Lászlo or Lucia?

Interview with Susanne Radelhof

Klassik Stiftung Weimar / © Dr. Stephan Consemüller
Marcel Breuer and his 'harem' (from left to right: Marta Erps-Breuer, Katt Both and Ruth Hollos-Consemüller) / Photo: Erich Consemüller, around 1927.

[Translate to English:] Absatz 1

Inspired by the  emerging study of women at the Bauhaus, the filmmaker Susanne Radelhof sheds light on the theme of her documentary “Bauhausfrauen”, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. We spoke to her.

Koberstein Film
Freelance author and Producer Susanne Radelhof

Susanne Radelhof, you yourself studied Visual Communication at the Bauhaus Universität in Weimar. Would you have liked to attend the Bauhaus as a student in 1919?

Naturally, I’d be curious to take a look at the different period, but I’m grateful for the time when I was able to study. It was no doubt incredibly intense in 1919, in view of the new beginnings after the war, but  I’m grateful that women at the Bauhaus during that period paved the way for me, so that I didn’t need to fight my way through my studies just because I’m a woman.

1919 was a significant year for women in Germany. They were allowed to vote for the first time. On February 19, 1919, the Social Democrat Marie Juchacz was the first woman to speak in a democratically elected parliament. At its first semester, more women than men began studying at the Bauhaus, a college intended to bring together all talented people. Studies began with 84 female and 79 male students. How do you explain the fact that so many women initially joined the Bauhaus?

I think there are several reasons for that. On the one hand, Walter Gropius made major promises. At the time, only few art schools even permitted women to study there. Until then, women could only participate in very expensive courses at vocational schools and were not recognised as artists. Then the Bauhaus offered them the opportunity of serious artistic training, which was phenomenal. At the same time, one must also see the signs of the times. Many men had not yet returned from the war and only joined the Bauhaus at a later date. There are witness reports of men arriving in Weimar in their military uniforms because they had no other clothes. So they cut off their collars and dyed their uniforms. The traumatic experiences of war led to the desire for a new society. The aim was not just to produce beautiful things, but to find new forms, also of living together in society.

Bauhausfrauen (Bauhaus women), Portrait Joost Siedhoff
Marcus Winterbauer / Koberstein
Bauhausfrauen (Bauhaus women), Portrait Joost Siedhoff

But the desire to change the world and break with old traditions and introduce a new, egalitarian society failed with respect to gender equality. Already in 1920, Gropius qualified his initial promise with strange arguments. Johannes Itten was convinced that women were unable to see things in three dimensions. Paul Klee considered genius to be a purely male quality and there was a general opinion that women were not suited to arduous tasks, so that only a third of places at the Bauhaus were awarded to women. And those remaining women were condemned to work at the textile loom. The newly founded textile class became a “women’s class”, as women at the Bauhaus were reduced to working on classic home tasks. Thus, a gender quota was introduced , albeit a negative one. Why did Gropius give up his vision so quickly?

From the very beginning, Gropius struggled to uphold his institution’s reputation and went to great lengths to be diplomatic to all parties. The State of Thuringia, which funded the Bauhaus, had a critical view of the school. In provincial regions, the mood was still very conservative and buttoned up. In Weimar, there was considerably more resistance than would have been the case in major cities. Particularly because of the majority of women, Gropius feared that the Bauhaus would be regarded as an amateurish arts and crafts school. That shows how there was no natural identity for female artists at the time. To uphold the school’s reputation, Gropius always named women’s fields of operations, such as weaving, textile design and developing children’s toys, last, if at all, even though these female-dominated departments were highly successful in terms of finances. For Gropius, there was a very clear hierarchy between the different crafts: architecture and everything to do with building was at the very top.

Today one would speak of mobbing.

From today’s perspective one would certainly speak of mobbing and a clear gender policy. But of course a hundred years ago, internalised gender attitudes were not questioned. There are protocols of meetings of the council of masters that document discussion on the “question of women”. There were proposals on higher school fees for women and in 1921, even the suggestion that women should be completely excluded from the Bauhaus. It is also sad to see how women also internalise the clear gender split. There are letters and diaries written by female Bauhaus students that document their own doubts concerning their talents.

The Masters on the Roof of the Bauhaus Studio Building in Dessau, during the opening of the Bauhaus: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer. Photo: unknown, 1926.
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Société Kandinsky, Paris.
The Masters on the Roof of the Bauhaus Studio Building in Dessau, during the opening of the Bauhaus: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer. Photo: unknown, 1926.

What do you think has changed over the last 100 years with respect to the visibility of women in art?

Before I began working on “Die Bauhausfrauen”, I was rather inexperienced in the field. I thought that compared to other countries and periods, things were quite good here. But as I investigated the theme, that opinion shifted. Of course, much has changed and many things have become natural – but we are far from a situation where there are equal opportunities. There is a clear majority of women studying film and art in universities. But as soon as you enter the professional world, things are completely different: above all in film, which is my profession, there are very few creative people in key positions such as camera work or directing. At least the documentary film scene is slightly better in that respect than dramas.

Naturally there were also female success stories at the Bauhaus. In 1927, the master weaver Gunta Stölzl became the first female teacher at the Bauhaus. She initially did not enjoy the same financial and legal status as her male colleagues, but she prevailed and eventually won the fight for the same wages. Another example is the wood sculptor Alma Buscher. She developed modular children’s furniture for the exemplary “Haus am Horn”. She was also one of the women who tried to continue working at the Bauhaus after having children, although she eventually failed due to a lack of compatibility. The medium of photography was also occupied by women. Unlike other established disciplines, there were no role models in that feld, since the art form did not yet have a patriarchal character. Was that an opportunity for women?

Absolutely. The new medium of photography was not initially taken seriously by many men at the Bauhaus. It did not yet have a reputation and therefore provided an opportunity for women to experiment and appropriate a field for themselves. There are very fine examples such as Lucia Moholy, who was not actually a student at the Bauhaus, but comprehensively documented the life and work at the Bauhaus in photos, using a completely new objective style. Today, we mainly know her famous husband, László Moholy-Nagy, although the couple carried out many photo experiments together. She took over his darkroom work and was a trained photographer, unlike him! Another example is the duo ringl+pit, whose real names were Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach. They mainly built their reputation on advertising photography. Gertrud Arndt, who really wanted to become an architect, was not permitted to do so and then became a passionate photographer. Today, she is regarded as a precursor of Cindy Sherman.

The great Bauhaus men are celebrated like “superstars”, while the women disappear behind them. If we were to imagine the reception of the Bauhaus today, what would it be like if women had been given more freedom? Would we see a different Bauhaus today?

That’s not an easy question. I would say that the Bauhaus as it is perceived by the general public is highly reduced to sober, reserved architecture and functional design. For a long time, it was denigrated as “soulless”. Even today, so many people are surprised when they see how expressionist, wild and colourful the Bauhaus was. I often feel we don’t see enough of the full range of Bauhaus art, including its photography, textile art and its playful elements. Those are above all fields in which women were active.

In your work on female history of the Bauhaus, do you have a “favourite” figure?

It may be a boring answer but I was extremely fascinated by all the Bauhaus women I researched. Especially their stance. These women took paths that had not yet been trodden. They went against social norms, broke with their families and pursued ideas and visions that were far removed from the role models that young women have today. They wanted to shape the world, create, come what may – wow, how inspiring is that! One woman at the Bauhaus was especially unconditional: Friedl Dicker was truly multitalented and described by all her contemporaries as powerful and vivacious. I regard her as a creative rebel. Everything she got hold of turned to gold. Even under the most terrible existential conditions of the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, she remained creative and taught the interned children to draw, as well as writing theoretical texts on art in the midst of the Holocaust. And then she tragically hastened her demise by voluntarily following her husband to Auschwitz and was killed in the gas chambers there. I believe it is extremely important to know that story.

Thank you for talking to us, Susanne Radelhof!

Bauhaus women - in the shadow of men

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