Queer bauhaus: Hiding in Plain Sight part 1/2
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
It seems incredible that Elizabeth Otto's fascinating new book is the first book to address LGQBT at the bauhaus. Because the book is so rich MGTC is dedicating 2 posts to this incredibly timely book. So please consider this post the equivalent of your classic sixth grade book report. All photos and content are based on or sourced from Haunted bauhaus.
The book introduces the reader to a variety of art, and cultures, previously excluded from bauhaus histories and discussions. It lays bare the fallacy that the prevailing image of the bauhaus culture as one which only valued or produced the rational, masculine engineer as designer/artist was is only one interpretation and that the school had a rich and varied experimental culture .
The period between the wars was an incredibly modern era that witnessed a radical re-thinking of gender and sexuality throughout Europe. Women cut their hair into bobs (or even shorter,) abandoned their corsets and bustles for androgenously chic looks (including pants), same sex unions were tolerated (in large urban centers like Paris and Berlin) women were allowed into bars and nightclubs and everybody was drinking cocktails. (Sign me up!) Despite the Weimar Republic's anti-homosexual laws, post WW I Berlin was notorious for its acceptance of gender fluidity and its thriving lgbtq club scene.
The bauhaus was more than just an art school, it was a lifestyle, as Ise Gropius herself said. The experimentation and play that was a critical component of the classroom carried over into the personal lives of its students (and "masters" ) who experimented with gender, sexual orientation, religion and politics. The bauhaus was famous for its parties and its sense of humor. Theatricality, flirtation, and experimentation were a part of this lifestyle and for the most part the school and its administration had a fairly modern approach to sexuality. The emphasis on play and experimentation meant that "performative male drag" was not seen as an indication of sexual orientation nor even as experimentation but more as theatrical comedy. So the photos at the top of the men in drag were typical of the school's party lifestyle, allowing men to try on a different gender for the night and then return to a more normative heterosexual persona, with no repercussions. And yet to contemporary eyes this looks like other classic photos of later eras of queer men enjoying the company of other men while dressed in women's clothing.
The Secret Code
One of the most important points that Elizabeth Otto makes about the queer art produced at the bauhaus was the idea of coded images or plausible deniability. Because homosexuality was against the law, and even depictions of hetero-sex such as kissing were censored, it was impossible to publicly display art with homosexual content. LGBTQ artists resorted to a variety of signals and symbols to communicate the content to other homosexuals, while allowing the creator the ability to deny any gay subtext to any hostile audience, whether police or school administration. Unfortunately this also allows for the gay content or subtext to be denied or edited out, until other (often private) work by the same author provides the necessary context to clearly identify the author as LGBTQ, allowing one to read the gay content of the work in question. The photo above by Heinz Loew is the perfect example of the enigmatic style of queer art at the bauhuas that allows for multiple readings. On the one hand the double exposure reads as a ghostly image in which the clearly defined man who is not obscured by the glass cylinder appears not see the "ghost" image of the man touching him. But the depiction of male tenderness in which one man is holding the face of another man, ( which is incredibly rare even today) can be read as an expression of same sex love and sexual longing. This becomes even more obvious when one understands that in the German cinema of this era, hands touching, caressing etc were the only way love and sexual longing could be depicted due to the heavy censorship of the German government.
With its rainbow colors and center triangle,this weaving could almost be a gay pride tapestry- but it is not. The similarities are strictly coincidental. The gay pride symbol had a very circuitous route. The Nazi's used an upside down pink triangle
(the upside down triangle has been used as a symbol for woman for milennia, along with the right-side up triangle for the male) as the identification for gay men who were rounded up and transported to the death camps. It was later re-appropriated and used as a symbol of gay pride by gay acitvists in the seventies. In 1986 Avram Finklestein created the silence= death poster with an upright pink triangle during the AIDS epidemic to protest the "silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people" (1) comparing the rampant homophobia and treatment of gay men during the epidemic to the Nazi treatment of homosexuals.
The tapestry above was woven by bauhausler Max Peiffer Watenphul, who was known for his paintings, and considered one of the more talented students at the bauhaus. Unlike most other students he was given his own studio and allowed to select his curriculum and enter any studio he wished. At some point during his studies he entered the weaving studio, a highly unusual choice. Weaving was considered "women's work" and the weaving studio was where most of the female students were automatically put. Elizabeth Otto' posits this choice as "medium drag", where "the artist is to some extent feminized by engaging in a gendered mode of production." (2) This highly complex and colorful weaving was critically acclaimed and reproduced in the bauhaus catalogue, although Elizabeth Otto implies, the gender bias against "women's work" continues, with any critical writing about Max Peiffer noting that the weaving was strictly a one-off. Watenphul was also known for his photography which typically display the pared-down style that dominated bauhaus photography. He also took a series of very campy photos of men and women in drag. In the photo below (which was not dispalyed at the bauhaus) he gives us a sexy photo of an Italian hottie in what appears to be the prelude to a sexual encounter.
No hiding in plain site here.
Coming soon(next week) Part 2 of Queer bauhaus. Ladies Choice.
Notes and Sources 1. Interview Time Magazine, May 2018 2. Otto, p.144
Elizabeth Otto, Haunted Bauhaus: OcculySpirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities and Radical Politics, MIT Press 2019
Thirsty for more? Don't forget to get the recipe for this week's campy cocktail the Pirate Jenny here