Women of the Bauhaus: Anni Albers (1899-1994)

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are launching a series introducing influential women of the Bauhaus movement – a movement that is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Elevating Craft to Art

“Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.” – Anni Albers

Anni Albers, ca. 1929–33 © 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On its 100th anniversary, you may hear much of the Bauhaus, the iconic German art school which had its beginning in Dessau, Germany in 1919 under the leadership of Walter Gropius and which bridged the gap between fine and applied art. You might have read of the Gesamtkunstwerk concept (complete work of art) which the school embraced. You may be familiar with the international artists who taught alongside German artists: Wassily Kandinsky (Russian), Paul Klee (Swiss), Lyonel Feininger (American) and others. You might know that after its dissolution in 1933, some of the Bauhaus staff emigrated elsewhere: Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer continued their work in Chicago; Walter Gropius taught at Harvard; and Bauhaus-trained Jewish students designed apartments for the “White City” in Tel Aviv.

What you may not have heard of are the women of the Bauhaus.

Although the Bauhaus “welcomed any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex,” women were excluded from some disciplines. Disappointed that she could not enroll in the school’s stained glass class after fulfilling her core coursework, Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann enrolled in the weaving class which was open to female students. She quickly mastered the technical aspects of weaving, pushed the traditional boundaries, and began experimenting with traditional and non-traditional methods and materials. Her innate curiosity of traditional and newly-developed materials allowed her to break free from accepted norms and pushed her creativity into new directions. Drawings and designs from those years often show randomly-placed color shapes inspired by the artist’s visits to the opera.

“There were so few chances to execute a stained glass window…So the only thing that was open to me was the weaving workshop. And I thought that was rather sissy…once I got started I got rather intrigued with the possibilities there.”    – Anni Albers in a 1968 interview with Sevim Fesci, Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art.

Anni Albers, Design for a 1926 unexecuted wallhanging, n.d.
Gouache with pencil on reprographic paper. 15 1/8 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1x 25 cm)
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

The young student married Josef Albers, who had risen to Junior Master at the school, in 1925 and took over the weaving department in 1931 after the departure of its head, Gunta Stölzl. In her new position, she taught weaving and design and continued to experiment with geometric designs and non-traditional materials such as horsehair, jute, paper, metallic thread, artificial silk, and cellophane.

In 1929, Anni Albers accepted a unique challenge when she was asked to correct the inadequate acoustics of the Bauhaus auditorium. She studied the properties of materials traditionally used for sound suppression such as velvet and experimented with new kinds of synthetic fibers. By attaching light-reflective cellophane to sound-absorbing cotton and chenille on the back, she won acclaim for her innovative and effective solution which could be mass-produced and which furthered innovation in theater design.

“When the painter or the weaver of someone has to prepare the material, you learn what the material tells you and what the technique tells you.”– Anni Albers, interview

At the invitation of the American architect, Philip Johnson, Anni Albers and her husband moved to the United States in November 1933 after the Bauhaus closed. The couple found a supportive environment at the Black Mountain College, North Carolina where experimentation was fostered. Ms. Albers headed the weaving and textile design department until 1949, when the couple moved to Connecticut. That same year, she was the first weaver to be granted a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit toured throughout the U.S. until 1953 and cemented her as one of the most important textile designers of the time.

After years of experimenting with the handloom and mechanically produced pieces, Ms. Albers turned to other art forms. In North Carolina she designed jewelry using regular household items. In 1963, she took up lithography and screen printing at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in LA. On trips to Mexico and Peru, she became inspired by the intricacies of pre-Columbian textiles.

“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.”

Visitors view ”Six Prayers, 1966-67″, by Anni Albers. © Stephen Chung / picture alliance / ZUMA Press

In 1965, Ms. Albers, who was Jewish, was commissioned by The Jewish Museum to create a memorial for victims of the Holocaust.  “Six Prayers, 1966-1967” is a series of six elongated woven hangings which incorporates irregular weaving. The muted monochrome pieces, which incorporate the concept of “tikkun” or social repair of the Jewish faith, invite the viewer to sit in contemplation.

Anni Albers’ writings include many articles on weaving and design, as well as the book, On Designing (1961). She dedicated On Weaving (1965, re-released by Princeton University Press in 2017) to “my great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru.” She earned numerous honorary doctors and lifetime achievement awards, including an American Craft Council Gold Medal in 1981 for “uncompromising excellence.” Her work was included in many exhibits worldwide, including most recently in a major retrospective at the Tate Modern.

By Eva Santorini, German Embassy

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