Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles

Arthur Baessler collection, Fabric, Ixchma, around 1000–1400, Chancay, Peru
© Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, photo: Ines Seibt.

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. 

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.1 Albers almost single-handedly introduced weaving students to this ancient textile art through her writing and her artistic work. Her basic premise – formed when she was a student of the Bauhaus, and still highly relevant today – was that modern textile workers, both in industry and in art, should thoroughly study the forms and structures of Andean textiles because these textiles represent “a standard of achievement that is unsurpassed” in the field of textile design and production.2

Albers was extremely inventive and articulate in the way she connected Andean textiles with contemporary notions of truth to materials and the interconnectedness of structure and design. At the same time, she was acutely aware of the semantic function of thread and textiles within the context of artistic language. Through her continuous investigation of thread as a carrier of meaning, not simply as a utilitarian product, she created art that she believed functioned within the context of visual language, practiced by her ancient Andean predecessors.3

Baessler collection, Shirt, Tiahuanaco, 0–700 (?), Peru, © Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. 

Gretzer collection, Peru, © Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.

In On Weaving, Albers reveals her fundamental approach to art and design: namely that Andean textiles were the standards by which one could most completely understand the possibilities of fiber as a medium for creative expression. Indeed, Albers believed that Andean textiles were "the most outstanding examples of textile art [from which] we can learn most."4 Using Andean textiles as her guides, Albers developed an innovative approach to the teaching, practice, and understanding of weaving in the twentieth century, paving the way for the medium of fiber to be included in the fine arts mainstream. Anni Albers, artist, teacher, writer, and collector, held a unique position as an intermediary between the ancient past and the modern machine age by applying the lessons she learned from the visual and structural language of Andean textiles to the needs and sensibilities of her time.

Anni Alber, Black–White–Gray, 1927, © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

Albers was among many artists and writers working during the first decades of the twentieth century who studied the material culture of non-European societies. The Western interest in so-called "primitive" art and the discourse of primitivism during this period was complex and far-reaching, involving, in part, the supposition that “primitive” art – the handmade art produced by small-scale pre-industrialized cultures – was both useful and artistically designed according to fundamental social and spiritual beliefs.5 This was in contrast to the perceived uselessness and poor design of much European art, especially decorative art. “Primitive” art was perceived by theorist Wilhelm Worringer and members of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter as authentic and pure, untainted by mechanical contrivance or conventional illusionistic devices, and that the visual form of this art was inherently abstract.6 “Primitive” art and practice represented a significant alternative to traditional European artistic conventions, and thus it was studied, its abstract motifs borrowed, and its handmade production processes emulated in an attempt to revive and understand the basis of human creative processes and visual forms. Textiles played an important role in these theoretical and artistic explorations.

Gretzer collection, Fabric, North Coast, 1200–1400, near Lima, Peru 
Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.

At the same time in Germany, the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde was undertaking an intensive acquisition program of non-European art, particularly Andean textiles, thanks to extensive archaeological work conducted by German scholars and collectors working in Peru, whose collections ultimately ended up in the Berlin museum. For example, by 1907 the Andean art collection at the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde was enormous; the textile collection alone exceeded 7500 pieces, by far the largest collection of Andean textiles in Europe at the time.7 Collectors were fascinated by the technical complexity and abstract pictorial imagery of these textiles created on simple hand looms by a sophisticated culture that did not use conventional Western writing systems but instead employed symbols to communicate their ideas.8 This direct communication of use and design resonated fully with Bauhaus ideals; the abstract visual language and incredible technical mastery of Andean woven textiles were qualities that many modern artists admired and adapted, Albers chief among them. It is not surprising to learn that her lifelong interest in Pre-Columbian art began in Germany and that she frequently visited the ethnographic museums there.9

Andean Textiles at the Bauhaus

German interest in “primitive” art continued to grow after World War I, but now for additional reasons. After the devastation of the Great War, artists and writers sought to renew their connections to handmade “primitive” art processes in opposition to what they viewed as to the destructive and alienating power of the machine. Hermann Bahr's quote from “Expressionismus,” 1916, in which he called for an escape "from a ‘civilisation’ which is out to devour our souls,” is worth reviewing because it points to the strong anti-machine sentiments that were embraced at the Bauhaus during its early years, despite the influence of De Stijl.10 Attitudes toward the machine in post-war, economically depressed Germany were mixed: the destructive potential of the machine was still painfully apparent, but the need to re-tool was an obvious necessity. Architect Adolf Behne, who, with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, was one of the founders of the group Arbeitsrat für Kunst, wrote in 1919 that Europeans must become “primitive again” in order to engage once more with “the world of experience.”11 Like Bahr, and William Morris before him, Behne believed that the machine had become a weapon against intuition and expression. Therefore, handwork was clearly a way of addressing the conflict between the machine and the human spirit. In this context, the term “primitive” refers to an intuitive, pre-industrial state, and one that corresponded particularly well to early state of the Bauhaus. Handmade, “primitive” textiles served as useful models with which to understand the pre-industrial connection between art and craft, and between spiritual expression and handwork, the very connections members of the Bauhaus sought to achieve for the modern era.

Importantly, hand weaving remained a vital and on-going interest at the Bauhaus throughout the entire fourteen-year period of the school's existence. While recent scholarship has finally focused attention on various aspects of the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop, particularly regarding issues about gender, the important role of “primitive” art for the formal and technical approaches to weaving there has not been extensively discussed heretofore.12 The ideological shift that occurred at the Bauhaus around 1923 - when Gropius changed the Bauhaus motto from “Art and Craft, A New Unity” to “Art and Industry, A New Unity” - in part denigrated the earlier interest in primitivism and Expressionism at the Bauhaus.

Benita Koch-Otte, Wall hanging, 1922–24, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © v.Bodelschwinghsche Stiftungen Bethel.

Margarete Willers, Slit Tapestry, 1922, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.

Anni Albers recalled that during the early years of the Bauhaus, they created objects “possessing often a quite barbaric beauty.”13 The notion that a handmade object from the Bauhaus could possess "barbaric beauty" is a primitivist one that was particularly relevant at the Bauhaus during this period, but one that has been obscured, and even denied by former members of the Weaving Workshop, in order to focus on later and more celebrated Bauhaus developments.14

Members of the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop engaged in primitivist discourses particularly focused on Andean textile techniques and forms. At first, members of the Weaving Workshop valued and borrowed the geometrically abstract motifs of Andean textiles. When attitudes toward production and technology changed at the Bauhaus, they began to look at and apply increasingly complex Andean weaving structures and forms to their own work. Indeed, the Weaving Workshop was a place where numerous formal and production theories were instigated and demonstrated, partly due to the increasingly sophisticated knowledge of Andean fiber art by its members.

Dress Materials with Geometric Patterns, from: Wilheim Reiss and Alphons Stübel: The necropolis of Ancon in Peru, Vol. 2, A. Asher & Co., Berlin 1880, Plate 54,

The first major stage of the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop, from 1919 to roughly 1923, is often referred to as the Expressionist phase of the Bauhaus. It corresponds with Johannes Itten's tenure, and was a period when the Bauhaus as a whole was attempting to build up supplies and staff during a time of economic hardship. Itten's background in art education reform reinforced the emphasis on the handmade processes and experimentation. Anni Albers recalled that “in the early years there was a dabbling in a kind of romantic handicraft.”15 This stage is also marked by the gradual shift toward abstraction, partly due to the influence of Worringer, who book, Abstraction and Empathy, appears to have been on the required reading list for incoming Bauhaus students during the early years. Anni Albers, who read it “with delight,” was among this group.16

When Itten's tenure ended in 1923 as the pull of International Constructivism strengthened, Gropius was at the same time under pressure by state authorities to provide tangible results of the school's progress in the form of an exhibition and model home that the Bauhaus produced in 1923. It was clear to many members of the Bauhaus that in order to rebuild for the future, students needed to be trained to work in accord with the machine rather than in opposition to it. Handwork came to be regarded as a first step in the production process, rather than an end in itself. These developments were strengthened by the influence of De Stijl and Russian Constructivism, two international movements that encouraged the unity of art and industry. These changes inspired a more sophisticated interest by members of the Weaving Workshop in weaving materials and their natural properties, natural dyes, and geometric patterning as they began to investigate how this knowledge could be applied to industry. During this period members of the Weaving Workshop had access to an increasing amount of source material on Andean textiles, and this information clearly informed their work. For this reason, it appears that the weavers looked closely at Andean tunics from the Wari and Tiwanaku societies of the Middle Horizon period (500-900 CE), and other Andean textiles that exhibited complex color and shape patterning.

During the Dessau Bauhaus period (1925–1932) members of the Weaving Workshop, particularly Albers, explored complex color and shape patterning in conjunction with complex weaving structures such as multi-layered weaves. There was an increased emphasis on machine-like precision and experimentation with synthetic fibers. These emphases were partly due to the growing technical proficiency of the members of the workshops, as well as to their analysis of new Andean textile models. This was also the period during which Klee taught courses exclusively to members of the Weaving Workshop, including Anni Albers. It was Albers who most successfully synthesized Klee's lessons with what she was learning from studying actual weaving examples, Andean textiles among them. More than any other ancient example, Andean textiles served as useful counterpoints to Klee’s design theories and practices.

From the later Dessau Bauhaus period, under the direction of architect Hannes Meyer, and from 1930 until the Bauhaus permanently closed in 1933, under the direction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Weaving Workshop was a place where art was almost exclusively produced according to social needs, due particularly to the school’s anti-pictorial and anti-art stance. Anni Albers received her Bauhaus diploma in February of 1930, but she continued her contact with the Weaving Workshop, serving as acting director of the workshop in 1931. Probably due to Albers, the Andean textile model provided the weavers with actual physical information that they needed in order to translate their ideas regarding production, construction, and utilitarianism into the domain of weaving. Interestingly, this was also a period when the handwoven product was highly valued at the Bauhaus, no longer as an individual expressionist statement but as an example for production. For this reason, because of the emphasis placed on maintaining the relationship between process and product, the Andean textile paradigm was valued.

Albers played an important role in the Weaving Workshop during most of the Dessau period. Her association with the school continued to the end partly because Josef continued to teach at the Bauhaus until its doors were permanently shut in 1933. Anni Albers's important contributions involved her ability to unite a geometrically abstract visual vocabulary with corresponding constructive processes, such as double and triple weaves, and also her creation of innovative weaving constructions, such as open-weaves and multi-weaves, so as to apply them to industry. She synthesized what she had learned from contemporary sources such as De Stijl, Paul Klee, and Constructivism and then applied these lessons to those she was learning from the Andean textiles.

Margarete Köhler, Wall hanging, c. 1920, © Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Margarete Koehler Estate.

Ida Kerkovius, Tapestry, ca. 1920, location unknown, © Uwe Kerkovius, Family archive Kerkovius Wendelstein.

What were the qualities of Andean textiles that inspired such interest? Regarding their formal qualities, for example, archaeologists Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stübel had as early as 1887 praised the elaborate color and design patterning of ancient Peruvian weavings.17 The abstract formal vocabulary and lively pictorial scenes found in Andean textiles were qualities that made Andean textiles particularly popular to twentieth century scholars and artists searching for “new” and exciting visual forms and subjects from ancient and non-European sources. Regarding the handmade process, Andean art scholar Max Schmidt had noted in 1910 that expert Andean weavers were able to create sophisticated weaving structures on simple handlooms. Scholars would continue this line of thought throughout the 1920s by singling out Andean textiles as the successful pre-industrial “primitive” handicrafts to serve as models, and reminders of the fundamental properties of the craft of weaving, in an increasingly mechanized world. Additionally, regarding utilitarian value, it was understood in Germany after the discoveries by Reiss and Stübel that textiles were highly valued products of Andean society; they were used for many purposes including uniforms, sacrificial offerings, and mummy wrappings. This utilitarian yet noble functionalism was particularly valued in post-War Germany when ideas about art and utility were often of necessity increasingly intertwined.

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