●Edition 2: Learning From

Dry Time

Anni Albers Weaving the Threads of the Past

Anni Albers, Monte Alban, 1936, Silk, linen, wool.
Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard G. Leahy.
© The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.

When the Bauhaus was formed it was meant to be the reversed image of contemporary history and society. If the outside world was a field where opposing forces, in the form of class and national struggles, raged, the Bauhaus aimed to extricate itself from these conflicts in order to establish an alternative primordial community. In this essay, Maria Stavrinaki comments on what seems to be Anni Albers’s problematic relationship to the past in general and to history in particular. Anni Albers is not a unique case though, but rather a case study, which despite its particularities, can be considered as analogical to the Bauhaus in general.

When the Bauhaus was formed in the aftermath of World War I and the Spartacist Revolution, it was meant to be the reversed image of contemporary history and society. If the outside world was a field where opposing forces, in the form of class and national struggles, raged, the Bauhaus aimed to extricate itself from these conflicts in order to establish an alternative primordial community. In this community, the Gestaltung of men counted as much as that of things, the two being strictly interdependent. Within the exercises dictated by Johannes Itten to his students, the material and historical conflicts of the outside world were thus sublimated into balanced contrasts of forms and colors.1 Rather than seize the impure contradictory world—as Dada did at the same time, according to its homeopathic logic of curing evil with evil—the Bauhaus invested in the illusion of immaculate origins, unscathed by history and its conflicts.2 This approach only seems paradoxical: its fundamentally anti-materialist stance, namely the escape from conflictual reality, relied largely on matter—more specifically on the sensitive appropriation of the scarce matter that was still available and the subsequent rediscovery of its promised tactility. Thus, matter was not considered as a synecdoche of a net of relationships and means of production, but rather as the synecdoche of a timeless relationship between the subject and the world.

Several years later, in the wake of even more profound historical crises, Anni Albers would immigrate to the United States, and the Bauhaus itself became a thing of the past—an altogether personal, collective, and national past. At that time, she would often comment on the chaotic and disorienting character of life in Germany in the years after the First World War. “Outside was the world I came from, a tangle of hopelessness, of undirected energy, of cross-purposes,”3 she said. But if the outside reality was a “tangle,” that is a mess of conflictual and opaque experiences, the Bauhaus promised to unravel its heterogeneous threads in order to weave them anew, according to a pattern and a meaning. The metaphor, therefore, worked both ways: the chaos of history found a privileged metaphor in the intermingling of threads and the coherent weaving practiced at the School could be in turn a symbolic model for the society to come. Metaphors do not only to describe history, but also produce it.

Of course, Albers immediately added that “inside, at the Bauhaus, after some two years of its existence, there was confusion too, but certainly no hopelessness or lovelessness, rather exuberance with its own kind of confusion.” Thus, listening to Gropius present the Bauhaus project in 1923 (the year of the school’s famous turn towards industrial rationalization), Albers was undergoing “the experience of a gradual condensation, of our hoping and musing into a focal point, into a meaning, into some distant, stable objective.”4 In other words, the “tangle” of outer reality was interpreted as an “end” experience, whereas the “confusion” of the Bauhaus was an experience of a beginning. This ambivalent temporal identity—a single moment that is experienced both as an end and a beginning—is a salient feature of the historicity of modernity, understood as a regime of “crisis” and as a “situation of breach,” for better or for worse.5 “What had existed, proved to be wrong,” Albers added in 1938. Anyone seeking to find a point of certainty amidst the confusion of upset beliefs and hoping to lay a foundation for a work which was oriented towards the future, had to start at the very beginning.”6 Reified traditions, transformed into dry formulas, were of no help to life and the Bauhaus wanted to revive the corpse by experimenting with materials close at hand, materials that were at the same time substitutes for the missing experience and a means for re-establishing it.

In this essay, I would like to comment on what seems to me to be Anni Albers’s problematic relationship to the past in general and to history in particular. Anni Albers is not a unique case though, but rather a case study, which despite its particularities, can be considered as analogical to the Bauhaus in general. Yet, I’ll limit myself to two aspects of this relationship, namely to a certain kind of primitivism and its evolution, in the 1930s, into the conception of the historical regime of the “longue durée.”

The primitivism of the first Bauhaus was different from the aesthetic and conceptual modernist use of the masks and other wood artifacts before the First World War. Although the Bauhaus inherited this kind of aesthetic affiliation, its members were much more interested in a re-foundation of history and society and thus reactivated some of the most important ideas that—since the exploration and the colonization of the “New World” and all through the conjectural history of Enlightenment—had constituted the “first” steps of human societies. It was this conjectural “beginning,” reactivated by a devastated industrial society, that was deeply anti-materialist and anti-historical, since it aimed to sublimate a “poor” historical situation with an “elementary” beginning. “Poor” is used here in the sense given to modern “experience” by Walter Benjamin, an Armseligkeit interpreted as a fundamental rupture between the past and the present, a rupture due to the “tremendous development of technology,” to which society was not adapted and thus corresponded to a “new kind of barbarism.”7 For Benjamin, it was urgent to relinquish what he considered to be bourgeois culture’s most harmful function: its transformation into a contemplative sphere that guaranteed an autonomous subject and an autonomous class the privilege of purity in a dirty world. Benjamin opposed the ideal of the Bildung of a “new man,” hysterically prevalent in Germany in those years, with the metaphor of a man who “lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present.”8 The Bauhaus eliminated all materialistic determination from the poverty of the present, making it essentially a moral value, according to the logic of a profoundly Christian reversal: “the last will be first.”9

There are at least four aspects of this reversal that were necessary to the ideological foundation of the Bauhaus. First, and as Gropius asserted in plenty of texts, the material poverty of Germany after a four-year war and its subsequent defeat was meant to be converted into a spiritual wealth, something like a plus-value of interiority, which was supposed to make the humiliated nation a model in the struggle against universal materialism. Intoxicated by their supposed victory, Germany’s adversaries were unable to take over this task.10 Second, the acknowledged devaluation of artistic tradition in modernity was considered to be the very condition for its future flowering. Anni Albers would thus write that the weaving workshop was “fortunate not to have had the traditional training in the craft. It’s no easy task to throw useless conventions overboard.”11 Third, the scarcity of materials in an impoverished country ultimately brought about the rediscovery of what was immediately available and “natural”: the Sommerfeld House, built from wood, was presented by Gropius as an incredible opportunity. Finally, the very lack of concrete tasks for the first Bauhaus allowed its members to undertake the “re-foundation” of the arts through playful activity, which Friedrich Schiller once referred to as the field of freedom because it was opposed to blind necessity.12 In Albers’s words: “Unburdened by any considerations of practical applications, this uninhibited play of materials resulted in amazing objects […] of often barbaric beauty.”13 Now, if for Benjamin the new, positive concept of barbarism meant “to begin with a little and build up further” in an “arbitrary, constructed” language, with no organicity left in it, it was because of these new barbarians that Brecht or Klee for instance, weren’t “yearning for new experience,” but were longing “to free themselves from it.” Benjamin elaborated further: “They long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty—their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty—that it will lead to something respectable.”14

Primitivist discourse is of course antithetical to this line of thought. While it depends deeply on this ideology of deprivation, lack, and scarcity, primitivist ideology is seldom neutral. Far more often, it is either positively inclined, as in the case of the “noble savage,” or negatively inclined, as it is the case in its familiar racist discourses. The topos of primitive “lack” is very important and as such has countless and varied examples. However, I would like to revisit one of the first, that of the Jesuit missionary Joseph François Lafitau, who discovered the Iroquois of North America.15 In his comparative study Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains, Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps [Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times], published in 1724, he was describing the Iroquois as “men deprived of everything, without letters, without sciences, without apparent laws, without a Temple for the most part, without a regulated Worship,” adding that they seemed as if they were “just coming out of the mud of the earth.”16 The “comparison” is based on the “without,” the zero degree of institutional and cultural history, the white page ready for the writing of European History on the new land and its people. By contrast, in Germany, the “without” came after an overwritten history, which had not only lost its meaning, but was also felt to be all the more negative. Considered as the consciousness and the use of the past, history was still equivalent to the historicism that Nietzsche had criticized so harshly; considered as a process of events taking place in the present, it was, as stated above, confusing, conflictual, and hugely disappointing. The primitivistic “without” could thus resonate with the deprivation of national pride, economic misery, and, most importantly, the loss of a valid common experience. All those specific “withouts” were to be converted into primordial values. Such was the case in the weaving workshop.

Anni Albers, Ancient Writing, 1936, cotton and rayon.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Young, 1984.150.
© The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.

Virginia Gardner Troy and other scholars have already carried out the fascinating and valuable work of identifying the precise ethnological patterns that inspired the artists in the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus.17 For my part, I will attempt to articulate three concepts that carry and operate the ethnologization of weaving, and that I consider to be complementary to its de-historicization: namely tactility, barbarism, and what I will call the quest for “constraint.” These three concepts seem to converge perfectly in the practice of weaving, which can be interpreted as a paradigmatic medium in and of the Bauhaus school, despite the fact that it was marginalized within the institution along gendered lines.

First, it is useful to recall that the preference for tactility, understood as the first sense used by the species and the individual to grasp the world and oneself, is a habitual schema of modern anti-intellectualism. Its first seeds can be found in Herder (Die Plastik, 1778), who formulated the hypothesis that the evolution from touch to sight repeated the evolution of humanity for each individual: “The eyes of children see as their hands touch,” he wrote. “Nature proceeds with each individual as it has done with all species, from touch to sight, from plastic to pictorial.” He thus condemned the pictoriality and what he called the “shadows” of the Moderns in order to praise the touch favored by the Ancients: “To what extent we are inferior to them, will be judged by a time to come.”18 And that time did come and judge, for instance in the person of Johannes Itten, who, under the influence of a major art historical and pedagogical turn, made tactility the basis of his teaching.19

As for the figure of the “barbarian,” its modern emergence is more or less contemporary to Herder’s reevaluation of tactility. Benjamin’s “new barbarian” is its distorted echo. As Eric Michaud recently argued, the German Romantics had de-barbarized the “barbarian” and cleared it of the negative association brought about by serving as a contrast to “classical cultures,” thus making it one of the foundational collective subjects of modern history in general and art history in particular.20 Even if the “barbarians” constituted the essential primitivistic turn of modernity along with other figures, such as indigenous and prehistoric peoples, they nevertheless maintained a particular identity: that of a Volk full of vitality, which was able to live and determine its own history independently of normative cultures, even though—and this was its main advantage—it had not yet achieved a refined form of culture. Because it was seen as a specific stage of civilization—savage, barbaric, civilized21—the idea of the “barbarian” was understood as distinct from tribal cultures in Africa and Oceania, which in the western imaginary remained outside of history, prisoners of the enchanted circle of nature and myth. The “barbaric beauty” evoked by Albers meant precisely this early stage of culture: neither savage, nor over-civilized.

However, it would be wrong to understand the Bauhaus’s “primitivism” solely as the quest for freedom from the historicist past and the desire to assert the eruption of the new in a reified world. It also promised a form of constraint that would put an end to the excesses of freedom, in the form of liberalism, of atomization and, more generally, of the individualist dissolution of modernity.22 Much emphasis has been placed on modernity as a process of autonomization vis-à-vis God, nature, and society. And faithful to this approach, any rejections of these processes were considered reactionary, which of course they very often were. However, there are also many cases that invalidate dualism—the division between the modern and the anti-modern, the revolutionaries and the reactionaries, etc.—and they do so even more powerfully because they are intrinsically, structurally ambivalent. As such, they demonstrate well the electric tension that is inherent in modernity. For me, interest in the Bauhaus lies in its fraught relationship with history, technology, and collectivity. If the rules of archaic societies were understood to restrict individual freedom, and if the serial cultures of indigenous and other archaic societies minimized the importance of rupture and novelty in creation, the modern subject, left to herself, aspired to invent her own constraints. Lacking in the collectively shared reality, these constraints were instead inherent to the medium itself. It was the medium, entirely human-made and yet transcendental, which provided the necessary exteriority to determine its conditions and yet to be tamed. As Albers would say in “Material as Metaphor” an aptly titled text: “It was threads that caught me, really against my will. To work with threads seemed sissy to me. I wanted something to be conquered. I learn to listen to them and speak their language.”23 The restrictive laws that were missing in culture as a totality could be thus found in a tiny piece of fabric.

What was remarkable about weaving was that it was less submissive than any other medium to the differentiating power of history. By differentiation, I mean here the specificity and the non-iteration of historical events, as well as the act of deferring, of delaying time, as analyzed in the first “grammatological” writings of Jacques Derrida.24 According to Albers, weaving was at the same time the most “primitive” and the most “self-reflexive” medium, that is to say also the most “modern.” Between the direct expressivity of the “primitive” and the thoughtful critical gaze of the “modern,” not much has changed through time and space. Even though this belief does imply Albers’s anti-evolutionist thinking, in that she was ready to recognize a high complexity in the presumed “beginnings,” it does not imply any less the idea that the textile, despite its utter material fragility, was more likely than other mediums to escape the corrosive action of time. In textiles, time was dry for many reasons.

The first reason was the primary structure of the textile, “the intricate interlocking of two sets of threads at right angles,” which was inscribed in the structure of its tool—the “loom”: “During the 4,500 years or, in some estimates, even 8,000 years that we believe mankind had been weaving, the process itself had been unaffected by the various devices that contributed to greater speed of execution. We still deal in weaving, as at the time of its beginning, with a rigid set of parallel threads in tension and mobile one that transverses it at right angles.”25 This material resistance, this constraint, channeled the form into typological series that were not inexhaustible, but were slightly variable and limited in number. To use here the logic of the art historian George Kubler, who became a source of inspiration for Albers when she was in the United States, the intricate interlocking of two sets of threads was a “primal object” that occurred across countries and centuries in the form of series with little variation.26 Albers wrote: “During 8,000 years, the speed is not the issue, but the contrast, the rigid set of parallel threads and the mobile one that are transverse at right angles. [...]. If we follow the various inventions through the ages, we will not be led on historical detours, interesting per se, but we will arrive at the underlying ideas in the mechanism of today’s operation.”27 In other words, the “constraint” of weaving was anthropological, while history, that is the changing and differentiating element in the formation of a culture that Albers called the “detours,” was consolidated, crystallized and contained in the historical forms of the “longue durée.” When history became too random, too contradictory, too arbitrary, too nightmarish, too dissolutive as well, the constraint of the “loom” provided the desired constancy.

As several scholars have pointed out, the discovery of the New World was particularly crucial for Josef and Anni Albers as they fled National Socialism. There Europeans could still glimpse humanity’s universal past in indigenous peoples, and in archeology’s reflexive approach. “Weaving” was not just one of the oldest arts by way of analogy and conjecture, as even Gottfried Semper understood it, but one could touch it in the present, such as it was extracted from the dry sediments of Peru. In this latitude, historical and meteorological time was “dry.” As such, it was static and inalterable, with no event capable of splitting its mass. Rather, the events were dissolving like “scum,” to use the famous metaphor coined by the primary theorist of the “longue durée,” the Annales historian Fernand Braudel.28

Anni Albers thought about the historical evolution of weaving along these lines. In her now classic “On Weaving,” she wrote: “Works of art, to my mind, are the ancient Peruvian pieces, preserved in an arid climate and excavated after hundreds of years.”29 In this arid environment, where the rain does never exert its erosive effect, the objects of the past are preserved in a remarkable way, providing evidence of what a textile is—as much in the deepest past as today.30 During the same years that Anni and Joseph Albers were discovering dry Pre-Colombian cultures, the French art historian Henri Focillon was authoring an important preface to a collective international publication on folklore.31 In this text, he made a distinction between the different temporalities of two kinds of cultures: urban-modern and rural. He argued: “Urban environments have an accelerated, extremely mobile notion of time, capable of an artificial reversibility (archaism) and of artificial anticipations. Multiplicity of labor divides it into several short, but numerous intervals which push each other and bring to action, in ordinary life, its jerky, feverish character. It imposes on everyone the urgency to go beyond the limits of time and constantly renew the matter of existence. It is in this way that the notion of the modern is born in art, determined by an acute need of synchronism and by the fear of being surpassed.” And he added that: “To this accelerated time is opposed a slow and even motionless time, where the past is the contemporary of the present, where the slightest idea of ​​the future escapes intelligence. In these steppes of time, in this vast monotony of days, much can be done, but nothing happens. Facts are accumulating, without ever giving birth to an event. The cultures of slowed time are naturally characterized by survivals, beliefs, folklore, popular arts. Invention, in the full sense of the word, is banned.”

In Peru or in Mexico, the Albers forgot the exhausting modern “synchronism,” the effort to always be in step with acceleration, while obeying an equally strong need to invent, but out of oneself, the reversibility of time.32 As for the reversibility and other dialectics of time—Albers spoke of “detours” as among the harmful privileges of modernity: not there anymore, and yet still buried somewhere, be it the unconscious, the prehistoric, the barbaric or the folkloric. Being in Peru or in Mexico, the Albers no longer needed to forget what was culturally close in order to discover what was culturally distant—such as the language of abstraction: “Mexico is truly the promised land of abstract art,” exclaimed Josef Albers in front of the repetitive schematization of the pyramids.33 Finding themselves for the first time in a “steppe of time,” like those described by Focillon, the Albers no longer simply visited museums to make the acquaintance of isolated objects, but were synchronous, in flesh and bones, with “dry” cultures. It was probably the first time that the past was not cut off from the present. Clearly, if the two artists were completely opposed to this vulgar evolutionism, which disturbed the simplicity of the so-called primitives and the complexity of the moderns, they didn’t really escape the idea that archaic cultures knew no evolution, no change, no history.34

Speaking many years later of the one thousand “small pieces” in their collection of Pre-Columbian art, Anni Albers recounted that they “came from prehistoric sites from little boys offering them to us through the car window, just as turkeys and goats were also held for sale […] century-old Pre-Colombian pieces found by peasants when plowing their fields.” “Yes, here was a country whose earth still yielded such art,” so much so that a woman, holding a little sculpture, told to them: “Es natural.”35 “Es natural”: farmers cultivated the earth and instead of plants sprouted tiny prehistoric sculptures that were still wrapped in clay when the Albers brought them home to wash them and discover their Gestalt. This “eternal present” was diametrically opposed to what the historian François Hartog called “presentism,” the regime of historicity of an eternal transition, in which experiences dissolve like sand. Anni Albers would thus often refer to the “devastating multiplicity” of her time, such as the communication techniques that “stress the moment, the temporary” and “accelerate the rise and fall of ideas,” the “waste paper” that was the “yesterday’s paper,” in sum: “All these objects that distract us” and against which her tight weaving had to fight.

However, it would be simplistic and partial to claim that the encounter between Anni Albers and archaic cultures is entirely intelligible through this mythologization of the eternally present “other.” The conflictual ambivalence that seems to be at the heart of modernity comes through clearly in Anni Albers’s writing: “Present is obscured by its own familiarity.”36 In modernity, this “familiarity,” which was inherent to all present, was not only disrupted by the brutality of the technique, the shock of accelerating cadences, successive technical inventions or the unsettling sensitive and conceptual codes of the avant-gardes, but also by a distant and often ignored past, full of astonishing revelations. Albers often praised the “direct” and “expressive” character of pre-Columbian textiles, which she often explained by the absence of writing in these cultures: “Along with cave paintings,” she wrote, “threads were among the earliest transmitters of meaning. In Peru, where no written language in the generally understood sense had developed even by the time of the Conquest in the sixteenth century we find—to my mind not in spite of it but because of it—one of the most refined textile cultures we have come to know. Other periods in other parts of the world have achieved highly developed textiles, perhaps even technically more intricate ones, but none has preserved the expressive directness through its own history by this specific means.”37 In other words, writing (l’écriture), this detour of experience through arbitrary, linear codes, diminished the “direct presence” of textiles, in the same way that it reduced the impact of the spoken word to communicate and in the same way that both the discourse and the discipline of history—by definition writing and the written medium—delayed and even distorted the relationship between the past and the present. Writing as the platonic pharmakon was not unknown to Albers and history, after all, was also conceived as a negative interval, a difference, a delay, forbidding the direct experience of the past and aggravating the alienating dissolution of the present. As dry and tangible documents of the past, good textiles were supposed to serve as both the erasers of history and as survivors of a past that remains present.

And yet, it’s also true that this live, tactile past did not have a clear message to deliver. Its narrative was suspended, its meaning was opaque. On the one hand, Albers was looking for a coherently woven world, in which each element had its place. On the other, she insisted that this meaning was unintelligible, escaping her grasp, much like the eternal (or the deep past, as exemplified by the cave paintings). One of the advantages of the deep past was its very unintelligibility. Albers, therefore, ultimately made the following analogy between the past and the present: just as “some of the earliest weavings unearthed after thousands of years have the magic of things not yet found useful,” the contemplative works she increasingly aimed for in her pictorial weavings had to be self-contained, self-absorbed, and mute, keeping their meanings within themselves: “To let threads be articulate again and find a form for themselves to no other end than their own orchestration, not to be sat on, walked on, only to be looked at, is the raison d’être of my pictorial weavings.”38 Utility was at the service of the familiar present: through its clear and unequivocal meaning, it should, therefore, fade, much like writing or history, leaving the opacity of form alone to disrupt, if only for a while, the automatism of the present.

  • 1 I have analyzed Itten’s method of sublimation and his production of charisma in Maria Stavrinaki, “The African Chair or the Charismatic Object”, Grey Room, no. 41, Fall 2010, 88–110.
  • 2 On the homeopathic logic of Dada, see Hal Foster, “Dada Mime”, October, 105, 2003, 166–176.
  • 3 Anni Albers, “On Walter Gropius” (1947), Craft Horizons, vol. 29, no. 5, Sept–Oct 1969, 4.
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 Dialectics are inherent to thought pertaining to the apocalypse. “Messianic pains” is thus a telling Jewish metaphor of this dialectic. This secularization of the apocalyptic thought, analyzed by Karl Löwith in his essential Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1949), had recently been set forth in the influential Geist der Utopie, München/Leipzig, Duncker & Humblot, 1918.
  • 6 Anni Albers, “Weaving at the Bauhaus,” (1938), in Anni Albers, Selected Writings on Design, ed. Brenda Danilowitz, Wesleyan University Press, 2000, 3–5.
  • 7 Walter Benjamin, “Erfahrung und Armut” (1933), translated into English as “Experience and Poverty” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2, part 2, 1931–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, H. Eiland, G. Smith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • 8 Ibid.
  • 9 Bible, Book of Matthew, 19.13–20.16.
  • 10 Here I am thinking of “Der Kampf als Inneres Erlebnis,” published by Ernst Jünger in 1922, where he dissociates the war’s meaning (its “Inneres Erlebnis”) from its issues. He does not attribute victory and defeat to the Allies and to the Germans, but to those who did or did not understood the meaning of the war. The fact that Jünger was developing proto-fascist thought should not diminish this comparison, since neither fascism nor the Bauhaus were isolated, autonomous, purely cultural or purely political phenomena.
  • 11 Albers, “Weaving at the Bauhaus,” (1938), in Albers, Selected Writings on Design, 3–5.
  • 12 Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1793), transl. E. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby, Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • 13 Albers, “Weaving at the Bauhaus,” (1938), in Albers, Selected Writings on Design, 3–5.
  • 14 Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty.”
  • 15 Joseph François Lafitau, Mœurs des sauvages américains comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps, Paris, Saugrain l’aîné, 1724. On Lafitau, see the nuanced essay by Michèle Duchet, Le partage des savoirs. Discours historique, discours ethnologique, Paris, La Découverte, 1984.
  • 16 Lafitau, Mœurs des sauvages américains comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps, 104–105.
  • 17 Virginia Gardner Troy, Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles: From Bauhaus to Black Mountain, Ashgate, 2002.
  • 18 Johann Gottfried Herder, Plastik:Einige Wahrnehmungen über Form und Gestalt aus Pygmalions bildendem Traume (1778), (2.4.2020); On the genealogy of tactility in aesthetic and art historical thought from Herder on, see Eric Michaud, The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, October Books, 2019.
  • 19 On tactility at the Bauhaus, see Regina Bittner, “Towards a Tangible Pedagogy–Dimensions of Tactility at the Bauhaus,” (2.4.2020).
  • 20 Eric Michaud, The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art.
  • 21 Lewis Henri Morgan, Ancient Society. Researches in the Lines of Human Progress. From Savagery, through Barbarim, to Civilization, New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1877.
  • 22 I have analyzed this tension, and apparent paradox, of constraint and freedom, more thoroughly in my book Contraindre à la liberté. Carl Einstein, les avant-gardes, l’histoire, Paris/Dijon, Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte/Les presses du réel, 2018.
  • 23 Anni Albers, “Material as Metaphor” (1982), Selected Writings, 73–75.
  • 24 Jacques Derrida, De la Grammatologie, Paris, Minuit, 1967.
  • 25 Anni Albers, On Weaving, London, Studio Vista, 1974, 22.
  • 26 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1962. As it is well known, Anni Albers attended Kubler’s course at Yale University.
  • 27 Albers, On Weaving, 22.
  • 28 See for instance, Fernand Braudel, “Histoire et sciences sociales: la longue durée,” Réseaux, vol. 5, no 27, 1987, 7–37.
  • 29 Albers, On Weaving, 69.
  • 30 For the metaphor of the “dry” and the “wet” in art historical thought, see the richly suggestive special issue of the journal RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 63/64, Spring/Autumn 2013, on the theme of “Wet/Dry,” edited by Christopher Wood. More closely related to our object of study is the article in the same issue by Barbara Wittmann, “A Neolithic Childhood: Children’s Drawings as Prehistoric Sources,” 125–142.
  • 31 Henri Focillon, “Introduction,” in Art populaire. Travaux artistiques et scientifiques du 1ercongrès international des arts populaires (Prague, 1928), t. I, Paris, Ed. Duchartre, 1931, XII–XIII.
  • 32 I analyzed this tension between the acceleration and the slowness or reversibility of time in my book Saisis par la préhistoire. Enquête sur l’art et le temps des modernes, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 2019.
  • 33 See the catalogue Joseph Albers in Mexico, ed. Lauren Hinkson, Salomon Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2018.
  • 34 For a challenge to the idea of history as a privilege of western thought, see Claude Lévi-Strauss, “La politique étrangère d’une société primitive,” Politique étrangère, no 2, 1949, 139–152; Jack Goody, The Theft of History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • 35 Anni Albers, Preface to Pre-Colombian Mexican Miniatures: The Josef and Anni Albers Collection, Lund Humphires, 1970, n. p.
  • 36 Anni Albers, “Art – A Constant” (1939), Selected Writings, 12.
  • 37 Albers, On Weaving, 69.
  • 38 Anni Albers, “Pictorial Weavings,” Cambridge, MIT Press, 1959.
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Für die Entwicklung seiner abstrakten Bildsprache und seines Bauhaus-Unterrichtes bediente sich Paul Klee unterschiedlicher Quellen, die er im Alltag, auf seinen Reisen oder in Büchern entdeckte. Das Studium nicht-europäischen Designs von Gebäuden und Stoffen, die Fantasiearchitektur der aus Tunesien mitgebrachten Aquarelle oder die auf Papier entworfenen Stoffmuster der Weberinnen bildeten die Grundlage für Werke wie Teppich, 1927, 48. → more

Weltkunstbücher der 1920er-Jahre — Zur Ambivalenz eines publizistischen Aufbruchs

Um 1900 erschienen die ersten Kompendien und Handbücher über sogenannte Weltkunst. Nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg explodierte dann die Anzahl der Publikationen über außereuropäische Künste. Diese fanden auch sogleich Eingang in die 1919 neu etablierte Bauhaus-Bibliothek. Diese Buchreihen lassen erkennen, unter welchen Bedingungen nichteuropäische Kunst in den 1920er-Jahren rezipiert wurde: als Inspirationsmaterial, als Ausdruck der Kanonkritik an einer europäischen Hochkunst und als Plädoyer für die Aufhebung zwischen Kunst und Kunsthandwerk, aber vor allem auch welches Verständnis von „Welt“ hier reproduziert wurde. → more

Working From Where We Are — Anni Albers’ and Alex Reed’s Jewelry Collection

Not by nature acquisitive and certainly not art collectors, Josef and Anni Albers began in 1936 to collect Mexican figurines and other artifacts unearthed from that land’s memory. They described the country, which they first visited in 1935, as “the promised land of abstract art.” Returning to Black Mountain College Anni Albers and Alexander Reed began experimenting with everyday articles to create a strange and beautiful collection of objects of personal adornment inspired by their visit to Mexico. → more

Andean Weaving and the Appropriation of the Ancient Past in Modern Fiber Art

Ancient and Indigenous textile cultures of the Americas played a critical role in the development of the work of fiber artists who came of age in the U.S. in the late 1950s and 1960s. Anyone who has studied fiber art of this period, myself included, knows this well. They openly professed an admiration for traditions ranging from Navaho weaving, to the use of the backstrap loom in Mexico and Central America, to the ancient weaving techniques of Peru. → more

Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles

At the time Anni Albers wrote On Weaving in 1965, few discussions of Andean textiles “as art” had appeared in weaving textbooks, but there were numerous publications, many of which were German books published between 1880 and 1929, that documented and described their visual and technical properties. Albers almost single-handedly introduced weaving students to this ancient textile art through her writing and her artistic work.  → more

Josef Albers and the Pre-Columbian Artisan

In his inaugural manifesto for the Staatliche Bauhaus, Walter Gropius proposed a new artistic agenda and pedagogical practice based on craft and artisanal principles. This article analyzes how prominent Bauhaus teacher and artist Josef Albers, entered into dialogue with a very specific kind of artisanal aesthetic: the pre-Columbian crafts he encountered on his many trips to Mexico. Revisiting his lecture “Truthfulness in Art” delivered in 1937, after his third trip to the country, the article studies the way in which Albers learned from the abstract tradition of pre-Columbian artisans, incorporating their knowledge into his own artistic and pedagogical practice. → more

“Every Moment Is a Moment of Learning“ — Lenore Tawney. New Bauhaus and Amerindian Impulses

“I felt as if I had made a step and maybe a new form. These evolved from a study of Peruvian techniques, out of twining and twisting. Out of that came my new way of working, of dividing and separating the piece.” Lenore Tawney’s “Woven Forms” are not purpose-built in a (Western) crafts sense; they move beyond traditional European rules of weaving and attempt to approach an indigenous attitude towards craft and technique. This essay shows how Tawney charted her own unique path in fiber art by linking Amerindian impulses with Taoist concepts of space and Bauhaus ideas. → more

Questions about Lenore Tawney — An Interview with Kathleen Nugent Mangan, Executive Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

The search for the spiritual characterized Lenore Tawney’s long life, and was reflected in both the iconography and materials she used in her work. She was a regular diarist and her journals provide valuable insight into this deeply personal search. bauhaus imaginista researcher Erin Freedman interviews Executive Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, Kathleen Nugent Mangan, about Tawney’s approach and work. → more

kNOT a QUIPU — An Interview with Cecilia Vicuña

In this recorded interview, Vicuña describes how after she first learned about quipu, she immediately integrated the system into her life. Quipu, the Spanish transliteration of the word for “knot” in Cusco Quechua, is a system of colored, spun and plied or waxed threads or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. They were used by the Inca people for a variety of administrative purposes, mainly record-keeping, and also for other ends that have now been lost to history.  → more

Diagonal. Pointé. Carré — Goodbye Bauhaus? Otti Berger’s Designs for Wohnbedarf AG Zurich

Gunta Stölzl. Anni Albers. These are the most prominent names today when one thinks of actors in the Bauhaus textile workshop. Both had been involved in the textile workshop since Weimar times, shaping it through their understanding of textiles and their teaching. Otti Berger did not join the workshop until Dessau. Stölzl and Albers succeeded in leaving Germany in 1931–32. And they succeeded in continuing to work as textile designers and artists. Berger succeeded in doing this, too, but accompanied by an ongoing struggle for recognition and fair remuneration. → more

The World in the Province from the Province to the World — Bauhaus Ceramics in an International Context

In this article Hans-Peter Jakobson presents the various influences, both national and international, and direct and indirect, influencing the views on ceramics taught in the Ceramic Workshop of the State Bauhaus Weimar Dornburg. Based on the life paths, inspirations and influences of the few ceramists who emerged from the Bauhaus workshop in Dornburg, he traces possible worldwide developments in ceramics to the present day. → more

Reading Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture in North America, 1957

In the 1960s, the interest in a regional and vernacular architecture evolved into a sort of counterculture against the prevailing modernism in the USA. Sybil Moholy-Nagy’s book is an early document of this movement and today a classic of architecture history. It features buildings and construction techniques that emerge from social practices and whose builders remain anonymous. They include Amerindian settlement forms, Mexican pueblos and churches, as well as barns and houses of the first European settlers. → more

Vernacular Architecture and the Uses of the Past

In sending out the manuscript of Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture to a publisher, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy added a note on the “Genesis of the manuscript,” which is quite revealing about the intellectual trajectory that gave rise to it. She positioned herself as first and foremost a traveling observer, learning from direct contact with artefacts and buildings, curious about their histories and willing to interpret material evidence and local narratives. → more

The “Workshop for Popular Graphic Art” in Mexico — Bauhaus Travels to America

The global developments that led in 1942 to the appointment of Hannes Meyer, second Bauhaus director, as head of the workshop for popular graphic art, Taller de Gráfica Popular (henceforth referred to as the TGP), made it a focal point for migrating Europeans in flight from fascism. This essay aims to shed light on how the TGP was influenced by Europeans granted asylum by Mexico before and during World War Two, and, conversely, to explore the degree to which these exiled visual artists, writers, and architects’ ideas came to be influenced by their contact with artists active in the TGP. → more

Lena Bergner — From the Bauhaus to Mexico

The story of Lena Bergner is relevant to the history of architecture and design on account of her career passing through different ideological and cultural contexts. Here we will discuss her life and work, focusing on her training in the Bauhaus, her time in the USSR and her time in Mexico, where, along with her husband the architect Hannes Meyer, over a ten-year period she undertook cultural projects of great importance. → more

Of Art and Politics — Hannes Meyer and the Workshop of Popular Graphics

The Mexico of President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río was a fertile ground for the development of ideological questions, especially those originating from the left. The expropriation of oil fields, mining and large estates in 1938, the refuge granted Spanish republicans and members of the International Brigades in 1939, and the accord of mutual support between the government and syndicalist organizations all favored the formation of artistic and cultural groups willing to take part in the consolidation of revolutionary ideals which, until that point, had made little progress. Among these organizations was the Taller de Gráfica Popular, the Workshop of Popular Graphics. → more

bauhaus imaginista — and the importance of transculturality

What bauhaus imaginista has documented thus relates to a particular historical phase, one that opened a path to the renewal of the art situation in Morocco. And yet, although more recent generations of Moroccan art historians and critics often mentioned the period as a formative and unavoidable reference point, they never really deepened study of that period. It somehow remained in the shadows of other phases and realities. But cultural memory has its rhythms, and the moment arose when the years of the Casablanca Group called for attention, demanding its artistic accomplishments be better understood. In this regard, the bauhaus imaginista project came at the right moment and has had important repercussions. → more


I was sixteen years old when I undertook my first journey into finding a professional vocation, first in Asilah, then in Fez followed by Tétouan. 1952. Tangiers was, to me, an open book, a window on the world. The freedom of seeing, of discovering and of feeling, of weaving the narratives of my dreams. → more

The Bauhaus and Morocco

In the years when Western nations were committed in new projects of partnership, with what was then called the “Third World”, young artists and students from the Maghreb had grown up in the passionate climate of the struggle for independence, were talented, open to modernity, and eager to connect with twentieth-century international art movements, which were different in production and spirit from colonial ideology and culture. → more

École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca (1964–1970) — Fonctions de l’Image et Facteurs Temporels

Utopie culturelle vécue, posture éthique et préfiguration de la modernité artistique et culturelle marocaine, l’École des Beaux-arts de Casablanca est, de 1964 à 1970, le lieu de cristallisations d’aspirations sociales et artistiques portées par un groupe d’artistes et enseignants responsables d’une restructuration des bases pédagogiques. → more

Les Intégrations: Faraoui and Mazières. 1966–1982 — From the Time of Art to the Time of Life

Les Intégrations exemplified a specific conceptual motif, one that acted not within a single field but rather implied a relationship of interdependence between different media (visual arts and architecture) and techniques (those of graphic arts and architecture). They thus allowed for the emergence of disciplines that were not static in formation but evolving in relation to one another. The intermedial relationship they created between art and architecture raises the question of what lies “between” these disciplines: how do they communicate with each other? What are the elements of language common to this “spirit of the times,” to the particular atmosphere of the late 1960s? → more

Chabâa’s Concept of the “3 As”

“Architecture is one expression of the fine arts” (Mohamed Chabâa, in: Alam Attarbia, No. 1, p. 36, 2001.)

Mohamed Chabâa’s consciousness of his national heritage and his interest in architecture both emerged at a young age. His concept of the “3 A’s”—art, architecture and the arts and crafts—grew out of his discovery both of the Italian Renaissance and the Bauhaus School during a period of study in Rome in the early 1960s. From then on, bringing together the “3 A’s” would become a central interest, a concept Chabâa would apply in various ways and fiercely defend throughout his long and varied career. → more

Don’t Breathe Normal: Read Souffles! — On Decolonizing Culture

The need for a synthesis of the arts and, with this, a change of pedagogical principles, was not only present at the beginning of the twentieth century (forces that prompted the Bauhaus’s foundation), but after WWII as well, during the “Short Century” of decolonization. This second modern movement and its relation to modernism and the vernacular, the hand made, and the everyday was vividly expressed through texts and art works published in the Moroccan quarterly magazine Souffles, published beginning in the mid-1960s by a group of writers and artists in Rabat, Casablanca and Paris. → more

A Bauhaus Domesticated in São Paulo

In March 1950, Pietro Maria Bardi, director of the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP, which opened in 1947), wrote to several American educational institutions requesting their curricula as an aid to developing the first design course in Brazil—the Institute of Contemporary Art (IAC), which was to be run as a part of the museum and would also be the country’s first design school. Despite being brief and objective, his missives did not fail to mention the “spirit of the Bauhaus,” explicitly linking the institute he hoped to found with a pedagogical lineage whose objectives and approach he aimed to share. → more

In the Footsteps of the Bauhaus — Its Reception and Impact on Brazilian Modernity

Through the strong German-speaking minority and its active work in the creation and mediation of culture in the spirit of modernity, the application of Bauhaus formal language, especially in the first phase of Brazilian modernity, has played a considerable role. It was only with the equation of German culture with National Socialism and the ensuing intolerance of German protagonists that these architectural and cultural activities were severely disrupted. In Brazil during this period, a style of modernism based on the principles of Le Corbusier finally gained acceptance. The impulses of the Bauhaus, however, which were not perceived for many years, were also reinterpreted and further developed within Brazil, although they remained occulted in comparison to the public reception of Corbusier. → more

Ivan Serpa, Lygia Clark, and the Bauhaus in Brazil

The art school of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro was established in 1952, led by Ivan Serpa, who gave classes for both children and adults—including artists who would go on to form the Grupo Frente (1954–56) and later the neo-concrete movement (1959–61). Writer and critic Mário Pedrosa described the “experimental” character of these classes, but the fact this experimentation was structured through study of color, materials, technique and composition has encouraged art historian Adele Nelson to claim Serpa’s teaching method was substantially based on the Bauhaus preliminary course. → more

Walking on a Möbius Strip — The Inside/Outside of Art in Brazil

This text investigates how the topological figure of the Möbius strip, famously propagated by Bauhaus proponent Max Bill, was used in Brazil within dissident artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s as a tool for reflection on the subject, alterity and public space. The Möbius strip is revisited in this essay as a conduit for thinking critically about possible subversions of Eurocentric forms, as well as various appropriations of traditional popular culture by modern and contemporary art in Brazil. → more

The Poetry of Design — A search for multidimensional languages between Brazilian and German modernists

In the 1950s and 1960s, intense debates and exchanges took place between Brazilians and Germans working in the fields of design, art, and their various manifestations—from architecture and painting to music and poetry. These intertwined lines are identifiable in myriad events: journeys, meetings, exchanges of letters, exhibitions, lectures, courses, and publications. Common modes of production emerged out of these different encounters where, more than relations of influence, one can observe how entangled realities led to a questioning of the directionality of the flow between center and periphery. → more

The Latent Forces of Popular Culture — Lina Bo Bardi’s Museum of Popular Art and the School of Industrial Design and Crafts in Bahia, Brazil

This text deals with the experience of the Museum of Popular Art (MAP) and the School of Industrial Design and Handicraft, designed by the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, in Salvador (capital of the state of Bahia), Brazil. Such a “school-museum” is based on the capture and transformation of latent forces that exist in Brazilian popular culture. → more

Teko Porã — On Art and Life

Cristine Takuá is an Indigenous philosopher, educator, and artisan who lives in the village of Rio Silveira, state of São Paulo, Brazil. She was invited to present a contemporary perspective on questions and tensions raised by interactions between the Indigenous communities and the mainstream art system, as well as to address Brazil’s specific social and political context. → more

Times of Rudeness — Design at an Impasse

In 1980, Lina Bo Bardi began working on a book concerning her time in the northeastern part of Brazil. With the help of Isa Grinspum Ferraz, she captioned the illustrations, revised her contributions to the book and drafted the layout and contents. The latter also included texts by her collaborators who, in a truly collective effort, had tried to envision the project of a true Brazil—an unfettered and free country with no remnant remaining of the colonial inferiority complex which had plagued the country earlier in its history. Bo Bardi discontinued her work in 1981. In 1994, the Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi published this project as Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse. → more

Connecting the Dots — Sharing the Space between Indigenous and Modernist Visual Spatial Languages

Ever increasing numbers of design institutes note the merits of cultural diversity within their pedagogy and practice. Rather quixotically, however, Eurocentric modernist ideals remain dominant within design curricula. This ambiguity results in non-Western social, cultural and creative practice, remaining side-lined, albeit while still being lauded as of great value. Critical of this duplicity, this paper introduces three Indigenous visual spatial languages, identifying a number of correlations and contradictions these offer to the establishment and implementation of Bauhaus pedagogy and subsequent examples of modernism adopted beyond Europe. → more

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