20th century / Arts

‘A Shadow Figure of the Bauhaus’: Anni Albers and Textile Art

By Maria Paz Mendes Hodes

Bauhaus Art

Rising from the ashes of a defeated Germany, the Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, took a mere twelve years to create the aesthetic zeitgeist of the 20th century. Even today, as the aggressively fanciful shapes of postmodern architecture emerge as the look of the future, when we think of what is art, we think of the Bauhaus. The typical skyscraper is a variation on the theme established by van der Rohe’s Seagram Building; the conventional image of ‘modern art’ is perhaps set by Mondrian’s kindergarten-chic ‘compositions’; the appearance of much of our visual communication is in large part due to ‘The New Typography’ promoted by the Bauhaus during its brief existence. By 1933 the movement was over – while it had tried to remain an apolitical entity, the Nazis shut the doors of the Bauhaus.

Yet, of course, like many interwar undertakings, the Bauhaus had failed to live up to its ideals. In the shadow of the encroaching Fascist spectre, there was no such thing as an apolitical entity – art, craft, and architecture should be used for the state or not at all. External pressures intractably worked themselves into the political hierarchy of the Bauhaus itself, which ran through several permutations of leadership before dissolution. And despite their claims to egalitarianism of class and sex, one of the great philosophical failures of the Bauhaus lies in its relegation of women to a secondary status, primarily in the Weaving Workshop. The members of the movement whom we remember most are male – Klee, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, Gropius. Even the look of the movement is, perhaps unintentionally, stereotypically masculine. The soaring, iron-clad reticulations of an International-style Building monumentalize the great age of hyper-virile American capitalism, proclaiming themselves as colossi of postwar money power.

This all appears quite ironic in the face of a statement made by Gropius, that in the workshop there should be ‘no difference between the beautiful [sic] and the strong gender, absolute equality, but also absolute equal duties. No deference to ladies, as far as work is concerned, we are all craftsmen.’ How is it, then, that the only female name we remember from the Bauhaus is that of Anni Albers (1899-1994)? The foremost textile artist of the 20th century, Albers’ work was instrumental in the creation of the aesthetic of the period. Furthermore, her work with pre-Columbian textiles placed fiber art in the historical context necessary to the establishment of weaving as an art, rather than mere soft furnishing. Through an appropriation of the attitudes of so-called ‘primitive’ societies, Albers was able to rise above her exile to a gendered, second-class role into the reclamation of that femininity as a source of power, returning the status of weaver to its rightful place as artist.

The Weaving Workshop at the Bauhaus was established in no way as a locus for female enfranchisement. Rather, women were shunted quickly into the areas of weaving, pottery, and bookbinding. Although the Bauhaus’ male directors made a well-intentioned declaration that ‘any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex, whose previous education is deemed adequate by the Council of Masters, will be admitted, as far as space permits’, they were so overwhelmed by the oversubscription of qualified woman applicants that they devised within their supposedly egalitarian-minded atelier a space where the female presence would be rendered non-threatening. The Pottery Workshop, however, did not welcome the influx, and the Bookbinding Workshop soon ceased to exist: women were relegated to the looms. While primitive cultures and their philosophies formed foundational aspects of the Bauhaus manifesto, yet the stewardship of these key theories was left to women, ironically considered appropriately second-class. ‘When the work is made with threads, it’s considered a craft,’ sighed Albers. ‘When it’s on paper, it’s considered art.’ Albers’ life work was effectively the refutation of this bourgeois sentiment.

The main tenets of the school, developing out of a William Morris/Arts and Crafts line of thought, held, famously, that form should follow function, and aimed at dissolving the strict divide between the fine and applied arts. Members of the Bauhaus believed that everyday objects could be beautiful, and held the optimistic view that hand-crafting techniques could be harmoniously merged with new technology. The textile arts provided a perfect platform in the proof of this thesis, perhaps even more so than the avenues for which Bauhaus is most famous. Albers, in her writing, attempted to bring this fact to prominence: ‘Weaving is an ancient handicraft… Earlier, because of the close relationship to loom and material, fabrics were created that were good, because they were woven according to the inherent properties of handicraft and material… The Bauhaus seeks to restore the overall contact with the material… we have lost too much of the feeling for materials that those in earlier times had. We must attempt anew to learn this feeling. We must thoroughly investigate anew handicraft and technical possibilities… We can then perceive industry – the mechanical handicraft – and work for it, since we comprehend it essentially.’

Anni Albers

Thus in the primitive Andean textiles used for study in Weimar, Dessau, and finally Berlin, Albers found a consummate expression of aesthetic-utilitarian purity. The strict geometry necessitated by the interaction of warp and weft created one of the most important Bauhaus motifs, the checkerboard. And in ancient cultures, the adornment on these fiber pieces – always functional as clothing, shelter, and so on – performed a critical semiotic function. In this context, ’embellishment’ undergoes a paradigm shift in which we are able to see the idea of decoration as a distinctly Western concept. The imagery in primitive weaving is directed by society as tribute, heraldic-type emblem, and communicator. It is not frivolous. For her part, Albers imagined a modern approach to the discipline where the structure of weaving might allow modern-day consumers to engage in a ‘universal language of non-objective form.’

Anni Albers’ immigration to the United States in 1933 allowed her to come into her own as a major theorist of design. At the Bauhaus, she had trained under the greats, but the ghettoization of femininity created an atmosphere in which textiles would never assume a place of distinction. And while many of her male colleagues – her husband, even, – endure as household names today, Anni Albers has not achieved a reputation far beyond her field. Her seminal works – ‘On Weaving’ (1965) and ‘On Designing’ (1959) – are accepted as the basis for academic study of textile arts, but weaving has in no way come into its own as a widely accepted medium for the fine arts. It remains feminized, ‘othered.’ The masculine establishment has honoured Anni Albers with countless awards, honorary doctorates, lectureships and the like, but remains a shadow figure of the Bauhaus.

Yet her ties to the Bauhaus are perhaps less critical than those of her male colleagues. For the school, even in its rejection of the establishment’s taste for non-structural embellishment, created itself as the establishment, and worked firmly within the larger framework of a male-centric European ideal. Their brand of appropriation implied an imperialist supremacy over earlier forms. Ostensibly, Albers was a primary exponent of Bauhaus ideals. But in her exploration of the possibilities of design removed of its Western, Orientalizing preconceptions, the greater implications of her work ultimately transcend that of her atelier. Rather than a mere assimiliation, Albers’ approach to the primitive is adaptive and appreciative, thoroughly humble in the face of the magnitude of her ancient influences: ‘We need to learn to choose the simple and lasting instead of the new and individual.’

Troy. V, Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles. From Bauhaus to Black Mountain (London, 2002)
Weltge. S, Bauhaus Textiles. Women Artists and the Weaving Workshop (London, 1993)
Albers. A, On Designing (Wesleyan University Press, 1971)
Albers. A, On Weaving (Wesleyan University Press, 1965)