PRINT November 2019



Marianne Brandt, Untitled (Airplane, Soldiers and Military Cemetery), ca. 1930, collage on cardboard, 25 5⁄8 × 19 3⁄4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, by Elizabeth Otto. MIT Press, 2019. 296 pages.

THE TANTALIZING TITLE of Elizabeth Otto’s new book brings to mind the maverick scholar Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic (2000) and Horizontal Collaboration (2015), pictorial studies of the sexual countercultures of Weimar Germany and occupied Paris, respectively. Published on the one hundredth anniversary of the school’s founding, Otto’s book isn’t as wiggy as those precursors, but it does humanize what she calls the “paradigmatic movement of rational modernism” and what art historian Éva Forgács described as an attempt to place the “rationality of straight lines and pure geometric forms” on equal footing with the “liberal lifestyle” of the “modern middle classes.”

Rationality? Among other accomplishments, Haunted Bauhaus gives credence to the scandalous relationship between esoteric doctrines and early modernism. As Otto reminds us, founder Walter Gropius envisioned his school as a mystical cult complete with ceremonial robes, perhaps inspiring Hermann Hesse’s final novel, Magister Ludi (1943). (Hesse’s youngest son, Martin, attended the Bauhaus.) One of Gropius’s colleagues, the painter Johannes Itten, was a follower of Mazdaznan, a neo-Zoroastrian vegetarian universalist religion. Three pioneering abstractionists—Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint, and Piet Mondrian—were all influenced by theosophy, although only af Klint has taken any heat for her belief in spiritualism. Kandinsky, meanwhile, was turned on to astrology while teaching at the Bauhaus.

Otto focuses on the institution as the site of a nascent counterculture devoted to “life experiments,” deemphasizing its established stars in favor of lesser known, more bohemian students and junior faculty (only some of whom appear in the Berlinische Galerie’s celebratory exhibition “Original Bauhaus,” up through January 2020). In great measure, her book presents a subaltern history of the school, giving particular attention to then-marginalized forms such as photography and photomontage—the media most often used to assert gender fluidity, parody postwar “armored” masculinity, and advance a feminist aesthetic. In particular, she cites the photographer Gertrud Arndt and the polymaths Marianne Brandt and Ré Soupault, all of whom took portraits and self-portraits, often in costume and using ghostly double exposures, which enabled them to experiment with the expression of new identities.

Rationality? Among other accomplishments, Haunted Bauhaus gives credence to the scandalous relationship between esoteric doctrines and early modernism.

The prominent Bauhäusler best suited to Otto’s chronicle is László Moholy-Nagy, a figure who, with his interest in transforming collective experience by applying new technologies, including projected light, anticipated the McLuhanist hippie modernism of the 1960s. Josef Albers surfaces in her narrative mainly as a supportive teacher knocked out by the work of the experimental photographer Florence Henri, whose own students would include Gisèle Freund and Lisette Model. Henri, a pioneer in the representation of Weimar’s independent, sexually assured New Woman, seems to have been openly lesbian. Allowing for what Otto delicately terms the “Bauhaus leadership’s unwelcoming stance to both male and female homosexuality,” her book nonetheless deciphers encoded queerness, notably in Henri’s photographs as well as those of Max Peiffer Watenphul.

Haunted Bauhaus is as eye-opening as it is door-opening, and readers will likely discover their own favorite unknown Bauhäusler. For me, the most spectral is the Viennese whiz kid Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a student of Itten’s who followed him to the Bauhaus in 1919 and, after establishing a firm devoted to visionary architecture, joined the Communist Party and became a political activist. I first became aware of Dicker-Brandeis’s art at the 2018 exhibition “Before the Fall,” at New York’s Neue Galerie, noting that her thickly painted semiabstraction The Interrogation II, 1934–38, was a radical departure from her exacting photomontages.

For some scholars, the Bauhaus provides a model for future democratic communities. In Weimar Germany, however, the school was crushed in a political vise. Otto’s last chapter, “Red Bauhaus, Brown Bauhaus,” notes that in late 1930, its new director, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, expelled all openly Communist students; after the Nazis came to power in 1933, the school was compelled to purge itself of foreign teachers, including Kandinsky. There was no mass emigration: “The Bauhaus’s history after 1933 often centers on those members who emigrated, but in fact, the majority of Bauhäusler either could not leave Europe for safer shores or chose not to.”

The school’s penultimate location in Dessau would later house the offices of Albert Speer, the Nazi minister of armaments and war production. One Bauhaus-trained architect, Franz Ehrlich, was imprisoned in Buchenwald, where he worked on various projects including the gates to the camp, on which the words JEDEM DAS SEINE (To Each His Own) were forged in a Bauhaus sans serif font. Another, Fritz Ertl, joined the SS and helped plan the construction of Auschwitz. Dicker-Brandeis was deported to Theresienstadt, where she taught children art using the institution’s methods, and then sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was murdered as were six other Bauhäusler, all women. Haunted by utopian aspirations and its own history, the Bauhaus helped remake (and unmake) the world in ways its founders could never have anticipated. 

J. Hoberman’s most recent book is Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (New Press, 2019).