Austrian composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma Mahler (image via Wikimedia)

The Bauhaus, an influential avant-garde German art school founded in April 1919 by modernist architect Walter Gropius, is currently being feted worldwide in celebration of its 100th anniversary. Next year will mark a lesser-known, but related, centenary: that of Gropius’s divorce from Alma Mahler, the Viennese musician married to the academy’s famed founder during the planning stages of the Bauhaus.

While she was a composer and writer in her own right (penning a handful of books and claiming authorship of 200 musical compositions), Alma Mahler (to be henceforth referred to as ‘Mahler’) is most notorious for her long list of lovers which could, indeed, fill an early 20th-century cultural primer. Her first kiss was with artist Gustav Klimt at age 17; she was married to composer Gustav Mahler while he wrote Das Lied von der Erde, had a passionate affair with painter Oskar Kokoschka (featuring in his most famous work, “The Bride of the Wind”), married Gropius, and later wed writer Franz Werfel. If a man wasn’t a creative giant, she wasn’t interested. “The greater the achievements, the more I love him,” Mahler recounted telling Gustav in her autobiography.

“While married to Gus she met Gropius,” goes the 1960s ballad dedicated to her by comedic songwriter Tom Lehrer, “and soon she was swinging with Walter. Gus died, and her tear drops were copious. She cried all the way to the altar. But he would work late at the Bauhaus, and only came home now and then. She said, ‘What am I running? A chow house? It’s time to change partners again.’”

Lehrer’s song notwithstanding, in Mahler’s trilogy of husbands, Gropius is often viewed as a minor interlude between Gustav and Werfel (to whom she was married the longest, for 16 years). In her New York Times obituary, she is referred to as ‘Mrs. Alma Mahler Werfel,’ with a qualifying note that “she had also been married to Walter Gropius, the architect.”

But a newly released Gropius biography by Fiona MacCarthy claims that the relationship between the two was more than just an aside. “Gropius plays far too important a role in Alma’s history to be convincingly written out,” writes MacCarthy. And, an argument could be made, Mahler played a big enough part in the Bauhaus director’s life to be included in the art academy’s backstory as well.

The pair first met in June 1910, at a mountaintop retreat in Austria. A 30-year-old Mahler was there to rest from the exhaustion of her marriage to a demanding Gustave Mahler, and Gropius, then 27 years old, was recuperating from setting up his first architectural practice. “[The doctor] introduced young men to me, one was an extraordinarily handsome German,” she recounted in her memoirs. “We danced. Gliding, slowly around the room with the youth, I heard that he was an architect and had studied with one of my father’s well-known friends. We stopped dancing and talked.”

The two were allegedly impassioned within hours, but their bond surpassed the physical. MacCarthy notes that the meeting was meaningful for Gropius “not just on grounds of his amorous awakening but because it opened up a whole new world of culture.” Mahler hailed from an illustrious artistic pedigree. Her father, Emil Jakob Schindler, was a respected landscape painter, and her stepfather, Carl Moll, was a co-founder of the Vienna Secession (a progressive group of artists that included Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Kokoschka, among others).

Oskar Kokoschka, “Portrait of Alma Mahler” (1912), oil on canvas (image via Wikipedia)

Mahler was therefore equipped to understand Gropius’s work. In one of her illicit letters to Gropius shortly after they met, she wrote, “I love in you — your intellect — your artistry — which I knew — before I have seen a stroke of your drawings.”

And so Gropius felt encouraged to share his architectural work with his mistress. During the winter of 1910 he was preparing to design the Fagus shoe last factory — a campus of industrial buildings that prefigured the union of design and engineering that he later heralded at the Bauhaus. “I would like to build a large factory entirely of white concrete, all blank walls with large holes in them — large plate-glass planes — and a black roof,” he described to Mahler in a letter. “A great, pure, richly structured shape, undisturbed by small color variations, painterly values, and architectural curlicues … Increasingly, I am convinced that work is the only true deity of our time and in art we must help find an expression for it.”

Mahler urged him on, pushing him to greatness (as much for her own edification as for his). “The more you accomplish,” she wrote in a letter soon after, “the more you will be mine.”

The next few years were a tumultuous period in the couple’s relationship, though. Gustav Mahler died in 1911 (coincidentally, on Gropius’s 28th birthday), but Alma Mahler’s resulting single status didn’t bring them together. Gropius was riddled with guilt for their affair, and by 1912 the relationship fizzled out. Mahler then began a three-year relationship with expressive Viennese painter, Kokoschka, who immortalized her in many of his canvases.

Oskar Kokoschka, “Bride of the Wind” (1913), oil on canvas, 180.4 x 220.2 cm (image via Wikipedia)

But by 1915, Mahler and Gropius found their way back to each other. Despite the fact that Gropius was then a drafted military man (as part of the World War I effort), she wanted to marry right away. The couple eloped in May 1915 at Registry Office 3 on Berlin’s Parochialstrasse, attended solely by two witnesses who were literally pulled off the street. “My desire is pure and clear,” Mahler wrote in her diary at the time. “I have no other wish but to make this talented man happy!”

A few months after their speedy wedding, Gropius got involved with the school that would ultimately become the Bauhaus. The director of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar had resigned, and included Gropius on a shortlist of possible successors. Though it was a logistically difficult feat during his wartime service, Mahler encouraged Gropius to meet with the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar in person to discuss the job and secure his desired arrangement. “This position is not so grand,” she wrote. “You should enter into it only if they give you all the authority you ask for in writing.” Gropius took her advice and was hired at his requested terms, but the war interfered with the school’s plans. The building was closed and used as a military hospital during the war years, and its artistic program wouldn’t resume until 1919.

Manon Gropius with her parents Alma Mahler-Werfel and Walter Gropius (1918) (image via Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, the war interfered with Mahler and Gropius’s marriage, too, causing them to be separated for months at a time, for years. “My marriage to Walter Gropius was the oddest I could imagine,” Mahler reflected years later. He missed the birth of their daughter, Manon, which didn’t help matters. By early 1918 Mahler began a relationship with Franz Werfel. “Sustaining a relationship at long distance was alien to her nature,” MacCarthy explains. “The marriage to Gropius was over almost as soon as it had begun.”

Gropius was released from military service in late 1918, and soon resumed negotiations for his position at the Weimar art school. He stayed in Weimar, Mahler stayed in Vienna; she agreed to bring Manon for visits twice a year. The first of these was in May 1919, just a month after the Bauhaus opened. Mahler was impressed with the school and later wrote: “There was a new artistic courage abroad in those days, a soaring passionate faith. I noticed it even in Gropius, whose own work was alien to me, whose charts and graphs and calculations left me baffled.” The responses of Bauhaus students towards Mahler were mixed; one professor deemed her open-minded while many students thought she was a Viennese snob.

By July, the geographic and emotional distance between the two seemed hopeless and Gropius formally requested a divorce. “Was it my indifference to his mission, my lack of interest in his architectural and human goals?” Mahler wrote in her diary, musing over the reasons for their separation. Shortly after the divorce was settled, Gropius wrote her, “I long for a companion who loves me and my work.”

Their union was probably doomed from the start. Mahler was married when they met, and then the war kept them endlessly apart. But beyond that, there were creative differences: Mahler grew up amidst the fine and decorative arts, and Gropius advocated for the Bauhaus workshop as a new ideal — a place with no elitist distinction between artists and craftsmen. In other words, Mahler was a gilded oil painting, and Gropius was a sleek chair fashioned from metal tubes and leather.

The Bauhaus closed after just 14 years, and by then the charismatic Gropius had found a new partner, Ise, nicknamed “Mrs. Bauhaus.” Mahler treated the Gropius years of her life as a murky blur. “Gustav Mahler and Franz Werfel were the essence and the substance of my life,” she wrote in her diary on her 70th birthday. “The rest were clouds — some mighty thunderheads, others mere curls on the horizon.”

Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus by Fiona MacCarthy, published by Faber & Faber, is available from Amazon and other selected booksellers. 

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Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is a writer based in Philadelphia, by way of Tel Aviv. Her work has also appeared on Artsy, The Forward, Curbed Philadelphia, Eater, PhillyVoice, and Time Out Philadelphia.