Archive for Henry Moore

A Different Canvas: The British Abstractionists

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

This is the third installment in a series of posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles.  For all posts in the series, click here.

Henry Moore—Barbed Wire 1946

Henry Moore, Barbed Wire, ca. 1946,
serigraphy in five colors, spun rayon (courtesy The Ascher Collection).

While primarily known as sculptors and painters, the British “Abstractionists” Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), and Henry Moore (1898-1986) also designed a fair number of textiles. Though not always huge commercial successes, in fact their designs did help revitalize British textile design, which was nearly moribund in the pre-War years.

Nicholson, Hepworth, and Moore were eager to experiment with textiles; they all considered designing for the applied arts to be a legitimate part of their artistic output. Further, they understood the power of the mass-distributed textiles to introduce their individual aesthetics to new audiences.

Barbara Hepworth—Pillar, 1937

Barbara Hepworth, Pillar, 1937,
woven cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, produced by Edinburgh Weavers.

A discussion of mid-20th-century textile design in Britain necessarily begins with William Morris (1834-1896), the undisputed progenitor of the industry. Through tireless efforts, Morris and members of the Arts & Crafts movement provided the framework—in terms of both design and production—that would thrust Britain, indeed the world, into the modern design age.

Ben Nicholson—3 Circles, 1937

Ben Nicholson, Three Circles, 1946-47,
screen printed linen, produced by Edinburgh Weavers (courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

By the mid-19th century Britain enjoyed clear dominance in the production of textiles. An ample supply of inexpensive cotton thread from her colonies, together with an unfailing commitment to industrialization of the weaving process and to the production of synthetic dyes (spurred by the discovery of synthetic mauve in 1856 by Sir William Perkin) formed the backbone of her competitive advantage.

Roller printed export cotton, Lancashire 1858

Pre-Morris Design—typical roller-printed export cotton, Lancashire, ca.1858
(courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

Nonetheless, the nation’s pre-occupation with technology eventually stymied design innovation. By the 1860s, the industry was hopelessly mired in copy-cat design practices that bred profusely-ornate and garishly-colored patterns. The country’s ability to provide innovative décor and fashion fabrics to a burgeoning middle class was seriously compromised.

Wm Morris—Larkspur wallpaper, 1872

William Morris, Larkspur (detail), 1872, wallpaper design.

By the 1870s, Morris and his colleagues succeeded in breathing new life into the British textile trade. Morris’ imaginative and harmonious designs were influenced not only by the arts of Medieval England and France, but 16th- and 17th-century Italian textiles, as well as growing attention to the cultivation of formal gardens. The designs sought to achieved a more naturalistic depiction of floral arrangements in both color and form. Indeed, great observation was at the core of  Morris’ superior draftsmanship.  Morris succeeded in creating designs that are timeless; a century and a half later, we still find them irresistible.

In addition, Morris’ unflagging promotion the standards of hand-made production (natural dying, hand weaving, block printing) led to innovation in weaving techniques, which, in turn, restored a richness of quality to fabrics that had nearly been lost through the rapid mechanization of looms.

Phyllis Barron—Log pattern , 1915

Phyllis Barron, Log, 1915, hand-blocked cotton.

The shadow of Morris’ legacy was long. Certainly, pockets of creativity existed in Britain well into the 1920s. After Morris, the design standard was ably carried  by C.F.A. VoyseyWalter Crane, Rennie Macintosh, Liberty’s, the Omega Workshops, among others. Originally painters, Phyllis Barron (1890-1964), Dorothy Larcher (1882-1952), and Enid Marx (1902-1998) were committed to continue the revival of hand block textile printing techniques that Morris had begun. Through much truly laborious work, they produced many stunning designs, in the process keeping the hand-crafted principles of the Arts & Crafts movement alive.

Enid Marx, Blue Waves

Enid Marx, Waves, ca. 1930s, hand-block printed cotton.

Outside Britain, perhaps the most visible disciples of the movement were Peter Behrens and the Darmstadt colony, the Wiener Werkstätte, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Lötte Frömel-Fochler—Grünfink

Lotte Frömel-Fochler, Grünfink, 1910, fabric sample.

By the early 1930s, these innovations notwithstanding, the British textile industry on the whole had once again sunk into a deep design funk. In place of British goods, the lushly-ornamental designs of the French had become highly-desirous. The British textile manufacturers were simply unable to compete effectively. Compounding matters, an ever-deepening economic depression enveloped the nation.

Nancy Nicholson—Unicorn, 1930s

Nancy Nicholson, Unicorn, 1930s, bedspread, block print and stencil.

A handful of textile firms specifically sought to redress this problem. In the early 1930s, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth began experimenting with block printing on textiles through Poulk Press, established by Nicholson’s sister, Nancy. Later they would work under the auspices of Edinburgh Weavers (established in 1928) whose director, Alastair Morton, regularly commissioned artists throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s to provide avant garde fabrics to the architectural trade.

Alastair Morton

Alastair Morton, late 1930s (?).

In October 1937, Morton launched the “Constructivist Fabrics” collection with designs by Nicholson,Hepworth,Winifred Nicholson (Nicholson’s first wife), and Arthur Jackson (Barbara Hepworth’s cousin).

Ben Nicholson—Princess, 1933

Ben Nicholson, Princess, 1933, hand block printed cotton.

Nicholson was already pre-occupied with flat geometric shapes in his paintings and linocut prints, and it is easy to imagine why he was influenced by Enid Marx’s work (though he found her techniques too slow and soon had his sister printing his designs). Nicholson produced some of the most austere textile prints of the pre-War period; but as Three Circles (above) demonstrates, he also could harness his fascination with geometry into appealing designs.

Hepworth’s textile designs closely follow her abstract paintings and drawings, in which she often worked out ideas for her sculptures. Hepworth had a gift for mathematics, and was close to her father (a civil engineer), so her two-dimensional works often have the vestiges of technical drawings in them. She and Nicholson were married for over 20 years, and although their work is different, it is also highly complementary.

Marianne Mahler—Treetops, 1939

Marianne Mahler, Treetops, 1939,
printed cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, printed by Edinburgh Weavers.

Though the importance of the Edinburgh Weavers within interior design industry was substantiated by the magazines and trendsetters of the 1930s and 40s, Morton once admitted that the fabrics weren’t always commercial successes:

There may be relatively few buildings yet that can suitably use them. But we are confident that they are the type of buildings and fabrics that the present generation wants and their production will have been justified if they have helped to develop a genuine contemporary style of interior decoration, keeping its place in the living culture of today.”

—Alistair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1978, p. 12

The company continued to produce avant garde textiles until Alastair Morton’s death in 1963.

Victor Vasarely, Oeta, furnishing fabric, 1962,
printed by Edinburgh Weavers, (courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)

Henry Moore first became interested in fabrics during WWII, when Czech exiles Zika and Lida Ascher commissioned Moore, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, and others, to create designs for a collection of limited-edition silk scarves for their textile company. Soon Moore had filled four notebooks with designs, not simply for this commission, but for furnishing fabrics and dress-making material.

Henry Moore—Three Standing Figures, 1944, silk serigraphed scarf

Henry Moore, Three Standing Figures, 1944
serigraph on silk, printed by Ascher, Ltd.

His textile designs show a wholly different Moore, full of expressionistic line and color. Textile design fitted Moore’s socialist aim of integrating modern art into daily life, so familiar, though ominous, objects, including barbed wire or twisted safety pins,  gave his designs a distinctive hard edge. Whimsical motifs such as clock hands, sea creatures, and piano keys referenced Moore’s pre-war flirtation with surrealism.

Henry Moore, textile design

Henry Moore, textile design from sketchbook, 1940s, pencil/was/crayon/wash.

Given the drab chroma of his iconic stone and metal sculptures, one of the most astonishing elements of Moore’s textile designs is his use of vivid color. The artist conceived his hues—among them lime green, mustard yellow, bright pink—as a counterweight to post-war drabness. Moore once said that color for him was “a bit of a holiday,” and his work in textiles offered him the opportunity to work unfettered in this realm.

Wider Connections

Enid Marx
Alison Morton, hand weaver & daughter of Alistair Morton
VADS—Textile Collection
Meg Andrews—Antique Costumes & Textiles
Barbara Hepworth

“Henry Moore Textiles”

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

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when galleries and museums are closed. Every Monday we highlight a few current exhibitions, new installations, or art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

This week, VR offers  3 San Francisco FAVs (Free Art Viewings), works of art on public view. For others, see VR post on George Rickey.

Henry Moore, Large Four Piece Reclining Figure, 1973, cast bronze.
Location: Davies Hall.

Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn, The Language of Birds, 2009 illuminated books. Recently selected as one of the country’s best public artworks.
Location: Broadway & Columbus Avenues.

Amy Blackstone, Fire, Air, Earth and Water, steel cutout columns and illumination.
Location: Helen Wills Playground, Broadway at Larkin Street.

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