View from the Prellerhaus balcony, including Anni Albers (top center) with Ursula Schneider, Grete Reichardt, Gunta Stölzl, Max Bill, Bruno Streiff, Shlomoh Ben-David (Georg Gross), and Gerda Marx, 1927. Bauhaus, Dessau. © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

The school that changed Anni and Josef Albers forever

The Bauhaus had a crucial influence on both their careers, though Josef had a slightly easier time than Anni. . .

Though the Bauhaus is widely regarded as the great source of European modernism, it was not the first art school that the great modernist Josef Albers attended. 

As Nicholas Fox Weber, the long-standing executive director of the Albers Foundation, explains in his new book, Anni & Josef Albers, “Josef, who had gone to Munich in 1918 to study at the Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, heard of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar shortly after it opened.

"He was diligently drawing nude figures and Bavarian mountain scenes, simplifying his draftsmanship with a calligraphic style in which he applied ink of that same black that would have equal appeal for Anni, when he decided he wanted an even more radical change in his life and art.

“He would later write, ‘I was thirty-two, . . . threw all my old things out the window, started once more from the bottom. That was the best step I made in my life.’ Josef soon put figurative art behind him and, in 1920, replaced a life of isolation and borderline poverty with sympathetic companionship, rudimentary room and board, and the chance to use the various trades he had learned in his childhood.

“The emphasis on skill would be consistent with his father’s training. Josef could cut glass, bend metal, plane wood, and apply paint with the proficiency and dexterity that he had learned growing up and that were requisite in the school, where he would swiftly ascend from being a student to being a master (the Bauhaus term for teacher, in the tradition of medieval craft guilds). But the bold new style in which he manipulated his tools and materials would have nothing whatsoever to do with the past. Now, function dominated form. And decoration and ornament went out the window in the same way that everything else in Josef’s former life did.”

Anni Albers, Wallhanging, 1925. Silk, cotton, and acetate. 50 × 38 in. (127 × 96.5 cm). Sammlung Moderne Kunst, Munich / © 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London
Anni Albers, Wallhanging, 1925. Silk, cotton, and acetate. 50 × 38 in. (127 × 96.5 cm). Sammlung Moderne Kunst, Munich / © 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Mr Albers succeeded quickly within the Bauhaus, rising from the position of a student to that of a master. However, his future wife had a rougher ride, as Fox Weber explains. “Anni arrived in Weimar in 1922 to rent a modest room and seek admission at the Bauhaus. Shy but self-contained, she was independent, ardent about her desire to devote her life to the making of art, and possessed by a sense of humor that showed rare insight into human nature. The twenty-two-year-old heiress who had opted to forsake her parents’ luxurious way of life took the Bauhaus admissions test after six weeks in Weimar but failed to get in. Josef instantly became her protector, determined to help her develop the know-how that would keep her at the school.”

Some of Anni’s difficulties lay in her minor physical disabilities. She suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited condition that damages the peripheral nerves. “She never discussed the genetic disorder with anyone, but it caused her to have weak, under-developed calf muscles and high-arched feet that dropped heavily when she walked,” explains Fox Weber.  

“After a couple of weeks exploring her options, Anni entered the weaving workshop. Especially in recent years, it has become popular to say that this was the result of sexism—the only possibility for a female at the Bauhaus. Anni herself gave a more nuanced version of the story. Textiles were not her first choice, but the only workshop for making what we would call ‘pure art’ (in the traditional sense of oil on canvas or the equivalent) was wall painting. 

“Anni recognized that her physical impairment made it impossible for her to consider the idea; she was unable to climb a ladder, which was requisite for wall painting. She has been quoted as saying that she considered weaving ‘sissy stuff’—but that was in the context of the two months she had spent at the School of Applied Arts in Hamburg, where the only method for creating textiles was needlepoint and other processes she did not respect.

Anni & Josef Albers
Anni & Josef Albers

“Once she saw that the making of textiles would allow her to use the loom inventively, and to expand or reduce the types of threads she might use—either deliberately confining her vocabulary to black and white thread of identical physical content or venturing into unprecedented directions by considering not only wool and cotton but also hemp, cellophane, and horsehair—she accepted her new métier as a treasure trove of possibilities. Besides, the loom itself fascinated her as a tool; she wanted both to master its use and then to vary her method in ways no one else had even considered before.”

Though a less voluntary choice, this again proved a remarkably fruitful course for Anni, who, throughout her long career, elevated weaving to ‘pure art’ in the eyes of many. To understand their place in the Bauhaus, and to see works from Josef and Anni’s time there, as well as much, much more, order a copy of Anni & Josef Albers here.