As Rijksmuseum Professor of Studio Practice and Technical Art History at the University of Amsterdam, I am working with a fantastic group of students from the MA programme in Technical Art History. Although teaching continues during lock down, we were very lucky to just finish the practical part of our module Modern and Contemporary Art Making, which would have been impossible with social distancing. As part of the course we looked at Bauhaus (c. 1919-1933) and its theoretical principles concerning art and craft, as well as its educational methodology. In particular, we studied the teaching practice of the artist, writer and educator Josef Albers (1888-1976), which became the basis of many art school educational programmes long after Bauhaus ceased as an institution. To get into the spirit of Bauhaus, we did several practical drawing exercises following the teaching method of Albers (see on teaching with a unique video clip of Josef Albers Albers Foundation). We also made textures using pasta, corn, rice and photographed them in monochrome, as part of the design methods used by Anni Albers (1899-1994) whose beautiful weaves inspired our workshop (see Albers Foundation website ).
We followed these exercises with two days of weaving in Monika Auch’s studio; an experience that brought us close to the characteristics, limitations and possibilities of very diverse materials. It also showed us the impact of tools and processes, and led to discussions on skill. As Peter Korn, director of the Centre for Furniture craftsmanship in Maine, explains in his book Why we make things and why it matters (2014): ‘The craftsman is forced to come to terms with the physical properties of the materials, the mechanical properties of the tools, and the real capacity and limits of his own dexterity, discipline, and imagination.’ We were thrown in at the deep end and what follows are observations from the students both written and visual about this ‘coming to terms’, during an extremely insightful workshop. Through this workshop Monika introduced us all to the wonders of weaving and tried to ‘open eyes’, the main aim of any teacher according to Josef Albers. And she succeeded splendidly.
The wonders of weaving, as experienced by Mia Ferm, Anne-sofie Hamers, Annemarie Hollants, Ingrid Kramer, Paul van Laar and Mané van Veldhuizen
The process of weaving is not easily put into categories. It can be considered as an utilitarian craft, but it also has its place within the history of art. During our two-year program to become technical art historians, we started exploring the world of Bauhaus weaving during the course Making Modern & Contemporary Art. After we had been introduced to the basics concepts, we had the opportunity to experience weaving ourselves at the atelier of Monika Auch in Amsterdam. This led to a better understanding of the process.
Technical art history
Technical art historians work interdisciplinary and cross-interdisciplinary to gain ‘A thorough understanding of the physical object in terms of original intention, choice of materials and techniques as well as the context in and for which the work was created, its meaning and contemporary perception.' Education about this emerging discipline is offered at the University of Amsterdam, within the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural heritage master program. The course “Making Modern and Contemporary Art” focuses on the study of different modern materials and making processes. It is during this course that we studied the history of Bauhaus weaving, and completed it with hands-on experience. This helped to understand what Annie Albers describes as the ‘materials’ capacities’ and how these dictate the creative process. Working on different looms also showed us the impact of tools; how they feel in the hand and how important it is to have a close connection to how they work with the different materials. The material and technical choices that are made by a practicing textile artist and weaver like Monika Auch, or indeed Annie Albers, became thus more understandable.
Weaving with Monika Auch
The Bauhaus manifesto, stating the artistic principles of the movement, declares the following:
Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! For art is not a “profession.” There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. […] Proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination. (Walter Gropius, “Bauhaus Manifesto and Programme.” Weimar: The Administration of the State Bauhaus at Weimar, 1919)
In line with the Bauhaus movement, Monika Auch’s vision about weaving is to refrain from mass production. She is a visual artist who studied textiles at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy with Bauhaus weaver descendant Margot Rolf. Her textiles are all made on non-mechanical looms, therefore handwork is very much involved in the process. The different materials used and the way they are incorporated into the textile cannot be done in a factory. By working on these looms in the Bauhaus spirit, the whole context and ideas of this movement became more tangible to us. Since textiles are still often connected to craftwork, the workshop also gave insight into the artistic aspects of fabrics and provided ways to understand and communicate this by experiencing the capacities of the different materials, the feel of the tools, and by making our own weaves.
None of us had experience with weaving, we were therefore not certain about what to expect. We had watched some videos in class about the process, but that all looked very laborious and difficult. We did not feel uncertain for long, because Monika made us feel very welcome in her cozy atelier in Amsterdam Noord. We were greeted with a delicious carrot ginger cake, and great amounts of coffee and tea. The studio was home to multiple looms, which all looked quite impressive and daunting. The largest loom was placed next to the window and still needed setting up. There was also a ‘baby woolf’, a ARM-loom, which was controlled by a computer and several smaller looms. We all were able to pick one that we would start experimenting with. The weaving process was of course firstly explained by Monika while she showed some of her work. These varied from large pieces with shiny threads and stones interwoven, to small 3D sculptures with rigid thread and a more industrial look. It was mind blowing to realise that every shown object could be made with the same technique, because the designs looked so different.
Annemarie and Mané took it upon themselves to finish setting up the big loom. This turned out to be a very precise task that required loads of concentration. The warp and weft threads needed to be put through tiny holes in a specific order. If you lost your count, you could pretty much start all over again. This luckily did not happen, but we did find out that we made a tiny mistake along the way. It could be forgiven, but did show that setting up a loom takes a lot of effort. We only carried out the last steps, on a still relatively small loom, and could not perform it flawlessly. And no, we are quite certain it has nothing to do with beginners misfortune. Setting up is just no easy task.Weaving itself involved a whole physical and mindful process. We were encouraged to experiment with different techniques and various materials, focusing on their texture. Some choices we made were conscious, others were purely experimental and were subsequently subject to observation: what did we make and what inspired us? Monika guided everyone through the process with great care. When she found out that Anne-Sofie was very interested in ancient manuscripts and the making of paper, she explained about yarns that were made out of paper and how they could give the weave a nice structure.
During two full days we worked on five weaves together. Some of them were small and made on simple looms, others were much wider and were made on looms with treadles and more shafts. We all brought some material from home to weave through the loom and tried out different styles. The end results were made by different hands, materials, patterns and designs, which makes them quite eclectic. This is a good thing, because it will be easy for us to trace our process back by looking at what we made. We are now all also proud owners of a weave, and do feel a bit extra because of it.
However, for the time being, we will leave the real work to Monika (Monika Auch website). Not only was she an amazing host, she also makes the most incredible weaves.Thanks to this excellent group of hard working students and to Monika Auch.
See for more feedback comments of the students Monika’s Outreach page.
 Erma Hermens, “Technical Art History; The Synergy of Art, Conservation and Science”. In Art History and visual studies in Europe: Transnational discourses and national frameworks, edited by Matthew Rampley, 151-165. Leiden 2012.