The love of nature that inspired Anni and Josef Albers
Despite their straight edges and modernist leanings Anni and Josef were true nature lovers, our book explains
Anni and Josef Albers were pioneering abstract, modernist artists, born into the age of the automobile and the ocean liner, who lived into the era of the first atomic bomb explosion and the first man on the moon. Their straight-lined, finely crafted works might at first seem to be inspired by and celebrate the automated, industrial world.
Yet as Nichoals Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and author of Anni & Josef Albers explains, the artists actually harboured a deep appreciation for the natural world.
“Anni, like most Bauhauslers, had utmost respect for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the philosopher, novelist, scientist, and general poetic genius who had lived in Weimar a century earlier,” writes Fox Weber. “There was one short book by him that nourished her immensely. Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants led Anni to her fascination with botanical organization. She was riveted by his analysis of the single unit that, in various stages of transformation, is at the heart of plant life. Goethe analyzed the way that the outer details of flowers always relate in form and structure to the beginning of the plant. He pointed out that in a plant with a triangular striation in the stem, variations of the number three recur in all that follows. ‘Everything is leaf. . . . None resembleth another, yet all their forms have a likeness; therefore a mystical law is by the chorus proclaimed.’
“This became Anni’s guideline for the large abstract wall hangings she wove. She identified textiles with plants. The first few rows, like plant roots, determined what came afterward. Her linear progressions had their basis in nature, as Goethe had led her to understand it. This, after all, was the nature of reliable systems, not of hazards. Adhering to what was dependable, Anni constructed textiles with a consistent integrity.
Goethe wasn’t the only source of natural inspiration within the Bauhaus. The artist and Bauhaus master Paul Klee also extolled a reverence for nature. “In a lecture he gave to students at the Bauhaus Weimar on January 9, 1924, Klee told them, ‘When we began— one must make a start somewhere, even though there is no real starting point—we proceeded from a stage that may be compared with the germinating seed,’” writes Fox Weber. “Klee often referred to trees and rivers in his lectures, anthropomorphizing the latter. Sketching moving water on the blackboard, Klee demonstrated the way a river adjusts to the surrounding landscape. The waters ‘eat more and more deeply into the rugged riverbed . . . whipping up an aggressive fury,’ then ‘gradually calms down along its course,’ before settling into a broad lake ‘where it more and more evades perception.’”
Indeed, this love of nature was something the couple both adored. “Josef shared Anni’s abiding faith in natural systems. It comes particularly in his photography,” writes Fox Weber. “He made a collage of images depicting the same tree; in full summer foliage and, alongside it, bare-branched in winter. He took numerous shots of the parallel lines left imprinted in the sand after the tide rolls out—which he considered the mark of underlying natural organization. His 1944 woodcut of the Mexican rain god ‘Tlaloc’ exudes his sharing of the Inca belief in the cycle of rain and sunshine as essential for the growth of crops. Josef also often made natural systems the subject of his poetry. There is, for example, ‘PLUS = MINUS,’ which describes the interaction of the sun, clouds, and water: The more / the sun shines / the more / water evaporates / clouds appear / and the sun / – shines less / The less / the sun shines / the less / water evaporates / clouds diminish / and the sun / – shines more / da capo.
“For both Anni and Josef, natural systems were paramount as a guiding force in their art.” To see more of that art, as well as more archive images of Anni and Josef in their natural environment, order a copy of Anni & josef Albers here.