A Distant Bauhaus Star
New York TimesBy ALICE RAWSTHORN
Published: November 1, 2009
LONDON — Josef and Anni Albers, Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer. The names of the students and teachers at the Bauhaus art and design school read like a roll call of some of the 20th century’s greatest artists, architects and designers.
Their work is to be celebrated in “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” an exhibition opening Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It will be a dazzling tribute to the achievements of the Bauhaus stars, as was the first version of the show at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin this summer. Yet there were other, equally inspiring Bauhäusler who will not appear in the MoMA show. One is Margarete Heymann, who studied ceramics there from 1920 to 1921, and was as gifted and gutsy as her famous contemporaries. She also created an impressive body of work, yet is rarely mentioned in the many books, essays and exhibitions on the Bauhaus. Why?
“It’s a tragic story,” said Anja Baumhoff, a lecturer in art and design history at Loughborough University in England. “She was an exceptional woman, who refused to live by the rules. Her work was original, functional, very, very beautiful and remarkably advanced for its time.” The reasons for her obscurity tell us as much about why some people are cast as winners — and others as losers — in design history, as about the Bauhaus and Ms. Heymann herself.
First, a bit about her. Born to a Jewish family in Cologne in 1899, she went to art school there and in Dusseldorf before joining the Bauhaus. The school has been romanticized as a meritocratic place that treated both sexes equally, but that wasn’t strictly true, especially in its early years. “The Bauhaus wasn’t an equal playing field,” said Leah Dickerman, co-curator of the MoMA retrospective. “Gropius (the founding director) guided the majority of women students into the weaving workshop, which he saw as a fittingly female activity.”
Most of them complied, some reluctantly — Ms. Albers for instance — but Ms. Heymann refused, and insisted on studying ceramics. Discovering that there was only one female ceramics student, she made a formal appeal to Gropius, who was forced to back down. Once on the course, she clashed with her teacher, Gerhard Marcks, and left the Bauhaus the following year.
In 1923, she married a young industrialist, Gustav Löbenstein, and they established the Hael-Werkstätten pottery to produce her designs. Composed of simple shapes, mostly circles and triangles, her ceramics looked strikingly modern. Coloring them with vivid glazes, typically yellows or blues, she often added patterns in the Constructivist style of Kandinsky’s paintings. Within a few years, the factory employed 120 people and was exporting her designs to fashionable stores in the United States and Britain.
In 1928, Mr. Löbenstein was killed in a car crash, leaving her a widow with two sons. She ran the factory on her own, but the business struggled in the 1930s economic depression and Nazi oppression. In 1935, she was forced to sell it for a pittance and one of her clients, the London department store owner Ambrose Heal, helped her and the boys to leave Germany for Britain.
Once there, Ms. Heymann settled in Stoke-on-Trent, the industrial city known as “The Potteries,” fired by the Constructivist belief that designers should work in close proximity to industry. “The German potteries had modernized by then, but Stoke was still a dirty, smoggy, noisy 19th-century town of bottle ovens and factory chimneys,” said Miranda Goodby, ceramics curator at the Potteries Museum in Stoke. “The local manufacturers were producing dainty tea sets with festoons of flowers, and her stuff was very, very different.”
She began by working for an established pottery, Mintons, and insisted on joining the board (then very rare for a designer, let alone a woman), only to fall out with her (male) colleagues. She then founded Grete Pottery, which sold her new designs and variations on her German pieces to old clients, including Heal’s, but had to close down when World War II began. By then, she had remarried, to the educator Harold Marks. Tiring of Stoke’s conservatism, she moved with him to London after the war and reinvented herself as a (not particularly good) painter.
Ms. Heymann has not been forgotten entirely. Her 1920s and ’30s pieces survive in museum collections and are auctioned occasionally, although her status is so flimsy that she is known by different names. Grete Marks to the Potteries Museum, Margarete Heymann-Marks to the Dallas Museum of Art, Margarete Heymann-Löbenstein to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, Margarete Heymann-Marks Löbenstein to Sotheby’s, and so on.
The fundamental problem was that no one championed her. The few prominent female designers at the Bauhaus had powerful male protectors. Ms. Albers’s husband, Josef, was one of Gropius’s protégés, while a more successful female ceramicist, Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain, not only married a male classmate but was a favorite of Mr. Marcks’s. But Ms. Heymann fell out with both him and Gropius.
She also suffered from her decision to stay in Britain, where she was isolated from the Bauhaus powerbrokers, who joined Gropius in the United States. He dictated the “official” version of the school’s history from a Harvard teaching post, and decided which Bauhäuslers to cast as stars, and which to ignore.
Stranded in The Potteries, Ms. Heymann was shunned by the local ceramics industry and cut off from potential allies in the London art and design scene. Nor has she been helped by design historians, who have tended to regard ceramics as being less important than architecture, graphics or furniture design. Even ceramic historians have shown greater interest in studio potters, like Ms. Friedlaender-Wildenhain, than industrial ceramicists.
It is tempting to think that all a successful designer needs is talent and determination. But they’re not enough when gender, geography, genre and timing conspire against you, as they did for Margarete Heymann.