Mask Portrait No. 13, Dessau

Gertrud Arndt, 1930

Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
'Mask Portrait' No. 13, Dessau / Photo: Gertrud Arndt, 1930.

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When Alfred and Gertrud Arndt returned to the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1929, Gertrud Arndt initially saw her role as the wife of a Bauhaus master as being ‘doing nothing’. She equipped the bathroom in their master’s house as a darkroom, and in 1930, out of ‘boredom’,started to take self-portraits, which she entitled ‘Mask Portraits’. Arndt described the way in which the photo series arose as follows: ‘… This was the way I sat down, on a chair without a back, of course. The camera was in front of a large window, we had gigantic windows in Dessau. And then I attached a black thread of twine to the old camera – it didn’t have a self-timer – which I ran through a round stone underneath, so that the camera couldn’t fall over. Tripods were still so wobbly then, they didn’t have a metal spike yet. I sat very carefully and looked into the camera. I placed a brush with a sheet of newspaper attached to it behind me so that I could adjust the focus; I gave the brush a push so that it fell over, and then I pulled the shutter. Quite simply, that was how they were all made, the Mask Photos.’

What she was interested in as an amateur photographer in these photos was experimenting with disguise. In contrast to earlier photographs and most of the photos produced at the Bauhaus around the same period, Arndt’s self-portraits are not experiments with extreme perspectives or detailed views. The Mask Photos always show Arndt in the same detail, to just below the chest. She changed the background using various materials; she combined her clothes with various tulle veils, hats, and other accessories. Her Mask Photos are not self-portraits that probe the photographer’s identity. They are early pioneering examples of the kind of self-dramatization also seen in the work of Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing – photographers today who use ever-new disguises to defamiliarize themselves to the extent that they are unrecognizable when they press the self-timer. They dramatize themselves as ‘others’: people who have hardly anything to do with the photographer. However, Arndt did not achieve her metamorphoses into various cliché-like female figures primarily through defamiliarizations using mask-like make-up or costumes. She used her ‘interest in the face, its variety of expressions and wealth of transformations’ to explore variations in facial expressiveness and its limitations. In each picture, reality was altered and questioned once again: ‘What is a face in reality? To what extent does an expression reveal a person’s inner nature? How important are make-up, the costume context and facial expression?’

Gertrud Arndt’s mask-like self-portraits reflect her affinity with various textile qualities, as well as her delight and enjoyment in experimenting with contemporary images of woman. She summed up the Mask Photos herself by saying, ‘You just need to open your eyes and already you are someone else, or you can open your mouth wide or something like that, and a different person has already appeared. And if you dress up in costume as well … It’s like looking into the mirror and pulling faces … Basically a mirror image.’

[AG 2015]

  1. Literature:
  2. Bormann-Arndt, Alexa: Interview with Anja Guttenberger (-Schädlich), Berlin/Darmstadt 30. Nov. 2008.
  3. Das Verborgene Museum (1994): Photographien der Bauhauskünstlerin Gertrud Arndt, Berlin.
  4. Graphische Sammlung des Hessischen Landesmuseums (1993): Gertrud Arndt. Fotografien aus der Bauhauszeit (1926–1932), Darmstadt.
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