A chapter in the Personalities section of the Bauhaus book, edited by Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend, published by Könemann in 1999
Gunta Stölzl was one of the most successful women in the Bauhaus movement and out-standing for her creativity, stubbornness and talent for organization. She identified herself fully with the school and became involved not only in the workshop, but also in the kitchen and the garden of the Bauhaus and in the often quite demanding task of organizing the parties. Before she transferred to the State Bauhaus, Gunta Stölzl had studied for eight semesters at the School of Applied Arts in Munich, under the well-known director Richard Riemerschmidt. Entering the Bauhaus after this represented a sideways step for her, but it was perhaps the most important step she ever took. This period of study, combined with her own talent, was the basis for her success in Weimar and Dessau. Although her career as the only female young master in the school is unusual, she was in many respects a typical Bauhaus woman. So who was Gunta Stölzl?
Adelgunde Stölzl was born in Munich in 1897. Her father was a teacher who gave his children a reformed and liberal education. As part of this she studied at a high school for the daughters of professionals and finished successfully with her senior school certificate in 1913, following which she enrolled in the School of Applied Arts. She interrupted her studies and volunteered for war service as a Red Cross nursing assistant when she was only 17. After she had returned to her alma mater she became a member of the students' reform commission and became acquainted with Walter Gropius's Bauhaus manifesto, the front cover of which was illustrated by Lyonel Feininger's famous woodcut: “The motif of the Cathedral of socialism.” This prospectus inspired Gunta Stölzl to visit Weimar. The reforming ideas and the charisma of the director influenced her so strongly that for a second time she enrolled as a student, this time at the Bauhaus. Her diaries reveal early spiritual interests. Life-reforming ideas, such as those from the Wandervogel movement, made their mark on Gunta Stölzl and many other Bauhaus members, and formed the basis for both Bauhaus ideas and the special feeling of comradeship which colored their relations with each other. In contrast to most of the other students, who only stayed on average for three semesters, Gunta Stölzl stayed for 12 years at the Bauhaus, six of these as a student.
Apart from her own personality, there were however other reasons relating to the structure of the otherwise male-dominated school which enabled Gunta Stölzl to pursue her career there. The women's class offered the only area of work where a woman could legitimately aspire to a senior position. Without this gender divide it would have been almost impossible for Gunta Stölzl to advance her claim for a high-ranking position. The existence of this dedicated women's section appeared to legitimize the fact that all the other areas such as cabinetmaking, wall painting, ceramics and metalwork were male preserves. There, women were only tolerated as an exception.
In spite of her talent and her own dynamism, she did not always have an easy time, as she was not the protégée of any master. She did have allies amongst them, but no one to take up her cause directly. She was the only person in the Bauhaus to acquire her position by a vote in the group. Attitudes, opinions and the general climate were always of great importance in the small school. As a member of the Bauhaus from its earliest days, Gunta Stölzl attracted plenty of well-wishers who valued her hard work and ready helpfulness. In the 1925-1926 winter semester she was elevated to a senior position by the women students after a tenacious struggle. Ironically, to a certain extent and without wishing it, by becoming a token woman in a senior position she showed that women could make their way in the Bauhaus.
Gunta Stölzl was not solely a weaver, however, now her activities also turned her toward teaching. When she was officially given the responsibility for running the complete weaving section, in June of 1927, she had no real experience of teaching. Although she had some success at this new activity, it soon became apparent that the Bauhaus concept of bringing together theoretical and practical work did not work out for a young master who was female. Paul Klee's teaching was irreplaceable, and Gunta Stölzl limited herself to practical activities in the workshop with the assistance of Kurt Wanke. There was plenty to be done there. Work in the workshop had to be restructured, and this was her strong point. In 1924 Johannes Itten had called her to Zurich to set up the Ontos workshops there. At the Bauhaus, Stölzl separated the work into teaching and production sections. Experiments were then carried out with new materials, looking for hard-wearing but reasonably priced fabrics for the wider market. In addition, pattern books for industry were created, so that the whole output of the workshop was made professional and cost-effective. Gunta Stölzl strove to implement the Bauhaus program in her workshop, although this was not always entirely successful. As the Dessau Bauhaus was more concerned with architecture, the fabrics had to complement the modern building styles and create a harmonious presence in the room. Individual handmade pieces were less common at this period.
Later Gunta Stölzl lost her position in the same way that she had acquired it. A small group of dissatisfied students, supported by masters with right-wing sympathies, made life unbearable. She pre-empted dismissal by handing in her notice and resigned herself to leaving the school in 1931. This was followed by a difficult period. Two years previously she had married Bauhaus member Arieh Sharon, a left-wing Jewish architect, losing her German citizenship as a result. According to her passport she was now a Palestinian. In 1931 she moved to Switzerland, as none of her Bauhaus contacts had led to a new post in Germany.
In Zurich she opened a small handweaving workshop with the former Bauhaus members Gertrud Preiswerk and Heinrich-Otto Hürlimann, S-P-H Stoffe (S-P-H Fabrics), but after a short time financial difficulties forced them to give up. The economic and political situation throughout Europe at this time was very difficult, and the possibilities of making a living out of arts and crafts were few. In spite of this Stölzl continued to run a small workshop called S+H Fabrics until 1937, with Hürlimann as her only partner. When this partnership also came to an end she moved to Florastrasse in Zurich and opened the handweaving shop Flora. She worked alone there for 36 years, until she gave up her workshop in 1967.
The years in Switzerland were not trouble-free but she was finally able to become established. Probably her most successful year professionally was 1937, when the Diplôme Commémoratif was bestowed on her at the Paris International Exhibition. In her new homeland she became a member of the Society of Swiss Painters, Sculptors and Commercial Artists and of a Swiss business association. She took part regularly in exhibitions and fairs, supplied various firms with upholstery material and wall hangings and also worked for individual architects, such as Hans Fischli, for whose buildings she made coverings for walls and other surfaces, as well as for the National Germanic Museum in Nuremberg. Overall however she did not obtain as much as she would have liked of this close work with architects, which she particularly treasured. Her work inspired by Gobelin tapestries counts among the most important of her handcrafted works, although she supported herself predominantly with textiles for everyday living, such as upholstery or clothing fabrics. In the 1970s she devoted herself totally to the Gobelins work and through this gained increasing international recognition. With the rise of the feminist art history movement she became even more widely known and appreciated in the 1990s, not only for her unusual career pattern but also for her textiles.
Gunta Stölzl's woven pieces are distinguished by steady, well-crafted work, and a rich variety of bindings. Her carpets breathe rhythm, carry you away with their many patterns, and cannot be pinned down to a horizontal or vertical Bauhaus scheme. On occasion there are motifs such as cows in a landscape, or as in her later work an ecclesiastical theme. The influence of Johannes Itten’s teachings on color contrast is particularly noticeable in her Bauhaus works. The vibrant, joyful colors in some of her early weaving is witness to the vital dynamism and energetic lifestyle of the Bauhaus members. The carpets evoke an atmosphere of jazz and expressive dancing and provide us with just a slight taste of how lively life may once have been at the Bauhaus.
Front cover of the Baughaus "red" book
Front cover of the Baughaus "red" book