UB art historian gives Bauhaus women overdue historical recognition

Students on the balustrade of the canteen terrace, around 1931.

Students on the balustrade of the canteen terrace, around 1931.

Innovative art school created a lasting, global legacy. Researcher shines light on contribution through books and an exhibition.

Release Date: June 18, 2019

The cover of the book "Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective.".
Libby Otto.

Libby Otto

“The Bauhaus changed art pedagogy and design around the world, yet the public and even many specialists only know a small sliver of its true history. When we put the women back in to the picture, Bauhaus history becomes much richer.”
Libby Otto, associate professor, art history and visual studies
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – This year marks the centenary of The Bauhaus School of Design, the flashpoint for the most influential art education movement in the world.

Although more than one-third of the 1,250 artists to emerge from the Bauhaus were women, an odd and inaccurately slim history has failed to include their presence, according to Libby Otto, an associate professor of art history and visual studies at the University at Buffalo.

Now, the influences and contributions of these groundbreaking artists receive their long overdue recognition in an exhibition co-curated by Otto, and a new book she has co-authored with Patrick Rössler titled “Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective,” featuring profiles of 45 female designers, artists and architects who carried the Bauhaus message to a global audience.

“The Bauhaus changed art pedagogy and design around the world, yet the public and even many specialists only know a small sliver of its true history,” says Otto. “When we put the women back in to the picture, Bauhaus history becomes much richer.”

The Bauhaus School of Design opened in 1919, shortly after the end of the First World War. Based initially in Weimer, Germany, and later in Dessau, the Bauhaus innovatively combined fine arts and master crafts with philosophy, spirituality, movement and design.

Over time, the Bauhaus united art and technology to become a vortex for creating good designs for the masses.

The school closed in 1933, following the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, but in just 14 years, the Bauhaus generated a churning creative and intellectual momentum. Its departing artists created a diaspora that became the genetic origin for an educational approach found in nearly all of the world’s art schools today. The students and teachers of the Bauhaus landed in places like Black Mountain College, Harvard University and the New Bauhaus in Chicago.

Although a narrow historical interpretation of the Bauhaus has focused on men, Otto’s work provides a critical reorientation of the movement placing women such as Friedl Dicker and Marianne Brandt alongside notables like Wassily Kandinsky and Mies van der Rohe.

“Every art school in the world owes a debt to the Bauhaus, and much of the debt is realized in the work of the school’s women,” says Otto. “The Bauhaus changed the nature of art schools from the academy model where students copied the work of masters to instead building thinkers and teaching people to unlock their creativity through multiple disciplines.”

Some of the women might be familiar to anyone interested in the Bauhaus, according to Otto.  Lucia Moholy, for instance, is known as the Bauhaus photographer, though she was never officially on staff. Her historically prominent work provides a chronicle showcasing landmark buildings and priceless designs.  Others, such as Friedl Dicker, a multitalented artist, have existed in history’s margins, despite her remarkable story of creating work in inconceivable places.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, "Child’s Face", 1944. Watercolour on paper, 25 x 18 cm. Collection of the Beit Terezin Museum, Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud

“Dicker was deported to Terezin, a combination concentration camp and ghetto, where she taught 500 children Bauhaus methods,” explains Otto. “We would never think of a concentration camp as a follow-up institution to the Bauhaus, but Dicker introduced children to the message, where it served as a proto-art therapy.”

Brandt was head of the Bauhaus metal workshop. She helped introduce sleek design concepts into many household objects, from lamps to tea sets. A Brandt-designed tea infuser holds the record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a Bauhaus object.

“People recognize Brandt’s work as Bauhaus objects, but they aren’t necessarily associated with her legacy, since her name rarely appears in survey textbooks,” says Otto.

Brandt is among the four Bauhaus artists profiled, by a curatorial team of Otto, Rössler, and Miriam Krautwurst and Kai-Uwe-Schierz, in the exhibition “4 Bauhausmädels: Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Margarete Heymann, Magaretha Reichardt,” in Erfurt, Germany.

That the Bauhaus drew roughly 400 women to its program is a direct result of it promoting a modern education, regardless of age or gender.

Otto has also co-edited, again with Rössler, “Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School” that puts the body and experimental culture back into an institution so often seen as strict, purist architecture and design.

“The idea of the Bauhaus as a hyper-rational movement focused on clean lines and modern aesthetics is a misunderstanding,” says Otto. “The 14 essays in this book demonstrate the experimental nature of the movement.”

Otto has also written a forthcoming book, “Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics,” available this fall, that uncovers a movement vastly more diverse and paradoxical than previously assumed.

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