Just a few weeks before Christmas I travelled to New York to see the major textile exhibition ‘The Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Having passed a number of breath taking skyscrapers, juggled my way through the buzzling New York city life, and walked through the Central Park dressed so beautifully in yellow Autumn colours at this time of the year, I arrived early on a Friday morning at the museum that is located on the 5th Avenue right next to the Central Park in the north part of Manhattan. This museum it particularly dear to me because, in addition to paintings and sculpture traditionally regarded as ‘high arts’, it includes a large collection of domestic and decorative arts from the Renaissance period.
This museum visit wasn’t one of the casual exhibition tours that I usually do in my work or spare time. Instead it offered me an opportunity to view this stunning exhibition with the people who created it, and participate in a workshop organised by the Textile Society of America downstairs at the Ratti Textile Research Centre -the research centre that takes care of the museum’s textile collections. This provided a special occasion to learn about the ideas that were behind the Interwoven Globe exhibition as well as to hear the amazing stories that were associated with some of the textiles in the museums’ storage space. In this picture below, we are about to start the museum tour with the curators of the ‘Interwoven Globe’, Amelia Peck, Melinda Watt, Amy Gobansky, Joyce Denney and Elena Phipps, and later we are looking at the textiles at the Ratti centre.
Every exhibition tells a visual story. The Interwoven Globe was a story of early modern textile trade explored, unusually, from the point of view of design history. The significance of the exhibition was that it did not just highlight the role and importance of cotton, silk, wool and linen, dyeing, printing, weaving and embroidering in the history of our world, but it also emphasised the beauty and sophistication of these often overlooked objects. Doing so, it demonstrated that textiles, along with their complex designs and highly sophisticated methods of execution, can and should be viewed as ‘works of art’.
The exhibition focused on professional high-quality textile artefacts that were produced for the international market, including embroidered, woven, dyed and printed wool, silk and cotton textiles across cultures in Europe, the Americas, Asia and India in the period between 17th and 19th centuries. Juxtaposing these enormous works of textile, the exhibition explored not just how objects and materials were traded along the oceanic trade routes but it also examined how tastes and cultural ideas associated with textiles travelled around the globe, influencing the design, production and consumption of these masterpieces.
Global knowledge of design was immediately visible in the exhibited textiles. In the first room of the exhibition, we were introduced to this fascinating 17th-century embroidered and painted textile, showing the Abduction of Helen. Although the theme is very Western, it was produced in China and incorporated Asian motifs: instead of the usual grapes found in Western versions, one of the female figures on the right holds a bunch of lychee fruits!
The increasing global trade and the information about other cultures and their designs stimulated interest for the ‘exotic’ in Europe. We learned that in the period between 17th and 19th centuries, Chinese and Indians produced a wide variety of novel culturally hybrid designs, mixing Western symbols and images with Asian motifs, such as flowers and mythological creatures from Indian or Chinese legends. Producers often created the textiles to the customers’ tastes. This Chinese woven silk produced for the Iberian market, for example, incorporates in the design crowned double-headed eagles, often symbolic of the Habsburg rulers of Spain and Portugal.
‘Exotic’ products appealed in the West not just for their imagery, but also because of the quality of their materials and techniques. Look at the superb quality of this 17th silk and cotton quilt!
Large woven silks and embroideries were hugely expensive and, therefore, suitable status symbols for Western consumers. Europeans, however, were not just fascinated by the most expensive textiles, but they also valued colourful Indian hand painted or printed cottons from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. These appealed for their design but also because they were light, washable and, in most part, reasonably affordable. Here is an image of 18th century Indian Chintz.
Personally, this exhibition demonstrated to me the relevance of visualising the past in our understanding of the complexities of contemporary and earlier European fashion cultures. Walking back to my hotel from the museum along the Madison Avenue, I stopped at designer shop windows to admire contemporary textiles that all still seemed to share traces of the global history that I had just witnessed. It made me think of the extent to which motifs today, originally exotic, have become so familiar to us and blended in our cultural language that we no longer recognise many of them as ‘foreign’.
For the exhibition and pciture credits see http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/interwoven-globe.
For Textile Society of America go to http://textilesocietyofamerica.org/