12. January 2018

A young woman studies at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau and struggles not only for a redefinition of art, but also for self-determination as a woman: In her novel “Blaupause” Theresia Enzensberger brings the 1920s to life.

By Julia Schmitz

What humiliation! When Luise Schilling receives this letter from her father, a rich industrial tycoon in Berlin, she is disgusted – but she complies anyway. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. And it was the financial support of her parents that has made it possible for Luise to study at the Bauhaus University in Weimar and later Dessau in the first place.

Dear Luise, Your mother and I have come to the conclusion that it is no longer worth your while staying at the Bauhaus in Weimar. We have secured a place for you at the Pestalozzi-Fröbel-Haus in Schöneberg, and you will start there in June.

Her application to the institution in 1920 was initially not well-received by her family, but when they learned that the Bauhaus also had a weaving workshop in which their daughter might learn something of use to a woman, they eventually acquiesced. Yet Luise, it soon becomes clear, has no intention of sitting at a weaving loom.

Revolutionizing building construction

She wants to become an architect and to revolutionize building construction, to break away from the wild mix of historicizing styles that have prevailed thus far in favor of a clear, structured way of building. First, however, she finds herself in the preliminary course taught by Johannes Itten among his circle of Mazdaznan believers – one has to belong somewhere, after all. What’s more, she’s rather enamored of the handsome Jakob.

Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Dessau, View from Southwest (built 1926), Photo: Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Image via DGDB

To put artistic revolution aside for a moment: Luise is primarily in pursuit of herself and her sexuality, and her desire to portray herself as worldly and tolerant, just as any carefully emancipated woman should be. Yet it mustn’t be too excessive; too much liberality such as that in the nightclubs of Berlin unsettles her:

You see heavily made-up faces, glittering costume jewelry, dangerously short skirts, women in tailcoats and smoking jackets, men in evening dresses and half-naked youths who could even be girls. I find it all most peculiar, the lewd atmosphere vexes me so that I really want to turn straight round and go home.

Luise is trapped between the demands she places on herself and the role models that endure among the teachers and fellow students at the Bauhaus: As if he had arranged it with her father, after the first year Johannes Itten sends her to the weaving mill, and although Walter Gropius praises her architectural ideas, he warns her that building an entire settlement would likely be too much for her to handle. Later he brings out her designs under his own name.

Weawing romm at the Bauhaus Weimar, about 1923. Bauhaus-University Weimar. Image via 100 Jahre Bauhaus

The political circumstances of the inter-war years with the gradual rise of the Nazis confuse Luise and raise doubts about her life in the Bauhaus bubble. How can her fellow students fast while inflation has meant that so many people barely have anything to eat? How come there is so little talk of politics at the Bauhaus when, at the time, the signs are more than threatening?

Life in the Bauhaus bubble

Luise faces a daily struggle for recognition of her creative abilities, on the one hand, and her emancipation as a young woman, on the other, and this has her teetering like a poorly built structure at the traditional lantern festival. Yet if protest is not an option, it also doesn’t help that she – just as one did in the 1920s – has her hair cut into a bob and attempts to adopt the attitudes of the “new woman”.

RUDOLF SCHLICHTER, Portrait of a Woman with Bob and Tie, around 1923, Private Collection, Courtesy Neue Galerie New York

Female self-determination and sexual escapades, clichéd role-models, growing antisemitism in Germany, and amid it all the desire for “new human beings” at the Bauhaus: For her novel, Theresia Enzensberger has chosen a decade which, in hindsight, could not be more dense or complex. Capturing all this in a convincing, flowing novel is an ambitious undertaking, one where the author doesn’t always succeed.

Like a glass ceiling

Too many details – often without any relevance to the action and mentioned simply to add to the period atmosphere – frequently render the text overloaded and sluggish, and this is exacerbated by the first-person perspective of the main character used throughout in real time, which doesn’t allow Luise any form of reflection and highlights the dreadful naivety of the young woman who constantly revolves around herself.

Bauhaus Celebration at Ilmschlösschen near Weimar on November 29, 1924, Foto: Louis Held, Klassik Stiftung Weimar / © Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Image via 100 Jahre Bauhaus

And yet “Blaupause” – the debut novel from this young journalist and publisher – describes with powerful and authentic images the everyday life of students at an extraordinary institution and surprises in that at this very place, considered to be so progressive, the gender stereotypes of the time block the route upwards like a glass ceiling. The journey of a young woman in the thrilling turmoil of the Weimar Republic may sometimes appear somewhat contrived, but it’s well worth a read for anyone wanting to learn more about the atmosphere at the Bauhaus during the “roaring twenties”.

Cover "Blaupause, Image via Carl Hanser Verlag

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