ANNI ALBERS

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

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KAZEMIR MALEVICH – at the Tate Modern. July 2014

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Travelling home from visiting the new Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern today I am trying to understand why I have been so much more impressed with this show than the Matisse cut-outs that have been so highly praised recently? (my blog CUT IT OUT WITH THE CUT OUTS).

Can it just be that I have come to the Turbine Hall with intransigent and preconceived ideas about the merits of these two artists from the early twentieth century?  I have always been unimpressed with Matisse but I do acknowledge he had a big influence on fellow artists in France at that time, and surely if the curators had done their job properly this enormously ambitious (and expensive) show would have won me over?  My problem with the cut-outs is that whilst extremely pleasing to the eye I cannot get a sense of the artist’s mind and soul, of the story behind the prettiness.

However, to walk into the first room of the Malevich exhibition is to witness the range of influences acquired, imitated and assimilated into the melting pot that was this artist’s brain. How fascinating to see replicated on those walls an almost perfect Cezanne pastiche piece and how attractive is the idea that, like the older artist, he too resisted the easy formula choosing to distil his own strong and authentic personal perception of the world.  (my blog PRIMITIVE OF A NEW ART).

The second room finds Malevich applying those new artistic trends to Russian subjects – the distilling process had begun – and in the third room Malevich rejects Futurist obsession for speed, war and the cult of the machine for Russian themes, applying the new fractured planes of cubism to rural scenes and peasant folk.  Catalogue notes say that ‘having followed the innovations of Paris, Malevich was now finding the confidence to outpace them’, a huge claim, but I prefer to think that the work seen here, whilst brilliantly executed still forms part of his formative stage.

Room four illustrates the leap of ideas from one stage of an artist’s development, through the stimulation of a change of discipline, into the creation of an original new form of visual representation.  In collaboration with a musician and a poet Malevich staged a futurist opera, Victory over the Sun and the group’s innovative treatment of language proved fundamental to Malevich’s thinking.  The idea of words without meaning encouraged him to conceive of, what he called, alogical painting, allowing colours and forms to sever their ties to the physical world.  The coloured geometric shapes of the costumes he designed for Victory over the Sun and the dividing up of the backdrops into fields of colour helped Malevich make the radical move to abstraction.

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Here, at this point in Malevich’s career we witness how a great moment in art was achieved and Suprematism was born.  He has said “What was done unconsciously is now bearing extraordinary fruit”, but what occurred was no accident, it was the result of his incredible immersion into the ideas of that time and, through some process or connection in his brain, it culminated in his painting called Black Square –  essentially the ultimate abstract painting – with no colour, just a black square painted onto a larger white one.  In reproductions it is easy to miss the dense, layered thickness of this black hole.

From this point the exhibition follows Malevich’s obsession with abstraction and his gradual elimination of the figurative.  Whilst Russia underwent extreme change and bloody turmoil the Russian people disappeared from Malevich’s “non-objective and pure” canvasses, “colour harnessed into geometric forms, arranged to convey a sense of agitation and movement drifting together or apart, in a finely balanced tension between order and chaos”. And we witness Malevich enacting the gradual dissolution of painting with his white forms against a white background – the distillation was complete.

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But Malevich the man was still watching and distilling the influences all around him and in the last rooms we see the pull of Russian folk to have been too great.  He returns, re-invigorated by his abstract de-cluttering to produce some beautiful paintings that are proto post-modernist statements allowing a mix of all styles with aesthetic harmony the only yardstick.  Yet the little black square is still present, now used as his logo in place of a signature.

The strength of this exhibition (as opposed to the Cut-Outs) is, I think, because it tells a human story whilst elucidating and educating the viewer about the mysterious alchemy involved in creating an important modern icon.

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CUT IT OUT WITH THE CUT-OUTS

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition, Tate Modern, London, Britain - 14 Apr 2014

We were promised proof that Henri Matisse was “one of the most innovative painters of the twentieth century” but instead all we got was large-scale graphic designs.  I was disappointed by this exhibition, to hear all the hype this show was going to set the record straight about Henri Matisse but I came away with the impression that this show had been put together purely to pander to popular tastes.

I can only assume that together Nicholas Cullinan, Flavia Frigeri and Nicholas Serota decided they wanted something pretty, colourful and exuberant on their walls that demanded no thought whatever to appreciate.  So they assembled this over-blown tribute to an artist who can never hold a candle to, yes you know what I’m going to say, to Pablo Picasso.

I’d like to ask the organising team, how they think that this show can add anything to our knowledge of the great developments in contemporary art in the 20th century?  I humbly suggest that the answer is, it doesn’t.  It is pretty, it is colourful and it is a great testament to the artistic imperative to create in the face of overwhelming odds.  He did produce some great paintings early on and his influence on the young Picasso must be acknowledged.  But I am afraid Tate Modern has let the old man down and done nothing to position him as one of the great innovators of the twentieth century.

As I walked around the Tate Modern one name kept popping into my mind, and when I tell you who I know you’ll gasp, but the truth is Clarise Cliff decorated early twentieth century pottery with similar exuberance and used a palette of brave colour combinations too, channelling the Jazz age in much the same way as old Henri did at that time.  To produce work like this when you are old and infirm is a truly great achievement, I can agree, but when it comes to new ways of depicting human life and delving into the great issues that plagued Europe at such a dark time in its history then I’m afraid these crafty cut-outs don’t even come near.  They just don’t do it for me.