Something I’ve learned about fashion and textile exhibitions is that size really, truly doesn’t matter. It is generally the big exhibitions — the Met’s annual gala and accompanying show, the de Young’s Balenciaga exhibition, etc. — that get the press, but I have found it is the smaller, more intimate shows that tend to stay with me and which can genuinely surprise me. Such is the case with the Asian Art Museum‘s Woven Luxuries.
As I said in my last post, Woven Luxuries is a small exhibition of only ten pieces from the Indictor Collection in New York and many of those are mere fragments. I was tempted to put quotations around “mere” in that last sentence because what the Asian does in this exhibition is prove that in the right hands, even the smallest fragment of textile can shine. I have see this done before, such as my favorite piece in the de Young’s From the Exotic to the Mystical. But unlike that exhibition, which had over 40 objects many of which were intact, Woven Luxuries is built on ten fragments and it uses them to tell the story of silk velvets in India, Persia, and Turkey and their roles in their respective cultures and empires. No small feat for ten pieces of fabric, but one which they perform masterfully.
At first glance, Woven Luxuries was set up in a similar manner to LACMA’s Art Deco Textiles, though this perception is quickly challenged by the exhibition itself. Opening with the map and wall text you see in the opening image, the Asian sets the ground work for what we will be examining, the collection from which these textiles come, and how important velvets were in Indian, Persian, and Turkish society beginning in the sixteenth century. The exhibition space is dark and cool, as is fitting for displaying delicate, historic textiles. But this darkness also increases the feeling of intimacy, quiet, and contemplativeness that pervades the show.
There is one bench in the room, in front of a video display that plays on a loop. There is no sound, only subtitles against a background of paintings and other artwork from the focus countries which you realize as the video progresses, and zooms in and out on particular details of these paintings, feature the very textiles you are about to examine. The video is slow, but not to the point of becoming aggravating. Instead, this deliberate pace rather cleverly sets the pace for the entire exhibition. Having driven through the insanity that is San Francisco’s Bay-to-Breakers marathon traffic to get to the exhibition, this deliberate, quiet pace was an intense relief — an oasis, if you will, before I had to venture out again.
The video also communicated succinctly the place these textiles held in Turkish, Persian, and Indian court life. Used as tents in a time before hotels when travelling from one court to another, their designs often mimicked the architecture of the various palaces and temples. They were also an indicator of status — though not necessarily wealth — since they were given by the emperor/king/maharaja (depending on which country and which area of that country they were in) to those he felt had done him great, and often personal service.
The next large text panel explained in detail how these luxurious fabrics were made. The weaving process was very precisely outlined, and yet the panel had less text on it than the opening map. It was startling to think of these amazing, luxurous textiles — all of which were made of silk if not in their entirety, at least in some part — being laid on the ground and used as tents. And as you moved through the exhibition, the tombstones continued this theme of being succinct, but informative — using the individual textiles to further the story of velvets in these three countries, and to underscore points that had already been made.
Another wonderful aspect were the magnifying glasses positioned strategically throughout the exhibition (you can see them above). Having just read such a marvelous description of the weaving process, it was wonderful to be able to see elements of that process (the cut silk threads that created the plush, the interweaving of brocade and velvet, etc.) up close without worrying that I would damage the textile or bring down the wrath of a gallery attendant for getting too close. And as you can see from my photographs of details below, it was definitely worth getting up close and personal with these textiles.
The exhibition grouped the textiles by region as well, which was fascinating because you could track the influence the three cultures had on each other through trade and diplomatic contact (those travelling tents I mentioned earlier). Since I did my master’s thesis on India’s influence on Britain, I focused very heavily on the textiles of India before I could look at its influence on British dress and textiles.. And naturally, the interplay and exchange of aesthetics are of great interest to me. Being able to track the evolution of the boteh (flower), or paisley, from something asked for by European traders into something that was distinctly Indian, Turkish, or Persian into what we now think of as the boteh, or paisley teardrop was genuinely fascinating. Especially since I was looking at three distinct evolutions. It also explains why almost all of my close-ups are of flower motifs. I try to keep my personal research interests in check at exhibitions, but sometimes I don’t notice until I look back at my photos that I didn’t entirely succeed.
The tombstones were genuinely informative. They would tell you not only about the particular textile, it’s origin, what it was originally a part of and used for, and the tombstone would invariably find a way to add to the story of velvets in Indian, Persian, and Turkish culture, their relationship with Europe, or the place textiles held in art and material culture of the time period. You can see in the following photos that they often included photos either of paintings that featured the type of textile — as the video did — which importantly shows the culture’s perception of the textile to go with the research the museum has done. Or it might show a similar, intact textile so you could imagine what the piece you are looking at must have looked like when it was “whole.” But my favorites were those which included photos of architectural details with similar designs, so you could compare the design elements, or those like the one below which explained why we might be looking at fragments. It wasn’t because the textiles weren’t valued, but precisely because they were that people tried to preserve as much of these fabrics as they could as the normal wear and tear of time (and being laid on the ground as tent material) took hold.
The photo above shows my absolute favorite part of the exhibition. And in an exhibit I loved as much as this one — that is definitely saying something. To the right of the last textile displayed on the walls of the room, there is an eleventh textile, contemporary in creation, but made in the traditional way. Next to it are visual demonstrations of how textiles in general are woven, and how velvet is woven by comparison.
Even more divine? The sample textiles you COULD TOUCH below these displays! After wall text and video captions and tombstones describing centuries of artistic luxury, I confess I desperately wanted to find someone at the museum and say “look I’m one of you! If I promise to wash my hands, can I please touch the pretty?” Except, I didn’t have to. The museum provided samples. Something that I feel many textile exhibitions should include, because they are just so tactile.
The exhibition, while wonderful, was not perfect. Admittedly nothing is — and this one came very close — but there were a couple things that were disappointing. The first were the fantastic quotes about textiles, which you couldn’t quite read. They were color on color, in low light, high up above the textiles in full light, in a dark room. It genuinely became too much effort to read them all, having to duck and shuffle back and forth to try and get enough shadows that you could read them. They would have been much better placed lower, so they would be more easily read.
The other critique I would make would be that there was one aspect of the story that was not discussed: the weavers themselves. My area of focus is predominantly Kashmir shawls, and I am fully aware of the rather atrocious conditions the weavers lived under during the “golden age” of the shawl in European fashion. I would have loved to know about the weavers of these beautiful velvets, rather than just about their “consumers,” if you will.
However, these two disappointments did not in any way detract from my admiration of this exhibition. Woven Luxuries is beautiful, provided such a wealth of information and it did so in the best way possible: it let the textiles speak for themselves. It is definitely worth a visit if you will be in San Francisco any time soon.
Woven Luxuries is on display until November 1, 2015.
Have you seen Woven Luxuries? What did you think? Are there any small, intimate exhibitions that have stayed with you for weeks afterwards? What were they, and why did they linger? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And if there are any exhibitions or events that you feel Worn Through readers should know about, please mention them below or feel free to email me the details and I will put them in my next column!