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Welcome to the Bauhaus: A Review and Discussion of Dr. Elizabeth Otto’s Lecture

A UMIH sponsored event, held at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) on February 28, 2020.

The Bauhaus. Treated like a religion in some design schools, its history is almost worshipped. Its name is whispered reverently in the halls of architecture schools as if saying it was like tasting the sacrament. The Bauhaus. Its clean lines, revolutionary artists, architects, thinkers—sorry, I should say its men. In the cultural imagination, in its history as it is taught, the Bauhaus necessarily is synonymous with its paternalistic lineage.

When I first encountered Bauhaus, it was alongside the death of Bela Lugosi, strange bat-like silhouettes on walls, men like calligraphic lines—skinny, angular and dressed in all black. When my goth-rock sensibilities were introduced to its namesake, I’m sorry to say it was quite the let-down. Lectured by a white male professor, we were told all about Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, Klee. Their names melted together inside my brain, it felt like an endless train of masculine genius along a long line of other male geniuses, imposing upon history. But a quotation stuck out in the noise; taken from shocked bystanders, the Bauhäusler were described as women with short hair wearing trousers, the men wore their hair long. This line stayed with me for years.

Where were the women? Certainly not in my lecture. Blink and you’d miss it: Marianna Brandt, the one woman who we spent mere moments on, swallowed up by the Iron Curtain and similarly swept under the academic rug. Begrudgingly admitted into the rank and file of history, if only for her economic success within the Bauhaus. The rest rendered like Ariadne—an army of faceless and nameless weavers, stripped of personhood or individuality.

Enter: Dr. Elizabeth Otto

Her lecture entitled “Gender, Sexuality, & the Bauhaus” was vibrant, engaging, and most of all was a feminist recovery of a long-thought and long-taught masculinist institution. Suddenly we get faces, we hear names. Most damning of all, we see the numbers of women throughout the Bauhaus and no, they certainly were not all weavers. Forty-some odd women even went through the architecture stream.

My favourite of the night, Florence Henri.

Suspected to have taken a female lover, but no speculation is needed to see the talent of her photography. The aesthetic of longing in her art, which Dr. Otto views as a queer coding, is a beautiful yearning that pulls at its viewers. Multiple pictures show her gazing at herself in mirrors, that insoluble question for queer women—wanting her or wanting to be her.

This is the difficult reality of much of Dr. Otto’s work, looking for hints, gestures, digging up the marginalized of history, trying to find these traces of female and queer life; it’s like reaching out to try to touch a ghost. Henri more than likely learned her craft from László Moholy-Nagy’s faceless wife, Lucia Moholy: the woman behind the camera and the woman behind the man. Almost like a feral network, or a queer lineage of craft passed down on the fringes of this masculine school. Henri eventually left the Bauhaus, but still continued on with her practice in Paris.

By Alexa Watson

Student and high-flyer in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba

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