many men who served the German army, women began to occupy positions which were usually ascribed to men. First of all, this resulted in the professional emancipation of women. They began to cover an increasing number of seats in the Reichstag throughout the years and more ‘male’ jobs were opened up to women. This new position of women in society led to the construction of the image of an entire different woman; the ‘neue frau’. The concept of the ‘neue frau’ does not just cover the emergence of the emancipated working woman in Weimar Germany. The ‘neue frau’ is a concept that is split between reality and an constructed image that most of the time only served as a stereotype or an idealised image.
The reality of the ‘neue frau’ first of all consisted of women who had jobs that were inextricably linked to the development of modernity in Germany; lots of their jobs had something to do with the emergence of new technologies. They could be typists or telephonists. In the realm of the big, modern city, the ‘neue frau’ had more freedom. This freedom could be seen in the context of sexuality, but also in regard to leisure: she could spend her own income on clothes and make up but also on a visit to the cinema. More leisure time meant also more time for creativity. The new woman made her own choices and disassociated herself from the traditional household.
The existence of this modern woman in Weimar Germany might seem as a sign that could indicate the development of Germany towards a prosperous and modern country. However, in reality the ‘neue frau’ might not have been an indication of the development towards modernity, but more or less an exaggerated image that could be held onto in times of chaos as a sort of modernist icon.
The construction of an image of the ideal new woman that reflected the modern society was to be found everywhere in popular culture. These outings were not only the result of the emergence of a new type of woman, women in the Weimar Republic also started to see these images as expectations that they should live up to. Most women felt that they should compartmentalize themselves into a certain image and that they should live up to the rules that belonged to this certain image. On the other hand, this image was hugely criticised by conservatives and was seen as a threat towards motherhood and the traditional household women. These conservatives viewed the sexual and individual woman as one of the causes of the chaos in Weimar Germany. The ‘neue frau’ found herself in a clear ambiguous position.
Looking at the work of the female photographers at the Bauhaus, many photographs could be attributed to the theme of (self-)portraiture. These photographs were created in an environment where there was put a great amount of pressure on women to fit in a certain gender role. During the Weimar Republic, women were expected to fit in the role of the ‘neue frau’, but were also greatly criticised for this. At the Bauhaus, the women who applied were an exact example of the ‘neue frau’. They applied to achieve a personal, artistic career, but once they were admitted they had to face the patriarchal structure of the school and the sexist thoughts expressed by the masters. This difficult period of time for the manifestation of female identity could be traced back in the (self-)portraits of the female photographers at the Bauhaus. A (self-)portrait could be viewed as having the ritualistic value of documenting a certain important moment in one’s personal development. Looking at the (self-)portraits of the female photographers at the Bauhaus, traces of an identity struggle that can be attributed to the constructed gender roles at the Weimar Republic become visible.
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Geschreven door Fiepke van Niel
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