A Woman at the Bauhaus: Otti Berger
By Anja Ivic
From every angle, art history is becoming more and more feminist. Art history is digging up those forgotten artists and forming a cannon of female art, which is simultaneously opposed to the cannon of the “white male genius”, but also complements it. Therefore, in terms of gender, male and female art together form a joint cannon, as different races, religions, classes form it too.
But let’s stick to the topic of gender. I have been reading a lot on this topic lately, and have stumbled upon some seriously interesting (and amusing) studies. Also, some eye opening ones. For example, the book by Anja Baumhoff “The Gendered World of the Bauhaus: the politics of power at the Weimar Republic’s premier art institute, 1919-1932”, published in 2001.
The Bauhaus School always had a reputation for being the revolutionary, liberal school of arts which supported equalities of all kind, especially gender equalities. Women could enroll to Bauhaus and have the same treatment just as their male colleagues, without being discriminated as the “weaker” sex. In theory, the Bauhaus gender politics was very idealistic. But in practice, it failed as early as during the supervision of Walter Gropius. This unfortunate aura put lots of boundaries on the production and creativity of women artists, who were all placed to the weaver class, without having a possibility of transferring – of course, some exceptions occurred. Just as Baumhoff argues in her book, even when the weaver class was improving, it just was not acceptable, as the women were endangering the reputation of the school as a primarily design and architectural school, and not a massive weaving workshop. So, Bauhaus approved the progression of the women’s workshop, but for women to have more success than men is just too much?
Not only does this destroyed my very naive perception of Bauhaus as an idealistic modernist monastery in which all stereotypes and judgments magically vanished, but also got me thinking about all those forgotten Bauhaus women. Surely, there must have been a decent number of them. I remembered two of them from an undergraduate module on modern and contemporary art, two women artists who were mentioned only because they were Croatian – Ivana Tomljenović-Meller and Otti Berger. Therefore, today the space of this article will be to remind us of the existence of Otti Berger, a woman at the Bauhaus.
Otti Berger came to Bauhaus in 1927, after studying art in Croatia, where she was born. She enrolled in the textile (or weaving, as Baumhoff calls it) workshop, which she finished in 1930. After that, she remained to teach at Bauhaus, as she was recommended by Gunta Stölzl, who was a professor at the same workshop. Gunta was surely one of the most fascinating women that ever was at Bauhaus, known for being picked over a man for a position of a class master, which was pretty shocking at the time.
We can truly say that Otti Berger mastered the art of weaving. She was the only Bauhaus textile designer to get a protection of a patent for her textile design after the closing of Bauhaus. In her design, we see a strong intention of simplicity and clarity of expression. Berger used mild tones, avoiding too strong colors that would endanger the overall balance of the composition. Her textiles are highly modernist and appear to be a product of refined design. She sometimes includes smaller patterns, sometimes creates textile by organizing colors on a color scale shaped of lines of color. The influence of Bauhaus is obvious in the clarity, simplicity and abstraction of the main lines of expression.
After Bauhaus closed, Otti Berger still worked with textile while searching for a visa to leave across the pond, as she was Jewish. Because of that, she lost her ability to work in Germany and went back to Croatia. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy invited her to the Bauhaus in Chicago, but lots of circumstances came in the way. Finally, Otti was deported to Auschwitz with her family in April 1944 and was killed there.
Otti Berger’s life had a tragic and unfair ending. The memory of her still lives, but apparently, not so much in terms of art historical research. It’s a shame, as her place is in the art history studies and books on weaving and textile, which are now having a rediscovery in particular fields of art history (hopefully, this will continue!). But not only her, but other women from the weaving class of the Bauhaus, who not only managed to be what the Bauhaus wanted them to be – a decorative addition to a serious architectural and masculine institution – but much more.
Anja Baumhoff, “The Gendered World of the Bauhaus: the politics of power at the Weimar Republic’s premier art institute, 1919-1932”, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011