Features 24 September 2019

The Bauhaus wife

She was one of the early 20th century’s most gifted photographers and a key member of the Bauhaus. So why is Lucia Moholy barely mentioned in the celebrations of the movement’s centenary?

Words by Nina Caplan

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Lucia Moholy has one of the most famous surnames in 20th-century art and design – for someone most people have never heard of. She married László Moholy-Nagy on her 27th birthday in 1921 and moved with him from Berlin when he became a teacher at the Bauhaus School. Yet she was so much more than the great man’s wife: a talented photographer in her own right, she was a major force in the Bauhaus movement. You have almost certainly seen some of the wonderful, sharply angled photographs she took of its buildings and the beautiful objects within. What you may not have seen was her name attached to those images.

Actually, László’s ownership of his surname is problematic, too. It wasn’t his father’s. Mohol is the town where his mother moved when her husband ran off, Nagy the maternal uncle who became the boy’s guardian. László was an obscure if talented 25-year-old artist when he met Lucia in Berlin in 1920. She was already a writer, editor and photographer; she had studied philosophy, worked in a law office and had Expressionist poems published under the pseudonym Ulrich Steffen. This too was a man’s name, but at least there was no actual man to hog the limelight. 

László didn’t speak good German when he met Lucia, and in a foreshadowing we might see as ominous but that would have been perfectly natural at the time, she became his editor and translator. Sixty years later, in 1982, Edith Tschichold, an old friend, wrote to Lucia: ‘It’s about time your important contribution to the history of photography has finally been shown and that, for once, it has been said that you edited all of Moholy’s books and articles, and rewrote them in proper German.’ 

Lucia Moholy in 1926
The Bauhaus building, Dessau

This is more than just your run-of-the-mill story of a talented woman unfortunate enough to be married to a talented man – although her talent is multifaceted and indisputable. There is war and bad luck and prejudice and even malice. But it all revolves around the Bauhaus. 

If it had survived, the Bauhaus would have turned 100 this year, and while the original school lasted just 14 years – in three different locations: Weimar, Dessau and, briefly, Berlin – the Bauhaus as an idea or an ideal has proven itself immortal. The cool, clean lines of objects and buildings, the combining of fine art and art as commerce, the marriage of beauty and utility, the architecture, the tubular chairs and elegant glass walls, painting, sculpture, metalwork and weaving, and the works of Paul Klee, Marcel Breuer and Wassily Kandinsky are all still with us.

These days, Lucia is credited for her photographs, but for a long time she did not even realise her negatives had survived the Second World War, much less become the defining images of the movement. She was involved in every one of the 14 books made at the Bauhaus; they relied on her book-binding expertise, as well as her photography skills. When she arrived, in 1923, she was the only Bauhaus resident with either. Yet she receives one editing acknowledgment, in the very last book; the rest of the credit went to Walter Gropius, the school’s founder and first director, and to her husband. She was heavily involved in the school’s magazine, too, and she edited László’s famous essays and collaborated on the 1925 book Painting, Photography, Film, for which he still receives sole credit. She worked on his photographs. His photograms – lovely fluid images, made via light-sensitive paper without a camera – were a joint invention. She helped him see, and she helped him speak, and her reward was invisibility and silence.

This is more than just your run-of-the-mill story of a talented woman unfortunate enough to be married to a talented man 

Why does this matter? First, let’s consider that the Bauhaus was an organisation that was extremely sophisticated about publicity and the importance of credit. This was a radical project: for people to believe in it, they had to understand it. Later, many masters and pupils, including Moholy-Nagy, artists Josef and Anni Albers, Gropius and his wife Ise, graphic artist Herbert Bayer and Irene, already his ex-wife, and the school’s last director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, left Nazi Germany for the USA; their time at the Bauhaus got them jobs, income, and eventually glory. 

Lucia, who had fled to London in 1934, also tried to get to America. In July 1940, she had a contract to teach photography at Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus, renamed The School of Design, in Chicago: László, by then her ex-husband, offered her work so she could get a visa. But she could not prove that she had the expertise in photography to take the position, because she had never had either an official title or acknowledgment at the Bauhaus. The US turned her down. The failure to credit her in the 1920s became literally a matter of life and death: she was nearly killed when her London house was bombed. 

But let’s go back, to happier times. The Bauhaus was clearly a wonderful place, particularly in the early days, before commercial pressures intensified and Germany’s political skyline darkened. The workshops were collaborative, with masters and pupils creating together; everything was supposed to be appropriate for mass reproduction, although anyone who has viewed the gorgeous materials – the hammered silver and ebony – would have doubts, particularly in an era when mass production was in its infancy. But the calibre of participants was extraordinary. And the parties were, by all accounts, amazing. 

Intermingling (1928), by Wassily Kandinsky
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, by Walter Gropius

Lucia and László moved with the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1925; she photographed the buildings that Walter Gropius designed to house the school and its staff. Like Ise Gropius, who was known as ‘Mrs Bauhaus’, Lucia was an unpaid, uncredited but very hard-working contributor to this exciting project. Ise, a former journalist, dealt with all her husband’s correspondence and was very active in the incessant promotional activities intended to burnish the school’s reputation, sell its products and recruit pupils. When the Gropiuses moved to Harvard in the 1930s, Ise made their house a work of art: the closets were left open so that the many visitors could admire her clothing. With her husband and Herbert Bayer, she edited the catalogue for the 1938 MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) exhibition on Gropius’s Bauhaus. To illustrate his German buildings and also the many artefacts that could not be transferred from Germany, they used several of Lucia’s photographs, both in the book and in the exhibition. Most of the Bauhäusler did very well, in career and reputation terms, from this important exhibition. The catalogue was the only major work on the Bauhaus until 1969; Lucia was not credited. 

That Gropius was an exceptional architect is indisputable. His German buildings are marvels of elegant simplicity, airiness and light. The trouble is that I, like many others, have only ever seen them in photographs, and the best of those are by Lucia. She was an advocate of the New Objectivity – Neue Sachlichkeit – an effort to portray reality shorn of sentiment. Still, her photographs, with buildings at slightly odd angles or artefacts displayed on glass to highlight their form, are very beautiful. Mass production of Bauhaus-influenced art came much later: think of Marcel Breuer’s tubular chairs, now ubiquitous. But what did get reproduced – massively, immediately – were the photographs.

Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith (1935)
The Metallwerkstatt (metal workshop) at Bauhaus Weimar (1923)

In the inaugural semester of summer 1919, more than half the students at the Bauhaus were women – 84, to 79 men. There will, claimed Gropius, ‘be no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex. Absolute equality but also absolutely equal obligation to the work of all craftsmen.’ Those adjectives are problematic, of course, and so is what he doesn’t say. The Weimar government, elected in 1919, had given women the right to study (as well as the vote), so Gropius could not have excluded them if he had wanted to. And in fact, they were soon funnelled into ‘appropriate’ areas of the school: weaving, ceramics. Quiet restriction of numbers began just a year later. There would only ever be one woman master – Gunta Stölzl – in the weaving workshop. By the time of the last-ditch attempt, by then-director Mies van der Rohe, to recreate the school in Berlin in 1932, there were 90 men and just 25 women. 

Lucia and László had already left when Gropius quit, in 1928. They split up the next year, and by the time the Bauhaus closed for good, she was in a relationship with Theodor Neubauer, a prominent Communist. When he was arrested by the Nazis – in her apartment, in 1933 – she fled, via Prague, to London. Neubauer was freed in 1939, in part through Lucia’s efforts to get the British establishment to lobby for his release, but was re‑arrested in 1944 and executed.

In London she became a portraitist to the aristocracy – a rather different one from Cecil Beaton, whom she nonetheless admired. She was interested in texture and light: skin against scarf, the glow of hair strands, the shadow in a wrinkle. As she had with buildings, she often captured her sitters from an angle, foregrounding unexpected elements of their face and personality. There can’t be many artists who would photograph a former prime minister’s wife in full profile, as Lucia did with Margot Asquith, and her sitter was full of praise: ‘I think your photographs quite wonderful, so do all my friends,’ she wrote. ‘They are different from the modern photography which goes in for what might be called “beauty parlours”. Your photographs make real men and women.’ Ever the advocate of sophisticated technologies of reproduction, Lucia set up the microfilm department for the Association of Scientific Libraries (Aslib) in 1942. This sounds a little dull until you discover that, during the war, Aslib was mostly busy microfilming German documents for codebreakers’ haven Bletchley Park. Lucia had cause to be grateful to the UK, which had taken her in and would naturalise her in 1947. 

She undertook documentary projects for Unesco and helped set up national libraries in Czechoslovakia and Turkey. She published a history of photography and gave lectures on the Bauhaus, but she was often very poor. As far as she knew, her glass negatives – entrusted to Moholy-Nagy when she fled Germany – had been lost or destroyed. So hard was it for her to find material to illustrate her lectures that, at one point, she wrote to Gropius in America, asking if he could supply any. He was regretful but unable to help. 

The negatives that could have made her famous and given her financial security, [Gropius] had been using uncredited for 20 years while she scrabbled to make a living

Meanwhile, her pictures were becoming famous. They appeared in books and magazines, always unattributed. Eventually, still struggling to scrape a living, she wrote again to Gropius, wondering if he had any idea where the negatives might be. His reply – from that beautiful house in Harvard, where he was now chair of the department of architecture – is breathtaking. Not only did he claim that she had given him the negatives, back in Berlin, he also said he had promised the original negatives to Harvard’s museum ‘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 you will not deprive me of them. Wouldn’t it be sufficient if I sent you contact prints of the negatives? There are a great many, but I certainly understand that you want to make use of them yourself.’ But don’t worry, he reassures her, the negatives that could have made her famous and given her financial security, that he had been using uncredited for 20 years while she scrabbled to make a living, would go to Harvard ‘with your name attached’.

Portrait of László Moholy-Nagy (1925/26) by Lucia Moholy

Eventually, in 1957, with the help of lawyers, she would get back 230 of the 560 negatives. The others have never been found. 

Other talented wives fared better. Ise Gropius seems to have been happy with her role as Mrs Bauhaus: she continued to protect her husband’s legacy, and that of the movement, long after Walter’s death in 1969. Anni Albers’s textiles found both commercial and artistic success in the United States (and have been the subject of a major retrospective at London’s Tate Modern). 

Lucia lived to be 95. She died in Switzerland in 1989, respected and admired as both art critic and – ironically – protector of the Bauhaus legacy. She called her brief biography Frau des 20 Jahrhunderts (‘Woman of the 20th Century’).

Credit, finally, is being given to the women who helped make the Bauhaus what it was. A new book, Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective (Bloomsbury), brings 45 women back into view, including Gunta Stölzl, Ise Gropius, Irene Bayer, and Anni Albers. And of course, Lucia Moholy, who bequeathed us her vision of the Bauhaus and is now beginning to get the recognition she deserves.

Three greats influenced by the Bauhaus

Charles and Ray Eames
This American couple, married in 1941, were artists, architects and graphic designers, but it is their furniture, especially the Eames Chair, that has had the most profound influence. While Ray claimed, ‘What works good [sic] is better than what looks good’, in fact their designs combined the two, and their enormous success helped popularise hitherto rarefied ideas about utility, beauty and collaboration that were so important to the Bauhaus.

Alfred Barr
The future founder and first director of MoMA, Barr visited the Bauhaus in 1928, meeting with Gropius, Klee and Moholy-Nagy and becoming a lifelong advocate for the school’s take on modern design. In 1938, Gropius and Bayer curated a MoMA exhibition on the Gropius-era Bauhaus of 1919–28. Although this area of focus was partly due to Mies van der Rohe’s unwillingness to cooperate, it meant that – through the exhibition and its catalogue – for many years the Bauhaus narrative in the US was construed by Gropius.

British goth rockers Bauhaus formed in the nondescript East Midlands town of Northampton in 1978. Originally named Bauhaus 1919, the band lasted just five years, but their influence (like that of their namesake) is long-lasting. They are credited with inventing goth, for example, and their breakthrough single ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, a nine-minute paean to the ill-fated Dracula star, still sounds hauntingly modernist. Fans include authors Chuck Palahniuk and Neil Gaiman.

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