Anni Albers (born Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann, 1899-1994) studied weaving at the Bauhaus, the art school in Weimar known for promoting all arts as equal. There was no such thing as ‘lesser arts’ as far as the school founder Walter Gropius was concerned, however, the weaving classes at the Bauhaus were known as the ‘Women’s Workshop’, because they were especially popular with female students. Anni Albers in her work as an artist and teacher has demonstrated how the ancient art of weaving was for centuries unjustly regarded as inferior to painting. The retrospective at Tate Modern showcases the work of this innovating modernist artist.
As a textile designer Albers was always concerned with the function and the intended users of the final product, be it the sound-proof wall hangings for an auditorium, or ‘gentlemanly’ designs for male dormitories at Harvard. Her utilitarian designs contributed to the ideas of modern living in the post-war years, she believed that textiles should be a crucial element of architectural design.
While some of her earlier works may not look like too exciting visually, Albers let her creativity shine in her later years. Many of the textiles on display at Tate were meant as works of art in their own right. These are undoubtedly modernistic pieces, not mere craft-work. Albers combined modern abstract art with ancient weaving patterns of different world cultures.
Anni and her husband Josef Albers left Germany in 1933 for the USA where they were both offered teaching posts at the newly established art school Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The Alberses travelled widely in South America, they visited Mexico, Cuba, Chile and Peru. The works of ancient Peruvian weavers had a large impact on Anni Albers’ art during the time she taught weaving at the college. The ‘pictorial weavings’ from that period were innovative pieces of modernist art meant to be hung on walls. Her fascination with the coded communication systems used in Peru can be seen for example in the large work entitled Ancient Writing.
Apart from purely geometric forms, knots and organic mazes became increasingly important features in the artist’s work. She was also interested in unusual qualities of newly developed synthetic fibres, such as their textures, vibrant colours or light-reflecting properties.
In her teaching work Anni Albers encouraged exploration of tactile properties of materials. The visitors to the exhibition can touch educational samples in one of the rooms, there are different types of thread and yarn, straw and even corn. Albers did not leave many sketchbooks behind, but she meticulously catalogued samples of her textile patterns and designs on paper. She also collected samples of weaving from different cultures from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. Her book On Weaving published in 1965 explores the 4,000 years of weaving across the globe and is considered one of canonical works on the subject. In her later years Albers gave up weaving, as it was physically straining, and concentrated on various types of printing techniques, which allowed her to continue experiments with forms and tactile qualities in art.
Among the works on display one group of wall hangings is especially worth looking at. The Six prayers is a Holocaust Memorial commissioned by the Jewish Museum, New York in 1965. Each panel stands for one of the estimated six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. They bear formal resemblance to the Torah scrolls. Dimmed light in the gallery creates a contemplative atmosphere and makes the Six prayers stand out as a deeply spiritual work.
Must see exhibition for anyone interested in weaving and textile design. Highly recommended for all art lovers.
Anni Albers exhibition, 11 October 2018 – 27 January 2019 at Tate Modern, London.
Notes [1-4] – sources: gallery labels.
Read more here:
Tate Modern website about the exhibition https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/anni-albers
Josef and Anni Albers Foundation website (very informative with lots of images of works by both artists) https://albersfoundation.org/