Archive for the Embroidery Category

“Poetic License”: A Joan Schulze Retrospective

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , on February 20, 2010 by Liz Hager

Poetic License: A Joan Schulze Retrospective: February 16—May 9 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Click here for PDF of author’s longer piece “Joan Schulze-A Life in Collage” which appeared in Surface Design (Fall 2010).

By LIZ HAGER

Joan Schulze, The Visitors, 2009
Silk, paper, collage, glue, transfer process, machine quilted; 44 x 84 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Since 1970, Joan Schulze has produced a huge body of work, through which she has consistently pushed the boundaries of contemporary textile art. Schulze is an inveterate experimenter, whose longstanding penchant for unconventional materials is abundantly on view in the retrospective show, “Poetic License,” at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

Joan Schulze, Many Moons, 1976
Cotton, silk, lace; embroidered, appliquéd, pieced, dyed, hand quilted, 90 x 90 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Containing a generous selection of Schulze’s work from the past four decades, “Poetic License” is a tribute to her artistic range. The show presents the visual twists and turns of her career, but it does not editorialize. This strategy has advantages and drawbacks.

Joan Schulze, The Flying Chifforobe, 1984
Cotton, silk, misc.; dyed, pieced, hand quilted, 80 x 60 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Some viewers will find pure delight in discovering various historical treasures on their own. The moments of innovation are here—the lace doilies in Many Moons (1976); the abstraction of quilted landscapes represented by The Flying Chifforobe (1984); the addition of photo transfers to works like Perennial Border in 1989; glue-based transfers (Three Weeks in a Museum, 1991);  the ironic use of real (shredded) dollars in Reserves; the digital printing on fabric first displayed in Object of Desire (1997) ; thread as drawing equivalent (Dancing Lessons); the scattered bits of Velcro, plastic, paint.

Joan Schulze, Objects of Desire, 1997
Silk, paper, photo-transfer processes, machine quilted;  43 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

 

Nonetheless, the true historical import of her innovations might elude a portion of the audience. Over the years, subsequent textile artists have oft copied her techniques, so that by now Schulze’s once-radical vocabulary might appear as common vernacular to the uninitiated.

The show seems to be organized more or less chronologically. The artist’s passion for the visual possibilities inherent in fabric, needle and thread is overwhelmingly clear. Recurring themes in the artist’s work are sprinkled throughout, not grouped.  The passing of time (with the resulting decay) and the nature of female identity are readily identifiable themes in the show. Without explanation, however, many of the important personal references in the pieces may be lost.

Joan Schulze, Frameworks B, 2004
Cotton, digital print; pieced, machine quilted, 14 1/2 x 18 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

On balance much more could have been made by the curator of the arc of Schulze’s career, her place in the world of art.  In this respect, maybe a few dreaded plaques might have been a good thing.

Schulze’s limited formal education in the fine arts clearly has not inhibited her aesthetic sensibility.  A high school class in sewing set her in motion, for it gave her fundamental training in pattern shapes and scrap usage. (Perhaps, more important, it provided her with an introduction the equation Clothes = Power.) Schulze learned embroidery in her 30s and quickly took to it, by 1970 making and selling enough work to leave teaching and work full-time as an artist.

Joan Schulze, Reserves, 2004
12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

It’s understandable that Schulze would not feel bound by any particular tradition (either textile- or fine art-based); being untethered has had a positive effect on her, freeing her to “bring everything into the mix.”  Interestingly, many of her techniques are echo those in the fine arts—photomontage clearly but also abstraction, the gestural use of thread, and the layering of diaphanous fabrics, which mimics painted glazes.

Joan Schulze, Dancing Lessons, 2006
Silk, toner drawing, pieced, machine quilted; 40 x 40 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

For some this retrospective will stimulate serious thought about the boundaries of fine art and craft. When Schulze first began quilting, the two were resolutely separate in the mind of the market.  In the 1970s, she struggled to have her work seen as “art.”

I went to this one gallery. . . many times and (the owner) said “I don’t even know how to talk about your work.” And I said “Just use what you use when you look at a painting: composition, ideas, color.”  Oh, it was like the penny dropped. . . he became one of my best supporters.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955
Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 75 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 8 inches
(MOMA)

Today the distinctions are considerably blurrier, thanks in part to artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, arguably even Julian Schnabel, who have legitimized a “whole world of materials” for use in “fine art.” “Textile art” is a tricky category—the materials often derive from craft traditions, but the end products are usually conceived as art, not as utilitarian objects. In the end, qualifying Joan Schulze as a “textile” artist may limit the way people should think about her art. Does it really matter whether a substrate is quilted fabric or canvas?

In the final analysis, any work of art must be judged on the merit of the ideas it conveys, the dialog it creates with the viewer.  “Poetic License” offers textile and fine arts enthusiasts alike an unparalleled opportunity to decide for themselves where Joan Schulze’s work lives in the House of Art.

Joan Schulze, Figure D, 2009
Paper, collage process, glue; 10 x 8 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Wider Connections

Joan Schulze website
More on the artist—Fiber Scene; Mercury News
The Art of Joan Schulze
The Blogosphere on Art vs. Craft—Raggity Cloth Cafe, Definition of Art (skip down to Art vs. Craft section), Objectivism Online

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Winifred Gill and the Omega Workshops

Posted in Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Embroidery, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Furniture, Rugs, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916
Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper
The Bodleian Library, Oxford

Winifred Gill (1891-1981) was one of the unsung heroines of the Omega Workshops. The task of  creating patterns or translating existing designs to be used on textiles, furniture and home furnishings fell largely to the women of the Omega Workshops—Gill, Jesse Etchells and Nina Hamnett among others. Artist Vanessa Bell also helped to produce some of the embroidery and other needlework, but because she was also one of the directors, not as much of the handwork fell to her.

Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops, c.1913

Duncan Grant, design for embroidered firescreen, c.1912
Embroidered by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Collection of Bryan Ferry

It is largely through Gill’s letters and taped recordings from the 1960s, that we know as much as we do about the day-to-day activities at the Omega—their production methods, anecdotes about specific projects and the personalities of the participants. (Gill’s archive was donated in 2009 to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by her niece, Dr. Margaret Bennett.) Winifred Gill not only had artistic talent, she was intelligent and energetic, with a practical side that enabled her to also manage the business and handle sales.

The Omega Workshops Showroom, 1913

The Omega Workshops, started in 1913 by Roger Fry, was a modernist incarnation of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement that was the legacy of William Morris. Fry was an art critic and painter who wanted to move the British public past the traditions of Edwardian design. He embraced the contemporary European modernist movements—Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and the Futurists—while also cultivating a bit of a Japanese aesthetic, especially through the use of painted screens. The Omega Workshops’ expressive, colorful, bold and abstract designs were the forerunners of the British artist/designer movement that followed mid-century. In 1925, Paul Nash wrote:

The modern movement in textile design began with the establishment of the Omega Workshops.

Paul Nash, Cherry Orchard, 1930
Block-printed silk crêpe-de-chine, Cresta Silks Ltd.

Roger Fry had some experience in interior design prior to founding the Omega Workshops. Among other things, he had built and furnished his home at Durbins, painted a mural at his mother’s home in Cheyne Walk, and decorated the home of his friend, Hubert Crackenthorpe. His co-directors, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were also very actively engaged in the decorative arts, both for themselves and friends, including their home at Charleston.

Photograph of the drawing room at Charleston in the 1930s

Duncan Grant, Interior with the Artist’s Daughter, c. 1935-36
Oil on canvas
Collection of Dick Chapman and Ben Duncan

Fry chose to open the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, London—then rather a shabby neighborhood—in a regular house, rather than a shop, in order to better integrate the work within a domestic setting. When the workshop ended in 1919, Fry wrote:

I have lost $2000 and five years of gratuitous hand work: I cannot waste more on a country that regards the attempt to create as a kind of Bolshevism.

Over the years, in addition to Fry, Bell and Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Paul Nash, Frederick Etchells and others contributed to the designs. Their clients included George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, E.M. Forster and Gertrude Stein—as well as Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell and others of the Bloomsbury set. Winifred Gill indicates in her letters that there was a lot of collaboration—Grant, Bell and others contributed designs which were stored away and later reworked into patterns for specific products by Gill, Hamnett and many of the other unheralded young women who did so much of the work.

Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill in Omega fabrics
from The Illustrated London Herald, 1915
The British Library

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hamnett, c. 1917
Oil on canvas
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

Roger Fry, Winifred Gill by the Pool at Durbins, 1912
Private Collection

Part of Fry’s motivation in establishing the workshop was to find a way for young artists to make a living. At the time, Fry was accused of choosing the name Omega because the current usage of the word was “the last word,” meaning that he thought the workshop’s products were the last word in decorative art. But Winifred Gill wrote that Fry chose it because:

He was looking for something, some trademark, that had a name of its own that everybody knew. I think it was very effective because everyone could say Omega and remember it.

Omega also had a ready-made, recognizable symbol, Ω, and all the work of the Omega, produced anonymously, was marked with the Greek letter (and occasionally incorporated into designs.)

Roger Fry, Design for Cadena rug, 1914

Young artists would drop by the Omega, seeking employment, but often Fry politely turned them down—he liked to scout out artists for himself at art schools and exhibitions—and even artists who came highly recommended had to show a portfolio before being taken on. Gill wrote that some of the young artists, like Wyndham Lewis, broke with the Omega because they resented the anonymity of the work—they wanted to claim credit and recognition for their designs.

Omega Workshops, painted lamp bases, 1913

I seem to remember a long time painting the legs of tables. It had come as a surprise to me that black and white size paint would produce blue. When Venetian red was added, a warm mulberry colour resulted which I always connect with Vanessa. She was very fond of it, and we used it a good deal for background on our furniture. Trays too we painted. O yes, and endless candlesticks. When I remember Nina Hamnett at work it is always a candlestick she has in her hand.
Letter from Winifred Gill to Duncan Grant, 1966

Winifred Gill was invited by Roger Fry to join the workshop in 1913. Like Fry, she came from a Quaker family in Surrey, and was, at the time, working as an assistant to Fry’s sister Joan at her philanthropic foundation, as well as attending art classes at the Slade. Gill’s attraction to the Omega was not only for the artistic aspect and because she lauded the attempt to provide support for young artists, but because she also deeply believed in Fry’s pacifist social agenda. Gill played an essential role in running the workshop and beginning in 1915 she served as the workshop’s business manager. During her time at the Omega, Gill made woodcuts, paintings, designs for toys and household objects. In 1919, Gill designed some artificial flowers with Vanessa Bell on commission, to be used as part of a theater set.

Roger Fry, Still Life with Omega Flowers, 1919
Oil on canvas
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

Gill also designed marionettes with articulated joints which portrayed dancers and musicians. The marionettes were used in a 1917 production of War and Peace: A Dramatic Fantasia a pacifist play written by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson which was attended by W.B. Yeats, Arnold Bennett, G.B. Shaw and Lytton Strachey.

Winifred Gill with her clown puppet Joey, c.1920
The Bodleian, Oxford

The Omega Workshops came to an end in 1919, defeated by the effects of the war, the unreadiness of the British public to embrace new ideas and internal disagreements. However, thought it lasted only six years, the influence of the Omega carries on to the present day.

1946, Miller’s Galleries in Lewes held an exhibition of Omega Workshops products, displayed in a similar fashion to the arrangements at Fitzroy Square. At the time Winifred Gill wrote to Vanessa Bell about the possibility of an Omega room as a permanent fixture at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Vanessa Bell replied:

I hope it may happen for I thought the things at Miller’s in Lewes looked very good, especially the pottery…How long ago all that time seems—it was very strange having it revived for a while…

Painted version of Omega mark used on ceramics

Flora Delanica: Art and Botany in Mrs. Delany’s “paper mosaicks”

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Mixed Media, Textiles with tags , , on December 4, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Mary Delany, Pancratium Maritinum, 1778
Collage of colored papers with watercolor
British Museum

For much of her long life, Mary Delany (1700-1788) was in many ways a typical 18th century society woman of accomplishments. She was an excellent “amateur” artist and also mastered the arts of japanning, silhouettes and embroidery. She was a prolific letter writer and, influenced by the work of Samuel Richardson, wrote a novel, Marianne, which she illustrated. Mrs. Delany was also an avid student of botany, zoology and the natural sciences. But it was at the age of 72 that Mary Delany began the work that brought her lasting renown: her Flora Delanica—nearly 1000 botanical collages that she completed over the following decade. These “paper mosaicks,” as she called them, are incredibly intricate and delicate, the level of detail and botanical accuracy is stunning. Many of the works are comprised of hundreds of impossibly tiny fragments, yet every tendril retains a lovely, graceful line. Admirers of Mrs. Delany’s work included artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who said that her mosaics

were the only imitations of nature that he had ever seen, from which he could venture to describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error.

John Opie, Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany, 1782
Oil on canvas, The Royal Collection

Mrs. Delany was never very wealthy and held no powerful positions at court, but she was extremely well-connected and respected in the influential circles of Georgian Britain. She knew Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, George Frederic Handel, John Wesley and Samuel Johnson and was a great friend of the Duchess of Portland. Born Mary Granville to a younger son of a Tory aristocrat in Wiltshire, she was married at the age of 17 to Alexander Pendarves, an M.P. 40 years her senior, who died four years later. While she was Mary Pendarves, she designed a stunning court dress, an intricate and delicate floral on black satin—in this work we can see the beginnings of her later masterful collages.

Mary Delany, court dress, detail, silk embroidery on satin, 1740-41

While visiting Dublin she met her second husband, Patrick Delaney, an Anglican cleric and a close friend of Jonathan Swift. After their marriage in 1743 the Delanys lived on an estate in Ireland, but continued to make frequent trips to London and visits to the court.

Mary Delany, A Seat in Wood Island at Holly-Mount, 1745
Pen and ink and wash over graphite
National Gallery of Ireland

After her husband’s death in 1768, Delany spent her summers at Bulstrode, the estate of the Duchess of Portland. At Bulstrode, the Duchess—who introduced Mrs. Delany to George III and Queen Charlotte—had a vast, renowned and well-curated natural history collection.

Mary Delany, Fort St. Davids Bull, 1755
(drawn from the life by Mrs. Delany at Bulstrode)
Ink on paper, private collection

The Duchess employed entomologists, botanists and ornithologists and the estate housed a zoo, aviary and botanical garden. At Bulstrode Mrs. Delany was exposed to the work of respected and cutting-edge botanists employing the Linnaean method, and her observations and studies there helped provide her with the thorough botanical knowledge displayed  in her intricate collages.

Mary Delany, Horse Chestnut, 1776
Collage of colored papers with watercolor
British Museum

Mary Delany, Passiflora Laurifolia (detail), 1777

To read more about Mrs. Delany, Venetian Red recommends Mrs. Delany & Her Circle, edited by Mark Laird & Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, published to accompany the exhibition of the same name that originated at Sir John Soane’s Museum and may now be viewed at the Yale Center for British Art until January 3, 2010.

A Different Canvas: Series Prologue

Posted in Embroidery, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

This is the first in a number of inter-related posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles.  For all posts in the series, click here.

May Morris, Embroidered Coverlet

May Morris, The Orchard, 1896, embroidered wall hanging, silk thread on silk ground.

Generally, Western society  places greater value on the fine arts—i.e. paintings, sculptures—than on the decorative (or applied) arts—i.e. furniture, ceramics, books, textiles. The Giotto painting below is magnificent. The singleton Morris hanging above is equally evocative and finely worked. One imagines each required a similar level of skill and number of people hours to complete.

Giotto—Preaching to the Birds 1295

Giotto, Preaching to the Birds, 1295-1300
Fresco. St. Francis, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy.

If art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions, then the world might agree that the Giotto and Morris pieces are both fundamentally works of art. How then did Western cultures come to assign greater value to a painting than a textile?

In this particular case, one might observe that greater value has accrued to Giotto paintings because they were produced by a man. One cannot discount the fact that many of the textile arts started out as, and remained for a long time, women’s work.  Still, gender can’t be the entire explanation for classification of “high” versus “low” art, otherwise all work by female artists, regardless of form, would be valued similiarly.

The elevation of the fine art form can be traced to the Renaissance, when the hand of man replaced the hand of God in the creation of art, thus begetting the concept of individual and assignable “genius.”  The distinction was bolstered in the 18th century by Immanuel Kant, who philosophically subordinated the “mechanical” (applied) to the “aesthetic” (fine) arts.

Raoul Dufy, block printed fabric for Paul Poiret, 1911.

A simple economic view of the disparity might suggest that fine art has historically had higher utility (i.e. the relative satisfaction from, or desirability of, consumption of a good or service), because a privileged class has consistently desired these scarce goods (artists turn out a limited supply of unique works) and has been willing to pay highly for them. Simply put, paintings are like diamonds, scarce and in high demand.

It may be enough to say that fine art has been scarce historically and therefore in demand. But that doesn’t get to the more interest question of why.

John Berger provocatively suggests in his Ways of Seeing that creating a highly-valued fine art form was in the best interests of ruling classes. He observes that oil painting as a technique (mixing pigments with binders) has been around since ancient times. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that “oil painting” as a distinguishable art form, which could be purchased, emerged.

Sonia Delauney—Large cellular motif with dots, 1928

Sonia Delauney, Textile design, 1928.

Reflect on pretty much any painting from the Renaissance on and you’ll realize that it celebrates someone’s possessions: family, animals, fine clothes, household objects, food, land. Among other purposes, possessions (and beliefs, also depicted in fine art) serve to set one people apart from another. Considered in this light, the whole of painting from 1500 to the present amounts to a visual record of the acquiring classes, a glorification of their lifestyle.

Thus, Berger conjectures that the exaltation of certain art forms (possessions in their own right that celebrated the possessing of things) was a clever way for a ruling minority to justify their their role in society. The rest attached themselves to this history and general agreement was reached about the high value of works of fine art.

(Photographic reproduction techniques have allowed the masses a peek into the fine art tent. Through reproductions and museums—temples to the lives of the privileged Berger might say—the masses reap a reward of fine art, although it is altogether different from the utility experienced by the class that can afford to purchase the works.)

Henry Moore—Barbed Wire 1946

Henry Moore, Barbed Wire (serigraphy on rayon), 1946

In the meantime, over the centuries the applied arts have maintained their utilitarian and predominantly anonymous nature. Society still assigns lower status to utilitarian pieces (terming them “craft” or  at best “decorative”), although they appear no less thoughtfully made or aesthetically pleasing. (Stand in front of a Gee’s Bend quilt and see how it compares to a Hans Hoffman or Sean Scully painting.) Nevertheless, even the most luxurious silk or finely-wrought lace could never have quite the immediate power as a painting to tell the story of the ruling classes.

(“Diamonds” exist in the textile world:  antique Persian rugs sell for upwards of $10,000;  $450/sq. foot fabrics are not within the reach of the masses. And, in their own form of mechanical reproduction, many textile producers and fashion designers have made a business out of reinterpreting high-end designs for the mass-market, which engenders some interesting thought on the utility of “knock-offs.”)

Lucienne Day—Day, tea towel, 1950s

Lucienne Day, Day, Provencal tea towel, 1950s.

In this series we explore what transpires when the fine and the decorative arts gently collide, when the world of assignable genius meets the world of anonymity, when “high” artists stroll in the land of low culture.  Not all artists consider the two art forms as separate and unequal. Specifically we’ll examine the output and motivations of many fine artists for whom textiles were simply a different canvas.

Wider Connections

Walter Benjamin—see “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Essays and Reflections

TextileArts

The Textile Book

Venetian Red Notebook: Kuba Cloth, the Geometry of the Labyrinth

Posted in Christine Cariati, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Textiles with tags , on August 7, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth, a raffia cut-pile embroidered textile, has been made by the Shoowa, a small tribe in the kingdom of Kuba, in the Kasai, (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) for hundreds of years. These textiles, embellished with stylized abstracted designs from nature, combine line and surface in an invigorating way that creates movement and depth. Traditionally, Kuba cloth had many uses—as currency, for dowries, clothing, religious rituals and shrouds. The textiles were highly prized and conferred status.

The embroidery is done on a tightly woven plain weave cloth with very fine, softened raffia. The cloth is woven by the men, the embroidery is done by the women. Dyed in earth tones of red, yellow and orange with vegetable dyes, the raffia is pushed down and up through the cloth with a steel needle, then cut in even tufts. There are no knots, and it is packed so densely that the individual tufts are not visible. The textiles combine several tones of color which contrast to form optical geometric motifs that are complex and eye-catching.

The Kuba people have strong design traditions that combine a complex number-based script with the repetition of geometric motifs that are also used in tattoos, body scarification, architecture and basketry. The interlocking diamonds, lines and squares create spatial variations that enliven the cloth with movement. The women work the cloth from left to right, top to bottom, without any preliminary drawings. The single initial element of the design defines the character of the whole piece.

These textiles are unique, yet the visual motifs are very evocative of patterns we see in Western art and craft—they call to mind traditional weaving patterns such as twill, chevron, bird’s-eye and diamond weaves and there are echoes of Byzantine textiles, Art Deco motifs, mazes and labyrinths, M.C.Escher, as well as roads, landscapes and cultivation as seen from an airplane. The visual inventiveness of these works, with their parallel lines, concentric circles, chevrons and diagonals, set off by the tonal shadings, make these textiles endlessly interesting to look at—you always see something new, different patterns and connections constantly emerge.

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba1 cloth

Kuba cloth


Kuba cloth

To study in detail about the complicated origins and history of Kuba cloth, Venetian Red recommends Georges Meurant’s Shoowa Design, African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba, Thames and Hudson, 1986. The 12 examples of Kuba cloth in this post were all taken from his beautiful book.

Venetian Red Notebook: No Rainbow Without the Sun

Posted in Christine Cariati, Embroidery, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Textiles with tags , , , , on July 10, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Queen Elizabeth I Rainbow PortraitIsaac Oliver, Elizabeth I (The Rainbow Portrait) c 1600

In the latest installment of A History of Lace in Seven Portraits for Venetian Red, Liz writes about a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower. This got me thinking about my favorite portraits of Elizabeth I, most of them rife with lace (and pearls.) There are so many wonderful ones, but Isaac Oliver’s Rainbow Portrait, which hangs in Hatfield House, stands out. Unlike many of the Elizabeth portraits, the thing that you first notice about this painting is the color. It is quite elegantly monochromatic, all shades of warm russet, umber and gold.

As a protege of the favored court painter, Nicholas Hilliard, Oliver painted a miniature that was a likeness of the aging Queen which could have cost him his career. In 1596 the Privy Council issued orders that all “unseemly portraits” of the Queen be destroyed—thereafter the Queen was pictured only in the so-called “Mask of Youth” and portrayed as untouched by age. Elizabeth I often referred to the sorrows of her aging body, so it wasn’t vanity that prompted this edict, rather a wish to portray the monarch as perpetually potent, ageless—especially critical for maintaining the authority of an unmarried Queen who would never produce a male heir.

Queen Elizabeth serpent
The Rainbow Portrait was painted when Elizabeth was 67 years old. Volumes have been written about this painting, interpretations that expound, variously and with great conviction, on the perceived religious, political, literary and sexual symbolism in the work. On the simplest level, it is a portrayal of Elizabeth as Astraea, the youthful goddess of justice. She is wearing pearls, the symbol of virginity; her bodice is embroidered with English wildflowers to symbolize her youth and virtue. The serpent embroidered on her left sleeve represents wisdom, also alluding to Eden and the need to be ever-vigilant against evil. The serpent also has a heart-shaped ruby in his mouth, indicating that Elizabeth’s heart is ruled by wisdom, not emotion.

Queen Elizabeth rainbowElizabeth’s mantle is covered with ears and eyes, indicating that the Queen sees and hears all–or, perhaps, that her counselors and servants see all, but that only she speaks. In her right hand she holds a rainbow, symbol of hope, wisdom, faith and peace. The rainbow is oddly colorless—but the explanation seems to be in the Latin inscription on the painting, “Non sine sole iris”—no rainbow without the sun. Queen Elizabeth is the sun, her vibrant red hair and the elaborate rays of her multi-tiered lace collar proclaim that she outshines all by her brilliance, that she is the link to the divine, and that by her wisdom and virtue the people of England will be guided to peace and prosperity.

RainbowPortraitdetail

This portrait, and the hundreds of others done of Elizabeth I during her lifetime  provide an intriguing look into the complex, interrelated worlds of politics and religion in 16th century England and the very interesting role that artists and portraiture played in that era.

Ethnography by the Bay, Textiles (Part I)

Posted in Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2009 by Liz Hager

flag

Asafo Flag, Fante tribe, Ghana, early 1900s (courtesy Owen Hargreaves and Jasmine Dahl; photo ©Liz Hager)

At noon on Friday, the opening day of the The 23rd San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts show (2/13-15), the light foot traffic inside the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason appeared equally-divided between the serious collectors and the dabblers interested in furthering their ethnological education.  Along with scores of the perennially-popular Persian & Turkish rugs, Uzbeki ikat munisaks, antique suzanis, African masks, Oceanic shields, African masks and the scattered Kaitag embroideries were a number of unusual and stunning pieces.  

Asafo Flags, Ghana

Asafo refers to the centuries-old “people’s militia” of the predominently Fante tribe in Ghana. Today asafo is not so much a standing army, but an established social and political organization based on martial principles. The tribe makes extensive use of pictorial symbols, which essentially form a system of writing. Similar to proverbs, this syntax preserves and passes along the tribe’s culture. The symbols appear on textiles, pottery, metal castings, wood carvings and architectural elements.  

According to Rebecca Maksel in “Dueling Banners” (Smithsonian Magazine, link below) the cultures of Ghana “boast a repertoire of more than 3,000 proverbs, although only about 200 of these are depicted on flags.” Each company had its own flag—emblazoned with a unique color scheme and symbols—usually commissioned by each captain for the day of his investiture. Flags were displayed during special occasions, festivals and funerals. The above flag from the early 1900s is typical of the form the flags take—a cotton cloth has been appliquéd and painted, in this case with symbols of a tribesman, stars, a flag-like design at the top, and the Union Jack. Is this an historical theme having to do with some specific event under British rule (Ghana did not gain independence until 1957)? Or does it represent the derivation of the company’s source of power (the stars)? 

Pah-soe, Burma

burmese-mens-pahsoe

Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (lower body wrapper) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

burmese-mens-cloth-detail

Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (detail showing typical plaid “fringe”) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

The pah-soe is a voluminous wrapped skirt worn by fashionably dressed Burmese gentlemen on festive occasions. This piece is made in the typical way of silk woven in tapestry weave, or  acheik-luntaya (in which the weft does not run selvage to selvage, but is placed in small sections).   The garment was woven in two narrow strips and sewn together.  It is finished off with plaid “fringe,” which seems to be the style for these garments.  This is one of the most gorgeous silk weavings on view at the show—its luscious purply indigo color not well captured in the dim lighting of the booths. 

Ritual Cloth, Nigeria

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Ukara, Leopard Society, Igbo Tribe, Nigeria, plain weave/stitch/resist on cotton dyed with indigo, 20th century (courtesy Cathryn Cootner, photo ©Liz Hager).

Like the Asafo flags, this Igbo pictorial cloth is a sophisticated form of communication. The Igbo Leopard Society was a secret society, perhaps established in Nigeria as early as the 1600s, but which flourished mainly in the early- to mid-20th century mostly as a form of shamanism. The shaman transformed himself into an animal (ngbe or leopard) and conversed with the other animals on behalf of the society.  The central society ritual consisted of masquerade processions and dances, in which members wrapped themselves in leopard skins and ukura skirts.  

According to Amanda Carlson in African Folklore: An Encyclopedia (p.299)—

Leopard Society members, who pursue excellence and expertise in the artistic and intellectual facets of nsibidi {symbol language of, among others, the Ejagham and Igbo tribes}, create brilliant displays with their secret knowledge, which once gave them the power to enforce the laws of the society at large. On ritual occasions, members create a dramatic presence by wearing a ukara cloth, which they tie around the waist to form a long skirt…  

Ukara cloth has an array of signs that uniformly cover the surface of the cloth and refer to titled positions within the society, secret rituals, and philosophical concepts. Read as a whole the cloth is a synopsis of the Leopard Society and a symbol of membership. 

This ukara, a bold design of indigo and white, is particularly dense, which causes the eye to linger in order to register its individual components. Despite a multitude of figurative and geometric symbols, the rigid grid assists the eye in both reading the whole design and seeing the individual parts. The design seems to undulate and flow; the indigo and white cause the symbols to pop forward or recede into the background. 

Kantha (Quilts), West Bengal

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Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave, West Bengal, ca. 1940. (courtesy John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

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Tiger motif—Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

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Yankee Sailor motif? —Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

Kantha are quilted cloths made from old saris, dhotis, and lungis. Used as bed covers or wraps, kantha can from three to seven saris thick, quilted together with the simple running stitch. This stitching gives the kantha a finished effect similar to an American-style quilt, although sari silk imparts a luster and richness not present in the latter bedcover.  The kanthas pictured here are made predominantly of cotton, but that in no way detracts from their value as exquisite and breathtaking textiles.

A long talk with renowned textile authority and dealer John Gillow revealed the engaging story behind the kantha above.  Like many kantha this was produced as a dowery piece, most likely for the daughter of a wealthy (rice) farmer. She may have worked on it, but likely other women of the plantation did the majority of the work. Like many kanthas, this features the central lotus motif. The fancifully-conceived animals that surround the lotus would have been been familiar to the Bengalis—a tiger, a crocodile, peacocks, fish, as well as farm animals. West Bengal is a cultural cross-roads of sorts, hence the Buddhist lotus flower mixed in with an Islamic water carrier (lower left),  women in Hindu-style lengha(?) skirts (lower right), and what Gillow hypothesizes is a “Yank” sailor above the women.   (This being executed in the mid 40s during or after the war.)  The challace (above left) is traditionally filled with rose water, which along with betelnut, is a welcoming gift in Bengali homes. 

Kanthas were also executed in the most stunning of geometric designs. The upper photograph of the two below demonstrates the subtlety of a well-executed reversible design.  As the lower photographic detail shows, great care was taken to continue the stitching design into the background. The hours of work that must have gone into the creation of these extraordinary quilts is mind-numbing. 

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Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

 

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Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

 

Wider Connections

Tribal Arts homepage

Asafo Flags (images)

Smithsonian on Asafo flags

Inscribing Meaning—Nsibidi 

John Gillow’s books on textiles

Cloth as Metaphor Exhibition

Kantha stitches

 


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