Bruno Reynell reflects on the first major UK retrospective of the Bauhaus-trained weaver.
“Weaving? Weaving I thought was too sissy. I was looking for a real job: I went into weaving unenthusiastically, as merely the least objectionable choice.”
So spoke Anni Albers of her entry, in 1922, into the weaving class at the Bauhaus. All the more remarkable, then, to observe, through this exhibition, her unrelenting devotion and idiosyncratic contributions to the medium over several decades.
Every journey has its start, and Albers’ is the Bauhaus, the German radical art school in Weimar operational during the early 20th century (and which, incidentally, celebrates its centenary in 2019). Her notes, sketches and designs from this initial period, all assiduously produced on the grid paper characteristic of weavers, are laid out. They reveal an artist not only learning the techniques of the loom, but also teasing out the questions posed by her medium. Chiefly, we see the attempt to reconcile weaving’s status as both a craft and an art. She was in a perfect place to examine such a relationship – the Bauhaus itself formed through the merging of a fine arts academy and a school of art and crafts, and was, in part, renowned for its focus on mass production as well as artistic expression.
Her studies would culminate in the creation of her diploma piece in 1929, a wall covering commissioned to cover the walls of the Bernau Trade Union School’s auditorium. Here is the tension between functional design and aesthetics on display. The resulting material is nice to look at, of that there is no doubt, but there are other requirements to obey. It should reflect light, it must be soundproof, it cannot be so eye-catching as to distract. In short, it must function seamlessly in the space it is to occupy. Albers manages all this in her piece, through careful combination of yarns with diverse properties, and the selection of a fabric structure that would promote desired properties.
The wall covering was to play an important role in the next step of her life, as pressure from the Nazi regime forced the Bauhaus to close. American architect Philip Johnson described it as her ‘passport to America’, as it secured her visa through his recommendation that she teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
The following rooms chart her time at the experimental college, which would, over time, house the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Willem de Kooning. They also reveal the development of her ‘pictorial weavings’ – pieces created with no function in mind other than to be looked at. This is the point at which the exhibition truly blooms into life, with works that transfix the gaze and demand your prolonged attention. In a 1924 essay, Bauhaus Weaving, Albers wrote of the necessity of working at a loom to explore the variation that could be attained within the limits of the medium of weaving. Here, we truly see the fruits of her own experimentation.
The abandonment of pattern is keenly felt in many of these works. Her 1946 pictorial weaving With Verticals, for example, shows vertical lines of varying lengths strewn over a red background. Gone are the strict, organised geometric patterns of her earlier years, dictated by the structure of the warp and weft (the vertical and horizontal threads that intersect to form the weave). The same goes for the 1936 Ancient Writing. Standing over the horizontally displayed piece, your eyes dart around, trying to identify patterns, repeats, but to no avail – if there is an order to the apparent randomness, its nature proves elusive.
These works are likely a reaction against the lack of recognition for the artistic aspect of her medium. In her celebrated book On Weaving, she writes, ‘The utilitarian side of a fabric’s character so powerfully dominates our estimate of it today that we easily appraise even a tapestry…in terms of its possible practical advantages before recognising its merit as a formulation in pictorial terms.’ She identifies thus the inverse correlation between humans’ increased awareness of a fabric’s utility, and their appreciation of its potential as art.
On Weaving is a broad treatise in which Albers explains and offers her thoughts on several basic components of the medium. Reading through its chapters, it becomes readily apparent that it could only have been compiled by someone who has spent much time not only practising the craft, but also studying its theory and outlining its development. The Tate’s exhibition provides ample recognition of this. There are multiple references to her visits to South America, and the inspiration they afforded her (she dedicates On Weaving to ‘[her] great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru’). In addition, one of the main rooms displays much of the source material Albers gathered for her book. It is an impressive array of fragments of material from around the world, images of contemporary artists’ works, various technical diagrams, and more. Through all this, we have evidence of a mind singularly dedicated to her art.
Perhaps the only frustration of this fantastic show is that however much you want to touch and caress the works on display, you are unable to do so. However inviting the threads and textures are, the threat of alarms and embarrassment is just about enough to deter. The final room, however, offers an antidote, with touchable skeins and swatches of the different types of yarn she used lined up along a wall. It’s a busy part of the gallery, and indicative that I am not alone in my feelings.
This room is entitled ‘Tactile Sensibility’, taken from Albers’ essay of the same name, in which she laments the growing insensitivity of our haptic senses. Although Albers wrote her text more than fifty years ago, it’s a sentiment that endures – to name but one example, see the fears that today’s medical students lack the dexterity to perform practical tasks, such as stitching and sewing up patients. These are appeals for us to not take for granted a faculty that should be treasured.
As I write this article, I find myself running my thumb over the embossed geometric design of the sofa I sit on, appreciating the structural properties of the denim I wear, and observing the way threads extricate themselves from the fabric around the hole in my sock. One factor determining the greatness of art is surely its ability to influence the way we see and interact with things around us, in however minute or seemingly trivial a manner this might be. In various ways, Albers’ work has certainly done so in my case, and for many other visitors of the exhibition, I am sure.
As an artist who has received pitifully little attention compared to some of her contemporaries, the Tate’s show can only be a good thing to raise the profile of this gifted individual, not to mention weaving in general. Textile art is so often a multi-faceted medium, and as Albers’ work demonstrates, there is a tremendous amount to be enjoyed and taken from it.
Featured Image: Six Prayers, 1966-7.