As I have said in earlier posts, I prefer exhibitions that attempt to explore themes rather than present singular biographies of designers or makers. Why? Well, they invite us to step into lively debates within the study of fashion, dress, art and design by drawing upon a range of disciplines in an effort to discuss their interaction with our lived experience.
This is why I thoroughly enjoyed Artists Textiles: Picasso to Warhol at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London, which comes to a close next week. Curated by Geoff Rayner and Richard Chamberlain, it seems that the exhibition is a three-dimensional realization of their book Artists Textiles 1940 – 1976, published in 2012 and co-written with Annamarie Stapleton.
The intention is to chart, chronologically, the way in which modern artists in the second half of the 20th century engaged with ordinary people in Britain and America through the medium of textile and the production of cheaply printed fabrics. The emphasis is on the efforts of various entrepreneurs, companies and collectives to bring the desirability of modern art to the attention of a wider, increasingly affluent populace by establishing working relationships with iconic artists such as Picasso and Warhol.
The Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) opened in 2003, situated in a bright orange and pink building just south of London Bridge designed by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and commissioned by the fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. It was Rhodes’ intention that the museum would house her own collection of garments, herself (at the top of the building) and her printing studio. However, in 2007, the museum was taken over by Newham College while Rhodes kept the apartment and the studio which now also holds her archive of prints since the 1960s.
The museum is small, split over two levels, with only one entrance/exit which forces the visitor to double back in order to leave the exhibition. Often, with larger exhibitions at places such as the V&A, the visitor is required to follow a route that starts at one place and finishes at another. It’s almost impossible to go back to look at something again. A visit to the FTM is refreshing because the visitor can move around the exhibits as they want, taking more or less time to study displays. Upstairs, there is a generous educational space that often exhibits contemporary workings of fashion and textile design. While I was there, I saw the current work of Sarah Campbell through a display of mood boards and videoed interviews.
Artists Textiles features 200 pieces arranged over eleven displays that focus on activities in Britain and America from the 1940s to the 1960s. Much ground is covered from Dali’s work with various textile companies in the 1950s and 1950s Horrockses fashions to Picasso’s collaboration with Fuller Fabrics and Warhol’s textile design work throughout the 1950s.
Interestingly, although the exhibition is an attempt to show how modern artists engaged with ordinary people through printed textiles, there is very little information on how this was experienced by the so called ordinary people. It is hard to get a sense of what it was like to purchase a roll of Warhol designed fabric or to own a set of curtains displaying a Kent print. As a result, the exhibition assumes the importance of modern art in people’s lives rather than assuming the importance of how ordinary people experience modern art. The objects on display reveals an intimacy between modern artists and manufacturing entrepreneurs, which is arguably at the expense of exploring the more complex relationship felt by consumers with their newly acquired textile art.
Reviews of the exhibition reiterate this assumption about the desirability of modern art, whether it be the emphasis on the entrepreneurial skills of textile producers like Zika Asher to persuade Matisse to mass produce his work or the way in which advertisements for fabrics designed by Picasso reminded consumers that his work was not to be sat on even if it was available as a fabric.
In contrast, a review by Fruzsina Bekefi on the Courtauld Institute of Art Documenting Fashion blog highlights the way in which the exhibition maintains the aura of the individual artist through the display of textiles as isolated works of art. Yet, textiles can allow someone to get even closer to works of art through the wearing of a skirt, the closing of a curtain or the wrapping of a scarf. This is only alluded to throughout the exhibition with the inclusion of mannequins featuring textile designs in the forms of finished garments but these were certainly silent women, whose narratives were not included within the general story of textiles as a didactic lesson in modern art appreciation. Nonetheless, as the Bekefi points out, the inclusion of clothes designed by emerging designers such as Claire McCardell do at least highlight the way dress was also becoming a vital medium by which people could interact with cultural and commercial interests.
My favourite display was the introduction entitled ‘Curtain Up’, which focuses on the period between 1910 and 1939 in an effort to establish a pretext for artists’ interest in using design as a way to share their work with a wider mass market. On a display is a rich range of printed textiles, from scarves to furnishing fabrics, by key modernist artist/designers such as Sonia Delaunay, Josef Hoffman, Ben Nicholson and Ruth Reeves. Although I have seen Reeves and Delaunay at the V&A, it was exiting to view more of their work close up. I was particularly moved by Hoffman’s silk scarf as I imagined it being worn and cared for over much social and cultural changes. Such a small beautiful object imbued with previous lived experience was now lying there like a rare, dead animal finally disembodied from its daily purpose.
This first display featured examples from various artistic/design collectives, which for me were also the most intriguing. Here is where the role of the individual artist becomes superseded by the intention to work more closely with ordinary people in an effort to make art and design relevant to their daily lives. With this in mind, I found the inclusion of projects by the American co-operative Folly Cove Designers and the British Hammer Prints Limited fascinating because they attempted to address and challenge the debate on artistic endeavors and mass production in their design work.
Despite its more traditional art historical approach to textile design, Artists Textiles raises many more questions than it answers, which in my mind can only be a good thing when it comes to discussing fashion and dress within a dynamic critical context.