Don’t miss this: Anni Albers at Tate Modern
Under the Director of Tate, Maria Balshaw and the Director of Tate Modern, Frances Morris, more prominence is being given to female artists. First Sonia Delaunay and now Anni Albers, both textile designers, and later in their careers fine artists, have been the subjects of significant retrospective exhibitions.
Before seeing this, I was better acquainted with the work of Josef Albers. He and Anni met at the Bauhaus, school of design which she joined in 1922. He was ten years her senior and had been promoted from student to head the Preliminary (Foundation) course. Even in this progressive environment, the choices for female students were limited. The men studied furniture design and metal work and the apogee was to become an architect. While women were able to join the weaving workshop. One of the staff members Oskar Schlemmer, commented: “Where there’s wool you’ll women find, weaving just to pass the time”. Despite an initial lack of enthusiasm for textiles, Anni became a weaving student.
The Tate exhibition shows examples of Albers’ early geometric designs and a facsimile of looms the students used. There is a delightful overhead photograph of smiling young women beneath the warp threads of a large loom. The emphasis in all the workshops was on producing designs for manufacture. Anni Albers designed industrial fabrics as part of her coursework.
In 1925 Anni (born Annelise Fleischmann into a prosperous, assimilated Jewish family in Berlin) married Josef Albers to become known as Anni Albers in personal and professional life. They moved to the Dessau Bauhaus and, when that was closed, on to the Berlin Bauhaus. Finally, with the rise of the Nazi party that too was closed. The Albers sought help from influential patrons in America and were successful in obtaining support, including first class tickets on an ocean liner from a member of the Warburg banking family, which enabled them to flee Berlin permanently in 1933 and to travel to the USA. A job was found for him at the newly opened Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Room and board was provided, along with a modest salary. However, Anni, as a wife, was expected to teach weaving to the students without receiving any stipend. Eventually they moved to Yale in Connecticut where he became Chair of the Design Department. Despite the restraints she faced, it is apparent that Anni Albers was able to have a long and interesting career in the United States – including a one-woman exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a considerable distinction.
The Albers visited Mexico and had sabbatical stays there. One room in the exhibition contains examples of her collection of Peruvian textiles along with the text books she wrote about the history and techniques of weaving.
As someone who used to do weaving I found her drawings of weaving threading on squared notebook paper especially intriguing. She worked in natural yarns, but then introduced motifs in Lurex thread and created brocades with markings resembling ancient languages. One commission of a series of panels for a synagogue, Six Prayers (1966), is exhibited to show her later style. There is much to see in this impressive exhibition, on until 27 January 2019. In addition, the magazine Tate Etc (issue 44 Autumn 2018) has Anni Albers weaving her magic as the cover story and contains interviews with other designers and artists describing her enduring influence.
And back to Alyson’s usual subject of style, I was fortunate to attend an informal discussion between Alice Rawsthorn, distinguished design journalist and author, and Paul Smith, designer and businessman. Although he never went to art school he is clearly a well-informed lover of modern art. His enthusiasm is infectious. The two discussed his collaboration for Autumn 18 collection with the Albers Foundation. The starting point a wall hanging with some asymmetric coloured areas. This has been transformed into jumpers in luxurious, striped cashmere. Alice Rawsthorn, forever chic with her distinctive dark bob and red lip, leapt up to show off the handsome special Albers jumper she was wearing for the occasion. Paul Smith rose from his chair on stage at one point to drape himself in a splendid multicoloured plaid blanket which he pulled from a bag. It was a pleasure to hear and see this charming event.