At the time that she was affiliated with the Bauhaus, Lucia Moholy took a series of photographs at the nearby feminist commune of Schwarze Erde (also known as Schwarzerden), which was founded in 1923 by the poet Marie Buchhold and the pedagogue Elisabeth Vogler (and counted among its members Tilla Winz and Ilse Hoeborn). These photographs focus our attention on androgynous hands engaged in prosaic domestic tasks, as well as on the bodies of women and children involved in the commune's radical pedagogy of renewed bodily movement. The centrality of these images in Schwarzerden's publicity materials, along with their subsequent service as models for future photographs (most notably by Ruth Hallensleben), stands in contrast to the lack of appreciation Moholy received for performing similarly domestic labor for her male peers at the Bauhaus, including, above all, her husband, László Moholy-Nagy. By tracing the various ways in which idleness unfolds as a pictorial equivalent of housework, I argue that these images amount to a critique of an avant-garde photographic discourse that privileged “originality” and “production” over “documentation” and “reproduction.” Reading the photographs against the intention of their maker, who herself dismissed their “artistic value,” I propose that in mounting a challenge to artistic authorship, such images render visible the gendered contradictions of New Vision photography.
This essay benefited from Maria Gough's encouraging comments, as well as the assistance of Barbara Günther and Silke Mehrwald at the Archiv der deutschen Frauenbewegung in Kassel, Germany, who facilitated the discovery of previously unknown photographs by Lucia Moholy. I am also grateful to Laura Frahm, Rolf Sachsse, Robin Schuldenfrei, Trevor Stark, and, above all, Susan Laxton for feedback on various drafts. An earlier version was presented at the Whitney Independent Study Program in March 2019, and I thank the participants, as well as Ron Clark, for the opportunity to discuss these ideas with them.