Last week I was lucky enough to go on a study trip to the amazing city that is Berlin. I could go on and on about how wonderful the city was, and how I finally feel I have a true understanding of West Berlin vs. East Berlin (lets put it this way- GCSE history gave me a completely erroneous view), but I am going to focus on something that I feel is “blog relevant”. Henceforth, I’m looking at an amazing small exhibition at the Bauhaus archive on Gertrud Arndt (nee Hantschk).
Regular readers of my blog will know I have a bit of a thing for the Bauhaus, particularly the amazing women who were part of it and Arndt was just one of these ladies. The exhibition looks into two sides of Arndt’s work, both her textiles and her later photography. Arndt is an interesting figure, as she studied weaving at the Bauhaus despite her primary interest being in architecture. For Arndt there was no choice in what to study, as at the time she entered the Bauhaus there was no architecture department. Her photography work came later, after she had married fellow Bauhaus student Alfred Arndt and this is what really interested me.
Arndt’s photography was focused primarily on self portraiture, with only the occasional portrait taken of others (often fellow Bauhaus members) and was (in her own words) a product of “sheer boredom”. It is fascinating therefore that these pictures have now come to be so highly regarded, elevated to the status of art photography. Often Arndt’s name is placed as a pioneer of such documentary self portraiture, precursors of the work by the likes of Cindy Sherman but I think this neglects the real story of what she was doing. I feel these stand in the position of early “selfies” intended as a highly personal moment, and not meant for the outside world. This suggests why Arndt herself was reluctant for these to be exhibited in her lifetime, it wasn’t a fact that they were poor work, rather they were a part of her. They show Arndt dressed in costume in a number of different poses, and are refreshing for the fact that they are meaningless, taken without real purpose- other than to quell boredom. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the pictures (I’ll be honest I LOVED them) but it just means that the context of them- when placed in an exhibition such as they were, needs to be thought about carefully.
Today there is an undeniable cult of the selfie, whether it be through blogs, twitter, facebook, instagram or photos taken of the self simply to pass the time (hands up who has done this before). I started to wonder how in the future such images that we take may be used in a similar manner to Arndt’s. Thinking of my own personal feelings towards such selfies made me understand why Arndt was reluctant for an exhibition of such images. For her it was a form of experimentation, and it wasn’t so much to do with experimenting with photography, moreover about experimenting with herself. The clothes she wears, the poses, the intriguing make up all suggest this. Today we are so used to the endless self portraits on the internet that we might normalize Arndt’s portraiture, I think that context needs to be remembered with respect of this exhibition, and that in the 1930s this was a far more unusual thing to do. It is no doubt intriguing though that as Arndt’s status as a former Bauhaus student increased that meaning was placed onto these photographs. 30 years from now may we be seeing public exhibitions of images that originally were posted on Instagram in a fleeting moment of vanity? I can certainly see this as the next step on.
Gertrud Arndt, Mask Portrait, Dessau 1930, No. 13
(sorry that I couldn’t offer better pictures, the Bauhaus archive is strictly NO PICUTRES ALLOWED…or feel the wrath of a scary German woman ; ) )
If you are interested the Gertrud Arndt exhibition is still on now at the Berlin Bauhaus archive.