Anni Albers

By Megan Starke

Anni Albers is a German artist who is best known for her work as a part of the progressive Bauhaus art school, where she was a student who adhered strictly to the ideas put for by the Bauhaus’s founders.  Her works exemplified the Bauhaus’s reverence of materials used, love of modernity in art, and use of geometric abstraction over narrative images.  The Bauhaus also sought to create a strong sense of community within the art world, pushing artists to use their own talents to assist in a greater, collective work of art.  Anni Albers was more than happy to play her part, and for that she is remembered as a truly exceptional Bauhaus artist.

The artist who would one day be known as one of the great legacies of the famous Bauhaus school was born Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann on June 12, 1899 in Berlin.[1]   Her parents were Siegfried Fleischmann and Toni Ullstein Fleischmann, and she was the eldest of three children in an aristocratic family.  As a young child, Anni longed to be an artist and did not feel as though her family felt the same way that she did about art.  They were supportive, however, of her ambitions, and by the time she was an adolescent her family had provided her with a private art tutor.[2]  She also studied with an Impressionist painter, Martin Brandenburg, and in 1920 attended the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg (The School of Applied Arts in Hamburg.)  She was highly disappointed by her education there, and when she received a leaflet from the Bauhaus with a depiction of a modern cathedral on the front, her interest was peaked.  She later remarks that someone had told her the Bauhaus was a new, experimental place and she felt as though she was meant to be a part of it.[3]

It took Anni two tries to gain admittance into the Bauhaus, and she began the mandatory Vorkurs (preliminary course) on April 21, 1922.  The initial experience did not quite live up to her imagination, as Anni Albers’s first ambition upon entering the Bauhaus was to become a painter.  Though the Bauhaus was extremely progressive in comparison to the society that it existed in, it could not completely escape the male-dominated society outside its walls.  Much of the Bauhaus was reserved only for men, and the women were directed to participate in the book-binding, pottery, and textile workshops.[4].  Albers wished instead to follow in the steps of the great Bauhaus artists that she admired so much, like Vasily Kandisnky and Paul Klee, [5] and she did not allow her forced place as a woman to hold her back.  She instead took her given medium and used it to create art that exemplified both her own ideals and those of the Bauhaus.

Though she first felt some hesitancy, she eventually became enthralled in the excitement surrounding her.  She described the atmosphere as a thrilling place full of searching, innovative minds that had not yet reached their status as masters.[6] About her personal change of heart she states: “My beginning was far from what I had hoped for: fate put into my hands limp threads! Threads to build a future?  But distrust turned into belief and I was on my way.”[7]

The Bauhaus was a progressive environment, and one that many students such as Albers were eager to become a part of.  The First World War was thought by many at the time to be the product of a societal breakdown, which was a consequence of the moral degradation of people and a general obsession with material culture.  After the war, many artists reacted by taking it upon themselves to lead the misguided masses into a society that once again focused on community, productivity, and general well being.  The Bauhaus, which was founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, was one of the many artistic reactions to the war. [8]   This institution placed a particular emphasis on the importance of communal interaction in the art world and the rest of society.  This was so important to Gropius that the program he distributed to promote the Bauhaus had a print of a gothic cathedral depicted on the cover[9].  The cathedral was a representation of a time in Germany when people worked together with different artistic means to create the cathedral, or the greater work of art.  It represented the rejection of materialism and the promotion of spirituality, pride, and anonymous workmanship for the greater good.  The Bauhaus, which literally means in German to “build a house,” represented the use of all artistic mediums and processes to create a “gesamtkunstwerk,” or total work of art.  The Bauhaus was seen by its teachers and attendees as that modern day cathedral, their “gesamtkunstwerk.”

The Bauhaus was an unconventional environment that was strikingly different from the Academic style of art education prior to that time.  Instead of spending years of study on work of ancient Masters, students spent their time studying lines, forms, and colors, the basic building blocks of art.  These principles, though highly avant-garde at the time, would come to govern the way almost every future studio class would be taught.  It focused on the students as individuals, and allowed them to explore their own creativity.

Some of the leading figures within the Bauhaus had connections to Russian Productivism, such as Vasily Kandisnky.  The Bauhaus represents a mixture of Academic and Productivist art.  Productivism promoted the idea that art should only be created if it was useful in society, and this heavily influenced the Bauhaus.  They did, however, retain fine art elements to keep with their own ideal of encompassing all arts under one roof.  The Bauhaus was insistent upon destroying the barriers between a craftsman and artist, and to more importantly reconnect art with life.  Albers describes the mission of the Bauhaus by saying: “the Bauhaus attempts to give the house what it needs today—functional form….its goals are the clear structure of things, suitable materials, and a new type of beauty.  This new beauty is not style…Today a thing is beautiful when its form is in agreement with its function, and when it has been made of well chosen materials.”[10]
          The Bauhaus and its principles in art making were the artist’s way of combating the lack of depth that they saw in early 20th century art. They believed that their use of modern materials to abstractly represent concepts would allow the viewer to move past the easy narratives shown in literal depictions of subjects, and that this challenge to the mind would help to create a more productive and ultimately, a happier society.  These ideas were met with a great deal of criticism in Germany, and many issues arose when the general public began to see these principles as far too communist for Germany’s taste.  The artists, however, were much more concerned with their self-given status as a sort of artistic prophet, bringing the masses to see a new way of living so that they would ultimately approach art in a different manor.

Albers’s work was typical of the type of work produced by Bauhaus artists.  She focused on creating simple patterns in her textiles rather than complex literal narratives. The shapes were simple and geometric in order to create an emotion through implying movement and contrasting these shapes and colors against each other.  Her choice of pattern emphasizes the natural texture and pattern of the weaving itself, staying true to the mission to glorify materials.

Anni Albers’s work represents all of the ideals of a Bauhaus work of art.  She employs the use of simple geometric abstraction, done in patterns that show the influence of De Stijl (a similar art movement which used geometric abstraction to create more “pure” art works,) and limited highly contrasted and simplified colors juxtaposed against each other to convey a sense of emotion that would previously have been done by making a figurative work.  She was very much part of a movement to remove figures from painting and create works that could relay a message effectively without being materialistic.  The patterns are simple and many of these works were made to be functioning pieces of art.  Some of Albers’s works were created to be used as rugs, throws, etc, but some of them were created simply to be wall hangings.  This speaks of her previous desire to be a painter, and to have the prestige that came along with being such.

Her works were not only influenced by the modern world that she lived in, but a long past history of textiles.  She was very interested in Andean textiles, and many of her simple patterns and mathematical weaving methods are modeled after these.[11] She did not, however, want to recreate these ancient textiles, but like everyone else in the Bauhaus she sought to make them modern.  The Bauhaus, and Albers’s, felt that the movement towards geometric abstraction would promote a universal artistic language that could be understood by everyone.[12] This was assisted when the Bauhaus made its move in 1924 from Weimar to the more industrial city of Dessau, and the weaving department acquired more sophisticated looms.  With these new mechanical looms Albers could create sharper lines, enhancing the geometric appearance of the shapes and allowing more precision in her work.  This also allowed for her to begin experimenting with layering in the production of color, allowing for the richer appearance of the color blocks.  Also at this time Albers begins to use synthetic materials alongside natural ones, allowing for a sheen that would give her work more dimensions and highlight the materials used.[13]  By this point, the Bauhaus as a whole had begun to industrialize, and Albers along with it. The Bauhaus began to place a growing emphasis on objects that could be mass-produced, but Albers retained her semi-traditional instincts and insisted that handiwork was a crucial part of the art-making process.[14]

Albers’s work is particularly important because of her undying commitment to the Bauhaus and its principles.  She took ordinary objects and elevated them to the level of fine art; she took a craftsman’s position and elevated it to that of an artist’s.  She did not allow her forced position as a weaver deter her from accomplishing her mission to create art that worked to convey emotion and modernity through minimalist means.  She is a shining example of what the Bauhaus sought to instill within its students, and had a love for art as a modern craft that could lead a broken society into a happier, creative community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Feninger, Lyonel. Cathedral (Kathedrale for Program of the State Bauhaus in Weimar (Programm des Staatlichen Bauhauses in Weimar). Woodblock print, 1919. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York.

 

Troy, Virginia Gardner, Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles. Burlington: Ashgate 2002.

 

Webber, Nicholas Fox, Anni Albers. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1999.

 

Whitford, Frank, Bauhaus. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.


[1] Nicholas Fox Webber, Anni Albers (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1999), 153

 

[2] Webber, 154

[3] Webber, 155

[4] Webber, 156

[5] Webber, 9

[6] Webber, 155

[7] Webber, 156

[8] Frank Whitford, Bauhaus (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), 37

[9] Lyonel Feninger, Cathedral (Kathedrale for Program of the State Bauhaus in Weimar (Programm des Staatlichen Bauhauses in Weimar), woodblock print, 1919, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York.

[10] Webber, 156

[11] Virginia Gardner Troy, Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles, (Burlington: Ashgate 2002), 73.

[12] Troy, 74.

[13] Troy, 74.

[14] Troy, 93.

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