In Hans Richter's 1928 experimental film Vormittagsspuk [Morning Spook, aka Ghosts Before Breakfast], four bowler hats appear to come to life. Carried by invisible forces, the hats float in the air in defiance of gravity. A number of confused bystanders unsuccessfully attempt to identify and grasp the hats' disembodied carriers. Other ghostly presences haunt the film: invisible hands cock guns, windows spontaneously burst open, water hoses unfurl themselves, and coffee magically flows into cups. Mirroring Richter's orchestration of dazzling visual rhythms through negative images, reverse motion, and trick shots, the film's eerie subjects resist any linear narratives. Because the ghosts are invisible, their actions seem irrational and ultimately remain obscure, bewildering viewers. Like Richter, Elizabeth Otto draws upon quasi-invisible actors and uncharted phenomena to complicate the history of the Bauhaus—with which Richter was unaffiliated but with whose members he frequently collaborated. In Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, Otto engages powerful forces that remain largely excluded from mainstream accounts of this quintessentially modernist art school, although some of the book's premises have long been familiar to Bauhaus scholars. Otto foregrounds the work of Bauhäusler (Bauhaus member[s]) whose contributions were previously marginalized in Bauhaus histories; at the same time, she analyzes overlooked social dynamics and fluid identities that imbued the Bauhaus's mission and legacy as well as the broader context of the Weimar Republic. In so doing, Otto simultaneously underscores the Bauhaus kinship with so-called “irrational” avant-garde movements such as Dada and Surrealism (an umbrella under which we could situate Richter's film), and restores the role of neglected constituents of the Bauhaus community beyond that of mere apparitions.
Haunted Bauhaus presents the Bauhaus not only as a laboratory for the production of new aesthetics and objects aimed at a utopian improvement of society, but also as a rich social space permeated with complex processes of identity-making. Otto argues that the Bauhaus was a site of “transformative experiences” (46) through which Bauhäusler collaboratively negotiated new worldviews in light of World War I's destructive effects, pioneering psychoanalytic theories of gender and sexuality, and increasing political radicalization. These worldviews, for Otto, are as integral to the Bauhaus's contribution to modernity as are the tangible artifacts that its members designed, manufactured, and in some cases circulated on a mass scale. She focuses, in particular, on Bauhaus teachers and students' experiments with cultural phenomena that remain latent in interpretations of the institution as a male-dominated space committed to cool, rational forms and technological advancement. Instead, Otto builds off previous research to suggest that throughout the school's lifespan (1919–33), Bauhaus artists enthusiastically embraced spiritual lifestyles and esoteric cults, challenged monolithic constructions of gender and formulated new models of artistic agency, encompassed and represented non-heteronormative sexualities, and subscribed to political ideologies as diverse as communism and fascism. Drawing upon Avery Gordon's notion of haunting as a means to make manifest historical content that is present and yet suppressed or sidelined, Otto commits to “resurrecting the school's intense engagement with spirituality, the body sexed and gendered, and radical politics,” and to reclaiming “a vastly more diverse and paradoxical Bauhaus than that put forward by many histories of its tenure” (3).1 This undertaking necessarily involves unveiling uncomfortable aspects of Bauhaus politics and illuminating the circumstances (often violently repressive) under which some elements of its history went underground.
Otto, an associate professor of art history and visual studies at the University of Buffalo (State University of New York), is no stranger to the politics of representation in early twentieth-century Germany and beyond. Her doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan, titled “Figuring Gender: Photomontage and Cultural Critique in Germany's Weimar Republic” (2003), inaugurated her work in this direction. Otto has published widely on the role of visual culture in mediating constructions of gender, analyzing idealized depictions of masculinity (ranging from World War I soldier portraits to the classicizing bodies favored by Nazi cinema) and modern tropes of femininity (including the multifarious image of the New Woman that proliferated during the 1920s on a global scale). Otto is also a Bauhaus expert, and has dedicated several projects to expanding the school's historiography by highlighting the vital contributions of female Bauhaus members, including the exhibition and related catalog Tempo, Tempo! The Bauhaus Photomontages of Marianne Brandt (2005), the more recent 4 “Bauhausmädels”: Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Margarete Heymann, Margaretha Reichardt (2019), and the anthology Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective (2019), both coauthored with Patrick Rössler. With Rössler, Otto also coedited Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism's Legendary Art School (2019), a volume that exposes the central role of physicality and embodied practices at the Bauhaus—a helpful complement to Haunted Bauhaus. Lately, Otto has also collaborated on a number of studies about artists and cultural players' responses to political upheavals, including Passages of Exile (coedited with Burcu Dogramaci, 2017) and Art and Resistance in Germany (coedited with Deborah Ascher Barnstone, 2018). She is currently working on a book about Bauhaus artists under National Socialism.2
In Haunted Bauhaus, Otto introduces little-known or previously unpublished archival materials that reveal the school's complex social dynamics. Her textual sources encompass both institutional documents (such as records of the masters' council meetings), private correspondences (such as playful birthday cards), and collectively produced ephemera (such as the student-made leftist magazine Kostufra). The book's lavish illustrations consist mostly of camera-made images, including photographs, photograms, photomontages, and film stills, although Otto also addresses paintings, textiles, and architectural projects. In Otto's words, “the proliferation of photographic experimentation … was a defining part of the Bauhaus” (135) as it provided the school's community with “a technological and thus modern means of creating visual representations—to explore and define new identities for themselves and each other” (97). Through these images, Otto underscores the role of the camera as a primary vehicle for Bauhäusler's fashioning of modern identities. While some of these works mirror the cool aesthetics usually associated with the Bauhaus, most of them unexpectedly connect to milieus as diverse as spirit photography, military propaganda, softcore pornography, portraits in drag, and worker photography. Otto organizes this material in five chapters that follow a loose chronological order, starting from the masonic ideals that inspired Walter Gropius's founding of the school and ending with the tragic internment of some Bauhaus students, including Friedl Dicker and Richard Grune, in Nazi concentration camps. Yet, throughout the text Otto productively moves backward and forward across the Bauhaus's lifespan, highlighting its members' ceaseless quest for new identities. This quest often defied the school's policies (such as Gertrud Arndt's self-portraits, in which the artist buries herself under layers of elaborate textiles to contest the school's programmatic segregation of female students into the Weaving Workshop) and even the Weimar Republic's laws (such as Heinz Loew's tender depiction of queer desire, which subtly resists the constitution's infamous paragraph 175—a law that criminalized same sex relationships). Otto demonstrates that Bauhäusler's radical experiments with spirituality, gendered and sexed identities, and politics pervaded the history of the institution, transcending the generic ideological distinctions that are usually taken to characterize the school's iterations in Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin.
Through her masterful visual analyses, Otto unveils a Bauhaus that is coextensive with but not limited to the school's official curriculum and mission. Rather than focusing on works that emerged from the experimental yet regulated context of classes and workshops, Otto privileges the traces of Bauhaus sociation, celebrating both its members' deep interactivity and their distinctive self-presentations. Thus, Otto recalibrates the scope of what she calls “Bauhaus Utopias”: not only did the Bauhaus aim at the improvement of society through the dissemination of artistic and functional objects; it also embodied a space in which individuals transformed subjective and collective identities to shape a new, better world. To this end, Otto's definition of the Bauhaus exceeds the institution, encompassing works created after their makers' departure from the school and even after the school's definitive closure in 1933. Such works include the montaged homage that Herbert Bayer sent to Gropius only one month after the Bauhaus was forced to shut down; the photographs that Renate Richter-Green (later Ré Soupault) took during her travels and Argentine exile; Dicker's architectural projects for her Vienna firm; the posed scenes that Florence Henri shot in Paris; Max Peiffer Watenphul's erotic pictures from his stay in Italy; Margaret Camilla Leiteritz's ambiguous illustrations from the late 1930s; and various former Bauhäusler's contributions to Nazi-sponsored projects, such as Franz Ehrlich's design for the Buchenwald concentration camp's front gates, which spell the chilling motto Jedem das Seine (To Each His Own) in typical Bauhaus sans-serif font. These images pose a methodological challenge, since they were informed by circumstances that extend well beyond the Bauhaus. Yet, this approach underscores Otto's correlation between the school and its social network, aligning with recent studies on the Bauhaus diaspora.
Published on the centenary of the Bauhaus's founding and enriched with the distinctive Xants type designed in 1932 by student Xanti Schawinsky, this book is necessary reading for Bauhaus enthusiasts as well as lovers of all things haunted—from spiritualist séances to the ghost of communism, passing through the “unlaid ghost” of the Freudian unconscious and queer hauntology.3 It provides an excellent alternative introduction to the Bauhaus for nonspecialists, as well as an extensive compendium of footnotes to satisfy more informed readers. With Haunted Bauhaus, Otto brilliantly demonstrates that the history of modern art can be revised to make room for ideas, aesthetics, and agents previously forced to haunt its margins.
Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
See Elizabeth Otto, Tempo, Tempo! The Bauhaus Photomontages of Marianne Brandt (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2005); Miriam Krautwurst, Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rössler, and Kai-Uwe Schierz, eds., 4 “Bauhausmädels”: Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Margarete Heymann, Margaretha Reichardt (Dresden: Sandstein Verlag, 2019); Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler, Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective (London: Bloomsbury UK/Herbert Press, 2019); Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler, eds., Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism's Legendary Art School (New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019); Burcu Dogramaci and Elizabeth Otto, eds., Passages of Exile (Munich: Edition Text + Kritik, 2017); and Deborah Ascher Barnstone and Elizabeth Otto, eds., Art and Resistance in Germany (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).
For the phrase “unlaid ghost,” see Sigmund Freud, “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. X (1909), ed. James Strachey, trans. Alix and James Strachey (New York: Vintage, 2001), 122. Cited in Otto, Haunted Bauhaus, 8. Further, Otto draws her definition of queer hauntology from Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 9–10.