She originally wanted to be an architect: Gertrud Arndt

She originally wanted to be an architect: Gertrud Arndt
Bauhaus Face in December 2012

Gertrud Arndt (maiden name Hantschk) was born on 20 September 1903 in Ratibor in Upper Silesia. Before enrolling at the Bauhaus in the winter semester of 1923–24, she took an apprenticeship at an architectural office in Erfurt. At her employer’s suggestion, she started using her camera to document buildings in Erfurt even during the apprenticeship. On seeing the first Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar in 1923, and with a student grant in her pocket, she decided to go to the Bauhaus to study architecture. It was only when she arrived there that she discovered that it did not yet have a department of architecture.

After completing the preliminary course, she moved to the weaving workshop, where she took part in various projects in a productive and creative way during the following three years (up to the winter semester of 1927) – such as a tapestry commissioned by Thost. In 1927, Arndt completed her studies at the Bauhaus with a final apprenticeship examination at the weavers’ guild in Glauchau. She never worked in textile design or weaving again afterwards; from then on, her focus was on photography, in which she had continued to develop her skills on a self-taught basis throughout her entire studies.

The same year, she married her fellow student Alfred Arndt, moving to Probstzella in Thuringia with him for work reasons. When he was appointed as head of the extension workshop at the Bauhaus in 1929 by its second Director, Hannes Meyer, the Arndts returned to Dessau. Gertrud Arndt did not enrol as a student again, however, seeing her task as being to provide her husband with support. In 1930, she produced a series of 43 self-portraits, which she called ‘Mask Portraits’. Her daughter Alexandra was born in 1931. The following year, the Arndts left the Bauhaus and returned to Probstzella again, where they remained until 1948. Their son Hugo was born in 1937. In 1948, they moved to Darmstadt, where Gertrud Arndt died on 10 July 2000. 

Gertrud Arndt was rediscovered as a photographer during the 1980s, and has been compared with contemporary female photographers such as Marta Astfalck-Vietz and Claude Cahun. The Bauhaus Archive / Museum of Design in Berlin is devoting a special exhibition to Gertrud Arndt in January 2013, linking her textile art and photography with each other for the first time.

Gertrud Arndt, Mask Portrait, Dessau 1930, No. 13
modern print 1980 (Alexa Bormann-Arndt)
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

Gertrud Arndt, Mask Portrait, Dessau 1930, No. 13
modern print 1980 (Alexa Bormann-Arndt)
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

Gertrud Arndt, Portrait of Alfred and Gertrud Arndt, Probstzella (Dorfstraße), (view from above with automatic release), 1928
modern print 1990s
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin
Gertrud Arndt, Self-portrait, 1930
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

The Mask Portraits

When Alfred and Gertrud Arndt returned to the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1929, Gertrud Arndt initially saw her role as the wife of a Bauhaus master as being ‘doing nothing’. She equipped the bathroom in their master’s house as a darkroom, and in 1930, out of ‘boredom’,started to take self-portraits, which she entitled ‘Mask Portraits’. Arndt described the way in which the photo series arose as follows: ‘… This was the way I sat down, on a chair without a back, of course. The camera was in front of a large window, we had gigantic windows in Dessau. And then I attached a black thread of twine to the old camera – it didn’t have a self-timer – which I ran through a round stone underneath, so that the camera couldn’t fall over. Tripods were still so wobbly then, they didn’t have a metal spike yet. I sat very carefully and looked into the camera. I placed a brush with a sheet of newspaper attached to it behind me so that I could adjust the focus; I gave the brush a push so that it fell over, and then I pulled the shutter. Quite simply, that was how they were all made, the Mask Photos.’

What she was interested in as an amateur photographer in these photos was experimenting with disguise. In contrast to earlier photographs and most of the photos produced at the Bauhaus around the same period, Arndt’s self-portraits are not experiments with extreme perspectives or detailed views. The Mask Photos always show Arndt in the same detail, to just below the chest. She changed the background using various materials; she combined her clothes with various tulle veils, hats, and other accessories. Her Mask Photos are not self-portraits that probe the photographer’s identity. They are early pioneering examples of the kind of self-dramatization also seen in the work of Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing – photographers today who use ever-new disguises to defamiliarize themselves to the extent that they are unrecognizable when they press the self-timer. They dramatize themselves as ‘others’: people who have hardly anything to do with the photographer. However, Arndt did not achieve her metamorphoses into various cliché-like female figures primarily through defamiliarizations using mask-like make-up or costumes. She used her ‘interest in the face, its variety of expressions and wealth of transformations’ to explore variations in facial expressiveness and its limitations. In each picture, reality was altered and questioned once again: ‘What is a face in reality? To what extent does an expression reveal a person’s inner nature? How important are make-up, the costume context and facial expression?’

Gertrud Arndt’s mask-like self-portraits reflect her affinity with various textile qualities, as well as her delight and enjoyment in experimenting with contemporary images of woman. She summed up the Mask Photos herself by saying, ‘You just need to open your eyes and already you are someone else, or you can open your mouth wide or something like that, and a different person has already appeared. And if you dress up in costume as well … It’s like looking into the mirror and pulling faces … Basically a mirror image.’

Literature: Alexa Bormann-Arndt, Interview mit Anja Schädlich, Berlin/Darmstadt 30. Nov. 2008; Das Verborgene Museum, Photographien der Bauhauskünstlerin Gertrud Arndt, Berlin 1994; Sabina Leßmann, „Zwischen Sachlichkeit und spielerischer Verwandlung“, in: Das Verborgene Museum, Photographien der Bauhauskünstlerin Gertrud Arndt, Berlin 1994; Graphische Sammlung des Hessischen Landesmuseums, Gertrud Arndt. Fotografien aus der Bauhauszeit (1926-1932), Darmstadt 1993