Gertrud Arndt’s carpet design for Eberhard Thost from 1927, photo © VG Bild-Kunst
What I really wanted to be was an architect
by Ralf Wollheim | Mar 4, 2013

The title of the exhibition alone references a career that has been neither consistent nor particularly straightforward. Gertrud Arndt’s active artistic practice spanned less than a decade, having started out training in the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus in Weimar and later working as a photographer in Dessau. The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin continually presents lesser-known teachers and students from the famous school to the public, with a particular focus on female Bauhaus students for some time now.

At least in theory, there should have been no difference in the training received by male and female students at the Bauhaus. Yet just like many of her fellow female students, Gertrud Hanschk (Mrs. Arndt’s maiden name) ended up in the weaving workshop. Previously, at the tender age of 17, she had upon her own request begun an apprenticeship at an architectural firm, before winning a scholarship at the Bauhaus in Weimar, though there were no architecture classes on offer there at the time. Instead she visited foundation courses by Kandinsky and Klee, whose influence on the young artist’s work is clearly visible in her sketches and designs. This is also reflected in the exhibition, where wall hangings and carpets boast subtle hues with fine shading or regular sequences and patterns.

The legendary primary colors are nowhere to be found; here tempered reds and pastel pinks set the tone, or soft, light blues as seen in the carpet the student designed for Walter Gropius’ director’s office. Colorful squares combine to form a complex pattern brought to life by the vivid contrasts between light and dark. The original carpet no longer exists; however, there is a 17-square-meter copy on display in the exhibition, which was made for a ship owner from Hamburg. A range of different wall hangings and fabric patterns have also been preserved and evince the joy Arndt found in experimentation with a range of contrasting materials, including synthetic fibers.

As decidedly modern as her consistently well-conceived, geometric designs are, her weaving loom (now part of the permanent exhibition at the Bauhaus Archive) is distinctly archaic. Where a gleaming chrome bar would otherwise conjure up the industrial aesthetic of the Bauhaus, we now see a cumbersome, wooden contraption. But the petite lady, just 4’11” tall, learned a traditional craft at the Bauhaus and thus arduously dyed all the wool herself and knotted or wove the carpets herself, together with her fellow students, at these colossal machines.

As successful as she was, commercially as well as creatively, following her final examinations in 1927 she ended her career as a designer and moved with her husband to Probstzella in provincial Thuringia. An architect, he had been awarded a major contract there, where she subsequently helped out in the office and faded into the background. “A strong personality” is how her daughter would one day describe her father and later Bauhaus Master, to whom her mother quietly accepted a subordinate role. In 1929 they returned to Dessau, where he taught and she, by her own admission “out of sheer boredom”, took up photography. The young Gertrud had already turned her hand to photography, teaching herself developing and printing techniques, during her apprenticeship. Now she would stage her female friends and indeed herself in a panoply of costumes and outfits, creating small portrait series that ranged from strict to playful to absurd in their effect. It was hardly related to experimental Bauhaus photography, but it was this playful approach to costume, to female staging, that ultimately paved the way for a late, second career for Arndt. In 1979 the images, which were originally intended for purely private use, were showcased at Museum Folkwang in Essen – from then on she was considered the forerunner to artists such as Sophie Calle or in particular Cindy Sherman. Now in Berlin, 13 years after her death, both aspects of her creative work are on display and waiting to be rediscovered.

Bauhaus Archive Berlin,
through April 22
Exhibition catalog priced at EUR 14.90

The carpet design by Arndt consists of colored squares which were numbered with a pencil. Photo © VG Bild-Kunst
Portrait with a mask No.3, photo © VG Bild-Kunst