Anni Albers (born Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann, 1899–1994, Germany) was a student at the, now iconic, German Bauhaus school in Weimar having previously dropped out of the Kunstgewerbeschule Hamburg in the early 1920s. The Bauhaus (Staatliches Bauhaus) was an art school which combined crafts and the fine arts, and is famous for the approach to design that it publicised and taught. Opened in 1919 the school was founded by Walter Gropius with the idea of creating a ‘total’ work of art – Gesamtkunstwerk – where all arts would be brought together.
Three Bauhaus schools existed, each opening after the other: Weimar from 1919–1925, Dessau from 1925–1932 and Bernau (Berlin) from 1932 – 1933 until the school was closed under pressure from the Nazi regime, having been seen as a “centre of communist intellectualism”. The Bauhaus had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography. Despite the school closing, its teachers and alumni spread its message across the world; the likes of Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Piet Zwart, Josef Albers, Max Bill, Gunta Stölzl, Margret Rey, Marianne Brandt, Lucia Moholy and the woman in question here, Anni Albers.
Despite the Bauhaus’ progressive approach to gender equality, it has been criticised as many female members went unnoticed both during and after the school’s short existence and that, during times, its administration was rooted in ideals of the past and misogyny. As a female student, Anni Albers was discouraged from taking up certain classes which may have been offered to her male peers; instead, she enrolled in the weaving workshop and created patterned textiles as her form of expression. She inspired and was inspired by her artist contemporaries, among them her teacher, Paul Klee, and her husband, Josef Albers.
This exhibition at Tate Modern showcases more than 350 pieces by Anni Albers, from small-scale and highly detailed ‘pictorial weavings’ and hardware jewellery to vast wall hangings, bespoke commissions and mass productions. The full body of work highlights the artist’s creative process and her engagement with art, architecture and design.
The exhibition opens with a weaving loom, similar to one Anni Albers would’ve used during her time at the Bauhaus. As a child I learnt about weaving, specifically on an mechanised and industrial level, however the loom in this exhibition is much more personal and domestic. You can begin to understand the long and tedious process of weaving patterns in rows and columns and how certain threads are revealed at certain times, creating the grid-like pattern that is apparent in Anni Albers’ early work.
There are a number of weavings here from Anni Albers’ time at the Bauhaus, starting in 1922/1923, firstly as a student in Weimar and later becoming head of the weaving workshop in Dessau. Anni Albers and her peers in the weaving workshop, also known as the ‘Women’s Workshop’, produced their own independent artistic pieces as well as creating designs for industrial manufacture and industry via commissions. The weavings Anni Albers created were large wall hangings which allowed her to develop her own distinctive style and by making use of a grid structure and emphasising haptic and tactile qualities. The use of flat colour and geometric shapes is very Bauhaus style; if you were to show someone who was not aware of Anni Albers’ work, they would at least be able to see it is from the Bauhaus era. There is also a sense of precision and craft in these weavings; they look like a machine would’ve made them but up close you can see the human touch.
“One of the outstanding characteristics of the Bauhaus has been, to my mind, an unprejudiced attitude toward materials and their inherent capacities”.
The Black Mountain College
After the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933 Anni Albers and her husband, fellow Bauhaus student and geometrical abstract/modern artist/explorer of colour, Josef Albers (1888–1976), fled to North Carolina in America where they were invited by the renowned architect Philip Johnson to teach at the new experimental Black Mountain College.
The Black Mountain College was an experimental art school founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice and several others, located in Black Mountain, North Carolina. The school was organised around several principles of education, inspired by John Dewey, “balancing the humanities, arts and manual labour within a democratic, communal structure”, artists, dancers, mathematicians, socialists and architects formed an unusual creative and intellectual community at the school. The school sought to give students a progressive education which put importance on personal experience over delivered knowledge. Like the Bauhaus, many of the faculty and student of the Black Mountain College went on to become highly established in the arts such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ray Johnson, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Robert De Niro Sr.
Anni Albers was appointed to establish a weaving workshop at the school where her practice encouraged students to increase their understanding of materials and textures through exploring; using everyday materials with inventive methods such as weaving without a loom but with found objects.
“I tried to put my students at the point of zero. I tried to have them imagine, let’s say, that they are in a desert in Peru with no clothing, no nothing…So what do you do? Your wear the skin of some kind of animal maybe to protect yourself from too much sun or maybe the wind occasionally. And you want a roof over something and so on. And how do you gradually come to realize what a textile can be? And we start at that point”.
Black Mountain student Alex Reed developed a close relationship to the Alberses during the time he spent at the college. With Josef Albers he learnt about the “discrepancy between the physical fact and the physic effect of object’s surfaces when juxtaposed”, exploring how a material’s perception can be modified through its use such as giving glass marbles a soft appearance by placing them in moss-covered wood. This showed an understanding of the possibilities of combining different materials and the quality of materials, something Anni Albers also believed in: for visual effect, they considered a pebble as precious as a diamond.
Together Reed and Anni Albers created a collection of jewellery, on display in the exhibition, made from washers, screws, paperclips, hairclips and other objects readily available from hardware stores; regarding household objects as jewellery, together they invented an anti-luxury jewellery; proposing a new definition of value. Seeing these in the exhibition I initially thought that they were genuine pieces of jewellery until I said to my self, “that looks like paperclips” and I then realised it was actually paperclips.
They are genuinely nice pieces of jewellery and commercial DIY versions are available in the Tate Modern shop. Despite not weaving, in the traditional loom meaning, there is a sense of weaving of solid materials over and under each other, the way in which hairclips are attached to a chain or how ribbon is woven through washers; they show a different image of weaving.
“From the beginning we were quite conscious of our attempt not to discriminate between materials, not to attach to them the conventional values of preciousness or commonness. In breaking through the traditional valuation we felt this to be an attempt to rehabilitate materials. We felt that our experiments perhaps could help to point out the merely transient value we attach to things, though we believe them to be permanent.”
A large amount of the exhibition is dedicated to Anni Albers’ ‘pictorial weavings’; weavings which whilst being abstract have a sense of image and tell a story as opposed to ‘pattern weavings’ which deal with repeats of contrasting shapes and colours.
Anni Albers made numerous pictorial weavings whilst at the Black Mountain College, hand-woven pieces which were specifically artworks intended to be hung on the wall and not fabrics for everyday use. After leaving the Black Mountain College in 1949 Anni Albers created many pictorial weavings in her house—turned studio—in Connecticut and also becoming the first textile designer to have a one person exhibition at the MoMA in New York City.
Using a small and manageable hand-loom she began to incorporate a technique known as leno or gauze weave where “the vertical warp threads twist over each other around the horizontal weft threads”, visible in the piece below and many others in the exhibition. The non-functional and aesthetic pieces are incredibly detailed and contain many unique weaving methods; too many too explain here. Many of these pictorial weavings went on display on 1959 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as being included in multiple self-written and published articles.
“To let threads be articulate again and find a form for themselves to no other end than their own orchestration, not to be sat on, walked on, only to be looked at, is the Raison d’être (reason for being) of my pictorial weavings”.
As well as these small, personal, pictorial weavings Anni Albers also worked on several large scale interior and architectural commissions; creating decorative and functional fabrics whilst working with modernist architects and designers.
Even whilst studying at the Bauhaus in 1930, Anni Albers was asked by the second director, Hannes Meyer, to create a wall covering for an auditorium at the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau. Her wall covering was made from black and white threads, interwoven with cellophane which reflected light in the auditorium as well as a chenille coating to muffle sound. Philip Johnson, who invited her and Josef Albers said this woven textile was her “passport to America”.
In 1948 Walter Gropius designed and built student dorm-rooms at the Harvard Graduate Center in Massachusetts where Anni Albers was asked to Anni Albers to design bedspreads, drapery, and dividing curtains for common areas and dorms in her distinct and recognisable style.
In 1950 she designed a drapery fabric with light-reflecting qualities for Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House; a narrow townhouse in Manhattan filled with artworks of the Rockefeller family. Anni Albers’ fabric here demonstrated her understanding of the relationship between textiles, glass and light as the material she used was woven with a metallic thread. During the day it would look like a sack of potatoes and at night it would transform into a light piece; creating a central feature as the building was intended as a space for entertaining in evenings.
In 1951 Florence Knoll invited Anni Albers to collaborate with the Knoll Textile Department to produce a number of new fabrics; she ended up being consulted on fabrics for 30 years; developing several open-weave fabrics and coverings for glass windows. Here in 1976 she also developed the popular ‘Eclat’ pattern made from parallelogram forms and which is still used and available today; originally screen-printed for sharpness; it is not manufactured as an entirely woven textile.
In 1966 she was asked by the Jewish Museum, New York to create a memorial to the six million Jews who had been killed in the Holocaust. Anni Albers was from a Jewish family although baptised as a protestant, however she was still intrigued by the commission as it was an opportunity to make an architectural intervention using textile and to consider both the form and the function of the Torah scrolls and their Hebrew scripts. Anni Albers six sombre panels of ‘Six Prayers’ represent the six million Jews: “I used the threads themselves as a sculptor or painter uses his medium to produce a scriptural effect which would bring to mind sacred texts.”
“Our world goes to pieces; we have to rebuild our world…We learn courage from artwork. We have to go where no one was before us. We are alone and we are responsible for our actions. Our solitariness takes on religious character; this is a matter of my conscience and me.”
Legacy with Josef Albers
Together, Anni and her husband Josef Albers where quite the power couple in the art and design world. Anni Albers had become known for her weaving, writings and teaching at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College whilst Josef was also a successful teacher at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale. They both had exhibitions and shows at established and renowned international galleries throughout their lives. As an artist Josef dedicated his career to his series ‘Homage to the Square’, produced from 1950 until his death where he used a single geometric shape to “systematically explore the vast range of visual effects that could be achieved through colour and spatial relationships alone”.
In 1971, 5 years before his death, Josef established a non-profit organisation to further the “revelation and evocation of vision through art”, and today this organisation: The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the achievements of the couple as well as the aesthetic and philosophical principles by which they lived.
In Connecticut, the couple’s hometown in the 1950s, the unique visitor centre where the Foundation is situated features a central research, library and archival storage centres to accommodate the Foundation’s collection as well as providing residence and studio spaces for visiting artists.
I found this exhibition very interesting, as someone who is fascinated by the Bauhaus principles and teachings and the idea of Modernism, it opened my eyes to a more tactile and sensitive feel of the era. So much has been written and shown specifically about its architecture, products, graphic design, typography and performance but little about the weaving (and other topics such as woodwork, glass, painting etc.) which this exhibition showcases. The exhibition, Anni Albers, at Tate Modern in London is on show until 27 January 2019 and it is well worth the trip.