Judith Raum, born in 1977 in Werneck, is a versatile artist whose works reflect her fascination with the interface between art and science. Through paintings, installations and performances, she explores complex themes ranging from social and economic history to philosophical questions. Focussing on the interweaving of the textile medium and the Bauhaus tradition, she has exhibited in renowned institutions such as the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, the Villa Romana in Florence and the Heidelberger Kunstverein.

Judith Raum's exciting book project Otti Berger - Weaving for Modernist Architecture is published by Hatje Cantz Verlag. The book concludes Raum's multi-year co-operation project with the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, for which she has comprehensively researched Berger's estate, which is scattered across archives worldwide, for the first time.

In the interview with Hatje Cantz, Judith Raum talks about the approach and challenges of her artistic research and unexpected discoveries. 

Hatje Cantz: How did you discover Otti Berger's work and her significance as a textile designer, and what inspired you to write a book about her?

Judith Raum: At the end of 2016, as part of a touring exhibition on contemporary artistic positions in textiles, I was invited by the ifa Institute Berlin to develop an artistic work on the textile workshop at the Bauhaus. The decision to focus on the Bauhaus's everyday fabrics and not to work with unique pieces such as wall hangings or carpets was quickly made, but at the time the Bauhaus Archiv Berlin had just closed its doors for the upcoming renovation and I was only able to see a few original fabrics on two occasions. In order to see the upholstery fabrics, wall fabrics, curtain fabrics and floor coverings that interested me, I had to switch to other collections. The Archiv der Moderne in Weimar has a large collection of curtain fabric designs by Otti Berger from 1932, where I was first impressed by the clarity and timeless elegance of her fabrics. I had one of these curtain fabrics rewoven at the time, and a first video work on Berger's work was created, for which I had viewed further designs by her in the Harvard Art Museums and the TextilMuseum Tilburg. I have always studied Berger's work in dialogue with textile designers. From the very beginning, it was important to understand her design concerns from a (weaving)technical point of view. At some point I realised that this specific knowledge of her work no longer existed anywhere. Berger's sudden murder in Auschwitz had initially made it impossible to live on and understand her work beyond her death. And so the decision was made to turn the experiences and insights I gained with colleagues from the field of textile design about her fabrics into a book about her work. A detailed monograph that this outstanding designer really deserves.

HC: What challenges did you face during your research work on Otti Berger, particularly with regard to viewing her estate and the condition of the textile works?

JR: After her death, Berger's work was distributed among various collections in Europe and the USA. Pieces that actually build closely on each other in terms of the working process or belong together directly - such as technical drawings for fabrics and the corresponding originals - are now in different places. In 90 per cent of cases, Berger's fabric samples were also not labeled or inscribed by her, which means that it is not clear what kind of fabric you are dealing with when you hold one or other small-format fabric sample in your hands. You have to imagine that the majority of the fabric samples received are no larger than a postcard, if that. So the biggest challenge was to take these pieces of fabric in our hands, to understand their behaviour in use, to understand their construction and to draw conclusions from both about their original function: Are we dealing with a wall fabric (which should be stiff, flat to stretch, robust and washable), an upholstery fabric (which must be able to withstand extreme strain and friction and be as impermeable to dust as possible) or a temperature-insulating curtain fabric (which must be woven as tightly as possible, but at the same time should drape well)? The owning collections have so far been unable to fund any research into Berger's work, which is why the existing data sets have not been of much help when it comes to the question of the function, the what and why of the fabrics. Together with the hand weaver Katja Stelz, who analysed Berger's fabrics, we were able to close many gaps in the knowledge on Berger´s work. Above all, by endeavouring to understand Berger's workshop logic between 1932 and 1938 as precisely as possible, we were able to establish connections between pieces that are kept in different places.

HC: To what extent has your own artistic practice and your experience with spatial installations and performances influenced your approach to the investigation of Otti Berger's fabrics and their effect in space?

JR: I was obviously influenced by my training as a painter specialising in abstract painting in such a way that the abstract, monochrome quality of Berger's fabrics particularly appealed to me. But then the step had to be taken to show these qualities in larger formats, in other words to give them a spatial effect again, just as Berger had intended for her fabrics. After all, she designed exclusively for the architectural context. In the form of large-format reweavings, the fabrics can unfold a completely different power than they do as small samples, bound in sample books and spread out on the archive table. My installations, performances and video works are about giving the fabrics back some of their expressive power, contextualising them in a variety of ways and also exposing them to different forms of contact. The fabrics become a projection and attack surface for various aspects that play into them and with which they are closely connected: Berger's own biography and contemporary historical circumstances, National Socialist politics, its brutal effects on the everyday working lives of artisans and architects, economic policy and textile industry developments of the time, patent law issues…

HC: Can you share some of the insights or surprising discoveries you made during your intensive exploration of Otti Berger's work?

JR: Perhaps one of the most intense moments was when we applied the large, red, black and white bedspread owned by Walter and Ise Gropius, which is preserved in the collection of the Bauhaus Archiv Berlin, to a model of Marcel Breuer's daybed, for which Otti Berger had designed it. You have to imagine that little was previously clear about this blanket apart from Berger's authorship. Despite its heavy quality and impressive dimensions, it was categorised as a cover for a grand piano and had previously only been exhibited flat. We were also initially only able to see it rolled flat from the roll for the fabric analyses. However, there are letters between Gropius and Berger in Harvard that clearly prove that Berger designed the bedspread at Walter Gropius' request for a Breuer daybed in his possession, and that it was adapted exactly to the dimensions of this piece of furniture. This means that every design element of the bedspread - its format, its surface design, its colouring and the strongly three-dimensional, diagonal surface structure of the fabric - only makes sense when the bedspread is placed on the furniture. It was Katja Stelz's idea to try this out, and so I built a model of the bed, which is now in the Gropius Haus in Massachusetts, accurate to the millimeter, and the bedspread was placed on the furniture for a few hours and photographed by Uta Neumann for the publication. The effect was truly breathtaking, the bedspread worked with the theme of space on all possible levels. Another very touching, personal experience happened during our stay in Chicago, where we analysed Berger's fabrics at the Art Institute Chicago: in the evening we watched a Western classic by John Ford, whom I greatly admire, to relax. Stagecoach, from 1939. And as the credits roll, I suddenly realise that a note on a handwritten letter from Ludwig Hilberseimer to Otti Berger, which I had been unable to decipher or identify the whole time, reads exactly this film title: Stage Coach. The architect and urban planner Hilberseimer, Berger's life partner who emigrated to Chicago in 1938, had obviously written the title in the margin of the letter for her, along with other film tips. And we were right in the middle of it.

The interesting findings from Judith Raum's extensive artistic research can be read in the new publication Otti Berger - Weaving for Modernist Architecture. The book has also been published as a bilingual edition with a German-language supplement.



The interview with Judith Raum was conducted by László Rupp for Hatje Cantz in April 2024.

Header image: Judith Raum © Konrad Langer

Veröffentlicht am: 24.04.2024