Wear it Out
Scaffolded, and shrink wrapped, in the pale glow of the night, the Kadinsky/Klee house was like a crustacean in deep ocean, skeleton on the outside, effervescent skin and bones bent out of place, the fog dissolving its edges into the darkness.
Karina and I had come here on a whim, a late night call to a feminist book reading in the old house, in the midst of a chaotic festival at the Bauhaus in Dessau, the wooded street under renovation, nothing quite ready for us.
We entered the house through an opening in the plastic skin. It shifted slightly as we passed through it, as if it were breathing, softening the rigour of the house beneath, making it more gentle. The women who were organising the session (and others along a similar vein – Feminist Potato Peeling, pyjama parties and wine-fueled discussions) were staying in the house, dubbing it the Mistress House amongst the Master Houses, trying in their own way to soften it, to make it more gentle, to deal with some of the ghosts in the walls. They squirted us with sage water and slipped us all a piece of paper as we ascended the blue stairs, one after the other, the large window framing the stairwell blocked entirely by white mesh and steel tubes.
We gathered in a double-height room with grey walls and sat on the ground with our shoes off, settling into the comfortable rhythm of light conversation that tends to form around women in their socks, feeling the space above us fill with a new kind of warmth. The room was sparse, with classic Bauhaus chairs around the edges, and a few books, and a full-height window in the corner, looking like a machine with all its mechanisms. Bright, woven rugs lined the floor, a part of the softening, of the feminine, and we lounged on these instead of the chairs, stockinged ankles crossed or knees folded to the side. Sepake, one of our hosts, announced that we had each been given the name of a woman of the Bauhaus in its prime, in the 1920s and early 1930s, when it was a melting pot of progressive design and craft, from art and architecture to textiles and performance. The idea was to call them forth into the space again, to say their names and to listen, and to overcome the masculine myth of the Bauhaus. Sometimes using a name is about trying to remember, to bring something back into existence.
My slip of paper said ‘Karla Grosch.’ I hadn’t heard of her.
The process began; we heard from Ise Gropius who believed she “was a very lonely woman,” overshadowed, in spite of her equal partnership and affectionate title of Mrs. Bauhaus, and Anni Albers, who came through in a burst of colour, fierce and independent (some people are able to capture a person with their whole body), while Lucia Moholy wove between us taking photos. Many of us had to “quickly google ourselves” as a reminder of what we had been doing so long ago. We were all dismayed at how much of our bios were focused on our love lives or the men we were associated with, rather than our work, and what we offered.
It was as if we were attached to our men like we were one of their limbs – critical to their lives and practices but not worth mentioning.
We all brought something of ourselves to these women and I believe they brought something to us. The room seemed to hum, and in the low light, we could feel them there with us.
When it was my turn, I sat quietly for a moment to let the stillness of the room sink over us.
I am Karla Grosch, I came to the Bauhaus in 1928. I was the head of the female physical education course teaching gymnastics, and at the time, one of only two female teachers. The physical element of Bauhaus teaching was extremely important to its contribution – what is design without movement? Without the consideration of bodies in space? In 1933, along with my partner and many others from the Bauhaus, we fled from the National Socialist Party to Tel Aviv. I was pregnant then, and nervous but excited about bringing a life into a world of such tension. Not long after moving, while swimming off the coast, I was taken by a wave, lost consciousness and drowned. Attempts to revive me were unsuccessful.
That day, I couldn’t find much about Karla, there was a short blurb about her on the Bauhaus 100 website and it took some digging to find out more about her life. She was fiery and passionate, and influential to many of the spatial practices of the Bauhaus at the time – not just through her teaching, but also through her relationships. She was very close to the Klee family, living with them in the very house in which we sat, developed meaningful friendships with many prominent Bauhaus figures, and had intense love affairs with several members of the Bauhaus (who will remain unnamed for the purpose of this essay). She was an early challenger of gender norms, and many photographs of her feature her blond pixie cut and donned collared shirt and tie. She was largely influential in the creation of some of the famous stage plays and political performances to come out of the Bauhaus – in particular the ‘material dances.’ Karla’s portrayal of one of the material dances – Metalltanz, is one of the most reproduced. She is standing triumphantly between two hanging metal panels, one folded and one warped, the light from behind casting her long shadow in front, two steel balls in hand, androgynous and powerful.
Karla taught the members of the Bauhaus how to move, and did so with unwavering confidence. Back then, it would seem, architects danced as a way to design, as opposed to just the drunken movements of escape reserved for Friday happy hours gone too far, or deep in the pits of the Resene Christmas party.
When we had finished exploring our Bauhaus women, we felt connected to each other and to them, by a new knowledge, a new way of remembering. To know someone’s name is to carry them with you, is to define a meaning for their existence in your life, is to bring back the past.
Ten days before this night in Germany, Jacinda Adern had announced that she would never use the name of the terrorist in the Christchurch mosque shootings. Sometimes you have to silence a name in order to louden others.
Dessau was heavily bombed in World War Two. The Masters’ houses, lined up like white teeth in the woods, were hit, some destroyed beyond repair. They have since been rebuilt but the names stay the same. Sometimes using a name is about trying to forget. What did remain unscathed were the basements of each of the houses, and the underground passageways that connected them. Used almost exclusively by the women and the staff, when we were down there, reading about oh dears in the street like butterflies, I could feel Karla most of all, the paths that these women cut across the landscape, buried, dark, and one of the few things to survive a very masculine violence. We stood around the edges of the haunted space in a circle, as if in memoriam.
Later that night I dreamed that I was suspended in an endless blue. The light, scattered and translucent, bent in every way. The surface seemed to be in all directions. I could move, freely and without weight, I could roll and stretch and turn but eventually realised that no matter where I went I could not reach the surface, I was engulfed, trapped, drowning in silence. I woke with a start in the darkness, the sharp beam of a German street light through the curtains cutting the room in two.
There are many myths associated with the Bauhaus. It is a powerful name in the history of design with many connotations, memories, ideas and images attached to it. The myths of the women of the Bauhaus are even more opaque, harder to penetrate, quieter in their mystery. Announcing their names and bringing them forth was an attempt to reach through a veil of time and silence to demystify them. Sometimes saying a name is a way of trying to balance the world.
Karla wrote in a love letter that “this is the way I am, light-dark, warm-cold, up-down,” and I like to think of her this way, contradictory but self-assured, now that I am a carrier of her name, of her memory.
She was bold and brilliant, an architect of movement, a dancer, an innovator, she was Karla Grosch.