Mrs. Bauhaus: Ise Gropius

Mrs. Bauhaus: Ise Gropius
Bauhaus Faces August 2012

Shortly before the start of the first Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar, Ise Gropius arrived in Weimar and ‘… disappeared for everyone who had ever known [her] beforehand, behind this door into a new world, the like of which had never been seen before, but which gave [her] the opportunity to develop [her] own personality within its framework’. Ise and Walter Gropius were married in Weimar on October 16th the same year; Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee acted as witnesses at the wedding ceremony.

Walter Gropius was soon lovingly calling his wife ‘Mrs. Bauhaus’. Ise Gropius gave up thoughts of an independent career and entered the service of the Bauhaus – as a secretary, editor, organizer and ‘equal partner’ for Gropius. In an interview in 1986, she said, ‘The Bauhaus idea became my second self. Once you were infected with it, it had effects on every aspect of your life.’

In addition to organizational tasks, Ise Gropius also sometimes contributed in design terms as well. For example, she designed the Masters’ House in Dessau, with architectural corrections from her husband, as well as objects for the kitchen, ‘since modern kitchens did not yet exist in Germany. There was almost nothing on the normal market capable of satisfying not only our modern technological requirements but also our aesthetic standards.’ It was only after the completion of the Dessau houses that Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed the revolutionary Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926.

Ise Gropius’s intently modern eye is also seen in photographs by her that have survived. Many of the photos can no longer be clearly attributed either to her or her husband, as they were taken on journeys they made together, without any note being made of which of them took each picture. Only the self-portraits are clearly by her. In 1926/27, she took a photograph of herself in the bathroom mirror of her Master’s House in Dessau appearing eight times from different angles.  The young woman, with a distant gaze, is embracing the camera with her left arm, which is the only part of the real model visible to the viewer. It is only in the mirror images that the identity and position of the photographer are recognizable. The space around her is distorted almost beyond recognition by the mirror refractions.

Lotte Meitner-Graf, Portrait Ise Gropius, London, 1956

Lotte Meitner-Graf, Portrait Ise Gropius, London, 1956

Lotte Meitner-Graf, Portrait Ise Gropius, London, 1956
Lucia Moholy, Portrait Ise Gropius, "kopfbild", 1924
Ise Gropius, Selbstportrait vor dem Toilettenspiegel im Dessauer Meisterhaus, c. 1926/27
Ise Gropius, Ascona, 1930
Ise Gropius, "blick in den maschinenraum des "columbus" des norddt. lloyd", Im Stahlgewirr eines Ozeandampfers (Titel in Münchner Ill.), 1928
Unbekannt, Walter Gropius und Ise Gropius, Doppelportrait, c. 1927/28
Unbekannt, Doppelportrait Walter und Ise Gropius in ihrem Haus in Lincoln, Mass., 1950er Jahre, Neuabzug 2000 (Markus Hawlik)

Only a few years later, she started to include minor, ambiguous ironies in her photographs. She photographed Bauhaus friends Herbert Bayer and Xanti Schawinsky during a holiday in Ascona with them. The white clothing of the boules players radiates in the dazzling sunlight. The photographer’s shadow is immortalized on the back of one of the figures. Is she an observer, a participant, or even a black omen of approaching disaster?

A photograph by Ise Gropius taken on a seven-week trip to America in 1928 was even published in the Münchner Illustrierte Presse and credited to her by name. In this view of the cruise liner’s engine-room, she once again demonstrates her trained eye: she deliberately guides the viewer’s attention to the formal language dominated by technology, in accordance with the contemporary ‘New Seeing’. The photograph perfectly reflects the new unity of art and technology postulated as a programme by Walter Gropius.

However, her real work at the Bauhaus and later in Berlin, England and America was as an author. Walter Gropius was extremely impressed by her literary ambitions and talents. In addition to dealing with correspondence, which he found tiresome, she also soon took over the writing of his articles and lectures. On the basis of jointly drafted rough texts, Ise Gropius sent out texts that were ‘always freshly touched up’ for the ‘article factory’, as she called it in her diary.

She continued to carry out this task for Walter Gropius in Berlin, England and America even after her period at the Bauhaus. In Berlin, the free scope available was finally sufficient to enable her to build her own career as an author. Prompted by journeys and by various interests of her own, she wrote a large number of essays that she sold to publishing companies. These included ‘Weltreise am Grammofon’ [‘Trip Round the World on the Gramophone’] (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, late 1934); ‘Engländer zu Hause’ [‘The English at Home’] (Beyers für Alle, family magazine, 1933/34); ‘Die Gebrauchswohnung’ [‘The Utility Apartment’] (K. Thiemanns Verlag, October 1929); ‘Hausfrau, Dackel und andere Weltbürger’ [‘Housewife, Dachshund and Other Citizens of the World’] (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, 17 April 1934); and ‘Wie sieht die New Yorkerin aus?” [‘What Does the New York Woman Look Like?’] (Die Dame,November 1928). Some of these texts are published in a catalogue about Walter and Ise Gropius's journey to America in 1928 (available at the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin).

Her short-lived success as a writer came to an abrupt end in America. When she submitted an article entitled ‘Grandma Was a Career Girl’ to the Atlantic Monthly, she promptly received a rejection note explaining that the magazine did not wish to support or even promote the ‘dreadful idea’ of working women that Ise Gropius discussed in the article – an ideal that she also ultimately represented herself, as its author. She decided to leave it at that, and from then on focused on editing Walter Gropius’s texts – articles under his name sold without any problems. Gropius dedicated his books to her as a consolation.

It was only in the catalogue volume "Bauhaus 1919–1928", published in 1938 for the Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, that Ise Gropius was first named as author and editor along with Walter Gropius and Herbert Bayer, achieving public recognition for her work. Throughout her life, Ise Gropius was seen as the ‘wife of a great man’. But his life’s work – even after his death – was substantially spurred on by the woman in the background.

Literature: Ise Gropius, Bauhaus-Tagebuch 1923-28 (Bauhaus diary), unpublished typoscript, Estate of Walter and Ise Gropius, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin; Reginald Isaacs, Walter Gropius: Der Mensch und sein Werk, Bd. 2, Berlin 1984; Ise Gropius, Small But Perfect Things: A remembrance by Ise Gropius, Boston 1986; Ati Gropius Johansen, Interview with Ise Gropius, 1980, tape recording, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin; Hans-Maria Wingler, Interview with Ise Gropius, tape recording, no date, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin; Gerda Breuer & Annemarie Jaeggi (Hg.), Walter Gropius Amerikareise 1928 / Walter Gropius American Journey 1928, Wuppertal 2008.