This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).
The idea that only weaving and ceramics art is suitable for women would not stand today, yet this was a belief that held true at the Bauhaus school, known for its radical, modernist design. To Walter Gropius, founder of the school in 1919, there was ‘no difference between the beautiful sex and the strong sex’, except for the fact that the former could only think in two-dimensions; whilst the latter was able to think in three. Such an assertion would suggest that Gropius was never faced with a handloom. For it is a 1950s handloom, similar to the ones that would have been used in the weaving workshop, that first confronts visitors to the Tate’s exhibition of Bauhaus alumna, Anni Albers.
Anni Albers, Study for an unexecuted wall-hanging, 1926, gouache on paper, ARS, New York; DACS, London (Photo: Josef and Anni Albers Foundation)
As the work on display shows, weaving is an incredibly tactile process. As the various samples and pattern diagrams demonstrate, it is by no means two-dimensional. Joining the school in 1923, Albers had originally wanted to study painting but alas was led to weaving as ‘merely the least objectionable choice.’ The class was known as the ‘Women’s Workshop’. During her time at the Bauhaus, Anni would develop a mastery for the craft.
In 1933, with the forced closure of the school by the Nazi regime, Anni and her husband Josef Albers – a fellow student, and later teacher at the Bauhaus – took positions at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Here, Albers took influence from backstrap looms inspired from her travels to South America, encouraging her students to engage with the nature of the materials. She also began to create ‘pictorial weavings’, as exemplified in the intricate geometrical skyline in pieces such as City (1949) and Pasture (1958).
Albers was clearly an innovator; from the seeming complexity of the techniques used in pictorial weavings from the 1950s to the visual simplicity of the open-weave casement fabrics she designed for the American firm, Knoll, as coverings for modernist windows. Her approach to material and texture is illuminating and technical, manifested in feats such as the sound-proof material designed for an auditorium (her diploma piece for the Bauhaus), to time spent in the 1940s mastering the depictions of knots.
Towards the end of the exhibition, much of the source material relating to her book, On Weaving (1965) gives an insight into the attention Albers put into researching and relating, the history of weaving over the past 4,000 years. Next year will mark the centenary of the Bauhaus school, and whilst assumptions of the fair and the strong sex have been dismantled, there has been an overwhelming absence of women in the history of design over the past 100 years.
The exhibition does justice to the work of an artist whose career spanned across the modernist period – but it should not be celebrated for its recognition of someone who happens to be a woman. For, in the words of Gropius, ‘there shall be absolute equality but also complete parity of obligations - no concessions to the ladies; we are craftspeople all when it comes to our work.’