Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Despite more stringent admission requirements than their male peers (1) and being forced into specific studios, women of the bauhaus produced cutting edge work and thrived. In fact their "womens' work" was actually the most profitable part of the school. In her ground breaking book Haunted bauhaus, Elizabeth Otto states that the bauhaus wallpaper sales alone financed the last years of the school. At the same time, these modern women with their short hair and androgynous clothing became an important part of the bauhaus brand. They appeared in fellow bauhausler's work and much of the marketing and press for the school. The ghostly double montage above, merging the modern muse with a modern building is the perfect example of bauhuas iconography. Yet with a few exceptions (Marianne Brandt, Annie Albers) the work of bauhaus women has been relegated to the sidelines and often left out of its history. Elizabeth Ottos makes the point that these women were not just creating ground breaking work, they were re-defining feminity and modern womanhood.
Florence Henri was not an enrolled student but came to visit Margarethe Schall, her "friend" who was a student, and she decided to stay and take classes. She became friends with Lucia Moholy-Nagy, who was likely responsible for lending her photography equipment, a studio, and encouraging her interest. As an heiress, she had the means to do whatever she pleased, but her talent quickly earned her the respect and friendship of the power players at the bauhaus such as Ise and Walter Gropius and Herbert and Irene Bayer. Her avant garde images of the "modern woman" were highly regarded by the bauhaus elite, not only for their technique but also for their depiction of the new, independent woman who was so much a part of the bauhaus brand. The self-portrait above is classic bauhaus. An off-kilter viewpoint, reflections, shiny silver balls and a modern woman with cropped hair. In 1938 she was the only female photographer included in the bauhaus catalogue.
Eventually she and Margarethe Schall moved to Paris to a chic apartment filled with chrome bauhaus furniture and bauhaus designed table ware. (One wonders if she was a part of the same lesbian demi-monde as Eileen Gray and Nathlie Barney?) Away from the bauhaus, she began exploring a very different style of photography.
At first glance this could be some s & m tinged light porn- but the off-kilter view point, the short hair and dramatic lighting make it an elegant study of modern beauty with an unsettling erotic undertone. Yet the casual viewer would assume that this photo was taken by and for a man. In fact it was an expression of same sex desire, hiding in plain sight. When Florence Henri lost her fortune during the stock market crash she made a living published photos like these in French girly magazines (for men) in addition to teaching photography and taking on commercial work.
The sexy photo at left, was not for publication- it was strictly for pleasure; part of a portfolio of images she shared with colleagues and friends in her studio. Although the streamlined beauty of this photo still appeals to both male and female viewers, it is more overtly queer. The androgyny of the subject, the masculine belt with its allusions to bondage and the gaze and pose of the subject are clearly intended for a queer viewer.
Queer Singleton: Margaret Camilla Leiteritz
Margaret Leiteritz was a painter and illustrator who attended the bauhaus in 1928. Little is known about Margaret and their romantic life but it is known that they preferred to be called by the name Mark, rather than Margaret. (2) Although Mark was in painting and weaving workshops they were best known for their work in the wall art studio, which focused on producing modern wallpaper for the mass market. The wallpaper was so successful that director Hannes Meyer even listed it as one of the achievements of his tenure. In addition to the wall paper Mark produced gorgeous, eerie, abstract paintings. Unlike most of their bauhausler peers who fled Germany during WWII Mark stayed, working as a librarian at the Dresden Decorative Arts Library. According to Elizabeth Otto, its possible that during such a dangerous time they hid their lesbian/trans identity but we should also consider that perhaps there was no same sex partner, that they were "another kind of woman who breaks out of the mold: the singleton" (3) (Shades of Eileen Gray anyone?)
In addition to paintings, Mark created this whimsical series of illustrations to popular stories and mythologies, (such as Amour and Psyche) substituting same sex female couples for the heterosexual couples in the original stories. The illustration above is for "The Story of Six Women" from the Thousand and One Nights, except that Mark has edited out all the men from the story, depicting only the beautiful slave girls... These illustration were made during 1937 when the Nazi regime was in power and it would have been extremely dangerous to possess illustrations of same sex desire. And while the women are nude, they are not touching. The intimacy is implied rather than depicted. So these illustrations still allow for plausible deniability.
Despite the amazing work and ambition of the women of the bauhaus, many of them did not experience the same success as their male colleagues. Many married fellow students and became primarily caregivers, others were sidelined by the war and their careers were never able to recover. Several, like Otti Berger, the beautiful ghost pictured at the beginning of this post, were murdered in the Nazi death camps. Otti Berger died at Auschwitz in 1944.
Notes and Sources
Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirtuality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities and Radical Politics, Elizabeth Otto, MIT Press 2019
bauhaus women: a global perspective, Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rossler, Herbert Press 2019
(1) Otto p.9
(2) Otto p.159
©The Modernists' Guide to Cocktails