Art Review: Anni Albers, Tate Modern ‘A Revolutionary Gets Her Due’

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I love art. There is so much to discover in its rich history, particularly in the works of overlooked women. I cannot claim to be familiar with the careers of every women artist out there (one day, everyone!) but until then, there is little that gives me more pleasure than these artists finally having their day.

Enter this massive Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern that pays due respect to an artist whose work redefined textiles as an art form.

Anni’s name I knew; her links with Bauhaus – the Weimar art school that combined crafts with the fine arts – was also somewhere in the recesses of my brain, probably linked through her more well-known husband, Josef, who was a pivotal figure in the movement. But I did not appreciate the wonder of Anni’s contribution, her thinking and her output until I wandered the galleries in this new retrospective of her work.

Anni is forever inextricably linked to Bauhaus, both personally and politically. She studied at the Bauhaus art school in Germany where she also met her future husband, Josef, who went on to become a famed artist and educator. His speciality was architecture; however, the Bauhaus were not so radical when it came to women in their ranks and Anni was shoved towards textiles as one of the few options available to female artists in the school.

But when served lemons…

Anni didn’t let the sexist treatment break her. Instead, she threw herself into her weaving classes and from such an inauspicious start, a seed was sown as Anni would go on to become an extraordinary pioneer.

A key concern for Anni and her Bauhaus collaborators was the chasm that was growing between manufacturing and creativity. Mass-produced products were increasingly soulless, and they could already see craftsmanship was dying. With her work in textiles, Anni wanted to cut right into the heart of that, re-establishing a powerful link between creativity and products. She wanted to challenge manufacturing and looked to her own work to develop new techniques and working with new, innovative materials, and exploring how her efforts could change how we live.

Anni was all about weaving and textiles as an art form separate from the more traditional fine arts. She was not interested in textile traditions that were trying to copy painting, such as Renaissance or Gothic textiles. She believed these western traditions had played a role in bringing textiles down to being a decorative and minor art form.

Instead she wanted to combine the traditional skills with a modern way of thinking and the result was revolutionary.

This exhibition is the result of that ambition. There are over 350 objects on display including beautiful small-scale studies, large wall-hangings, jewellery made from everyday items, and textiles designed for mass production.

The variety of colours and compositional elements is astounding, from a rich Mexican palette of pinks and hot oranges, to austere greys and burgundy reds; and from deliberate and precise right-angled shapes to the wavy lines of chaos.

And look a bit closer because Anni also played with her elements with threads of horsehair amongst the wool, and shimmery glints from strips of cellophane weaved in amongst the cotton.

Not all this work was in Germany, in fact most of her career was spent away from her homeland as the days of the Bauhaus ended with the rise of Nazis.

Anni left Germany in 1933 for the USA where she taught at the experimental Black Mountain College for over 15 years along with her husband. While here she made frequent visits to Mexico, Chile and Peru, amassing an extensive collection of ancient Pre-Columbian textiles. The impact of this exposure to new craft and textile traditions is evident in Anni’s output in the 40s, 50s and 60s. My favourite of this period is the gorgeous Red Meander, 1954, whose bright red pattern is as much influenced by Peruvian traditions as it is by ancient labyrinths.  

Of course, the end of the war brought with it other emotions and considerations. There is no doubt that the most powerful work on display is Anni’s Six Prayers, 1966-7, which is a memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. The Jewish Museum commissioned it and the result was a solemn if simple work composed of six beige, black, white, and silver vertical-woven panels. But this is also an artwork that is powerful and majestic in its air of grace and contemplation, and the Tate does it a great service by setting aside one of the smaller rooms for this to be hung on its own.

But Anni looked forward as much as she looked back and the bigger rooms in this exhibition are dedicated to her exploration of wall hangings as room partitions, weighing up how the placing of fabrics and textiles could shape the way we live rather than just decorate it. And she employed fabrics with purpose too, considering how some elements when combined became sound-proofing or light-reflecting.

It’s interesting how your outlook changes as you mature, isn’t it? Fifteen year ago, perhaps I would have been uninterested in an exhibition of wall hangings and textiles, my eyes maybe would have glazed over at the videos of Anni and others working hard at the looms. Now, though, I was delighted. This is a fantastic show. My only quibble though remains with the entrance fee.

It is £18 (without donation) to see this show, on a level with the entrance fee that was charged for the Picasso show that was in these very same galleries only a month or two before. That’s a hell of a lot of money. You can draw it out of enough people when it’s a big name like the Spanish Master, but I fear few will do it for Anni. Which means she will likely remain another women artist who is not widely known for another generation. A real shame.

Tate Modern, London, to January 27, 2019.
Admission from £18.
All installation images by me.

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