A Doll for Throwing by Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf, Aug. 2017) Reviewed by Meghan Forbes

A Doll for Throwing
by Mary Jo Bang
(Graywolf, Aug. 2017)

Reviewed by Meghan Forbes

The Bauhaus school—founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, relocated to its own campus in Dessau in 1925, and shuttered in Berlin in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich—is both one of the great failed utopic visions and one of the most enduring successes of the twentieth century. Its lasting influence in architecture and design can be seen everywhere from the IKEA catalogue to Google’s logo. Yet the school remained in operation precisely as long as that brief breath of optimism between the two world wars, when artists dared to imagine a post-war ideal of rationally applying new technologies not towards the obliteration of society, but rather its betterment.

Gropius emphasizes in the first Bauhaus manifesto an underlying aim “to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art […] as inseparable components of a new architecture.” A Doll for Throwing, the most recent collection of poems by Mary Jo Bang (her eighth in total, and fourth with Graywolf Press) opens with a poem—“A Model of a Machine”—that captures elegantly Gropius’s Bauhaus ideal:

The poems in this volume reflect the Bauhaus mode of rational geometry in their form, as the free verse stanzas of Bang’s earlier collections give way to prose poems in the shape of rectangles and squares, stretched to different dimensions. In the most perfect instances, Bang’s poems do not end in the middle of a line, but rather reach all the way to the lower right-hand periphery, sealing off the box with a period (or in one instance, a question mark). At the Bauhaus, typography was seen as a form of architecture, and these poem forms are building blocks that explore how that can be so.

In an interview with Jennifer K. Dick from well over a decade ago, Bang (who has also worked as a photographer) describes her process of moving between film and the written word: I wanted to do something with image and text, but not to actually have the words inside the photograph. So I started writing poems that would somehow cooperate with an image. Sometimes I would make the image and afterward write the poem, and sometimes I would write the poem first and afterward try to make an image.” Even now, so many years later, A Doll for Throwing is evidence that Bang is still thoroughly engaged with the interplay of image and text. The words in this new book are formed out of a sustained looking.

The source material for these constructions are archival documents related to the Bauhaus, in particular, photographs kept at the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. “Now I’m an archivist. Indexer of everywhere I have ever been,” writes Bang in the poem “Anatomical Study.” But she is not merely a chronicler of what she finds; she is rather a critical reader of these images to challenge the generally accepted narrative of the Bauhaus school.

Gropius explicitly states in his founding Bauhaus manifesto that no prospective student is to be rejected on account of age or sex alone. But in actuality, the art historian Sigrid Wortmann Weltge notes, “Gropius had severely underestimated the desire of women to study at the Bauhaus and was alarmed by the proportion of female applicants.” Soon women were cordoned off to work in disciplines more traditionally associated with craft, namely, the weaving workshop, suggesting that Gropius didn’t quite see all arts and genders as equal after all.

Bang points often and sharply at the true nature of things at the Bauhaus (“a harsh song that goes like this: metalwork-always-outlives-fabric”), and turns her attention to the female members of the school. A Doll for Throwing takes its title from a creation by one of the students in the weaving workshop, Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, and the lives of many of the school’s most famous women, such as Ise Gropius, Marianne Brandt, Gertrude Arndt, are explored here alongside its men. But it is the photographer Lucia Moholy who is most lovingly centered in this new book of poems.

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When Lucia Moholy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, she came neither as teacher nor student, but as the wife of one of its appointed masters, László Moholy-Nagy. Quickly she set about photographing the people of the Bauhaus and the objects they created, and when the school moved to its own campus in Dessau, she documented its iconic buildings at Gropius’s request. From her diaries, it is clear she didn’t much like living in this small town, and felt somewhat alienated from those around her, including her husband. In group photographs from this period in the Bauhaus-Archiv, she appears to be smiling stiffly, awkwardly dressed, looking only at ease in one photo where she is dressed in a smock and peers through a magnifier, a female colleague in tie and shirt sleeves seated beside her in a Breuer chair, writing.

Bang’s poem, “One Glass Negative,” captures the ways in which Moholy never quite felt at home on the Bauhaus campus, subordinate to and subordinated by her husband (whom she herself taught to use the darkroom), despite the indispensable role she too played at the school:

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By 1928, Gropius had stepped down as Bauhaus director and Lucia and László left Dessau too, separating not long after (though they did not officially divorce until 1934). The glass negatives of images Moholy had taken during her time at the Bauhaus, five to six hundred in total by her own count, were left in the care of her husband when she fled Germany in 1933. Fifty years later she would write (in an article titled “The Missing Negatives”) of her belated discovery that, “after I handed over my precious negatives to someone I had considered worthy of my trust and confidence […] it had not taken that person long to distribute the negatives among professional friends. […] The plan was to move them out of my reach and, ultimately, out of Europe, in order to ensure for the conspirators the greatest benefit to their professional reputation.” It would be decades before she gained a partial restitution, and Moholy was left to build her own career in exile without her portfolio, a feat she nevertheless managed remarkably well.

One by one, many of the former Bauhaus masters had to leave Germany, and Gropius led the path of immigration amongst his colleagues to the United States, where he enjoyed a successful career at Harvard. László Moholy-Nagy moved with his new wife Sibyl to Chicago in 1937, founding the short-lived New Bauhaus there. Lucia Moholy, on the other hand, of Prague German Jewish descent, remained throughout World War II in London, her attempt to secure a visa to the United States unsuccessful.

Moholy’s images of the Bauhaus were ultimately used by Gropius to build the legacy of the school; he reproduced her negatives without her consent or even her knowledge that he was in possession of them. A lasting repercussion of this has been that while Moholy’s photographs have served an integral role in maintaining the visibility of the short-lived school over the past century, hundreds of her original glass negatives have been misplaced or damaged and the authorship of many of her seminal Bauhaus photographs remains contested.

In “The Missing Negatives”—published in 1983, five years before the author’s death at 95—Moholy recalls her decision to leave behind her life’s work in a period of great uncertainty: “When, by 1933, Germany came under the rule of the National Socialist Party, I planned to emigrate, hoping to do so, in the first instance, with a minimum of luggage. The several hundred glass negatives, my most valuable possession, had to stay behind. I could neither carry them, nor would it have been possible to post them, for a variety of reasons, the most important that I did not know my destination.”

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A Doll for Throwing can be read as a biography of sorts for Lucia Moholy, though Bang says it isn’t one. In “A Note on Lucia Moholy,” the author asserts: “These poems are not about her but were written by someone who knew of her.” This is a baffling statement. The press release for the book states the situation more accurately: “The life and legacy of Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy echoes across these poems.” Indeed, Moholy is everywhere on these pages.

In “Self-Portrait as a Photograph of a Platter,” the first person pronoun enters to proclaim: “I / also speak English. I married a master. I / taught him something. I know what I’m doing.” And two other poems, corresponding notes affirm (most of the poems are annotated, a convention adopted in Bang’s previous collection, The Last Two Seconds), are constructed from Moholy’s résumés held in the Bauhaus-Archiv. But it actually is in these moments, when the subject is most assuredly Lucia Moholy, that that fact matters less. “Last Name First Name Last,” for instance, is a poem that runs along like an unfilled form, in stark contrast to the careful portrait of the artist depicted less didactically elsewhere. The flattened version of our protagonist in these moments exists as if to condemn the fact that in bureaucratic dealings and matters of the state—such as Moholy’s failed attempt at U.S. immigration—we are reduced to an inanimate series of place names, dates, and relations, regardless how vibrant our inner lives may be.

Rather, Bang captures most intensely the interiority of the woman who has often been overshadowed by her male counterparts when she moves beyond biographical details and attempts to look at the world through Lucia’s lens, a lens that the photographer often turned upon herself.

If Lucia Moholy was simultaneously perceived as talented photographer and a marionette to be manipulated (or perhaps a doll for throwing?) by the school’s masters, then the self portrait could signify a strategy for reclaiming the gaze and taking control of her own image. In Moholy’s file at the Bauhaus-Archiv, there are many images that take the photographer’s own body as their central object of focus, wrested from any outside perception of her to interrogate her own selfhood. In Bang’s poem, “Admission,” the speaker states, “I learned / to use a camera to see what I could be.”

The tragedy of Moholy’s self portraits, which is not lost on Bang, is that often these images too have been wrested of authorship due to their period of displacement. A series of nudes bearing the name “Lucia” on the backside in the photographer’s own script has been catalogued at the Bauhaus-Archiv with the artist simply listed as “Unbekannt [Unknown], Lucia Moholy (?).” Bang’s perfect sentence, “An image stands for the thing that is taken,” should not be read as metaphor.

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In one of these black and white self-portraits in the archive, Lucia Moholy’s head comes into focus, her chin tilted slightly upwards. Her eyes are also raised; they glint and the lines around them suggest a smile, which is confirmed by her mouth itself. Her hair is pulled back as it often was in these images, though a tuft at the top has broken away and blows back. From what can be made out of her blurred shoulders and upper torso, it appears that she is wearing a white button-down dress shirt and tie, typical attire in the portraits that she took of herself during this period. Over her shirt a black vest can be discerned, but her clothing is largely out of focus, and the background is but an assortment of abstracted greys, so that it is the head gazing upward that is centered here. The back of the photograph also bears Lucia Moholy’s signature in black pen, and in pencil the date, 1931.

A note to the poem “In this Photograph I Am Untitled,” suggests that Bang is likely referring to the portrait described above in its lines:

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This poem is a portrait too, of a woman who used her camera to write her own image, the better to become herself.

And throughout, the poems in A Doll for Throwing reflect on the ways that women negotiate “continuously shifting between being and being / seen.” A plurality of female voices joins Lucia’s in a chorus of exasperation at the familiar female condition of being constantly under observation. And the Bauhaus women were expected to perform an impossibly wide range of female roles, from emancipated New Woman to mythological Venus on a half-shell. The poem “You Have to Be Uncompromising as You Pass Through,” which comes about two-thirds of the way through the volume, is a choir of complaint:

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A Doll for Throwing is an exhumation of an archive.

It is a Wunderkammer of image-poems dedicated to displaying people and things, circling back round to them from different angles with a photographer’s eye. The collection can be likened to a catalogue of these items, but one in which the archivist surreptitiously abandoned all standard practices to insert a more personal, intimate narrative of the people whose esteemed lives are contained in boxes. It is also something of an archive in and of itself, deeply rooted in the materiality of the object it takes as subject. In the poem, “Photograph Printed with Hatch-Marks or Lines Across the Portrait,” Bang writes:

A photograph in this book of poems represents a dialectic between past and present that resists any static interpretation of an image. To continue with the poem quoted just above, Bang addresses this explicitly:

The impetus for A Doll for Throwing came from looking at a photograph. It was while visiting the exhibition In the Still Epiphany, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation museum that Bang encountered Lucia Moholy’s image of Walter and Ise Gropius’ dressing room in their Master House and reflected upon how the founding premise of the school was directly challenged when Hitler came to power: “the forward-thinking ideas and sleek machine age style—an elegant form-equals-function—were deemed degenerate by the Nazis.” In discovering Moholy’s image, Bang writes, “I watched the past unravel and worried about the future.”

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The collection’s insistently backward gaze and desire to confront a troubled past seems to be in direct defiance of at least one of the Bauhaus school’s masters, László Moholy-Nagy. In a note to the final poem, Bang quotes Lucia Moholy in recalling of her late husband: “He always had the present and future in mind, hardly ever looking back to the historical past . . .” A Doll for Throwing contends that the former can’t be managed meaningfully without the latter.

With the last poem in A Doll for Throwing, Bang also turns her critical gaze towards life in America. In “Having Both the Present and Future in Mind” (the title taken from Lucia’s statement about her husband), Bang considers a 1972 photograph by Lee Balterman that depicts the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis: “The building like a / maze, the individual pieces falling, some / forward, some backward, the woman and / man collapsing, each becoming a sacrifice to / the fact of having been.” In a note, Bang adds a quotation from an article related to the implosion by Katharine Bristol: “By continuing to promote architectural solutions to what are fundamentally problems of class and race, the myth conceals the complete inadequacy of contemporary housing policy.”

Two previous poems, meditations on architectural photographs taken by Lucia Moholy, suggest something similar. In “One Photograph of a Rooftop,” the efficacy of the geometric rationale of the Bauhaus is called into question: “What can you do with a / building’s collection of angles? We / lived among facts. What does order / cure?” And in the following poem, titled “Masters’ Houses,” Bang explicitly relates the very concept of designating someone a “master” at the Bauhaus to similar urges that have been the source of many man’s worst action across the ages: “Master is a craftsman but also a / brutal building of history. Bleached femurs / in slave chains and trains to where.”

The utopic order of the Bauhaus school was to prove insufficient when confronted with external totalitarian forces and an internal patriarchy. Bang reminds us that if its vision of a total, equalizing architecture was heartfelt in theory, its egalitarian notions could not (or would not) be enacted in practice.

With a furtive look over the shoulder, Bang urges her reader to consider a collective past in order to account for our own catastrophic moment. The penultimate poem, in which a “a man with / moronic orange hair” appears, registers a plaintive warning: “In November we inched closer to the ledge / over which one only falls once.”

 

Meghan Forbes is a writer, researcher, and editor living in New York. Her essay on Lucia Moholy for the Michigan Quarterly Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

 

Banner Image: Bauhaus balconies, Dessau, 2015. Image courtesy of the author.