In Western culture, the perception of weaving as “women’s work” can be traced back to Penelope, the loyal wife of Homer’s wandering Odysseus who cleverly put off her insistent suitors for years by slowly weaving (and unweaving) her husband’s burial shroud. Generations of women after her – across continents, centuries and cultures – have taken up the craft at home or in factories in order to earn pocket money or contribute to the household finances. Rarely was the practical task of textile creation considered an artistic pursuit.
One woman changed that. Anni Albers was born in Berlin in 1899 and received her artistic education at the Bauhaus, the radical art-and-design school founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius. Although she wanted to study drawing and painting, Albers – like many other female students – was encouraged to join the weaving workshop (colloquially known as the “Women’s Workshop”). She signed up “unenthusiastically,” she said, “as merely the least objectionable choice”, but soon discovered how expressive textiles could be. She began to experiment with texture, colour, material and form, applying the lessons she learnt at the Bauhaus to her shuttle and loom. Eventually she transformed the ancient craft of weaving into a Modernist art form.
Although Albers was the first textile artist to have a solo exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art in New York, in 1949, she remained less well known than her male Bauhaus peers. This is not surprising, as the upper ranks of the Bauhaus did not put their egalitarian ethos into practice when it came to gender relations. Other female artists associated with the school, such as Marianne Brandt, a metal designer, and Lucia Moholy, a photographer, also went underappreciated by both colleagues and critics. But the upcoming centenary of the Bauhaus’s founding gives us the chance to re-evaluate its legacy and the relative importance of its key figures.
At a new retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern in London, Albers finally receives the recognition she deserves. The show encompasses more than 350 objects, but it never feels overwhelming, thanks to its curation. With each room presenting one phase in Albers’s career, we see how after moving to the United States in 1933 and going on trips to Mexico, Chile and Peru, she became less preoccupied with the sharp lines and utilitarian spirit of the Bauhaus and gravitated towards pre-Columbian designs, which were boldly graphic and small in scale. We also gain a clear sense of Albers’s lasting impact on textile art. By engaging with multiple artistic mediums, like print-making and jewellery design, and the long history of weaving in both her practice and numerous essays, Albers proved that woven textiles were just as relevant to high art and architecture as they were to everyday design.
“Study for Unexecuted Wallhanging” (1926)
Bauhaus students began their education in the classroom, where they took an introductory course before moving on to specialised workshops. The exhibition includes Albers’s notes from her academic studies, including those from her colour-theory class with Paul Klee, whose watercolour paintings proved especially helpful as she prepared the designs for her textiles. In her carefully painted “Study for Unexecuted Wallhanging”, Albers gives a sense of how the different fabrics, shapes and colours of the woven textile would have interacted. Other studies on view have instructions scribbled in the margins to guide the set-up of the loom; other preparatory works are even painted on woven paper, emulating textile strands.
“Black White Yellow” (1926/1965, cotton and silk)
This is one of Albers’s best-known designs, perhaps because it successfully expresses the qualities usually associated with the Bauhaus: the inventive use of colour, the interplay of different geometric patterns and the clean lines so typical of Modernist art. Juxtaposed with the flat dullness of the white cotton, the shininess of the yellow silk seems all the more lustrous.
Along with many of her other Bauhaus-era wall hangings, this textile did not survive the second world war. The two examples of “Black White Yellow” shown at Tate Modern were re-woven by Albers’s colleague at the Bauhaus, Gunta Stölzl, during the 1960s. Stölzl was a talented and prolific weaver in her own right. She was the Master of Craft in the weaving workshop from 1927 to 1931 – the only woman to hold such an senior position at the Bauhaus.
“Intersecting” (1962, cotton and rayon) and “Knot” (1962, gouache on paper)
Under pressure from the Nazis, the Bauhaus school closed in 1933. Albers and her husband emigrated to the United States to teach at Black Mountain College, a progressive art school in North Carolina, where they stayed until 1950. While there, Albers took a simpler, less-stylised approach to the weaving process. She encouraged her students to use basic back-strap looms and to incorporate found objects into their work. She also began to move away from large-scale weavings towards smaller pieces which were made on a handloom and intended to be hung on the walls of galleries and living rooms rather than public or industrial spaces.
These two works are from the latter half of Albers’s career, when she began to explore knotting as a new way of adding texture and shape. Though her gouache painting of intertwined threads and knots is distinctive for its sharp, clean lines, it is less visually complex than “Intersecting”. The textile’s knotted lines, which contrast with the red, white and blue columns of the background weave, produce a three-dimensional effect.
“Necklace” (c.1940, aluminium washers and red grosgain ribbon)
Throughout her career, Albers borrowed from other artistic disciplines and threaded their styles and materials into her art. This necklace, constructed from ribbon and aluminium washers, is part of a jewellery series she made from found objects in 1940 after a trip to Mexico. In 1944, she designed a wall-to-wall set of metallic, glimmering drapes for the Rockefeller Guest House in New York; and in 1949 she partnered with Gropius to create a posh student dormitory at the Harvard Law Faculty Graduate Centre. These two projects reflected Albers’s belief that “the essentially structural principles that relate the work of building and weaving could form the basis of a new understanding between the architect and the inventive weaver”. She was also an avid printmaker, especially once she gave up strenuous loom weaving in her later years. She continue to experiment with colour, texture and pattern through lithography, screen-printing, photo-offset, embossing and etching.
“Ancient Writing” (1936, cotton and rayon)
Albers’s knowledge of the theory, practice and global history of weaving resulted in the publication of several books and essays, including “On Weaving” (1965). The exhibition dedicates a room to the written and woven source material she drew on for the book, allowing viewers to trace the 4,000-year history of weaving and to understand how traditional methods still influence contemporary artistic practice.
The ancient weaving techniques that most inspired Albers were those from the pre-Columbian world, particularly Peru. She once wrote that “the textiles of ancient Peru are to my mind the most imaginative textile inventions in existence. Their language was textile and it was a most articulate language…” Realising that textiles could be a form of communication in cultures that lacked written language, Albers often incorporated symbolic or coded characters into her work. Although the black-and-gold weave of “Ancient Writing” does not feature writing as we know it, its title directly refers to one of textile art’s original functions – as a sophisticated means of both personal and public expression. Albers remained preoccupied with the link between text and textile throughout her career.
“Eclat” (1974, silkscreen on woven fabric)
Albers’s designs reached an audience beyond galleries and academia thanks to her collaboration with Florence Knoll, an architect and furniture designer. From 1951, Albers worked with the Knoll Textile Department to develop a range of vibrant designs that could be easily replicated and distributed. This design was especially popular for upholstering everyday furniture. Meaning “fragment” in French and “a brilliant effect” in English, “éclat” perfectly describes the textile’s spiky geometric pattern and bright colour (one of 12 available shades).
“Eclat” is still produced by Knoll but thanks to technological advances, the textiles can now be woven, as Albers originally intended, instead of screenprinted. Albers’s embrace of consumerism with the “Eclat” pattern introduced textile design to a wider audience – and showed how weaving can produce both practical objects as well as high art.
Anni Albers Tate Modern, London, until January 27th