Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 9, 2020
Elizabeth Otto Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019. 296 pp.; 55 color ills.; 26 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780262043298)

The centennial of the Bauhaus in 2019 was marked by an explosion of public interest, much of it fueled by the German government’s substantial investment in new museum buildings in Dessau and Weimar and in a program of exhibitions and conferences that ringed the globe. Such widespread attention to a topic often exposes the substantial gap between public perception and scholarly understanding. Simply dismissing popularly held notions as unscholarly can miss the point, for their endurance demonstrates their utility. For instance, the Bauhaus remains a symbol of a democratic Germany open to artistic experimentation, although the publication of Winfried Nerdinger’s edited collection Bauhaus-Moderne im Nationalsozialismus: Zwischen Anbiederung und Verfolgung (Prestel, 1999) made clear a generation ago that a number of Bauhäusler, including its former directors Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, contributed to propaganda exhibitions mounted by the Third Reich. Other misinterpretations are motivated, like so much of the information about the visual arts and the built environment easily available on the web, by competition for visitors. For example, the state of North Rhine–Westphalia mistakenly trumpets the Zeche Zollverein (colliery) in Essen as having been designed by architects influenced by the Bauhaus, a claim intended to garner a share of the tourist income generated by the centennial.

In Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, Elizabeth Otto attempts to counter many of the myths that surround the school. She proposes that “the Bauhaus—through anti-utilitarian experiments in occultism and spirituality, communal and individual expressions of unorthodox conceptions of gender and sexuality, and radical politics—was equally engaged with a specific range of ideas that controvert [the] paradigm of rationality, and that these ideas were central to the project and systematically overlooked or relegated to the margins” (3). In addition to the topics addressed in her subtitle, Otto also focuses on the self-representation of women artists who were not necessarily queer or interested in gender fluidity.

For those for whom the book serves as an introduction to Bauhaus scholarship, Otto’s focus on Expressionism, gender, and politics is likely to be a refreshing contrast to the platitudes surrounding the subject they may encounter elsewhere. However, for those familiar with the extensive literature related to the school, much of which Otto generously cites, her assertions that she is covering new ground at times seem overstated, even as she certainly tips the balance further away from popular misconceptions. Marcel Franciscono’s Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar: The Ideals and Artistic Theories of Its Founding Years (University of Illinois Press, 1971) made clear nearly half a century ago that spirituality infused the Bauhaus in its early years; the issue is how long it remained important, and Otto is determined to push the envelope into the second half of the 1920s and beyond. Photographic double exposures and lessons in yoga are crucial to her argument. Today both are so familiar that it can be difficult to remember how esoteric they appeared at the time, but Otto reminds us that by the early 1930s several Bauhäusler had fully mastered Surrealism, as demonstrated by a pair of spooky photomontages by Herbert Bayer. In one he appears to be holding a slice of his arm to his chest; in another, eyes sit in the middle of his disembodied hands.

It took scholars longer to pay systematic attention to the role that women played at the Bauhaus than to Expressionist investigations into the occult, but thankfully their role is no longer a novel topic. Anja Baumhoff, Magdalena Droste, and Sigrid Wortmann Weltge all published significant books on the subject before the turn of the twenty-first century. They have since been joined by, among others, Otto herself with Tempo, Tempo! The Bauhaus Photomontages of Marianne Brandt (Jovis, 2005). Indeed, few have drawn more systematic attention in recent years to the women who taught and studied at the Bauhaus than Otto, who has coauthored and coedited with Patrick Rössler three significant collections on the subject: Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective (Herbert Press, 2019), Bauhausmädels: Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Margarete Heymann, Margaretha Reichardt (Sandstein, 2019), and Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School (Bloomsbury, 2019), to which I contributed a chapter. Much of the freshness of the ninetieth-anniversary exhibitions held in Dessau, Berlin, and New York in 2009, as well as their later spinoffs at the Barbican and the Vitra, came from the attention they paid to the school’s early Expressionist phase and to work by women, including Marianne Brandt and those who remained segregated in the weaving workshop. Otto also pays attention to the construction of masculinity in an analysis that focuses on László Moholy-Nagy as the paradigmatic artist-engineer, a role that it was difficult for women to assume. Little of this now familiar story challenges the idea that the Bauhaus eventually developed an abstract industrial aesthetic that is often labeled “rational.” A particularly compelling exception that Otto covers well is the photographic self-portraits created by Bauhaus student and faculty wife Gertrud Arndt, who tried on identities and approaches to femininity with a chameleon-like spirit that evokes the cabaret stage more than the imaginatively unconventional costumes worn at the Bauhaus’s celebrated parties.

Crediting the work of women is, of course, not the same thing as exploring what Otto terms gender fluidity. That many Bauhäusler led what was viewed at the time as unconventional sexual lives is not news. Premarital and adulterous affairs were not unusual at the school or, indeed, in bohemian circles anywhere at the time. Yet there has heretofore been no systematic exploration of the school’s connection to the gay and lesbian subcultures that flourished in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany during the Weimar Republic, even though homosexual sex remained illegal. Otto breaks new ground in drawing attention to the lives and art of the handful of Bauhäusler who clearly were not heteronormative. She focuses on five Bauhaus students: Heinz Loew, Max Peiffer Watenphul, Florence Henri, Margaret Camilla Leiteritz, and Richard Grune. Not all of the work she discusses by them was produced at the school or clearly shows the influence of its teaching, but, taken collectively, it reminds us how much our understanding of the institution changes when we shift from focusing from the “masters” to the careers of their students.

Otto’s final chapter, entitled “Red Bauhaus, Brown Bauhaus,” demonstrates that the political polarization of the Weimar Republic was present at the school as well, even after Mies in 1930 expelled many of the Communists. From his perch in Massachusetts, Gropius repeatedly insisted that, Hannes Meyer aside, the Bauhaus had never been Communist. He and the legacy of the school he founded also benefited enormously from the degree to which it, and the Expressionism that characterized its early years, were demonized by the Nazis. Because there is not yet an English-language counterpart to Ursula Muscheler’s Das rote Bauhaus: Eine Geschichte von Hoffnung und Scheitern (Berenberg, 2016), the details of Communist activism that Otto spells out here are particularly welcome. She devotes much less attention to the “brown” (Nazi) side of the story, but neither does she deny it.

Otto’s revisionism is so wide-ranging that at times all that ties the book together is the degree to which she challenges widely held preconceptions. The individual chapters, each of which addresses works that are likely to be unfamiliar even to Bauhaus experts, are stronger than the theme that very loosely unites them. Many scholars will remain unconvinced that the Bauhaus was fundamentally irrational after 1922, even as they welcome the material Otto has unearthed in both the archives and the recent secondary literature. Clearly, however, her view is already having an impact. For instance, Beatriz Colomina follows Otto’s lead in her contribution to ARCH+ 89 (Summer 2019), entitled “The Perversions of the Bauhaus: A Eulogy.” Citing an earlier discussion by Otto of the birthday card Marcel Breuer made for Gropius in 1924, which features a double exposure of the young furniture maker in drag, she joins Otto in emphasizing the transgressive character of the school. Colomina concludes, “The Bauhaus was a kind of opera, a formidable dramatic performance work involving radical understandings of the human that needs to be understood before it can be overcome with another kind of counter-performance” (“Perversions,” 25). While it is not clear that this reading was Otto’s intention, she has certainly provided the template for it.

Kathleen James-Chakraborty
University College Dublin

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