Artwork of the Month, February 2021: Experiment with Two Negatives at the Bauhaus by Irena Blühová (1932)

A portrait of a man and a woman, overlapping in one image through the merging of two negatives. She, looking pensive and serious, he, excited and happy. Dissecting the images, thin white lines add an additional layer to the composition, splitting it into six uneven parts.

With all these different elements, which overlap and interrupt each other, and create a lively impression of two portraits, February’s Artwork of the Month is quite a playful image – despite its rather prescriptive title: Experiment with Two Negatives at the Bauhaus. Indeed, the photograph is one of the most experimental works by its author, the Slovak photographer Irena Blühová (1904–1991). It not only gives us a glimpse into student photography at the Bauhaus but also relates to less explored aspects of the school’s history – social photography and student activism – and the role in it of one of Slovakia’s best-known interwar photographers.

Irena Blühová, Experiment with Two Negatives, 1932

Irena Blühová: Experiment with Two Negatives, 1932, Moravian Gallery in Brno


Blühová and the Bauhaus

Born to an impoverished Jewish family in Považská Bystrica, near Žilina in north-western Slovakia (then in Hungary), Blühová started to work as a bank clerk as a young teenager to support her own schooling. She joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party at the age of seventeen with the aim of combatting the poverty she had seen and experienced since childhood. Photography quickly became an important element of this engagement. Self-taught amid the photo-craze that took hold in central Europe in the 1920s when cheaper cameras became available, Blühová began to take photographs on hiking tours. Quickly her images expanded from landscapes to social topics, focusing on the living conditions of the poor rural population, the disabled and vagabonds. Photographs such as In the Forest (1929) emphasized Blühová’s concern for society’s most marginalized. It depicts them in a realistic style through documentary photographs that aimed to reveal the ‘true’ hardships of the everyday.

In the Forest by Irena Blühová

Irena Blühová: In the Forest, 1929, Moravian Gallery in Brno

As Blühová noted, she learned to photograph ‘a little with literature, a little autodidactically,’ claiming that ‘the “knowledge of seeing” was born with me; added to that was empathy.’[1] Yet clearly this ‘knowledge of seeing’ extended beyond her interests in political documentary and, as early as 1929, her work also featured in the young Slovak Communist-intellectual magazine DAV (The Masses), for example.[2] Despite the dominant activist angle of her work, the photographer was also well connected to the budding Slovak art scene. Together with her partner and later husband, the surrealist painter Imro Weiner-Král (1901–1978), Blühová travelled across Europe and engaged in a wide range of literature, later citing Man Ray (1890–1976) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) as some of the photographers that she was most fascinated by. Developing a photographic style that merged reportage and elements of modernist photography, such as steep angles and unusual viewpoints, Blühová represented one of the founding figures of socially engaged, modernist photography in Czechoslovakia by the late 1920s. She was also one of few women active in this genre, later recalling her position as an ‘notable exception.’[3]

In 1931, Blühová was accepted to study at the Dessau Bauhaus, having first learnt of the school from an article by Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967) in 1927, followed by the closer study of the school’s programme and teachers. Since social engagement was the driving force for her creative work, she decided that the Bauhaus was the right school for her to gain professional training after she read that a number of Bauhaus teachers were dedicating some of their work to the International Worker’s Aid: ‘I found proof that high standards not only dominated at the school in terms of art and didactic pedagogy but also in terms of humanity, compassion and solidarity.’[4]

After attending the compulsory Preparatory Course, she enrolled at the Print and Advertising Workshop led by Joost Schmidt (1893–1948) and attended the photography classes taught by Walter Peterhans (1897–1960). Blühová’s time at the Bauhaus was quite brief. She returned to Czechoslovakia in 1932 and continued her activist work for the Party there. Nonetheless, the Bauhaus remained formative for her work, as it was for many other students of her generation. It led to life-long connections with other socially engaged photographers, such as Judit Kárász (1912–1977), but also opened up new routes of photographic experimentation. Experiment with two Negatives is a record of these years.

Based on its innovative handling of the portraits, the photograph relates to some of the technical experiments taught in Peterhans’s classes, which focused on precision and extensive technical know-how. Yet beyond the classroom, Experiment with Two Negatives also tells us about the social environment at the school more generally: photography was a favourite medium for experimentation for Bauhaus students and teachers alike and, day in and day out, played an important role in recording life and events at the school. Following Elizabeth Otto’s recent study on the Bauhaus, which underlined the school’s ‘irrational and unconventional currents,’ the photograph thereby also helps us in exploring a different side to the Bauhaus than the avant-gardist fervour for technology and rationalism it has long been known for.[5]

Bauhaus student life: Experiment with new forms and lifestyles

The two portraits used for Experiment with two Negatives are of Blühová and Imro Weiner-Král. In this constellation, the photograph is Blühová’s personal interpretation of her relationship to her partner, and reveals the networks of taking and exchanging photographs that students at the Bauhaus were involved in. The portrait of Blühová used for the montage was taken by fellow Bauhaus student Hilde Hubbuch (1905–1971), who later became a successful portrait photographer in New York exile. Her image of Blühová represents one of many instances in which students photographed one another, often trying on different social roles, or playing with feminine and masculine tropes. Indeed, just as Hubbuch photographed Blühová, there are also portraits that Blühová took of Hubbuch, posing as a fashionable, modern woman with plucked eyebrows, red lipstick and a short ‘Bubikopf’ bob haircut.

Blühová’s image is strikingly sober: a close-up portrait of a serious young woman, her wavy hair cut above the shoulder, practical rather than fashionable, wearing a crisp white collar and a chequered sweater. Blühová’s thoughtful expression avoids the viewer’s gaze by looking sideways, asserting seriousness and confidence, rather than the playfulness and experimentation that Bauhaus student photographs are often associated with. Given Blühová’s role as an activist photographer in a male-dominated field, the portrait can be read as an assertion of her position, affirming the identity she constructed rather than playing with different roles.

In contrast to this controlled self-image, Weiner-Král’s portrait appears much more dynamic, like a snapshot taken at a moment of particular exaltation. Shot by Blühová in a close-up format, the composition resembles her portrait by Hubbuch, yet the sitters’ expressions are diametrically opposed to each other. Weiner-Král’s humorous expressivity and the montage-technique of the photograph overall evoke Weiner-Král’s own surrealist paintings in this light, while also using techniques by photographers whose work Blühová was interested in, such as Man Ray.

In terms of the different elements that make the image, it is a montage that reuses existing images and constructs new meanings in the combination of different elements. In the case of Experiment with two Negatives, this meaning bears a strongly personal angle, given the relationship between Blühová and Weiner-Král. As a composite portrait of a couple, in very different roles but looking into the same direction, the montage suggests a modern relationship, which play with the reversal of traditional characteristics of femininity and masculinity.  In fact, the roles that Blühová and Weiner-Král embody, she thoughtful and serious, he expressive and playful, correspond with most of the images that the two shot/painted of each other. This is especially so if we consider the nude studies that Blühová took of Weiner-Král, starting in the mid-1920s; these suggest a role reversal in the traditional binary between (emotional) female model and (rational) male artist. In Experiment with two Negatives, as in a second variation of the same work, the two meet in the image, but the individual characterisations of the two remain stable.

In light of Blühová’s overall focus on social themes in her work, Experiment with Two Negatives translates her broader concern for the human figure into the Bauhaus context and relates it to her own position there as a student. It introduces a more personal angle to her work in the school environment and shows how she adopted the photographic experiments at the Bauhaus and merged them with her already established photographic practice. In 1983, over fifty years over after leaving the school, she still noted, ‘I can say without exaggeration that every day [at the Bauhaus] gave me new creative impulses.’[6]

Activist undercurrents

Despite the openness to experimentation and the composition of more personal images, such as Experiment with Two Negatives, it would be wrong to think that, when she went to the Bauhaus, Blühová left behind the social engagement that she had cultivated in Czechoslovakia. While many of the photographs she took at the school focus on student life, she also took images of its employees. An example of this is the extraordinary portrait of a cleaning woman, shot in the same close-up view as the fashionable portraits that students would take of each other. Moreover, the Bauhaus also offered plenty of opportunity for (clandestine) political engagement – even after 1930, when the Bauhaus’ leftist director Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) was forced to leave the school and his successor, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), officially prohibited political activity at the school.

Irena Blühová, Portrait of a Cleaning Woman in the Bauhaus

Irena Blühová: A Cleaning Woman in the Bauhaus, 1932, Moravian Gallery in Brno

The Communist student faction (the so-called Kostufra) continued to be active at the school and represented a strong voice against the Nazi Party, which gained a growing number of votes in Dessau in the early 1930s.[7]  Blühová, a dedicated activist, was thus able to continue her political activities at the Bauhaus as well. She became a member of the Kostufra, helped to disseminate the leftist illustrated Arbeiter Illlustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, famous for its antifascist photomontages by John Heartfield), and took part in antifascist rallies. Indeed, true to her motivations for coming to Dessau, these activities represented an integral part of Blühová’s stay: ‘We lived entirely for our studies and our political activities, which merged with one another.’[8]

The Bauhaus and central European networks of social photography

One of the reasons why Blühová remembered the Bauhaus so fondly was because she found a community there that shared her social engagement and her understanding of the time spent at the school as part of a broader aim to improve society in line with socialist ideals. This included a number of other women from central Europe with Jewish backgrounds who engaged in activist photography, such as Etel Fodor-Mittag (1905–2005), Judit Kárász, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944) and Edith Tudor-Hart (1908–1973), though the latter two left the Bauhaus before Blühová’s arrival.

Having met at the Bauhaus, Blühová and Kárász in particular continued to collaborate on exhibition projects in 1930s Hungary within the organization Sociofoto. The group, of which Blühová was a founding member, hosted several exhibitions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the mid-1930s with the aim of highlighting the dire living conditions of the region’s most disadvantaged population. In this light, Blühová’s and Kárász’s work took on a similar trajectory: at the Bauhaus, both began to experiment with montage techniques, as in Experiment with Two Negatives, or the portrait of Otti Berger with the facade of the Bauhaus, which has been ascribed to Judit Kárász. Leaving the Bauhaus shortly after taking these photographs, Blühová returned to Czechoslovakia, while Kárász moved between Berlin and Szeged; both focused increasingly on social and political themes. In line with the working practices of the Sociofoto group, they produced series of photographs rather than individual images, and they often published them anonymously to emphasize the importance of collective over individual work. Blühová returned to shooting a number of photographic reportages in the poverty-stricken eastern outskirts of Czechoslovakia, including Female Tobacco Growers for example, which were published as photo-reports.[9]

Taking into account Blühová’s focus on social and political themes both before and after her stay at the Bauhaus, Experiment with Two Negatives represents a time in the photographer’s life that allowed for, one could say, a more light-hearted use of the camera compared to her photo-activism in Czechoslovakia. It adopted the current photographic techniques that Bauhaus students used to explore different roles, highlighting Blühová’s immersion in the school environment. At the same time, given Blühová’s political engagement in Dessau, as well as her other Bauhaus photographs such as the portrait of the cleaning woman, the image shows that, rather than experimenting with different roles, for Blühová the Bauhaus was rather a time of consolidation, which helped to establish her position as one of central Europe’s foremost women activist photographers.

Julia Secklehner

[1] Irena Blühová, ‘Fragebogen einer ehemaligen Bauhaus-Schülerin,’ in Das Bauhaus im Osten: Slowakische und Tschechische Avantgarde 1928–1939, ed. Susanne Anna (Stuttgart, 1997) p. 191.

[2] Dušan Škvarna, ‘Přiběh Ireny Blühovej,’ in Irena Blühová, eds. Dušan Škvarna, Václav Macek, and Iva Mojžišová (Martin, 1992) p. 11.

[3] Kay Zeisberg, ‘Irena Blühová: Die Frau mit dem Fotoapparat,‘ RTVS Radio Slowakei International, 20 December 2020.

[4] Irena Blühová, ‘Mein Weg zum Bauhaus‘, in bauhaus 6. Irena Blühová und Albert Hennig: Engagierte Fotografie vom Bauhaus bis heute (Leipzig, 1983) p. 8.

[5] Elizabeth Otto, Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics (Cambridge, MA, 2019).

[6] Blühová, ‘Mein Weg zum Bauhaus,‘ p. 9.

[7] Michael Siebenbrodt, ‘Zur Rolle der Kommunisten und anderer fortschrittlicher Kräfte am Bauhaus,’ Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Hochschule für Architektur und Bauwesen Weimar, 5/6 (1976) pp. 481–485.

[8] Blühová, ‘Mein Weg zum Bauhaus,’ p. 9.

[9] Dušan Škvarna, ‘Přiběh Ireny Blühovej,’ p. 13.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/U5ER3

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