Remembering the Women of Bauhaus: Gunta Stölzl

 
 
Photograph: Bauhaus Archive, Berlin

Photograph: Bauhaus Archive, Berlin

The Bauhaus narrative has become synonymous with the school’s male successes like artist Josef Albers or furniture designer Marcel Breuer, and very little is told of its female students. Many people say the women of Bauhaus have been written out of its history, but this wasn’t the initial intention for founder Walter Gropius.

Gropius opened Bauhaus in 1919 with more female than male students - claiming there should be ‘no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex’. Unfortunately he didn’t fulfil this vision of social equality, primarily in fear the institution wouldn’t be taken seriously. So the ‘beautiful sex’ were confined to what he believed were ‘female-appropriate’ subjects, such as ceramics, toy-making and weaving. He did not believe that women were capable of thinking in three dimensions, and classes like architecture were off the cards. Whilst this thinking is typical of it’s time, it wasn’t consistent with the image of equality, radical modernity and progressive thinking the public had of Bauhaus.  

Despite the oppressive curriculum, the weaving class became one of the most prosperous departments of the school. This can hugely be accredited to a lady called Gunta Stolzl, who ran the department from 1925 to 1931.

Before Bauhaus

Born in Munich in the spring of 1897, Gunta began her creative career at a Munich Arts and Crafts school in 1913. Sadly she destroyed most of her work from this time, most likely because of the Bauhaus’s distaste for the style. Following this in 1917, Gunta volunteered as a Red Cross nurse behind the front lines. She was also an ardent writer as well as mountain climber – you can see in her photo below a scar from a wound she sustained whilst climbing.  

Gunta, third from left in her nursing days. Image: guntastolzl.org

Gunta, third from left in her nursing days. Image: guntastolzl.org

Note the scar on Gunta’s head. Image: guntastolzl.org/

Note the scar on Gunta’s head. Image: guntastolzl.org/

Bauhaus years

Gunta was an early member of Bauhaus, enrolling in 1919 full of confidence and enthusiasm. Unfortunately the weaving department – one of the very few as a woman Gunta was encouraged to attend - didn’t offer much in the way of technical teaching, so she and her fellow students took classes and practiced out of school hours. Whilst at the time this would have been incredibly frustrating for the female students, the lack of technical guidelines allowed them to experiment and push the boundaries of traditional design and technique.

When Bauhaus relocated in 1925, Gunta became the weaving Master and quickly acquired the nickname of ‘weaving mother’. Weaving is an art form that’s greatly underappreciated, and the skill involved is often underestimated. It’s a complex, mathematical process that takes years to master. And those with a trained eye can see that the work produced from Gunta’s time at Bauhaus is nothing short of amazing – even more so considering this was an age before computers or calculators.

Gunta pushed for a shift in the thinking that weaving was ‘women’s work’ by applying elements of modern art into her teachings and moving in the direction of industrial design. In a diary of hers she says:

‘We wanted to create living things with contemporary relevance, suitable for a new style of life [and] huge potential for experimentation lay before us. It was essential to define our imaginary world, to shape our experiences through rhythm, proportion, colour and form.’

As a result of her efforts the weaving department became one of Bauhaus’s most successful faculties.

After Bauhaus

Gunta married fellow student Arieh Sharon in 1929, and they had a child named Yael. Because Arieh was Jewish, Gunta lost her German citizenship and was pursued relentlessly by Nazi sympathisers – so much so she left the Bauhaus and moved to Switzerland in 1931. Whilst there she founded a hand-weaving mill with two students of hers from Bauhaus, and it ran successfully until 1967. She married again in 1942 to writer Willy Stadler and became a Swiss citizen. In a talk at the Barbican in London, Gunta’s second daughter Monika says that despite Gunta working a lot at the mill and them having little money, they had fun and took vacations all the time.

Gunta’s ‘Red-Green’ tapestry was inspiration behind a large collection of fabrics that Liberty launched in the 1970s and 80s.

Gunta’s ‘Red-Green’ tapestry was inspiration behind a large collection of fabrics that Liberty launched in the 1970s and 80s.

After a long, hard-working and influential life, Gunta Stölzl passed away in Zurich in 1983. If you’re interested in finding out more about this inspiring woman, the Royal Academy of Arts is holding a talk on her work this November.  

Next week we will be featuring our second post on the pioneering females of Bauhaus, where we’ll be celebrating the life and work of Margarete Heymann.

 






 

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