Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 6, 2020
Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective New York: Herbert Press, 2019. 192 pp.; 200 ills. Cloth $40.00 (9781912217960)

Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler’s Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective tells the stories of forty-five female designers, artists, and architects who graduated from the renowned Bauhaus school of design, architecture, and applied arts. Each story offers an invigorating look at the artist’s process, exploring art and life as well as the confronting of self and society. The juxtaposition of these artists’ paradoxical dilemmas between individuality and cultural collectivity demonstrates that they deserve deeper understanding from us. They connect the Bauhaus to the wider world, as asserted by the authors—even though they do not clarify the specific ways such a connection was achieved. I kept this question in mind while reading the book, though I am not theoretically aware of what my answers are yet. (In my view, this mode of reading is more a form of congenial enjoyment than an academic achievement.)

An introduction describes a brief history of the Bauhaus and its pedagogical policies in terms of overall directions, enrollments, workshops, courses, and so on. The introduction also discusses the existing literature on the Bauhaus regarding gender issues, while the final part summarizes the key female artists featured in the book. Such a crystallizing introduction helps the reader as they embark on the intriguing journey to meet each inspiring artist.

The forty-five stories function like a window through which we not only envisage Europe in a very difficult time, during the 1920s through the 1940s, but also see human integrity at work in different walks of life in the world before and after World War II. The most striking situation illustrated is the tenuous relationship between the Bauhaus and the Nazi Party, as well as the tension between societal Nazification (Gleichschaltung) and moral signification. Without any philosophical layers structurally grouping the forty-five artists into categories, such as art medium or ethnic or cultural background, their stories are more personal; reading about their lives becomes akin to knowing our friends’ friends. The reader is more inclined to respond with sensibility. Reading the book, for me, was like chatting with a friend over coffee.

Some of the artists’ lives were cut short in unjust ways, including murder in the Holocaust; some struggled with tragedies, like losing their eyesight; some flourished with prosperity and recognition; some challenged outmoded conventions limiting what women could and should do. Although there is no conceptual justification explaining how the forty-five artists are sequenced and prioritized, the book leaves enough room for us to determine our own priorities and preferences. Otto and Rössler emphasize that these featured artists are representatives; the list cannot be comprehensive, as it includes only about 10 percent of the total number of Bauhaus women. The books’ subjects were selected for the quality of their surviving work, the availability of biographical information, and the diversity of their skills and their lives before and after the Bauhaus.

My take on the book is subjective, in that I empathize with quite a few of these artists’ stories. For example, reading about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s life reminded me of the answer I gave to a friend’s question: are artworks luxury items or human necessities? In Dicker-Brandeis’s earlier life her artworks were luxuries for consumption, when times were good; when they were not good or even inhuman, as were the conditions in the concentration camp she was taken to, art became something the human soul could survive on. As an art teacher and art therapist to more than six hundred children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Dicker-Brandeis hid her students’ drawings (more than five thousand) in the attic of the girls’ dormitory, an act of hope signifying the presence of meaning in those drawings. The message is loud and clear: suffering itself is not unbearable; the meaninglessness of suffering is unbearable (as pointed out by Friedrich Nietzsche when analyzing nihilism). Dicker-Brandeis’s poignant story illustrates that art is the air the soul breathes, water for the soul to detoxify itself with. 

Another remarkable story investigates synesthesia. Since art and music are fundamental to me, it was very inspiring to read about Gertrud Grunow and her contribution of a philosophical approach to creativity and the body called Harmonisierungslehre (Theory of Harmonization). It reminds me of how I could hear music while looking at Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings, before I knew anything about him or even about art in general. Grunow’s article “The Creation of Living Form through Color, Form, and Sound,” which appeared in the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar catalog, was a pioneering study even before those about “hearing color” and “seeing music” as explored by Paul Klee and Kandinsky. In my opinion, her intricate study is in line with what Confucius advocated: “Be stimulated by the Odes, take your stand on the rites and be perfected by music” (Confucius: The Analects [Lunyu], trans. D. C. Lau [New York: Penguin, 1979], 93). In order to attain life’s highest achievement, according to Confucius, we need to involve our intellectual mind via “the Odes” and our bodily movement through rites—and our audio sense via music. This sounds similar to Grunow’s theory, which aimed at the full integration of the senses through movement exercises and the learned perception of synesthetic equivalences among sound, color, form, and movement.

These examples show how touching the forty-five artists’ lives are. Through Bauhaus Women, we can enter the worlds of those extraordinary lives and come along on the journey to their higher evaluation. As the authors conclude in the introduction, “Collectively, [these artists] provide a colorful and multifaceted perspective on what becoming a Bauhäusler meant to women in the twentieth century.” Finally, the book provides a list of general sources and references on individual artists for the reader’s additional research into the subject matters of most interest.

Life is a wanderer’s expedition; life is a trajectory that can be experienced as a profound artwork, leading the wanderer to explore the richness and profoundness of existence. “To be or not to be?” is not a question for us, because we already are. Rather, “To leap or not to leap?” should be our question—whether to take a transformational leap to see our departure (death) as a homecoming trajectory. It takes courage and inner strength to make such a leap. Every artist among those featured is shown to have been courageous and spiritual through the choices, dilemmas, and paradoxes found in her artworks and the personal directions of her life changes. We are not transcendental beings, but if we make a transformational leap like they did, perhaps we could attain similarly uplifting realizations about life and our existence. The most valuable thing for me about reading this volume is that it presented me with such a possibility.

Yin Ning Kwok
PhD, Part-Time Lecturer, Centre for China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong