Published: August 30, 2010
Textiles play a more important role in our lives than many of us realize. To a great extent, our homes and their furnishings do much to shape our everyday living experience. Moreover, each country and culture creates living environments that reflect its social traditions, aesthetic preferences, political and economic circumstances and local ambience.
This phenomenon is gracefully explored in “The Art of Living: Textile Furnishings from the Permanent Collection,” an exhibition on view at the Textile Museum through January 11. It comprises 17 furnishing fabrics from the museum’s large collection, including rugs, wall hangings, chair covers, cushions and other textiles used in domestic interiors. Created to provide comfort, enjoyment, color, pattern and protection in homes from the ancient Mediterranean world to Twentieth Century America, these fabrics document the lifestyles of their original owners, as well as the technical and aesthetic achievements of their makers. It is curated by Lee Talbot, associate curator of eastern hemisphere collections.
“The Art of Living” offers fascinating insights into talented artisans who have created ornamental textile designs over the years and the cultural contexts in which they worked. Most finished cloths are the product of a combination of talents †from designers, spinners and dyers to weavers or embroiderers †although, occasionally, one talented craftsperson can do it all.
Worldwide, court and commercial textile makers have usually separated design from manufacture. From ancient times to today, artists have created decorative patterns for the fabrics used in homes of the well-to-do.
As curator Talbot observes, “In sophisticated court cultures across Europe and Asia, highly trained artisans created decorative patterns for a variety of media, including textiles, utensils and architectural ornament for rulers’ residences.” He suggests that the textiles in the show demonstrate that “their designs sometimes traveled across social strata and international borders, and patterns created in one part of the world became integral to the decorative vocabulary of people far removed in place and time.”
The oldest textile in the exhibition, a Fifth Century tapestry-woven fragment from Egypt, may have covered the kind of bolster pillow portrayed in wall paintings of late Roman times. In those days, professional artists were often employed to draw designs on paper that could be adapted for a variety of media. The fragment on view, featuring scrolling vines, rosettes and birds, reflects motifs developed by Mediterranean-world artists that were adopted by designers worldwide.
A fragment of an Eleventh or Twelfth Century Chinese silk hanging or cover documents the manner in which tapestry techniques and naturalistically rendered bird and flower patterns were conveyed from the West to East Asia along the Silk Road. Here, fine depictions of ducks, peacocks and other birds holding in their beaks symbols of immortality fly before a floral backdrop.
A fragment of a curtain or hanging that likely decorated an opulent Spanish interior in the late Fifteenth to early Sixteenth Century is finely woven with silk and metallic yarns in horizontal bands of contrasting colors and designs. This example shows the melding of Islamic and European styles after Christians reconquered southern Spain from the last sultan in 1492.
From the museum’s rich holdings of Peruvian works is a fragment of a hanging from the second half of the Seventeenth Century that illustrates the creative blending of varied cultural influences. Beautifully woven with Asian silk and native Andean fibers, it incorporates Chinese bird (peacocks) and flower (peonies) motifs along with South American parrots and Spanish heraldic lions.
At about the same time, Indian artisans were achieving global fame producing colorfully patterned cottons, such as tent hangings. They delineated spaces and provided privacy in lavish encampments of Indian aristocrats.
Flower motifs as primary design elements were characteristic of the late Turkish Ottoman court, as exemplified by a sumptuous Eighteenth Century velvet cushion cover. This eye-catching piece, featuring a central medallion surrounded by carnations, tulips and serrated leaves, likely covered a divan cushion in an elegant Turkish home.
Another standout, a colorful, Eighteenth Century Chinese silk chair cover, was probably made for the imperial court during the Qing dynasty. During this period, skilled court artists created designs on paper, which were then sent to imperial craftsmen for production.
The exceptional quality and aesthetic appeal of textiles created by nomadic Turkmen weavers of central Asia is exemplified by a richly colored, interestingly patterned bag dating to the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Likely made by a female master weaver with tight control of her medium, these bags were used to transport and store household items and to decorate tent interiors as their owners moved about.
The long and distinguished tradition of Kurdish weavers of eastern Anatolia or western Iran is represented by a striking carpet festooned with boldly stylized palmettes, rosettes and serrated leaves. This carpet was inspired by Iranian commercial products.
When exported, animal and flower designs drawn on paper by Chinese and Tibetan artists for tapestries and other textiles used in Buddhist settings influenced designs in other parts of the world.
A throne cover from Nineteenth Century Bhutan, for example, designed for cushions used by Buddhist priests, is highlighted by bird and flower patterns based on Chinese and Tibetan designs. The circular motif in the middle is associated with the original sound from which the universe emerged, while the phoenixes with outstretched wings and clutching lotus fronds is a distinctively Himalayan image.
In Nineteenth Century west Asia, specifically in the Dagestan region of Russia, color-filled embroidered furnishings, like a cover in the exhibition, added decorative patterns to domestic interiors †and reflected the owner’s wealth and the maker’s skill. Women, who were largely confined to their homes, made these appealing textiles based on elaborate, velvet cushion cover designs from royal studios.
Another aesthetically appealing object is a silk pile carpet emanating from late Nineteentharly-Twentieth Century Iran. It owes its intricate patterning †blossoms, lattices and palmettes †to techniques developed in the Eighteenth Century and before, as interpreted by a commercial workshop in Iran. It suggests the high quality work that can be produced by modern means, albeit relying on time-tested patterning.
Few names of early textile designers are known today, but from the Eighteenth Century on, records from growing textile industries, particularly in the West, link individual designers to specific designs.
An intriguing Tulip and Willow furnishing textile fragment conceived by William Morris (1814‱896), the British designer, is similar to one that hung in the Green Room of Morris’s Kelmscott Manor on the Thames. Consistent with his leadership of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which exalted the handiwork of craftspeople, Morris preferred to use tapestry weave or woodblock printing by hand, and used natural dyes. His design ideas and color affinities, based on appreciation of Persian and medieval European art, were influential around the globe.
For some, the most interesting item in the show is a tapestry based on the design of American geometric abstractionist painter Kenneth Noland (1914′010), who created patterns for a series of pieces woven by Navajo craftsmen. Displayed is his striking design for “Arizona Sky,” a series of multicolored, linked “V” shapes that was woven by Mary Lee Begay in 1996.
Whether anonymously designed or created by famed artists, the beautifully patterned fabrics in this rewarding exhibition enhanced the lives of their owners, just as they continue to please viewers to this day.
Complementing the “Art of Living” exhibition is “Art by the Yard: Women Design Midcentury Britain,” on view through September 12. It showcases the work of three women designers who played key roles in transforming post-World War II England into an optimistic consumer society.
Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag and Marian Mahler incorporated saturated colors and bold motifs inspired by artists like Alexander Calder and Joan Miró into elegant, affordable textiles that brought contemporary art into everyone’s homes. Standouts, all from the 1950s: Day’s Miro-like “Calyx,” featuring gaily colored, floating forms with stems; Groag’s jolly assemblage of colorful shapes in “Pebbles”; and Mahler’s Calderesque “Mobiles” in red and black. It is understandable why these lively, unconventional compositions not only helped rejuvenate British society, but inspired designers all over the world.
An upcoming special exhibition, “Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats,” on view October 16⁍arch 31, is a fascinating display of eye-popping textiles woven from predyed thread, with vivid colors and bold patterns. Outstanding among many are two late Nineteenth Century robes from Central Asia, one from Uzbekistan, Samarkand or Bukhara (featuring brilliant purple, yellow and green flowers on a white background) and the other from Uzbekistan, Bukhara or Karshi (with bold, yellow and white-dotted crisscrossing stripes on a deep red background).
These three very different exhibitions, including works from its permanent collection, suggest why the Textile Museum has gained worldwide recognition and respect in its field. It has come a long way since it was founded in 1925 by wealthy Washingtonian George Hewitt Myers (1875‱857) with a collection of 275 rugs and 60 related textiles that he began assembling in the 1890s. A collector ahead of his time, he focused initially on a textile’s design, believing that it reflected the influences of contemporary social, political, economic, religious and geographical factors. “He was convinced one can read the entire history of a society through the changes in its art and the development of design,” wrote museum curator Sumru Belger Krody a few years ago.
Over the course of nearly a half-century, Myers sought to acquire a collection worthy of public attention, with a focus on works from neglected areas. In all, he assembled an impressive trove of non-Western objects, numbering a total of 3,100 textiles from Asia and Africa and 1,500 textiles from the Americas before he died. Today, the museum’s collections include more than 18,000 textiles and carpets from around the world dating from 3,000 BC to the present.
Myers launched the museum in an effort to decipher the meaning of his objects and educate the public about the wonders of textiles. By the late 1930s, the breadth and depth of its holdings made it internationally significant.
Visitors enter the museum, located in Washington’s posh Kalorama neighborhood, through Myers’ former home, designed by John Russell Pope in 1913. The galleries are located in an adjacent building Myers acquired for that purpose.
Born out of the dream of a master collector, the Textile Museum plays a leading role in the field of textile arts, bolstered by a collection that is unmatched and known all over the world.
The Textile Museum is at 2320 S Street NW. For information, 202-667-0441 or www.textilemuseum.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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