Albers and the Bauhaus
It is easy to see the Bauhaus in black and white or in the bold primary colours of its typography, its subtler tones and narratives are harder to see. So legendary is the school, founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius (1883 – 1969), that its nuances can be missed. The details and human stories become invisible behind the slick modernist Valhalla we see in sepia photographs and trumpeted in modernist propaganda material. The new school was heralded confidently with jaunty oversized exclamation points and mass-produced shockingly reductive utilitarian design. It can appear to us looking back as a utopian collective, rather than a thrown together group of men and women, many of whom were very young. This is a story of individuals, as much as it is about a place and movement.It is difficult to imagine the fragility of this institution, vulnerable from its inception onwards, and the respective frailties and strengths of the various players in its short history (1919 – 1933). We know how the story ends, that the ideas, design and art that emerged from the Bauhaus were to change how the things around us looked, how we used them, and how they made us feel. Due to this, the specifics of the plot – who said and did what – can seem somehow less important. It is difficult to imagine a world in which the Bauhaus didn’t come to be. Were it not for the tenacity and vision of its founder Gropius, and the liberalism that followed the First World War and defined the Weimar era, it may well never have existed. Where would that leave us, on what horror would we now be sitting? When researching the Bauhaus it’s exciting to connect with the heady optimism and ambition that powered it in those early years. This energy is most compressed perhaps in the Feininger illustrated pamphlet (1919) with two short paragraphs by Gropius that first advertised the new school and its aims. It was this flyer that the teacher and aspirant artist Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) first saw in 1920. Something in it resonated deeply with him and, abandoning plans to leave Germany, he was enrolled as a student at the Bauhaus in Dessau by the end of the year.Later Albers would say of this decision, “I was 32... I threw all the old junk overboard and went right back to the beginning again. It was the best thing that I ever did in my life”.
Josef Albers was born in Bottrop in 1888, the son of a carpenter. His father’s vocation meant that Albers had early preparation for the workshops he would later encounter at the Bauhaus. He was a man who knew how to make things, although this ability would become more focused and resolved under the tutelage of Paul Klee and Johannes Itten amongst others. Albers was teaching at a primary school in Bottrop when he took up Gropius’ call to arms. He had been studying art and teaching since the first decade of the twentieth century and he was to attend, as an art student or as teacher, various schools in the intervening years. Resisting the familial pull of his hometown, Albers was to enroll in 1919 at the Royal Bavarian State School of art. Like Klee and Kandinsky before him, he was taught by the highly fashionable Franz von Stuck (1863 – 1928). A salon Symbolist who painted the German bourgeoisie in the manner of Titian, Stuck was schooled in the academic style of the nineteenth century and made drawing from the nude central to his teaching practice. Working with nude models must not have been an altogether unpleasant experience for Albers, who loved women, but he would break away from this long established practice at the Bauhaus, exempting himself from this class when enrolled. Many years later when he took up a senior teaching post at Yale in 1949 he would say, “They teach them in front of naked girls to draw, when they called me to teach at Yale, I saved them 7,000 a year for models”. Albers’s models would soon become the geometries of his self-made and hugely influential language of abstraction. The change from the Cezanne influenced figurative work that preceded his enrolment at the Bauhaus in 1920, to the wholly abstract was to be permanent. Albers destroyed a group of early academic studies, much like Agnes Martin, who wished to expunge pre-abstract work from an otherwise linearly abstract history. After Albers’s death in 1976 Nicholas Fox Weber, now the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, was taken by the artist’s widow to a storage unit that housed not only early glass constructions but many early figurative drawings. Albers, whose work is inherently unsentimental but not unemotional, succumbed to sentimentality. He kept these works, albeit in secret.
The Bauhaus was very much a child of its time. After the Russian October Revolution and the First World War there was an emphasis on, and indeed an almost spiritual need for, the ‘new’. What had come before had clearly failed and this applied to art, as much as politics and socio-economic theory. Only a decade before, the Jugendstil and Art Nouveux must have seemed just as modern. There was huge momentum behind the need to bring down the old kings – monarchs, academicians and exponents of the flowery over-upholstered excesses of the nineteenth century. The idea of unifying craft and art with mechanical manufacturing processes, made possible by the still relatively recent industrial revolution, was central to the Bauhaus. They felt that good design would improve people’s lives. Ornament was deemed unnecessary, and the simplicity
of design that many of us now take for granted and value so highly was borne out of this need to wipe the slate clean. They were to start again, creating the perfect chair and the perfect cup, standard types that would serve many uses. In 1923 Gropius would shift the emphasis of the Bauhaus ethos away from craft, from the handmade, steering it towards technology and the replication of form possible only with industrial processes. It was the factory not the workshop that was to be their eventual aim. If the ideals of high art could be applied to humble objects, great things could be achieved for many. It is easy to see why, as evil in the pernicious form of National Socialism crept into Germany, the Nazi’s damned the Bauhaus as Bolshevik. To them the Bauhaus was a political threat, but was also stylistically at odds with Hitler’s and Albert Speer’s preferred aesthetic of kitsch classicism; athletic figure sculptures and over-lit columns.
In 1920 when Albers and Marcel Breuer (1902 – 1981) both joined the new school, they were not to know how important the movement in which they were both central figures was to become nor what ruin awaited Germany. Albers’s first constant home at the Bauhaus was the glass workshop. It was one of several others focusing on wall painting, ceramics and weaving. Unlike some of the other students and teachers at the Bauhaus, Albers did not have a private income. His place at the school was funded by the local education authority in his home town who believed, encouraged by Albers, that he would return and share the ideas encountered in Weimar. Needless to say this never happened. This meant that Albers was living on the cusp of poverty. For all of the intellectual and sensual delights that college offers many students, things were difficult for him. He also must have had a sense that whilst he’d found his tribe, already in his 30’s, he was coming rather late to the party. The first glass constructions he made were created using glass found in the local rubbish dump, as he did not have enough money to buy the materials he needed. Under pressure, and with his place in jeopardy if he insisted on remaining in the glass workshop and not moving to the wall-painting workshop, as he was encouraged to do, Albers made a solo exhibition of these early glass assemblages. ‘Grid Mounted’ (c.1921, p4) is one such work; a tight grid of vibrant colours that prefigures Albers’s later mediations on squares. These are the first works that demonstrate the virtuosity of form, material and palette that make him a great artist. In these glassworks, made with scavenged materials, we see the first sure steps of an artist who would gain confidence in the following years. Arriving a student, Albers would ultimately leave the Bauhaus thirteen years later, having taught longer than anyone else. The result of his first solo show was affirmation of the developing talent and ingenuity of this new arrival. He was rewarded in 1921 with a continued place at the school, and the council of masters commissioned him to reorganise the glass-painting workshop. In Marcel Breuer’s small etching of Albers (p6) we see the artist carrying what is surely one of his glass assemblages. In these first abstract pieces one can see the painter who would enter his second fullest stride, with the ‘Homage to the Square’ works that began in 1950. Albers’s skill emerges through shards of glass found amongst the rubbish of yesterday’s Germany.
Despite the infighting and competitiveness endemic in any academic institution, made legendary in one like the Bauhaus, this was an environment that rewarded talent. Albers’s evident skill as an artist and craftsman resulted in him being commissioned to make stained glass windows for the outer room of Gropius’s office in 1922. Poignantly this window, like many of his early glass works, is now destroyed but reproduced here. It shows a more rigid and resolved pattern of form, that followed the earliest assemblages, which have a looseness not evident in Albers’s glasswork from 1922 onwards. From 1925 Albers began to make pictures in glass that had an even tighter geometry. Made of several layers of glass that were sandblasted to reveal another colour beneath ‘Lauben: Trellis’ (1929, p16) is one such work. These are perhaps Albers’s most independent and significant Bauhaus period works and cement his place, irrespective of the triumphs he would enjoy later, as an important figure in twentieth century art. Here we have a man who contributed through these works, his designs, and his teaching to the collective whole, and who finds his own voice and tenor at the Bauhaus.
Albers was to take an increasingly pivotal role as an educator at the Bauhaus, eventually becoming head of the preliminary course, a post he held until his departure. It is testament to his character that he was able to develop his own practice as an artist and designer in parallel to his teaching commitments, and this was a duality that was to continue throughout his life. The Bauhaus was an environment in which the line between decorative and fine arts and indeed industrial design was intentionally blurred. Albers created furniture and objects in line with the wider ethos displayed by colleagues like Marcel Breuer and Marianne Brandt (1893 – 1983). He made furniture for Gropius’s office, produced a demountable chair and made objects in glass. His ‘Fruit Bowl’ (1923, p7), an example of which is now at MoMA, has about it a nearly Weinerwerkschadt opulence. His Tea Glasses (1925, p10) are more in line with the spirit and aesthetic of the Bauhaus. The handles, set at opposed angles, are in sync with the principles that run through his art practice. A book of his drawings, published years later, was titled ‘Despite Straight Lines’. With Albers, asymmetry or discord is part of a greater plan to create an imperfect but perfect harmony.
It was at the Bauhaus that Albers was to mature as an artist and teacher. It was here he learnt practices that he would take with him and develop at Black Mountain College, where he taught Robert Rauschenberg amongst others, and later at Yale. His seminal treaties on colour theory ‘Interaction of Colour’ was published in 1963. It is still in print and has its roots in the Bauhaus as much as it does in all that he and others learnt about colour from the ‘Homage to the Square’ paintings. The ‘Homage’ paintings, which create a sense of overlapping colour and an illusory depth, have the luminosity of Albers’s glass works. Perhaps his most important discovery at the Bauhaus was the young weaving student Anneliese Fleischmann, (later Anni Albers). For all of its progressiveness, women in the first period of the Bauhaus were encouraged into the textile workshop. The daughter of a wealthy industrialist, the pair married in 1925. Theirs is a famous partnership and much could be written about their synergies as artists and teachers. Anni’s own contribution to the Bauhaus is significant and independent from her husband’s. Leaving together for America in 1933 as the lights went out at the Bauhaus, both would build bodies of work now regarded as centrally important in understanding twentieth century art. Their later works rest however, on the foundations dug and built at the Bauhaus. Nicholas Fox Weber who knew both artists well said that through knowing them he “discovered that dedication to one’s passion, and the celebration and attenuation of what is wonderful in life, could become the fulcrum of earthly existence. The immersion in the visual world, not as something peripheral but as the central issue of one’s being, was strong enough to assure not merely one’s survival but an abiding sense of joy”.