Anni Albers, Tate Modern, until 27 January
There is a quaint, folksy ring to the term ‘weaver’ – the humble weaver is a stock figure in traditional song, a staple of cod-mediaeval cartoon images in glorious technicolour.
But there is nothing remotely folksy about the work of Anni Albers. Weaving may have been one of the few classes available to women at the Bauhaus School – and one that Albers originally took up with little enthusiasm – but it demands qualities that were usually thought of as male: highly complex abstract planning and calculation to set up a loom, and, not least, a degree of physical strength. (Lack of strength obliged Albers to give up weaving later in her career, whereas painters can and do continue till they drop.) In fact, her diploma piece of weaving was a material scientifically conceived to embrace the modern commercial and industrial world: a sound-proof covering for the walls of an auditorium.
Albers explores every aspect of the weaver’s art in depth, pushing at its boundaries as she does so. As she blends three colours of yarn in Black, White and Yellow, other colours – green, grey and beige – appear. In her hands lurex, guaranteed to give blingy garments their ostentatious appeal, becomes a thread of great nuance, adding texture and contrast as much as brilliance through its interplay with muted yarns. The six panels of Six Prayers, commissioned for the Jewish museum in New York to commemorate the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, are dark and dignified, yet the points of light from silver thread lend them transcendence.
The variety of textures on display is almost infinite. The uniform cotton and silk weaves that allow for the gradations of colour give way to an almost three-dimensional approach in other pieces, particularly those conceived of as ‘pictorial weavings’. Here the contrasting thicknesses of the yarns, the very unevenness of an individual yarn, are as important as the colour, as in Under Way. In some cases she achieves this through ‘leno’ weaving, in which the vertical warp threads twist over each other round the horizontal weft thread; in others through brocade weaving (inspired by fellow Bauhaus student Paul Klee): ‘drawing’ with surface threads on a basic weave. Whatever the technique, the results are subtle and fresh. (And you could not have a better riposte to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, who was vocal in his belief that while men thought in three dimensions, women could only handle two.)
What’s more, behind the artistry, inventiveness and craft skill is a dazzling intellectual rigour. Albers had an explicit mission to connect her modernist approach with weaving techniques across space and time, and in 1965 published On Weaving, an encyclopaedic scholarly work surveying 4,000 years of weaving. On display are the fragments of woven cloth gathered from her travels across four continents, some dating back centuries. Alongside these are her detailed technical specifications for creating the different weaves and patterns.
There is more: her printmaking, her architectural panels, her remarkable mathematical explorations of knots, quirky jewellery assembled from household objects … But I’ll just finish with a word of warning. When you lean in – as I did, to examine a texture, analyse an effect, follow a thread – you’re highly likely to set off an alarm. My visit to the exhibition was punctuated by discreet blasts as one punter after another fell under the spell woven by Albers and drew too close to her bewitching webs.