The Woman Erased from Bauhaus History
Lucia Moholy helped create the visual language of the Bauhaus, but when she fled the Nazis her work was stolen by Walter Gropius. With interest renewed by the Bauhaus centennial, will she finally receive recognition?
September 18, 2020
Sep 18, 2020
19 Min read time
Lucia Moholy helped create the visual language of the Bauhaus, but when she fled the Nazis her work was stolen by Walter Gropius.
At first glance, the photograph Bauhaus Building, Dessau 1925–6 looks like a standard architecture documentation shot of the main buildings of the famous German design school. But the longer you look at it, the more unsettling its composition becomes. The buildings hulk monumentally along the horizon, claiming the entirety of the plane, with the word “BAUHAUS” floating in the murk. Vertically, however the buildings are dwarfed by negative space, squeezed between two massive and unbalanced planes. Sky sprawls above, a painterly expanse oozing from grey to black, a variegated nothing that, with its modulations in tone, gains mass and becomes an entity in itself, exerting its weight on the composition. Below, shadows bristle and claw the ground.
On the back of the photos, Gropius wrote his name in pencil above a tight cluster of hatch marks that crossed out Moholy’s name.
And then there is the sheer breadth of the tonal range within the black and white. Balconies glow like bone, the atrium’s eggshell is drained of dimension, and the façade’s forthright ivory flashes like a palm against your chest instructing you to step back. While the white holds you at bay, the grays sink into black, pulling you into the sightless voids of windows where shadows recede endlessly. This photo doesn’t read as a black-and-white as much as it asks you to enter a world in which that is the color spectrum.
The photo appeared in the 1938 Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibit which introduced the Bauhaus to an American audience. Bauhaus, which translates as “construction house,” was a German school of design and architecture rooted in utopian ideals of modernity. Arising out of the wreckage of World War I, Bauhaus sought order through an emphasis on logic and rationality. This meant eschewing the fripperies of decoration in favor of a design aesthetic committed to clarity of purpose. The school embraced the machine, finding aesthetic value in its efficiency and teaching students to design for mass production. Finally, the school did away with distinctions between fine arts and craft, offering a unified curriculum including carpentry, painting, and performance art. In 1933 the Nazis closed the school, declaring its modernism un-German, confiscating much of the school’s contents and scattering the principles into exile.
With few objects accessible to him, the show’s curators, notably the Bauhaus’s exiled founder Walter Gropius, relied extensively on photos to communicate the school’s vision to an unfamiliar audience. The exhibition would help launch the Bauhaus to international fame and establish Gropius’s reputation. Gropius would teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design until 1952, which during his tenure produced major figures in architecture such as Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, and Lawrence Halprin. Another major figure of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, set up shop in Chicago, transforming the vista of Lake Shore Drive from cramped brick apartment buildings to spacious steel-and-glass high rises. Other Bauhaus teachers and alum produced iconic works of art and design, included the cantilever chair and various iterations of the Olivetti typewriter.
But an important story remains hidden on the back of many of the photos that Gropius exhibited at the MoMA. On their verso, Gropius wrote his name in pencil above a tight cluster of hatch marks that cross out the name of Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy.
As the most important documentarian of the Bauhaus, Moholy ensured its legacy despite its closure by the Nazis. Meanwhile, her own was largely erased, her work often credited to—or outright stolen by—others, particularly Gropius. While Gropius and others thrived in exile, she lived in dire poverty in London under the impression that much of her earlier work had been destroyed. Recently, archivists and scholars have begun to locate and correctly attribute her photographs. Notably, art historian Robin Schuldenfrei conducted research in the Bauhaus Archive to illuminate Moholy’s struggle to regain control of her work. Her 2013 article “Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Negatives and the Construction of the Bauhaus Legacy” was the first published source to reveal the extent of Moholy’s struggles with Gropius, and my article relies extensively on the archival sources she uncovered. However, a search through academic databases reveals that the literature on Moholy’s contributions to the Bauhaus is far from extensive, and is dwarfed by the scholarship on her peers.
In 2016 poet Mary Jo Bang offered her own exploration of Moholy’s life with A Doll for Throwing. This meticulously researched volume follows Moholy from her early life and into exile. Each poem is anchored to a Bauhaus artifact, which are described in the book’s endnotes, thus offering readers both an education in the movement and the exhilaration of witnessing research transformed by the imagination. The title, A Doll For Throwing, refers to a doll by Bauhaus-trained designer Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that falls with grace whenever it is thrown. The title conjures Moholy’s ability to adapt and make work even under seemingly impossible conditions. But it also refers to the way ventriloquists throw their voices. Bang’s work is and is not ventriloquism. She is throwing her voice, but she is not making a doll speak because Moholy was never a doll. Bang writes: “We are not dolls. We feel. We make mistakes.”
Bang’s “ongoing address to emptiness” turns Moholy’s erasure from the archive into a fertile site for art-making, and thus offers a feminist model for critically responding to an artist obliterated by history. Bang specifies in her author’s note, “These poems are not about [Moholy] but were written by someone who knew of her.” And yet aspects of Bang’s portrait of Moholy ring true given what is known about the photographer’s life. She depicts her as a dedicated and resourceful artist who “never wanted to be anything but an eye that was open, city to city.”
• • •
Moholy’s skills—from metering to developing—allowed her to produce a breathtaking range of tones within a black-and-white image and render a sense of mass and volume in two dimensions.
Moholy was born Lucia Schulz in Prague in 1894 into a solidly middle-class Jewish family. At the university there, she studied philosophy, art history, and philology before moving to Wiesbaden to work as an editor. In 1919 she published at least one anarchist essays under the pseudonym Ulrich Steffen. While in Berlin, she met Hungarian painter László Moholy-Nagy through a friend, and the two were married in 1921, when Moholy was twenty-seven.
Two years later, Moholy-Nagy was invited to join the faculty at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Once there, Moholy joined the other spouses of “masters,” as the teachers were called, in making herself useful. She hosted dinners, helped Moholy-Nagy produce manuscripts, and learned photography. With her new skills, she took photos for student IDs, documented class projects, and contributed to promotional materials. She shared what she knew with Moholy-Nagy and set up a darkroom in their home. She contributed her technical expertise to his experiments with the photogram, a way of making one-of-a-kind images on light-sensitive paper that became central to his practice. When he started taking his own pictures, she developed all of his photographs as well as served as a model. Eventually she would become an important darkroom technician for the school itself.
In an untitled portrait of her taken some time between 1924 and 1928, she wears her hair loose around her face, dark curls obscuring her eyes. She is naked, shoulders hatched by light, her mouth a smear under what, years later, she described as “her all-absorbing shadow,” as if it isn’t her in the photo, but some unnamed woman who swum up as she rocked the developer tray in her self-made darkroom.
It’s an odd photo in the context of the Bauhaus’s commitment to Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. This aesthetic principle is driven by an allegiance to realism and a rejection of romanticism and expressionism. Moholy describes New Objectivity in her 1939 book A Hundred Years of Photography, written while in exile in London, as “a counter movement: photographers, after having been made over-conscious of tone values and balance, began to be more object-conscious than ever before. The object in the picture became self-assertive; and so did the details of the object.” In Moholy-Nagy’s image the object—Moholy herself—asserts nothing. With her face lowered, she receives the light which falls in bars striping her torso, the details of her face lost under the shadow of her hair.
It certainly doesn’t seem to be a portrait of a woman actively inventing and defining a new way of seeing, one that is rapacious, resolute, and impassive. As Bang describes Moholy’s sense of New Objectivity in A Doll for Throwing: “An image stands for the thing that is taken. I am taking everything I see.” Moholy’s photographs of objects, interior and exterior spaces, and individuals are marked by striking asymmetry and reflect a confidence undergirded by technical mastery (although she was never conferred with the title “master” by the school). Her skills—from metering to developing—allowed her to produce a breathtaking range of tones within a black-and-white image and render a sense of mass and volume in two dimensions. On index cards, she kept meticulous notes documenting each photo, packed with technical specifications and measurements. Occasionally, she leaves a tantalizing clue to her own mindset in her notes. In an early journal, she jots down that she is using photography to puzzle out “how the objects act on me.”
Even as Moholy emerged as the Bauhaus’s photography expert, she continued her spousal duties of entertaining visitors and assisting Moholy-Nagy in his work. The pressures of juggling all this unpaid labor wore on her. Art historian Rose-Carol Washton Long notes that in an April 1927 entry from her diary, Moholy writes that she often thinks of death. She felt like she was surrounded by people who were “nothing but their organs that want to be filled up.” Her husband was having an affair and asked his wife and lover to pose together in the 1925 photo Two Nudes. They are splayed out naked on a dock in the sunshine. Both of the women’s faces are out of the frame.
“A camera came by and devoured us,” Bang writes of that photo. Here Bang imagines Moholy as prey to the camera’s predation and yet, through the act of photography, Moholy was also able to separate herself from the Bauhaus collective and forge her own identity. Moholy used what rendered her “a theatrical body performing a script” to proliferate her own possibilities. Like many women who entered artistic collectives performing double duty as artist and model, Moholy used the very tool that fixed her as an object—“the terrible act of the photograph”—to create a mobilized self, while also aware of the fact that it was shaped by and lived under conditions that sought to erase it. For photographers such as Claude Cahun, that awareness appears as broken dolls, shattered mirrors, and empty dresses—destroyed props from the spectacle of femininity lurking in the background. For Moholy, this awareness may be revealed in her obsessive documentation of her work. Throughout her career she constantly produced documents that asserted: I made this.
Yet despite her insistence on documentation, Moholy’s work slipped away from her. When Gropius stepped down as the Bauhaus’s director in 1928, Lucia and László also left, moving to Berlin where they soon separated. Moholy taught at a private art school, still taking pictures and participating in group shows. In 1933, while she was out, the police searched her apartment and arrested her boyfriend, a member of the communist party. Believing she was in danger, she fled, leaving behind 580 glass negatives in the care of her ex-husband, who eventually passed them off to Gropius. When Gropius emigrated to the United States and joined the faculty at Harvard, he used Moholy’s negatives as if they were his own.
Moholy fled, leaving behind 580 glass negatives in the care of her ex-husband, who passed them to Gropius. When Gropius joined the faculty at Harvard, he used Moholy’s negatives as if they were his own.
While Gropius and others were promoting their work in their new homes with Moholy’s negatives, she was scraping by in London. Because she had left so much behind, she at first had little to demonstrate her prowess as a photographer except for a few prints, including some of her portraits of Bauhaus faculty and students. Her commitment to New Objectivity extended to her portraits and, unlike her husband, she photographed women head on, facing the camera, rather than bowed under their hair or blurred beneath shadow. In her portrait of student Florence Henri, the subject’s face takes up the entire frame except for a sliver on the far left, just enough to show one of Henri’s dramatic geometric earrings hanging above her striped collar. Henri looks directly into the camera, her face lit evenly with a bright light revealing the textures of her cheek, the dark under her eyes. Her jet-black bangs blend into the dark background, delineating a sharp border with the white of her face. The photograph evinces the same dramatic asymmetry as Moholy’s architectural shots. Here the subject is self-assertive, claiming the entirety of the plane.
Moholy was able to use prints like that one to eventually find work as a portrait photographer, becoming known for her brash and expressive portraits of celebrities and minor royalty. The countess of Oxford and Asquith wrote to her: “[Your portraits] are different from the modern photography which goes in for what might be called ‘beauty parlours.’ Your photographs make real men and women.” When her London apartment was bombed during a blitz, Moholy was again forced to rebuild her studio and her practice. After World War II, she worked for UNESCO documenting life in the Near and Middle East in photos awash in activity.
With the war over, books and other publications produced in the United States began trickling into Europe. At some point, Moholy obtained a copy of the catalog from Gropius’s 1938 exhibit and found reproductions of her photos so crisp they could have only come from the original negatives. She did not, however, find her name in the credits.
• • •
In 1983 Moholy published an article called “The Missing Negatives” in The British Journal of Photography that chronicled her efforts to track down her lost material. In it, she describes “a fully-fledged conspiracy . . . enacted against me and my work soon after I had handed over my precious negatives to someone I had considered worthy of my trust and confidence.” With her characteristic tact, she confronts this conspiracy without naming names. However, the details of who was responsible were pieced together by Schuldenfrei’s archival research, and because of this it is possible to tell the story that follows. In what follows, the quotations from letters to and from Moholy derive from Schuldenfrei’s article “Images in Exile.”
The end of the war revived hope in Moholy that she could recover her negatives—“my most valuable possession,” as she referred to them in “The Missing Negatives”—and she wrote to László in 1946 asking him if he recalled where he left them. At the time, he was too ill to reply (he would die of leukemia a few months later). But during a later visit to London, his second wife assured Moholy that the negatives had been destroyed when Gropius’s Berlin home was firebombed—which, thanks to the MoMA’s exhibition catalog, Moholy knew could certainly not be true.
Gropius’s refusal to return her work or compensate her delineated the limits of his collaborative ideals. Learning that someone she “considered one of my truest friends” had stolen her work was “a shattering experience,” Moholy wrote him.
In 1950 she began teaching at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. Wanting to lecture on the Bauhaus, she wrote to Gropius to ask, perhaps a bit coyly, if he had any photographs she could use. He replied: “The few photographs I have are last copies which I cannot replace. The negatives, as far as I have them, have been given to the Germanic Museum for their newly built-up Bauhaus collection.” In his letter, he neglects to mention that the negatives he gifted to the museum were, in fact, Moholy’s negatives.
A central tenant of the Bauhaus school was teamwork and collaboration. Students and professors alike worked together on cross-disciplinary projects. Gropius’s commitment to collaboration continued into his postwar years with his creation of The Architects Collaborative, a group of architects, including Norman Fletcher and Benjamin Thompson, who focused on residential and educational projects, such as the Harvard Graduate Center (now part of Harvard Law School) and the campus of the University of Baghdad.
When Moholy was invited to write about this collaborative Bauhaus ethos in 1954, she again wrote to Gropius, “I have been invited to collaborate, and in particular provide documentary materials, for a series of articles on a subject close to our hearts . . . team spirit.” In this letter, she asks again about the fate of her negatives. At long last, Gropius comes clean in his reply—even as he insists on keeping them:
Long years ago in Berlin, you gave all these negatives to me. I have carefully kept them, had copies made of all of them and have given a full set of copies to the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard. . . . I have promised them the original negatives with your name attached as soon as I do not need them any more myself. . . . You will imagine that these photographs are extremely useful to me and that I have continuously made use of them; so I hope that you will not deprive me of them.
Gropius’s refusal to return her work or compensate her for its use clearly delineated the limits of his collaborative ideals. Learning that someone she “always considered one of my truest friends” had stolen her work was “a shattering experience,” she tells him in subsequent letters. In these letters, she appeals to that spirit of teamwork and to their friendship. When Gropius was unmoved by those appeals, Moholy hired an international lawyer. After three years of negotiations, Gropius shipped her a crate of negatives.
• • •
Speculating about how Moholy lost control of her work so completely, Long asks: “Did personal insecurities and awe of patriarchal figures contribute to this situation?” While Moholy photographed and documented the objects created by these figures, it is hard to see any awe in her forthright and totalizing gaze. Her own technical mastery allowed her to not so much take a picture of an object, but to fix that object in space, pinned like a specimen under an unsparing lens.
In her 1924 photo of Max Krajewski’s tea holders, the objects perch on a glass shelf three quarters of the way down on the picture plane so they appear to be floating. Negative space luxuriates above them. The gleam of stainless steel marches across the horizontal, bright but without glare. She has seized their reflections with such precision there is no distortion via the lens. The final tea holder on the left is knocked over like a punchline.
How did objects act on Moholy? Bang writes: “Her eyes are open and she is acting like someone looking into a box of shattered catastrophes, saying to the man next to her ‘Look at these. Which one would you like?’” However, as Bang acknowledges, this is an invention, a record of the poet’s mind, not of the photographer’s. Moholy’s notes offer only oblique clues and her body of work answers a different, yet related, question: How did Moholy act on objects? She acted with predatory precision and cool objectivity. If there is any awe, it is for the machine, the chemical process, a reverence revealed in the precision of her photos.
• • •
“I was, all of a sudden, overcome by a feeling of guilt. Through all those years we had kept quiet about the extent and manner of our collaboration. How then should friends and colleagues have realized the exact circumstances?”
In 1959 Moholy moved again, this time to Switzerland. There she served as the editorial director of Who’s Who in Graphic Art, an enormous compendium of graphic designers, illustrators, and typographers published by Amstutz & Herdeg Graphis Press. She settled outside of Zurich, where she lived until her death in 1989 at the age of ninety-five. In addition to her editorial work and teaching, she occasionally took part in exhibits, mostly showing her portraiture and photographs from her time with UNESCO.
She also took on the project of rewriting Bauhaus history, this time with her in it. In addition to “The Missing Negatives,” she wrote Moholy-Nagy, Marginal Notes. In this slim 1972 volume, she clarifies her level of involvement in the creation of documents and photograms credited to Moholy-Nagy. Far less fluent in German than Moholy, he relied on her to produce most of his manifestos and writings from the Bauhaus period, none of which bear her name. In addition to being a translator, Moholy served as a thinking partner, spooling off new ideas on their long rambles around the Bauhaus campus. Finally, the couple collaborated on the photograms and photomontages credited solely to Moholy-Nagy.
In these two documents, Moholy demonstrates her training as a philologist and documentarian. “The Missing Negatives” is full of numbing technical details. She describes her negatives as “18 x 24cm or 13 x 18cm, done with a Zeiss Protar f/6.8 lens, mounted on a plywood camera and operated from a tripod.” In Marginal Notes, she gets down into the fine-grained details of dating certain photomontages in a detached and erudite voice: “Metaphoric events can, to a certain degree, be understood as stages of organic growth. Obviously an artist, reviewing parts of his oeuvre from earlier periods, may alter the title of a photomontage from ‘Between heaven and earth’ to ‘Look before you leap,’ but it does not follow that a change of title justifies an earlier date.”
In her public writing, she remains a cipher, cloaking her feelings about the situation in technical specifications, complex syntax, and the passive voice. At times, she holds herself responsible for her own erasure: “I was, all of a sudden, overcome by a feeling of guilt. For I was made to realize that through all those years we had kept quiet about the extent and manner of our collaboration. How then should friends and colleagues have realized the exact circumstances?”
In A Doll for Throwing, Bang writes, “Work is the only redemption.” Moholy left behind one of the most comprehensive archives on the Bauhaus, as well as an impressive output of artistic and scholarly work, including the important cultural history of photography A Hundred Years of Photography 1839–1939. Throughout her life, she continually added to her oeuvre; indexing her lost images on note cards then moving on—discovering new ways of taking pictures.
The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin contains 230 negatives attributed to Moholy. According to Moholy’s records, this means that some 330 are still missing. And what about the negatives that Gropius, in fact, returned to their rightful owner? We don’t know how Moholy felt that day in 1957 when she opened the door to sign for the crate, which Gropius had sent cash on delivery. What was that moment like, when she cracked open the wooden crate and found that his careless packaging had resulted in many of the negatives shattering. She picked through, careful of glass shards, lifted a plate to the window to see the black that would have transformed into perfect white on the print fulgurated by spider cracks. She made a stack of the few that survived, brushed the shards away, and returned to her work.
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September 18, 2020
19 Min read time