BERLIN — She must have felt so optimistic. When Gertrud Arndt arrived at the Bauhaus school of art and design in 1923, she was a gifted, spirited 20-year-old who had won a scholarship to pay for her studies. Having spent several years working as an apprentice to a firm of architects, she had set her heart on studying architecture.
No chance. The Bauhaus was in tumult because of the long-running battle between its founding director, the architect Walter Gropius, and one of its most charismatic teachers, Johannes Itten, who wanted to use the school as a vehicle for his quasi-spiritual approach to art and design. Arndt was told that there was no architecture course for her to join and was dispatched to the weaving workshop.
Not that she was alone. Most of the other female students had been forced to study the supposedly “feminine” subjects of weaving or ceramics too. The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin is now trying to make amends to the women like them, who felt marginalized at the school, by celebrating their work in the “Female Bauhaus” series of exhibitions, the latest of which is devoted to Arndt.
As well as her student work in textiles, Arndt’s exhibition, through April 22, includes the photographic experiments she began at the Bauhaus and continued for the rest of her life. She is the third female Bauhaüsler to be featured in the series that started with a fellow textile designer Benita Koch-Otte and Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, who forged a career in theater design, illustration and color theory after leaving the school. The Bauhaus Archive plans to continue the series with more shows in the future.
All three of the first “Female Bauhaus” subjects were unusually talented, determined and resourceful, yet each would have been justified in feeling that she faced greater professional obstacles than her male contemporaries both at the Bauhaus and afterward. Why did a supposedly progressive school turn out to be so misogynistic?
The Bauhaus, which ran from 1919 to 1933, was not always unfair to women. It was only in the early years that female students were relegated to particular courses, despite Gropius’s claim in the school’s manifesto that it welcomed “any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex.”
“The Bauhaus had progressive aspirations, but the men in charge represented the prevailing societal attitudes of the time,” said Catherine Ince, co-curator of the recent “Bauhaus Art as Life” exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. “It was simply a step too far to bring about equality across the board.”
The situation improved after Gropius succeeded in ousting Itten in 1923 and replaced him with the radical Hungarian artist and designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Having ensured that female students were given greater freedom, Moholy encouraged one of them, Marianne Brandt, to join the metal workshop. She was to become one of Germany’s foremost industrial designers during the 1930s.
But Arndt, Koch-Otte and Scheper-Berkenkamp were unfortunate in having joined the school before Moholy’s arrival. Koch-Otte was the only one of the three to persevere with her original course of study, eventually becoming an influential figure in both textile design and art education. Whereas Scheper-Berkenkamp dropped out after marrying a fellow student only to help out at the Bauhaus Theater when he returned to the school as a teacher several years later. Similarly, Arndt abandoned weaving after completing her course in 1927 but forged informal links with the Bauhaus at the turn of the 1930s when her husband, who she had also met as a student, accepted a teaching post there.
Even so, all three women ended up working in areas that the male-dominated design establishment did not deem to be as important as, say, architecture or industrial design, partly because they were seen as female preserves. Fewer books and exhibitions have since been devoted to them than to other disciplines. And even the most successful Bauhaus textile graduates, including Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and Koch-Otte, have featured less prominently in histories of the school than their male counterparts, who studied “weightier” subjects, have done.
Not that gender stereotyping by the Bauhaus was the only professional problem they faced. As Ms. Ince pointed out, the school’s initial ambivalence toward women reflected the prejudices of the time. Each of the trio faced the same challenges as other working women in juggling domestic responsibilities with their careers. For them, those problems were aggravated by the risk of being overshadowed by their husbands, who worked in similar fields.
Arguably, they and their spouses also suffered professionally from staying in Europe during World War II, rather than seeking refuge in the United States like Gropius and other prominent Bauhaüslers. Remaining in Europe not only isolated them from Gropius’s circle, which has since dominated historic accounts of the Bauhaus, but left them to deal with the brutal consequences of the continent’s mid-20th century politics.
Worst off were Koch-Otte and her husband, who were banned from teaching in Germany by the Nazis and fled to Prague. Tragically, he died in an accident there, leaving her to return to Germany to rebuild her life. Neither Arndt nor Scheper-Berkenkamp suffered as severely as Koch-Otte, or Brandt, who ended up on the East German side of the Iron Curtain, but they and their families faced the trauma and hardship of life in Nazi Germany.
The “Female Bauhaus” series is a touching way of acknowledging their achievements and the difficulties they faced during and after their studies. It also reflects the growing interest in the work of female designers, both inside and outside the Bauhaus, by a new generation of design historians and curators, like Ms. Ince.
A group of them is to meet at the inaugural International Gender Design Network conference in New York March 28 and 29 to discuss an equally thorny issue: the degree to which the sexism that blighted the early years of the Bauhaus persists in design today.