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Dr. Elizabeth Otto

Kurt and Thea Sonnenmark Memorial Fellowship
“Bauhaus under National Socialism”

Professional Background

Dr. Elizabeth Otto is professor for modern and contemporary art history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She holds a BA from Oberlin College, an MA from Queen’s University, and a PhD from the University of Michigan. Dr. Otto has published widely on issues of gender and sexuality in the art, design, photography, and visual culture of early twentieth-century Europe. Her first book, Tempo, Tempo! The Bauhaus Photomontages of Marianne Brandt (2005), explores the witty and culturally savvy cut-and-paste images of this important member of the Bauhaus art and design school. Dr. Otto’s second book, Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics (2019), winner of the Northeast Popular Culture Association’s 2020 Peter C. Rollins prize, is a fundamental reconsideration of the irrational and the unconventional currents within the Bauhaus, a movement previously best known for its sleek surfaces and austere structures, indeed as the archetypical movement of rational modernism. Together with Dr. Patrick Rössler, Dr. Otto co-authored Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective (2019), a survey of forty-five female Bauhaus members unjustifiably forgotten by most history books. Dr. Otto’s five co-edited books included Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism's Legendary Art School (2019), Passages of Exile (2018), and The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s (2011). Her essays and reviews have appeared in edited collections and in journals including Art Forum, Genders, History of Photography, and October. Dr. Otto’s research on Sofie Korner and Lotte Rothschild—both important Bauhaus members who, as Holocaust victims, were completely erased from history—was published in the 2021 exhibition catalogue Vergessene Bauhaus-Frauen: Lebensschicksale in den 1930er und 1940er Jahren [Forgotten Bauhaus Women: Life Destinies in the 1930s and 1940s].

Dr. Otto is a frequent reviewer of fellowship and grant applications, article manuscripts (for journals including The Art Bulletin, The Journal of Women’s History, and New German Critique), and book manuscripts (for presses such as MIT Press, Penn State University Press, and Princeton University Press). She is an editorial board member for Modernism/Modernity and for the book series “Visual Culture in German Contexts” (Bloomsbury) and “Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany” (University of Michigan Press). Dr. Otto has been a guest researcher at the Technical University Berlin, the Free University Berlin, and the Ludwig-Maximillian University Munich, and her work has been generously supported by, among other institutions, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the DAAD, the National Humanities Center, and the Getty Research Institute. Formerly the Executive Director of UB’s Humanities Institute (2013–19), she will assume the Institute’s Directorship in the fall of 2023. During the 2022–23 academic year, following her fellowship at the Mandel Center, Dr. Otto’s work also will be supported by a fellowship from the Gerda Henkel Foundation. 

Fellowship Research

During her Kurt and Thea Sonnenmark Memorial Fellowship, Dr. Otto will conduct research for her third single-authored book, Bauhaus Under National Socialism. In this project, she overturns conventional narratives of the Bauhaus art and design movement as invariably apolitical and, after the 1933 advent of the National Socialist state in Germany, as a movement in exile.

In her research, Dr. Otto mines extensive archival sources to address the vast majority of the Bauhaus’s 1,250 members who remained in Germany and embraced Nazism, survived it, or became its victims. Part I of the book focuses on how Bauhaus design and the Bauhaus name were deployed under Nazism to lend a sheen of progressive modernity to the regime’s cultural projects, even as they often helped to promote ideological messages that were by turns xenophobic, eugenicist, and expansionist. These chapters examine the widespread presence of Bauhaus design in art and exhibitions, architecture, design for modern homes, print culture, and films of Nazi Germany. Part II turns to the work of Bauhaus artists and designers in relation to the anti-Nazi resistance and the Holocaust. Through often scant archives, Dr. Otto reconstructs the lives and work of several Bauhaus members who were in the resistance or who were victims of the regime. The murders of these Bauhäusler were facilitated by several other members of the school who put their skills in the service of the Nazi regime in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The book’s epilogue traces an alternative history of the Bauhaus’s global imprint through those Bauhäusler who, under fascism and in its aftermath, turned to care for and teach the next generation, including Friedl Dicker, who did not survive the Holocaust but whose young students in Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp were among the founders of the art-therapy movement. Bauhaus Under National Socialism reveals the extent to which the twentieth century’s arguably most influential art school was implicated with that century’s most notorious fascist regime. 

Residency Period: September 1–October 31, 2022