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Women of the Bauhaus: Gunta Stölzl (1897-1983)

© Wikimedia Commons

Even as a young girl, Adelgunde Stölzl carried her sketchbook everywhere. On long hikes in the mountains around her hometown of Munich, she sketched landscapes and farmers with their livestock. The young artist would continue that discipline throughout her life, and her accompanying writings served as a valuable insight into her creative mind. She continued her love of the arts as a young woman at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts), where she studied decorative and glass painting, ceramics, and art history. Even as a nurse during World War I, she filled the pages of her journals while serving on the Italian and French fronts.

Upon her return from the war, Gunta Stölzl, as she was then known, decided to apply to the Bauhaus, whose non-traditional ideals of openness and exploration she found intriguing. However, she soon realized that women were not welcome in all classes and often relegated to what was considered “women’s art:” weaving. There, she had soon mastered the fundamentals of weaving and began teaching other students, enjoying intense collaboration with others. Students sometimes supplemented learning weaving and dyeing techniques outside the school but were motivated by the open and fruitful dialogue of the Bauhaus setting.

‘We wanted to create living things with contemporary relevance, suitable for a new style of life. Huge potential for experimentation lay before us. It was essential to define our imaginary world, to shape our experiences through material, rhythm, proportion, color and form.’ – Gunta Stölzl

By 1921, her designs showed the colorful influence of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. She and Bauhaus teacher, Marcel Breuer, collaborated on the “African Chair:” he built the wooden structure while Ms. Stölzl created the colorful weaving, which she produced on a warp positioned inside the structure of the chair.

“The African Chair” by Gunta Stölzl and Marcel Breuer. © dpa

At the Bauhaus, women were often confronted by a prejudice against weaving which was referred to as ‘purely decorative.’ Ms. Stölzl responded,

‘Then let us be the decorative ones among the stars of the Bauhaus…weaving is an aesthetic whole with a unity of composition, form, color and substance’

By 1924, Ms. Stölzl was invited by Johannes Itten, who had developed the school’s preliminary course and taught Color Theory before leaving the Bauhaus, to help set up the Ontos Weaving Workshops outside Zürich. Upon the relocation of the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1925, she was appointed Craft Master and, from 1926-1931, the Director of the Weaving Workshop, the only woman until that point to reach that distinction. She experimented with many different styles, among them the challenging Jacquard loom technique and “interrupted stripes” (created by turning the shuttle around midway), a style that became a hallmark of the Bauhaus weavings.

The teaching staff at the Bauhaus, 1926. L-to-R: Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Keel, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer. © dpa

When she married Arieh Sharon, an architect student at the Bauhaus who hailed from the then-British Mandate for Palestine, in 1929 and had her first daughter, Yael, Ms. Stölzl lost her German citizenship and experienced increasing political pressure to step down at the school.

“5 Chöre” (5 Harnesses), 1927-28
Created on the technically challenging Jacquard loom. ©picture alliance-Hendrik Schmidt-dpa-Zentralbild- dpa

In 1931, she was forced out of the Bauhaus and moved to Zürich, where she set up a hand-weaving workshop named “S-P-H Fabrics” with former Bauhaus students Gertrude Preiswerk and Heinrich-Otto Hürlimann. For the next few years, the company produced wall coverings, curtains, upholstery, coat and dress fabrics. After her partners left, Ms. Stölzl continued as “Handweberei Flora” (Flora Handweaving Mill). Her situation as a foreigner in Switzerland was tenuous. She had to renew her work and residence permits every year, and the years of collaborative work at the Bauhaus felt like a thing of the past.

Ms. Stölzl remained active in various organizations, such as the Swiss Werkbund and the Association of Swiss Women Painters, Sculptors and Craftswomen. During the following decades, her work was included in international expositions and earned the Grand Prix at the Exposition Internationale de l’Urbanism et de l’Habitation” in 1947.

Years after her divorce from Mr. Sharon, Ms. Stölzl married the Swiss writer, Willy Stadler, and became a Swiss citizen. Her second daughter, Monika, was born in 1942. She continued to design and produce textiles at “Flora” until she shuttered the company in 1967 and returned to tapestry weaving.

Not many of her creations from the Bauhaus years survived. Some of her work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others. Her weavings were included in the “Bauhaus Weaving Workshop” exhibit (Bauhaus-Archive, Darmstadt, 1964) and the travelling exhibit, “50 Years Bauhaus” (1968).

But it is in the many sketchbooks which show her designs and her notes, often written in stenographic shorthand and cryptic old German cursive, that her love of design and her inventive approach to weaving and textile design is revealed.

OF INTEREST: Many of Ms. Stölzl’s sketches and weavings can be seen in “Bauhaus: Art as Life – Gunta Stölzl: A Daughter’s Perspective.

By Eva Santorini, German Embassy

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