This autumn, the artist Anni Albers will be the focus of a new exhibition at Tate Modern. It will be the first major retrospective of her work to be held in Britain and on show will be over 350 works of art created by Albers, including the weavings for which she was best known. It is, as the press release states, “a long overdue recognition for her pivotal contribution to modern art and design”.
Anni Albers was born Annelise Fleischmann in Berlin in 1899 into a Jewish assimilated family – her father was a furniture manufacturer whilst her mother’s family were the famous publishers Ullstein. Although both families had converted to Protestantism years earlier and Anni had been baptised, her Jewish background would become critical in the 1930s. A rebellious young woman who longed to study art rather than marry and start a family, she became a student at the Bauhaus, a recently opened radical school of art and design in Weimar. Despite the Bauhaus’ aspiration to equality between the sexes, women were in fact discouraged from learning certain disciplines, and Albers’ attempts to join the stained glass workshop were thwarted. She agreed to study weaving instead.
Albers is perhaps an unusual choice of subject for a Tate retrospective; an exhibition focused on textiles would in the past have probably found a more natural home at the V&A or the Design Museum. However, in the words of Nicholas Fox Weber, the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and close friend of the artist, “Anni transformed into an art form what in other hands was merely design work. She elevated textiles and the status of woven threads and put the medium on equal footing with oil on canvas and watercolour on paper.” In the exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern director Frances Morris stresses her importance to Modernism: “As a weaver, Albers connected one of the oldest human cultural techniques with the modern artistic language of the time.” The exhibition curator Ann Coxon explains that showing artists who worked with textiles is a new priority at Tate Modern: “We have always had a commitment at Tate Modern to broadening the range of media we display. What we wanted to do being an art museum, was to show Alber’s work in an art context, not a craft or design or applied arts context. This is very much exploring Anni Albers the artist. It is about recognising that there are artists in the 20th century who happen to have been using textiles as their primary medium. But they are still artists and we have a duty to reflect that.”
The exhibition also reflects Tate’s interest in promoting the careers of women artists, many of whom, like Albers, were married to more famous men and have often been eclipsed by them. Even before she began her studies at the Bauhaus, Albers had met and fallen in love with a fellow student Josef Albers. He was soon promoted to the teaching staff and they married in 1925. “It was a classic situation of a much better known male artist with a wife whose work was much less well-known and well-recognised. He was eleven years her senior and they had that kind of relationship where it was like teacher and pupil,” says Coxon.
The 2005 Tate exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Frida Kahlo enhanced her popularity in the UK, with the fame of her work now eclipsing that of her husband Diego Rivera. In 2015, Tate focused on another Jewish artist, Sonia Delaunay. Delaunay was born Sarah Stern into a poor Russian-Jewish family before being adopted by her wealthy lawyer uncle. She married French artist Robert Delaunay and together they developed a new art movement which they named “Simultaneism”, creating abstract compositions of dynamic contrasting colours and shapes. A talented painter, Sonia took her ideas from the canvas to create clothes and accessories, household furnishings and even painted cars, but her focus on textiles resulted in her being considered, until recently, a lesser artist than her husband. Coxon is currently working on another exhibition for 2019 devoted to the Surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning, who was married to the much more famous Max Ernst. I hope that another Jewish artist, Lee Krasner, better known for many years for being Mrs Jackson Pollock, might soon be the subject of her own Tate retrospective.
Albers was highly innovative in the field of weaving, integrating the abstract modernism typical of the Bauhaus into her designs. “She was very interested in hand-weaving, which is a slow and meticulous process,” Coxon tells me. “She termed her works “pictorial weavings” suggesting that they were not for design purposes but to be looked at.” Reflecting the modern outlook of the Bauhaus, she loved experimenting with unexpected combinations, including new materials such as cellophane, plastic and synthetic fibres such as rayon. In 1930 Albers produced a soundproof, light-reflecting fabric incorporating cellophane and chenille for the auditorium of the Trade Union School in Bernau.
Albers tended to refer to herself as “not Jewish” except “in the Hitler sense”, and seems to have felt terribly guilty that it was her Jewish origins even more than the closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis that led to the couple’s move to the USA in 1933. The Albers were offered posts at Black Mountain College, a move arranged by renowned architect Philip Johnson and facilitated by the Jewish philanthropist and patron of the arts Edward Warburg. After the war she found out that Otti Berger, her friend and contemporary in the Bauhaus textile department, had been murdered in Auschwitz. “You do get a sense that she had a survivor’s guilt”, says Coxon. Weber Fox writes that, “as a person, she was inclined to describe herself as a victim.”
Perhaps this was the reason she agreed to create ark coverings for two synagogues, the Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and the Temple B’nai Israel of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, although she must also have been interested by the idea of integrating her designs with modern architecture. Studies for both are included in the exhibition, though the originals remain in situ. Instead of creating traditional draping art curtains, Albers made sliding panels for both synagogues. Those for Dallas are green, blue, gold and silver and echoed the colours of the stained glass in the building. Those for Rhode Island are more muted in colour and strange letters appear to dance across the weavings. The writings of ancient civilisations became a source of fascination for Albers, inspired not least by her travels to Central and South America. As Coxon comments, Albers’ design creates a textile “that serves to both conceal and reveal the sacred nature of the Hebrew texts” within the ark.
Also on show will be Six Prayers, commissioned in 1966 by the Jewish Museum, New York to honour the six million victims of the Holocaust. Coxon is thrilled to be bringing it to the exhibition. “It really is considered to be her masterpiece. We are going to give it a gallery space to itself and a bench and really enable people to have the contemplative environment that Albers intended.”
This work is once more almost monochromatic, highlighted with silver thread. “Albers combined her interest in Hebrew texts and forms of ancient writing with thinking about the form that the Torah scroll takes and how it is almost like a woven piece of fabric,” explains Coxon. The weavings resemble prayer shawls, with their symbolism of the act of prayer. And, since prayer shawls are used as shrouds, they simultaneously become an emblem of death.
Tate is to be congratulated on organising this exhibition, which not only highlights the intersection between art and craft by celebrating a very innovative artist who happened to work predominantly as a weaver, but also rescues Anni Albers from the shadow of her husband and focuses on her many achievements.
Anni Albers is at Tate Modern from 11 October 2018 to 27 January 2019.