Consciousness and Mysticism, Photographic Practices of the Bauhaus


Amidst the abundance of mirrors, spheres, and contorted self-portraits produced by students and faculty of the Bauhaus, I am often both perturbed and incited with curiosity as to why interpretive analyses have yet to acknowledge the mystical ambience and experimental framework of these images.  It is necessary to recognize the lingering, if not persistent sentiments of eighteenth and nineteenth century occultism and mysticism in Germany, as well as remnants of Edmund Burke’s materialization of the sublime in order to properly investigate the photographic works of Lotte Beese, Florence Henri, Joost Schmidt and László Moholy-Nagy, among others.  Moholy-Nagy’s conceptualization of the “new vision”, which incorporated the practices of manipulation of light, possibilities of distortion, and a totality of vision, reminisce to Burke’s claim that absence of visual clarity, stirs the most intense feelings.  While past scholarship has failed to receive these images within the broader context of psychological and phenomenological aspects, the implications of this deficiency have left us understanding these works through a narrow, and often fragmentary, socio-historical and socio-political perception of Germany during the Weimar years.  In László Moholy-Nagy’s essay, “Photography is Manipulation of Light”, he states that, “no object is confined to narrow limits” – and this conviction should undoubtedly be utilized in penetrating the truly abstract, if not mystical qualities of these works.  The Bauhaus was an institution whose pedagogical methods aimed at rehabilitation of the whole, organic individual through introspection, self-reflection, and consciousness awareness.  Through the abstraction of perspective, manipulation of light and inability to see whole figures in the self-portraiture of several Bauhaus students, it is clear that the attempt was never made to fully capture the whole object or person, but rather their essence and quintessential spirit.

Images of the self provided effortless access to the progression of the photographic practices at the Bauhaus – this genre includes the capturing of studio environments, daily social activities, and more notably, self-portraits. As László Moholy-Nagy’s early interests were absorbed in the chemical capabilities of camera-less photography through photograms and light sensitive materials, Lotte Beese and Lucia Moholy-Nagy were paving the way for photography as a mere tool of self-identification and mechanism for consciousness awareness. Upon her arrival in Weimar in 1923, Lucia Moholy-Nagy acquired a Leica from Otto Eckner, and began finding acute interest in various Bauhauslers rather than herself.  Lucia Moholy-Nagy established self-identification as it lied in accordance to her husband’s career as Master of the Bauhaus.  Lucia Moholy-Nagy’s infamous 1926 portrait of her husband, Untitled (Fig. 1) is the beginning of a somewhat fetishistic pictorialization of the intangible powers of the artist’s hand during the 1920s.  Ulrike Müller describes the experimental atmosphere that Lucia Moholy-Nagy engaged with during her short stint at the Bauhaus:

 Portrait of László Moholy-Nagy, by Lucia Moholy-Nagy

Portrait of László Moholy-Nagy, by Lucia Moholy-Nagy

“She was freer in her portraits which were not for Bauhaus documentation.  Here she no longer photographed heads strictly from the side but diagonally from beneath so that they came across as sensitive to psychological studies.”

In order to fully realize the complexities and mysteries of the artist’s hand within the context of the Bauhaus, László Moholy-Nagy’s 1926-28 photogram, Untitled draws distinct parallels to Untitled II. Certainly considered to be one of Moholy-Nagy’s ‘experiments in totality’, the photogram demonstrates a degree of indexicality that perhaps no other Bauhaus products, or media could.  In The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist, László Moholy-Nagy further explores the concept of biotechnics, a rather mystical concept first promoted by Raoul Francé, a Viennese biologist and natural philosopher.  In its most basic form, Francé defines biotechnics as the philosophical doctrine that:

All technical forms can be deduced from forms in nature

It is from this doctrine that Moholy-Nagy states “The Basic Law” in Abstract of an Artist:

“…”function” means here not a pure mechanical service.  It includes also the psychological, social, and economical condition of a given period.”

For Moholy-Nagy, the psychological and social were always fundamental components in the work of any given period and although his technophilic tendencies are vividly announced throughout his work, the need for self-reflection and the organic whole are of a basic, biological concern.

It is particularly unknown if László Moholy-Nagy, or Lucia Moholy-Nagy had any profound influence on Bauhaus student Lotte Beese. Beese studied under both Gunta Stötzl (weaving) and Hannes Meyer (architecture) after her entrance into the Bauhaus in 1925, but her amateur obsession with the camera is now responsible for a majority of portraiture and event documentation that took place within the school’s foundations.  Upon observing an array of Beese’s photographs, the cognizance of particular themes appears; reflection, contemplation, and consciousness.  Whereas Lucia Moholy-Nagy is considered a documentarian and has often been associated with sachlichkeit photographers operating in Germany during the 1920s-30s, Lotte Beese functions within a more illusionistic and interested scope of modernist photography.  A rather private, and peculiar relationship exists between Beese and her sitters, even when the sitter is her own reflection.  

 Albert Braun with Mirror, Lotte Beese, 1928

Albert Braun with Mirror, Lotte Beese, 1928

Beese’s 1928 photograph, Albert Braun with Mirror (Fig. 3) displays high contrast, focusing directly on Braun’s his decision to represent half of himself in the real, while the other half remains in reflected anonymity.  It is important to note how paramount the role of self-reflection and usage of mirrors were at the Bauhaus.  As the Bauhaus was under considerable political and social pressure for being a rather “bohemian” playground, transparency was a necessary mechanism for gaining outside support – but as transparency was forced upon an institution that believed so heavily in introspection as one of the most crucial pedagogical elements, self-portraiture comprising of mirrors was unsurprisingly prevalent. Braun, surely at Beese’s consent, never reveals the whole of his visage but rather an illusionistic, metaphysical whole represented by two of the same right side reflection in the mirror. 

   Otti Berger and Atelier  , Dessau, 1930,  Lotte Beese

Otti Berger and Atelier, Dessau, 1930, Lotte Beese

Expanding upon the transparent essence within the Bauhaus, Beese photographs close friend and fellow Bauhausler, Otti Berger in 1930.  Through low contrast, and a narrow grey-scale, Otti Berger seamlessly dissolves within the backdrop, which consists of the Bauhaus Dessau building, particularly the student dorm balconies.  It may also be said, that aside from the notion of transparency, these images play upon Berger’s position as a weaving student – as her persona is quite literally weaved into the workings of the school.  Her position as a woman is insignificant to her position as weaver, student, and craftswoman.  It is interesting to note the difference in Beese’s portrayal in Albert Braun with Mirror and Otti Berger and Bauhaus Dessau – as Albert Braun is allowed a sharp, sober representation of self, only skewed by playful use of a mirror, Berger only gains a sense of self as it exists conterminously with the existence of the Bauhaus.  These ideas represent feelings of a broader spectrum of the time period, particularly in the lingering sentiments of the Weimar Republic, as women existing within the sphere of bohemia were striving to form the onset of the neue sehen and the “new woman” of the 1920s.

Yet, in these two images, further contextualization within the philosophy of anthroposophy should be made, as its popularity grew in Germany from 1907 well into the twentieth century.  Anthroposophy developed a sense of free will based on inner experiences in a similar way to the teachings of Lázsló Moholy-Nagy and Johannes Itten – it postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development. More specifically, it aims to develop faculties of perceptive imagination, inspiration and intuition through cultivating sensory experience.  During an era that attempted to visually represent that which is non-representational through abstraction, it is interesting that a majority of Bauhauslers sought the same objective, but instead preferred inner development through a medium never formally offered by the school itself. Photography as a medium offers the battle of reality versus truth in the most extensive way – often testing the faculties of perception and intellectualism.  The photographs provided in this essay have been compositionally (visually) dissected, but putting them within the larger frameworks of phenomenology and anthroposophy can offer subversive and illuminating analysis.  One of the most visually intense self-portraits that exemplify the ideals of anthroposophy taken at the Bauhaus is Lucia Moholy-Nagy’s Self-Portrait taken in 1931 (Fig. 13).  Both she, and her surroundings are out of optical focus, while the main subjective focus of the photograph forever remains to be her stern, deep, and self-reflective eye contact.  Remindful of Henri’s Self-Portrait, yet in closer proximity to the camera, and thus, the viewer – Moholy-Nagy reveals a moment of consciousness – a purely sublime moment for the woman always simply recognized as the wife of László.

In the Bauhaus Proclamation, delivered by Walter Gropius in April of 1919 he states a doctrine the Bauhaus abided by:

“Organic forms developed by manual skills.”

When deliberating the term “organic” in the context of existing forms, one cannot possible think of a more organic, and pure form than the human body.  The body was an entity that was tirelessly transfigured, objectified, examined, and reexamined at the Bauhaus, especially through the scope of photographic practices.  It is fascinating that the “unofficial” photographic workshop at the Bauhaus produced the most self-reflective work, rather than the vorkurs (preliminary course), under the direction of László Moholy-Nagy.  This essay focused upon the work of Bauhaus women, not as a gender-specific study, but rather a generalized study, proving the significant role of women within, and outside their daily workshop activities.  Just as female conscious-raising sessions proved validity in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s in America – Lotte Beese, Florence Henri, Otti Berger, and other Bauhaus women used their manual skills in order to pave the way for a transcendental, female experience within the scope of the neue sehen in Germany during the early-twentieth century.  It is particularly unknown whether these women specifically belonged to any anthroposophist group – yet to acknowledge the existence of such trajectories in Germany during the time of conception of the Bauhaus can further provide evidence of esoteric philosophies within their work, and the Bauhaus activities as a whole.