Overlooked histories of the Bauhaus: In conversation with Elizabeth Otto

A transcript of our MIT Press podcast interview with Elizabeth Otto, author of Haunted Bauhaus

The history of the Bauhaus offers an insight into how the arts might responds in the darkest moments. The famous German art school, which operated from 1919 to 1933, stands in as the archetypal institution of European modernity for many. Its closure under the Nazis represented a loss for modernism and a victory for barbarism. However, how might we interrogate our assumptions to more accurately understand the complexities of what took place there and what was lost.

In Haunted Bauhaus, Elizabeth Otto brings to the fore previously marginalized histories from within the school and asks us to reconsider how we imagine the Bauhaus. Otto follows the threads of the occult, the queer and the radical in her research. The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation with Otto on the MIT Press Podcast.

Samuel Kelly: In September the MIT Press published your book Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, which is an investigation of marginalized histories within the Bauhaus. Your research problematizes and challenges some of the rigid narratives that surround this period of art history. How do you do this in the book and why is this important in our understanding of the Bauhaus?

Elizabeth Otto: 2019 was such a great centenary year and a lot of new material has been made available to the broader public through wonderful exhibitions and publications. However, I still get the sense that there is an established narrative of the Bauhaus that doesn’t get challenged enough. Haunted Bauhaus really does start from the ground up, and asks, what if we tell a different story?

The Bauhaus was a school that existed in Weimar, Germany in the interwar period from 1919 to 1933. It was experimental and taught people to think about art-making through notions that have since become well established, notions such as the importance of creativity, open mindedness rather than learning a set of skills that one should perfect. It is often remembered for this radical pedagogical method which goes out into the world with the diaspora of Bauhäusler, (as members of the school were called) who go on to teach art, design and architecture globally.

It’s certainly an influential movement but it’s often only remembered as a handful of men, when there were 1,253 people at the Bauhaus, and 37% of them were women. It’s frequently thought of as an architecture school or an architecture style that is epitomized by a lack of ornamentation. In fact, much of the imagery that we associate with mid-century modernism really comes from this period. Indeed, all of the three directors of the school were architects but architecture wasn’t taught in the school until 1927, at which point it had already existed for eight years. There was so much else going on there beyond architecture.

In fact, my book talks very little about architecture. I’m much more interested in the art and design practices within the school. There was furniture design, weaving, dance, theatre and painting (Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky taught at the school from 1921-1931 and 1932-1933 respectively.) There was also a lot of photography taking place, even prior to it being officially taught 1929. In that way the material of my research creates a very different Bauhaus, but most importantly it’s the people who are there that I look at. In doing that, I’m able to kind of tell a series of very different stories about what the experiments of the Bauhaus were.

SK: In the book you use the concept of haunting, which you take from Avery Gordon’s book Ghostly Matters (published in 1997 and republished in 2008 by University of Minnesota Press.) The notion of haunting as a cultural and political framework is quite popular in Britain, having had a moment with people like the late Mark Fisher who returned to the idea of hauntology. How do you think through haunting in the book and what does this way of thinking offer in relation to marginalized histories?

EO: Haunting has definitely had a moment. In my mind, the book has been called Haunted Bauhaus for close to a decade now. The roots of this idea go back to Marx who I draw on a bit. Writing in the middle of the 19th century “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.” Then Derrida talking about hauntology in Spectres of Marx (1993).

Despite having the title of Haunted Bauhaus, I was having trouble articulating what work that term was doing until I found Avery Gordon’s wonderful book. Avery Gordon is actually a sociologist, but this book is relevant to a range of fields. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone.

She uses the concept of haunting as a way of breaking open her home discipline, sociology. Which like art history is also a form of representation. She tackles questions such as, who do we see? Who do we keep track of? Who do we pay attention to? And she says that within all fields or all kind of historical areas we’re looking at there are those who are meant to be invisible, yet show up without any sign of leaving.

“Visibility is a complex system of permission and prohibition, presence and absence.”

More broadly the notion of haunting describes what she’s calls a paradigmatic way in which life, particularly modern life, is more complicated than those of us who study it have usually granted. Visibility is a complex system of permission and prohibition, presence and absence. Which means that there are these figures who one either sees just as marginal figures, or people who keep coming up and demanding our attention. In Haunted Bauhaus I put a lot of these types of subjects in the center, and see how the movement looks then when we pay attention to them. And it’s very different.

SK: There are different strands of modernism that run throughout the book. One of them is a cold, supposedly rational kind of modernism and then the other is a more fuzzy and ambiguous kind that’s slightly more comfortable with the occult and queer ways of being in the world. Both of these seem to be jostling in the school.

People like James Bridle (New Dark Age, Verso 2018) and Erik Davis (High Weirdness, MIT Press/Strange Attractor 2019) have written about how simultaneously our computational and logical capacity is increasing whilst our collective ability to understand the world seems to be diminishing and becoming weirder. Where can we find this tension in the Bauhaus?

EO: Definitely. I start off the book talking about the idea of rational versus irrational modernism, which Amelia Jones articulated very precisely. The Bauhaus is usually seen as the most rational of modernism. There’s some justification for that because it often presents itself as the polar opposite of surrealism, which is existing concurrently. But in fact, the Bauhaus was kind of node where things all come together.

I liked the way you were talking about strands of rational and irrational modernisms; we see them starting in the 18th century and continuing through to today. On one hand you have today’s techno-rationalism and the way politics seems to be out of control in part due to our interface with new technology. Then on the other side there’s this growing environmental kind of spiritual tree-hugging. Even if I call it tree-hugging, I definitely embrace it myself.

In the early years, and I’m certainly not the first person to say this, there was a hardcore of people who were interested in experimental religions at the Bauhaus. Somehow that story goes missing, partially because it doesn’t fit what people understand of the Bauhaus already but also because a lot of that literature is in German, but even in Germany it’s still remained a marginal story. Then at the same time, there is this much harder and pared-down side to the school that could be seen as utopian. The travel light, move fast and break things rhetoric. This also contributes to much darker elements of German history.

SK: Could you tell me a little more about the religious element to all this?

EO: Spirituality at the Bauhaus is pretty fascinating. It also resonated with things I was encountering as a young person, in the 80s and 90s. People like Shirley Maclaine and crystals. At the school they practiced a religion called Mazdaznan. Johannes Itten, who came later in 1919 and founded the preliminary course, was the one who brought this religion to the school. A number of people who came from different quarters had already run into it because it was something that was coursing around members of the Avant Garde.

Mazdaznan was a mash-up of all these reference points. Including spiritism, tantric Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Theosophy. Since the 19th century there was a strong international presence of spiritism or spiritualism, depending on which continent you’re on. Things like spirit photography, seances and other manifestations of ghosts were important too.

All of this comes to the Bauhaus; people are eating special diets and believing that the clouds can be an oracle that portends the future. On the one hand it sounds a little ridiculous, especially when we think of the Bauhaus as a supposed site of rationality. On the other hand, I think it indicates that they were just very open and not that judgmental. This is all after World War I, in which many of the original class of Bauhaus served in. It was mostly men who served, but we also know of a woman Gunta Stölzl, who was a nurse. They had seen horrible things and were dedicated to making a better world, but curious about how exactly to do that.

SK: Was there ever a conflict with this openness?

EO: I think what you’re maybe pointing to in your question is a link between the coldness or simplicity of the architecture and design to eventual turn of Germany to Nazism. And I think that’s an interesting linkage. Sometimes it works like that, and sometimes it doesn’t. One of my main arguments is that aesthetics don’t have a politics, even though we tend to think that they do.

The Bauhaus is constantly being attacked, mostly from the right wing, for being too radical.

It’s the usual critiques that happen inter-generationally, right? Like they’re all having sex with each other they’re all just immoral, and they have crazy political ideas. This is all being printed in the local paper in Weimar.

Walter Gropius, the founder and first director of the Bauhaus, who was himself a political leftist and had been pretty active right before he started Bauhaus, actually became quite protective. He just wanted to build the school. He was constantly saying the Bauhaus is not political, and trying to root out any political activity, certainly at least from coming into contact with the press. Gropius was a very community minded person, and loved to socialize but in public, he didn’t want anyone to be political.

Then what happens towards the later years of the Bauhaus, is that all of Germany, and much of Europe, and really the world becomes politicized. Largely due to the Great Depression that sweeps the world. People are very concerned about just getting by and as we see now, when people are in need or are worried people can become radicalized in their politics. Currently, we also have a huge class divide, with many people unable to support their basic existential needs.

What happens in Germany is there’s a huge and ever-growing political split between the right and the left. And while we worry about the rise of Nazism, people of the time were very worried about the rise of communism. They saw the Soviet Union more than a decade after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and they’re quite concerned about what people have gone through there. A long civil war and difficult conditions for living. The Bauhaus is caught up in this, and as you can imagine, the students are for the most part on the leftist side of things.

There was a communist cell in the Bauhaus and something like a third of the students were actively engaged in communism. Not all of them were party members because membership cost money and they didn’t all have the money. But they were in alliance with local workers’ groups. They had a recognized communist cell in the Bauhaus from 1927 on and secretly they were collaborating with workers’ groups in the town of Dessau where the second location of the Bauhaus was after they’d been kicked out of Weimar.

However, there was also a group of right-wing students in the school. Some of them, it is speculated, were already members of the Nazi party. I am working on finding more information about that. After the Bauhaus falls apart in 1933 when the Nazis come to power, the Bauhaus definitely continues on. People like Fritz Ertl, who was an SS member and had always been politically right-wing, was doing architectural work in Auschwitz. So, parts of the cold, ‘rational’ strand runs through into the horrible endgame of the Holocaust.

To come back as a last point to your question; at the same time as this the more empathetic and spiritual side of the Bauhaus also continues on. We can look at a figure like Friedl Dicker, who ends up in Theresienstadt (Theresienstadt was a ghetto and concentration camp in German occupied Czech Republic) and teaches 500 children using Bauhaus methods. Dicker’s teacher was Johannes Itten, who I previously mentioned as a proprietor of a lot of spiritualist ideas at the school. Dicker was very interested in art as a creative space of spiritual growth and healing. She uses this as a form of art therapy with her students who are living in very difficult circumstances.

“It all comes back together in a very sinister and sad portion of the Bauhaus. But I think it’s an important history to tell.”

 About 400 of the people she worked with perished in the Holocaust, but those who survived said that it was life changing to work with her. Sadly, she also perished at Auschwitz where Fritz Ertl was working. It all comes back together in a very sinister and sad portion of the Bauhaus. But I think it’s an important history to tell.

SK: I agree. The subtitle of the book is Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities and Radical Politics. Where does gender fluidity and queerness figure in the Bauhaus?

EO: Gender is just something that really interests me. It is a source of much frustration to me that even to this day, even though there are as many if not more female artists working than men, women are still being collected by museums at a rate of 11% and women are getting shows at the rate of around 14%, at least in the U.S. There is this consistent skipping over of women’s work and women’s voices that I for one have had enough of. I know I’m not alone. Throughout the book I’m always trying to put women’s work back into this picture because it was there, and it was important.

Queer identity and gender fluidity are also things that I’ve long worked on. Early on I was working on the cubist painter, Marie Laurencin, who is seen as a as a marginal figure. I realized there was all this queer iconography in her work, and she was connected to this entire circle of women in Paris.

This circle often referred to as the Women of the Left Bank. Some of whom were lovers and collaborators doing all this great modernist experimentation at the same time that Cubism was happening. Gertrude Stein was part of this scene.

Often this group full of women and queer, interesting, experimental, curious people just get written out of history. So that is just part of the background of why I was interested in this.

The years 1919 to 1933 are the year of the Weimar Republic. It’s the exact period of the existence of the Bauhaus, and there’s a third really important experimental institution at the same time called The Institute for Sexual Research that also exists for those exact years. The Institute for Sexual Research was in Berlin, founded by Magnus Hirschfeld, who was a scientist and a reformer and privately he was also a gay man. Although he was often quiet about his personal life because he knew the stakes were high in terms of establishing this research institute as something very serious.

What the Institute proposed was to look at human sexuality scientifically, not morally or judgmentally. They wanted to look at people’s desires and practices. What are their bodies like? Hirschfeld was one of the first people to research intersex people and people we would now refer to as trans. At that time transvestite was the term used. Now it is not the preferred term because it implies that someone is doing something that they shouldn’t. Wearing clothing that is, in quotes, “not their gender.” Despite the outdated language he was incredibly interested in how people are. The film The Danish Girl is about a real historical person, Lili Elbe, who had her surgeries for a sex change, male to female, at that institute.

I should add; another important historical detail is that throughout this period, paragraph 175, of German law was still on the books and very much active. This is the paragraph that criminalizes male homosexuality. The fight against paragraph 175 was ongoing and ran throughout German culture. The first gay rights film Different from the Others gets made in 1919. It’s being actively discussed. Weimar, Germany had this famous, fun and vibrant queer culture in clubs and magazines.

With all this in mind, I just kept my eyes open for works that could be read queerly and for people who show up in the archive as potentially queer. Then I’d go back and look at their work.

One example of the many interesting queer people I’ve found is Max Peiffer Watenphul. He’s mostly remembered as a painter, but he was also a photographer, and moved within in queer circles throughout Europe. He was friends with other gay and lesbian people at the Bauhaus and they were collaborators and friends in the years after that. Some of his photographs show people camped up and in drag. There’s also photographs of a lovely Roman youth wearing very little. He’s using photography to express and capture desire.

Another figure is Florence Henri, a photographer. There was a major exhibition of her work at the Jeu de Paume and a catalog by Aperture.  Despite this, I’m often surprised that she’s not better known. Walter Gropius, for example, certainly thought she was one of the most important Bauhaus photographers, and included her work in the first major exhibition of Bauhaus in the U.S., which was at MOMA in 1938.

She learned photography at the Bauhaus, I think from Lucia Moholy, who was her friend. Florence Henri was staying at the Moholy-Nagy’s family home and she probably learned it there. She begins to take these gorgeously composed portraits. Often images of her partner, the Bauhaus weaver, Margarete Schall. She creates a new form of lesbian subjectivity within these images. They’re images of a new kind of femininity that’s emerging into a more public space at this time.

The last two people I want to mention are Richard Grune who was at the Bauhaus early on. Also, a very influential teacher there called Gertrud Grunow. Grunow worked in parallel with Itten and was very interested in spiritual harmonization of the students. She often assessed them once they’d taken a semester of the preliminary course to decide whether or not they were ready to go on and specialize in a workshop, or whether they needed more time to develop.

In the minutes of one of the Bauhaus master’s council meeting, she wrote of Grune that she felt he was on the verge of discovering something about himself, and once he did, that he’d be much freer as an artist. Of course, we’ll never know exactly what she meant by that, but it definitely sounded like a queer kid who was figuring it out. After a year, he’d taken the course twice and he left the Bauhaus. He went on to become a graphic designer and a leftist producing interesting work, like so many in the Bauhaus did. People kind of came and went like that a lot.

Grune ends up getting arrested in 1934 by the Nazis specifically for being gay. The charge was that he had had a loud gay party. Even though he was making anti-Nazi propaganda, that’s not why he got arrested. He was in concentration camps from 1934, more or less all the time until the end of the war in 1945. Even though he survived it was incredibly harrowing, as it was for anyone who suffered thought that. Unfortunately, most of his work was destroyed.

Paragraph 175 was still an active part of law in West-Germany in the post-war period. It remained a law, criminalizing homosexuality, until the 1990s (in East-Germany it was removed in the 1960s). People like Richard Grune never got reparations because of this. He was never compensated for what he’d gone through and he was largely ignored in histories of the Bauhaus. We have the graphic designs, photography work and photo montage that he published. It’s a little bit of material, but as I said I think there’s an archive of only a few works that have survived. He did make work after the war but I think he was a broken man by this point.

Recapturing those stories and realizing that gay artists were a part of things, being graphic designers, photographers, weavers is vital. Just as it is now, queer people are doing all kinds of things in all areas of life. There are also people specifically trying to explore queer imagery and queer iconography, exploring same sex desire using Bauhaus methods and tools within the context of a queer community of sorts within the Bauhaus.

Elizabeth Otto is an art historian and the author of Tempo, Tempo! The Bauhaus Photomontages of Marianne Brandt, the coauthor of Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective, and the coeditor of five books including Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School.

Learn more about Haunted Bauhaus