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Festive and Theatrical

The Mask Photos of Gertrud Arndt and Josef Albers as an Expression of Festival Culture

Costuming played a central role at the Bauhaus. From the very beginning, masquerade balls were celebrated regularly under a wide variety of mottoes. And the Bauhaus people rushed over, sometimes preparing for weeks in the workshops and privately the Bauhaus festivals that were popular beyond the walls of the school: Decorations, demonstrations, but above all their costumes—made of simple materials—transformed the Bauhaus people into miraculous figures, incarnate objects and masked beings. Gertrud Arndt's mask photographs (a series of 43 self-portraits) derive directly from these Bauhaus festivals. As well as a series of nine color photographs taken in direct succession at Black Mountain College in 1940 and now in the estate of Anni and Josef Albers.

Gertrud Arndt, Maskenfotos (mask photos), 1929–30, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Gertrud Arndt greatly loved festivities. Her last, most ardent wish was that friends and relatives should mark her passing with “a joyful Bauhaus party.”1 She loved carnival and transforming herself with costumes. She was able to pursue this passion extensively at the Bauhaus—with her friend Otti Berger, who owned a suitcase full of scarves and accessories,2 but also with Bauhaus festivals, which were a regular part of the institutional school life. In fact, Walter Gropius concluded the Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919, under the heading “Principles of the Bauhaus,” with the words: “Finally, friendly relations are fostered between masters and students outside the work by means of theater parties, lectures, poetry readings, concerts, and fancy dress balls.”3 The Lantern Festival, the Mustache-Nose-Heart Festival, the White Festival, the Metallic Festival were all celebrated at the Bauhaus, as were other parties where the Bauhäusler transformed themselves—in Weimar and later in Dessau—at their own discretion and using the simplest of means (Marianne Brandt, for example, adorned herself with a tea ball necklace and a metal plate hat to effect a perfect transformation into a modern metal Amazon for the Metallic Festival). A masquerade ball was held every month, inspired by the masked balls initiated around 1906 by the sculptor Adolph Brütt at the Weimar Art Academy.4

Through these festivities, the play instinct of the Bauhäuslers was given free rein and was also an essential teaching component of the Bauhaus preliminary courses and within the stage workshop. Often for weeks on end the Bauhaus workshops prepared for big celebrations, which were not only intended to make the petty day-to-day quarrels between students and masters dissipate in the course of the wild dancing, but also to establish connections with the outside world and with the citizens outside the Bauhaus. Very soon these festivities achieved fame beyond the Bauhaus walls, with Bauhaus parties being celebrated at Burg Giebichenstein in Halle or in Berlin with all the attendant trimmings—costumes, decoration, loud music, dance and photos.5 Gertrud Arndt, as well as Anni and Josef Albers were also infected by this virus, and their interest in documenting this masquerading tendency persisted into other contexts and epochs.

Gertrud Arndt, Maskenfotos (mask photos), 1929–30, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Although Gertrud Arndt was one of the most talented and successful weavers at the Bauhaus, after completing her studies she would never again work with textiles. And in fact, her real goal prior to attending the Bauhaus had been to become an architect. She had even taken steps to realize this plan by serving an apprenticeship to an Erfurt architect. It was here that she took her first steps as an amateur photographer, photographically documenting old buildings in Erfurt for her employer. Gertrud Arndt (then still Hantschk) went to the Weimar Bauhaus in 1923 on a scholarship from the city of Erfurt. Apart from a “Werkzeichenkurs” where she received instruction in architectural drawing and composition studies under the direction of Adolf Meyer, Arndt, despite her previous architectural studies in Erfurt, was unable to continue her education as an architect.6 Nor was she accorded the admittedly rare privilege of working in Gropius’s private construction office.7

In 1926 Gertrud Arndt had bought her first camera with which she made numerous portraits and self-portraits. Arndt had already taught herself darkroom procedures for printing and developing negatives while living in Erfurt and was entirely versed in which chemicals to purchase at the drugstore and which papers were needed. After their studies, the Arndts had moved away from Dessau. With the appointment of Alfred Arndt as head of the finishing workshop in 1929, they returned to Dessau, where they moved into the basement of one of the master houses; here Gertrud Arndt set up her darkroom in the bathroom. Alfred was a Bauhaus master now while Gertrud found herself isolated from everyday life at the Bauhaus as the Meisterhaussiedlung (Masters’ Houses colony) is somewhat afar from the Bauhaus building itself. Suddenly she saw herself as a “loafer” and began photographing herself, as her daughter Alexa later recalled of her mother’s motivations, “out of boredom.”8 Her first photographic “experiments” were carried out in this context, not only of the Bauhaus—where her pictures, taken with a strong top or bottom view, extremely detailed cut-outs, positive-negative processes and geometric shadow play demonstrate the decisive influence New Vision photography (introduced by the employment of the constructivist László Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus as successor of Johannes Itten)9. In the midst of these experiments, Arndt created a series of more than 40 self-portraits for which she donned disguises and assumed different expressions: the “mask photos” (a term Arndt herself chose for her series).

T. Lux Feininger, Self-portrait as Charlie Chaplin, 1928, © Estate of T. Lux Feininger.

T. Lux Feininger, Self-portrait as Charlie Chaplin, 1928, © Estate of T. Lux Feininger.

Interestingly enough, during the Weimar Republic-era several women such as Marta Astfalck-Vietz and Claude Cahun turned to costumed self-presentation in their photographic work. This variety of photographic self-portraiture, however, was for the most part created by professional artists. Gertrud Arndt, on the other hand, never saw herself as a photographer nor even as an artist. Thus, although given the social, political, and art historical context it is understandable that Arndt’s mask photographs are often understood as emerging out of the same tradition as Astfalck-Vietz’s and Cahun’s work, her photographs were—according to her own admission—merely excursions into her own face. While the self-portraits of her female contemporaries can be understood more explicitly as a form of social critiques or self-representations of newly achieved female emancipation,10 they are only remotely related to Gertrud Arndt’s mask photographs.

Towards the end of the 1920s, the medium of photography became affordable for a wider audience and more popular as a result. With the market introduction of easy-to-handle 35 mm cameras (the best known of which is the Leica), photography increasingly turned out to be a feasible profession for women. In the 1920s, the camera, which could now be slipped into a jacket pocket because of its greatly reduced size and light roll film, became a symbol of flexibility, independence, emancipation and, last but not least, experimentation—especially among women—as suggested by the existence of women-run photography studios in the 1920s, for example those opened in Berlin by Lotte Jacobi and Yva (Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon). On the other hand, the women’s right to vote newly won in 1918 and the admission of women to universities and art schools in Germany were further fundamental steps towards women’s emancipation.11 These political and social changes for women are reflected not least in photography.

Arndt’s mask photos are private photographs and were never intended for the public. The mask photographs were taken, rather, independently of viewers, as an experimental excursion into the possibilities and limits of one’s own face—and into the many different characters Arndt transformed herself into in her pictures. They are the record of an intimate conversation conducted between Arndt and her camera. The special thing about Gertrud Arndt’s mask photos is that they were taken in a comprehensive series. Within the 43 photos in the series, smaller picture series can be recognized. In her mask photos, Gertrud Arndt developed a kind of external image of herself, a “visual identity.”12 Arndt only rarely photographed herself once in the same costume. She often made two, three or four pictures in the same costume (or with minor changes). Here the pose, facial expression or picture detail change. In a series of three pictures within the series, Arndt shows herself in a high-necked top with a frill collar and hat, frontally with her eyes closed, then looking directly into the camera in a half-profile, and finally posing in a larger frame with a surprised facial expression. In another mini-series consisting of two photos, Arndt once photographed herself with her eyes closed, her head raised high, and in the next picture, squinting at her nose. The true woman behind the façade is not visible to the viewer. The pictures can illustrate the conflict women faced during the Weimar Republic: faced by entrenched, conservative notions of femininity on the one hand while opposed models for how a modern emancipated woman might act were also present, if to a lesser degree. The contradictory models available within society may be one source behind Arndt’s decision to use her mask photographs as a means to observe herself from the outside, as it were, and to investigate to what degree the many women into whom she transformed herself were actually part of her own feminine persona. At the same time, perhaps unconsciously, she may have also used her portrait project in the service of the traditionally feminine image expected of her, which also did not necessarily correspond to reality. Stereotypical ideas of womanhood with broad social currency circulating during the Weimar Republic included conservative images of women—such as the wife and mother, the widow and the naïve young girl—and these clichés are present in Arndt’s photographs. Or was it that she deliberately exaggerated these role models because she herself felt like a “non-doer” at the Bauhaus, was uncomfortable in this role and felt herself degraded by being thought thusly when her own self-image was that of an emancipated a modern woman? And then again, perhaps Gertrud Arndt’s mask photos are actually merely the result of her “boredom,” which she was desperately trying to alleviate, with role plays.

Josef Albers, Portraits of Anni and Josef Albers in costume for Valentine’s Day Ball, Black Mountain College, 1940, Kodak Kodachrome 35mm color positive film, © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

The mask photos—hence the title—concentrate primarily on the face, on the “mask” that Arndt puts on herself, so to speak. With a few exceptions, her portraits are bust portraits in the style of the Italian Renaissance: frontal, semi-profile or profile. Arndt’s surroundings and physical posture are not the main topic; the face, rather, is the center of the photograph. Assuming a mask, in other words deforming the face allowed Arndt to let “the mirror of her face to run free,”13 but in a targeted and controlled manner. She combined different fabrics with accessories like hats or fabric flowers to create—consciously or unconsciously—different types of women inhabiting different types of realities; a grieving widow, say, or a proud Spaniard. In her mask photos, Arndt experimentally explored the questions like: “What is a face really?” and “To what extent does its expression allow conclusions to be drawn about the interior of a human being?”14 Arndt herself posited some answers:

“Maybe you always have a mask…. Somewhere you always have an expression that you want. You could call that a mask, couldn’t you? You are always different … so many things ... and if you are alone and want to make it conscious, then you just distort your face.”15

With the exception of T. Lux Feininger (known for his documentary photographs of everyday life at the Bauhaus), who at the age of 17 made three parodic masked self-portraits of himself disguised as Hollywood actors Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney,16 no mask photographs comparable to Arndt’s series were ever taken at the Bauhaus. A photo series of Kodachrome slides from the estate of Josef and Anni Albers, for example, shows that the wild exuberance of the Bauhaus festivals emitted a lasting influence, and not only on other Bauhäuslers. After the Albers were appointed in 1933 to the newly founded Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the ideas they began to pursue at the Bauhaus were further developed after their move to the United States—including the practices and pedagogical understanding from the preliminary course that Josef Albers had led at the Bauhaus since 1923, as well as Anni Albers’ curiosity for pre-Columbian weaving techniques and patterns—but also celebrating. As at the Bauhaus, dance evenings, concerts and theater performances were an integral part of everyday school life at Black Mountain College.17 It was Josef Albers himself who took a series of 21 color photographs of the celebrants at a Black Mountain College ball held on Valentine’s Day 1940, with the Albers’ and some of their students dressed up in the best Bauhaus style: Josef Albers with a sponge beard and eyebrows and glasses bent from two spoons; Anni Albers in a black costume with a tinsel-like wig and black lace veil in front of her face; one student is captured with a colorful net bag over his head; another with a homemade wig of thick woolen threads and glued-on woolen eyelashes; a pale made-up student in a black suit with a hood and Christmas balls on his head. Like the celebrations at the Bauhaus, the disguise motto at Black Mountain College seems to have been continued at this Valentine’s Day Ball, where everything is self-made, with costumes designed from simple means, as ingenious as they are effective in their simplicity. Here, too, people celebrated with pleasure and exuberance—a method the Albers’ likely took with them from the Bauhaus.

These images come closest to Gertrud Arndt’s mask photo series in composition and content. The style of the photo series from the Albers’ estate is similar to that of Gertrud Arndt’s mask photos: portraits taken en face, in half or full profile. The background is monochrome and cannot be assigned to a specific place. Here, too, it is the costumes, positions and facial expressions of the people photographed that, in combination, achieve their effect. The images are photographic documents of the crazy costume creations; the mime play of the portrayed intensifies the role into which they have entered.

Josef Albers, Portrait of Bela Martin and of a student in costume for Valentine’s Day Ball, Black Mountain College, 1940, Kodak Kodachrome 35mm color positive film, © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Gertrud Arndt’s mask photos are part of a long tradition of photographic mask portraits that began in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, most of these mask portraits were not self-portraits. The majority are of actors and artists in their stage costumes or in clothes associated with foreign lands (such as Japanese kimonos or Turkish robes). Among the best-known examples of this genre of portraiture are the painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec posing as a squinting Japanese and the dancer Josephine Baker dressed in her banana skirt. At the Bauhaus, costuming and bricollage played a central role in the extremely popular theatre productions of Oskar Schlemmer’s stage workshop. The Bauhaus performances—the best known of which is probably the Triadic Ballet—became so well known that the so-called Bauhaus Stage toured across Germany from 1928 to 1929. Even today, photographs by Edmund Collein and T. Lux Feininger, which capture students as eccentrically disguised theater characters— sometimes on stage, sometimes posing at the Bauhaus building—transport the esprit of the stage class into today. One of the most dazzling figures on the Bauhaus stage was the multi-talented Xanti Schawinsky. His designs for stage sets, costume designs and interactive stage systems had a decisive influence on the late Weimar and early Dessau Bauhaus. He was also the saxophonist of the legendary Bauhaus band. Schawinsky also took the unconditional and unbroken will to experiment of the Bauhaus stage with him to Black Mountain College, where he arrived in 193618 to stage a performance of his Spectodrama: Play, Life, Illusion at the school, based on his work at the Bauhaus. Schawinsky himself described it this way:

“’Spectodrama’ is an educational method aiming at the interchange between the Arts and the Sciences and using the theatre as a laboratory and place of action and experimentation. The working group is composed of representatives of all disciplines … tackling prevailing concepts and phenomena from different viewpoints, and creating stage representations expressing them.”19

At the time of his arrival at Black Mountain College, Schawinsky was the only member of the Bauhaus stage to communicate ideas and productions influenced by Schlemmer and Moholy-Nagy in the United States; he left clear traces of the innovative Bauhaus stage at Black Mountain College.20

Gertrud Arndt’s mask photos are to be understood primarily as a desire to play the role of the performer; an exploration of her expressive capacity for mimicry. Only afterwards and in retrospect might one interpret them as a search for the self and a questioning of traditional female stereotypes. Thus her photo series often finds itself operating in the field of tension between “self-transformation and the alienation from the familiar self-bordering on schizophrenia.”21 In this Arndt’s pictures stand out from other photographs taken at the Bauhaus. Although she was not the only Bauhaus photographer who photographed herself in series—Marianne Brandt also made an impressive series of self-photographs in her studio at the Dessau Bauhaus22—by referencing other contemporaneous (and contemporary) works of art, as well as the social circumstances in which Arndt’s photographs were made, one places the mask photographs in a different frame than the highly personal concerns that first motivated Arndt’s exploration of “feminine masquerade.” Arndt’s photos were, in my opinion, taken in a much narrower context to the very pronounced celebration and masked ball culture as well as the popular and universally present performances of the stage workshop at the Bauhaus, and it is in this context that I also understand the color photo series from the Albers’ estate.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Ulrike Müller: Bauhaus Women. Art, Handicraft, Design, Flammairon, Paris 2009, p. 61.
  • 2 Ibid, p. 74.
  • 3 Walter Gropius: Programme of the Weimar State Bauhaus, April 1919, accessible at: http://www.artifexbalear.org/etextes/bauhaus.pdf (accessed on 7 March, 2019).
  • 4 Ute Ackermann: “Bauhausfeste – Pathetisches zwischen Stepexzentrik und Tierdrama“, in: Jeannine Fiedler (ed.), Bauhaus, Könemann, Königswinter 2006, pp. 126–139, here: p. 128–131.
  • 5 See also Boris Friedewald: Bauhaus, Prestel, Munich 2009, pp. 86–89.
  • 6 Although the aims of the Bauhaus at first glance seem groundbreaking, it was nevertheless an art school of its time and not detachable from the historical circumstances, pervading social norms and laws. Ultimately, with the establishment of the “women’s class” (1920) and, following completion of the preliminary course, women were allowed admission to the workshops of “heavy trades” such as stone sculpture, blacksmithing, carpentry, mural painting, wood sculpture and art printing—only “in the rarest of cases” did the Master Council bow to the social demand to train women for domestic roles. However, this does not mean female Bauhaus students stood on an equal basis with their male colleagues or that the Bauhaus lay wholly outside the conventions of its time. One indication of this is that pupils of the weaving mill alone did not receive degrees in the school’s early years, and the topic of women students was a topic of heated debate for the Bauhaus masters. Take for instance the minutes of the Master Council meeting of 17 March 1921: “Opinion on the female pupils. In our experience, women are rarely suitable for heavy crafts such as stone sculpture, smithing, carpentry, wall painting, wood sculpture, art printing. It would therefore be advisable to work towards ensuring that no more unnecessary experiments are carried out in this direction. The weaving mill (women’s department) has made progress and has grown into a women’s department on its own. Most of the women should be included in this department, with a few exceptions in bookbinding and pottery. In the latter two workshops, letters of apprenticeship (Chamber of Crafts) are also obligatory for women. Letters of apprenticeship are not issued in the entire women’s department. The formal instruction for women would have to be separated in the next semester (winter), so that not two mixed departments receive formal instruction, but one department for male, one for female pupils.” (In: Wahl and Ackermann: Die Meisterratsprotokolle, p. 123.) Ironically, it was the weaving workshop which eventually grew into the largest department at the Bauhaus. It can even be said the Bauhaus women weavers put a spoke in the wheel of any projects of male dominance at the Bauhaus by becoming so acclaimed for their work that weaving soon became one of the most important sources of income for the Bauhaus. With the move to Dessau in 1925 (at the latest), the Bauhaus teaching program changed, with a design for industry and degree in weaving being granted, with diplomas and journeyman’s certificates offered, as well as the theorization of weaving and related publications (from 1928 under Hannes Meyer). The Bauhaus weavers revolutionized and professionalized their workshop so completely that they easily competed with products from the metal workshop and carpentry workshop—and thus, with the classic Bauhaus designs still known today. The women at the Bauhaus found their very own way out of the dominant social stereotypes entrapping women of the time, and many of them went on to carry their innovative, experimental techniques and methods into the world, working successfully and on an international level as textile designers, with their own handlooms or as lecturers at art academies.
  • 7 See Christian Wolsdorf: Eigentlich wollte ich ja Architektin werden. Gertrud Arndt als Weberin und Photographin am Bauhaus 1923–31, Exhibition catalogue Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Berlin 2013.
  • 8 Anja Guttenberger: unpublished Interview with Alexa Bormann-Arndt, Berlin/Darmstadt, 3o November 2008.
  • 9 see e.g. Anja Guttenberger: Fotografische Selbstportraits der Bauhäusler zwischen 1919 und 1933. PhD thesis, FU Berlin, 2012, https://refubium.fu-berlin.de/bitstream/handle/fub188/8338/Diss_Anja_Guttenberger.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y (accessed 11 February 2019); Jeannine Fiedler (ed.): Photography at the Bauhaus, Exhibition catalogue, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, MIT Press, Cambridge 1990.
  • 10 See Guttenberger: “Maskenselbstportraits,“ in: Guttenberger: Fotografische Selbstportraits von Bauhäuslern 1919 bis 1933, 2012.
  • 11 Women were granted the right to vote and hold elected office in Germany on 12 November 1918, and given the opportunity to exercise their newly acquired franchise on 19 January 1919. Up until then, German women were politically disenfranchised, nor did they possess the right to gainful employment or personal property, being throughout their lives dependent on men—first their fathers, then their husbands. By the middle of the nineteenth century, more and more women were demanding rights, organizing collectively by forming women’s associations through which they put forward their demands, placing increasing pressure on politicians. In the German context, at the beginning of the twentieth century, these demands gained momentum thanks to women’s rights activists Minna Cauer, Anita Augspurg and Lida Gustava Heinemann. Slowed down for four years by the First World War and the German Emperor, they finally pushed through their demands in 1918 with the abolition of imperial Germany and the founding of the democratic Weimar Republic. It was against this socio-historical background that the Bauhaus was founded, as well as the technological developments in the field of photography to which I refer in the above.
  • 12 Walter Grasskamp: “Augenschein. Über die Lesbarkeit des Portraits und die Handschrift des Fotografen,“ in: Kunstforum International, Vol. 52, No. 6, August 1982, pp. 14–37, here: p. 14.
  • 13 Sabina Leßmann: “Die Maske der Weiblichkeit nimmt kuriose Formen an,” in: Museum Folkwang Essen: Fotografieren hieß Teilnehmen. Fotografinnen der Weimarer Republik, Essen 1995, pp. 272–274, here: p. 274.
  • 14 Graphische Sammlung des Hessischen Landesmuseums: Gertrud Arndt. Fotografien aus der Bauhauszeit (1926–1932), Darmstadt 1993, p. 2.
  • 15 Sabina Leßmann: “Zwischen Sachlichkeit und spielerischer Verwandlung,” in: Das Verborgene Museum: Photographien der Bauhauskünstlerin Gertrud Arndt, Berlin 1994, pp. 8–13, here: p. 13.
  • 16 See Guttenberger: Fotografische Selbstportraits von Bauhäuslern 1919–1933, 2012.
  • 17 Martin Duberman: Black Mountain. An Exploration in Community, Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1972, p. 92.
  • 18 In 1936 Josef Albers invited Schawinsky to teach theatre and painting at the BMC. See Eva Díaz: “Bauhaus Theater at Black Mountain College,” in: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst: Xanti Schawinsky, Exh.cat., Zurich 2015, p. 59.
  • 19 Schawinsky cited in Duberman, Black Mountain, 1972, pp. 89–90.
  • 20 Díaz: “Bauhaus-Theater am Black Mountain College”, 2015, S. 71.
  • 21 Siegmar Holsten: Das Bild des Künstlers. Selbstdarstellungen, Hans Christians Verlag, Hamburg 1978, p. 44.
  • 22 See Guttenberger: “’Selbstfotos’ in der Kugel,” pp. 102–106. In: Guttenberger, Fotografische Selbstportraits von Bauhäuslern 1919–1933, 2012.
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