It is fair to say that history has not been kind to women involved in 20th Century art and design. Architects and designers such as Eileen Gray are now lauded as pioneers and yet the first time her name was mentioned on the radio was announcing her death. The women who were involved in the Bauhaus have perhaps been represented more kindly that some female pioneers, but that isn’t saying much. One might assume that the gender equality that the school championed led to parity across the board. Unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many female students such as Gertrud Arndt were actively directed away from subjects perceived as part of the ‘male domain’ such as architecture or sculpture and painting towards more ‘feminine’ arts such as weaving. And in the faculty, many of the women have either been ignored, or passed over historically in favour of their husbands.
‘Fate put into my hands limp threads! I went into weaving unenthusiastically, as merely the least objectionable choice… but gradually threads caught my imagination’ Anni Albers
Walter Gropius‘ view that there was no difference between the ‘beautiful sex and the strong sex’ (!) is only now beginning to see fruition, and the fact that he thought that women could only think in two dimensions where as men were equipped to think in three is probably a real indication of his beliefs. Thankfully this is now beginning to be redressed, with a renewed interest in these pioneering women.
Tate Modern’s wonderful retrospective of the work of Anni Albers introduces her work to a whole new generation and emphasises her significance as one of the first artists to work with weaving and fabric as an art form.
‘Throughout her career Albers explored the possibilities of weaving as a modernist medium, but one that is also deeply rooted in highly sophisticated and ancient textile traditions from around the world.’ Ann Coxon and Briony Fer, Tate Modern Curators
Albers attended the Bauhaus from 1922 and it was there that she met her husband, Joseph Albers, a working class fellow ‘misfit’ and they subsequently became one of the many teaching couples working at the school. She briefly studied under Paul Klee, and in some ways there are similarities in their work, with Klee’s ‘taking a line for a walk’ echoed in some of Anni’s work with thread. After the final closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, the couple moved to the US on the invitation of architect Philip Johnson to teach at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Johnson referred to Anni’s diploma wall covering as the pair’s “passport to America”, which trumped drawbacks such as Joseph not speaking english! They flourished in the supportive atmosphere of this newly created experimental school. It was in the weaving workshop that Anni began to explore ‘pictorial weavings’, groundbreaking works works of art that Albers described as
‘a form of weaving that is pictorial in character, in contrast to pattern weaving, which deals with the repeats of contrasting areas.’
Throughout the next decades, Anni continued to work on architectural commissions alongside her art pieces, exploring the potential of weaving to create dividers and divisions that were not rigid and opaque. These textile ‘walls’ can be seen as architectural integral art, exploring use of multifunctional spaces. In some ways, Albers was exploring similar ideas to those examined by early modernist architects such as Gerrard Rietveld in the Rietveld Schröder House and indeed Eileen Gray in E.1027, but in a more fluid and adaptable way.
Her interest in the craft and history of weaving continued and she became an expert in South American weaving. Her frequent trips in the 30s to Mexico introduced her to traditional Central and subsequently Southern American weaving traditions. This interest in the ancient civilisations of the continent led to a lifelong interest in their culture and history. So much so that she dedicated her seminal book ‘On Weaving’ in1965 to the ancient weavers of Peru.
These influences can also be seen in her printmaking, Anni’s new focus for her artistic expression when the physical demands of loom weaving became too great. The language which she developed in her weaving and textile works was developed further, with Albers exploring the new medium’s possibilities:
‘What I am trying to get across is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive.’
I think that it is this way of thinking that helped transform her work in both textiles and printmaking. Through her engagement with the history of weaving, from cultures across the globe, her skill in her craft and her modernist views, Albers’ work transcended her medium and straddled the difficult divide of art and craft. Like the other women of the Bauhaus, her work now seems just as relevant as the ground breaking design and architecture of her male counterparts.
Anni Albers is at Tate Modern until the 27th of January, as as you can probably guess, I cannot recommend a visit highly enough.
Text and images © Jonathan Dredge