ANNI ALBERS at TATE MODERN – 11th October – 27 January 2019
Last week I visited the Anni Albers Exhibition at Tate Modern. I didn’t know much more about her than that she was introduced to hand-weaving at the Bauhaus, where the tutors felt it a more suitable activity for a female than painting. Weaving has often been reduced in significance this way as it was thought to be an activity for women; it was considered a menial job suitable for a mother or wife to fit around her childrearing and domestic chores.
Throughout her career Albers explored the possibilities of weaving as a modernist medium, but one also deeply rooted in highly sophisticated and ancient textile traditions from around the world. Students in the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus produced independent artistic works as well as designs for industrial manufacture. Albers and her colleagues created wall hangings which she considered a modern development to textile art. They described them as, “amazing objects, striking in their newness of conception in regard to use of colour and compositional elements”.
The weaving workshop developed its own distinctive language, making use of the grid structure of weaving, and emphasising haptic or tactile qualities. Albers published two influential books; one on designing and one on weaving. Her seminal book ‘On Weaving’ (1965) serves as a kind of visual atlas by exploring the history of the last 4,000 years of weaving around the world, as well as examining technical aspects of the craft and the development of the Loom. Anni Albers made many of her pictorial weavings on the eight-harness Structo Artcraft handloom pictured below.
The loom is a machine for weaving cloth and was the world’s first piece of automated machinery. The earliest looms actually date from the 5th millennium BCE and consisted of bars or beams fixed in place to form a frame that held a number of parallel threads in two sets which alternated with each other. By raising one set of these threads, which together formed the warp, it was possible to run a weft thread between them. The block of wood used to carry the filling strand through the warp was called the shuttle.
The fundamental operation of the loom remained unchanged, but improvements were introduced through ancient and medieval times in both Asia and Europe. One of the most important of these was the introduction of the heddle, a movable rod that served to raise the upper sheet of warp. In later looms the heddle became a cord, wire, or steel band, several of which could be used simultaneously.
The draw loom, probably invented in Asia for silk weaving, made possible the weaving of more intricate patterns by providing a means for raising warp threads in groups as required by the pattern. The function was at first performed by a boy (the drawboy), but in the 18th century in France the function was successfully mechanized and improved further by the ingenious use of punched cards. Introduced by Jacques de Vaucanson and Joseph-Marie Jacquard, the punched cards programmed the mechanical drawboy, saving labour and eliminating errors. Punched cards were used to direct the weaving of beautiful patterns, punched cards either had holes or no-holes (un-perforated card) – it was binary: yes or no, on or off.
In the mid 19th century Charles Babbage designed an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomic functions. It was called the Difference Engine and was intended to compute many useful tables of numbers – through his interest in mass production methods he realised that he could ‘borrow’ the punched card method of programming from the Weaving Industry as it operated on the same binary system of ones and zeros.
Albers studied the material qualities of yarns, as well as different ways of working with them. Combining yarns and techniques, she was able to create complex, multi-faceted pieces, rich in texture. Using a floating weft technique and brocade weaving (adding surface threads to a basic weave), she was able to integrate additional threads as free lines. She could draw with these threads into the structure of her pictorial weaving.
In the 1940s she began to explore knots by sketching and painting entangled, linear structures; and produced scroll-like works with Celtic-style knots. Albers’ works reflect her statement “The thoughts can, I believe, be traced back to the event of a thread.”
String or thread has been being used to weave fabric for forty thousand years. As the great ice age sheets began retreating from Northern continents humans started inventing. These newly creative hunter-gatherers produced novel tools – awls, pins and chisel-like burins, and they sculpted representations of animals and people. They painted pictures and made hand prints on their cave walls by spitting pigment over a hand placed on the wall. And it was these people who also invented string and sewing by twisted handfuls of little weak fibres together to make long, strong thread, or string.
The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, and pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash when they sold surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.
Anni Albers was aware of the rich feminine history linked to every warp and weft of woven fabric and she was open to creating new works that explored the connection between text and textiles; textiles and architecture; textile as memorial and pictorial weavings, “what I’m trying to get across is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive.”
It should also be mentioned that she developed a range of jewellery made with ubiquitous materials like hair pins, corks and eyelet screws, and she also took to printmaking when weaving became too physically demanding.
Though Albers was in favour of modern design and production, she held a strong belief that technology increasingly dulls our awareness of the tactile, or haptic, as it replaces the need to make things with our hands. In her essay ‘Tactile Sensibility’ she states that
“All progress, so it seems, is coupled to regression elsewhere. We have advanced in general, for instance, in regard to verbal articulation, but we certainly have grown increasingly insensitive to our perception by touch, the tactile sense. For too long we have made too little use of the medium of tactility.’
How interesting it was to see Albers’ work and her commitment to establishing weaving as a modernist medium, but I feel the curators missed a trick, given her obvious inquisitive nature, I felt as if we were left with a bit of cliff-hanger. For me, it would have been an instructive exercise (and fun) to explore how Anni Albers would have coped with, or indeed what would have been her opinion of the use mankind had made of weaving and the adoption of its punched card system? Would she have been excited by this new turn in the history of weaving and its significance in the development and dominance of computers in everyday life? Would she have re-prioritised the visual over the tactile; would she have been inspired by the possibilities of smart textiles; or would she have been appalled at work being made on a screen one removed from the human hand, with no touching and no haptic quality to inform the progress of her ideas?