The Fashion and Textile Museum’s current exhibition looks at “20th century art in textiles and fashion from Cubism and Surrealism to Pop Art”, as the tagline puts it. The many pieces on show are predominantly printed textiles designed by figures better known for their paintings, drawings or sculptures.
I particularly loved Dali’s ‘Flower Ballet’ design, which shows a Daphne-esque half-ballerina, half-bouquet pirouetting on a stage, and Picasso’s ‘Musical Faun’ daringly printed onto velvet corduroy and made up into rather enviable ‘Hostess Cocktail Culottes’. A few designs diverge from the artist’s usual style, but most, such as John Piper’s ‘Chiesa de la Salute’ could be a repeat copy of a canvas painting.
This seeming lack of imagination or adaptation is unsurprising, since making a dress or some curtains out of a print by Picasso (which actually looked like it was made by Picasso) was a cheaper, more widely accessible alternative to actually owning a unique Picasso artwork. Artist-textile company collaborations allowed the masses to buy a piece of modern art for a pound a metre.
Why does a textile print not count as ‘A Picasso’ or ‘A Dali’? Yes, the initial drawing is the only bit actually in contact with the artist’s hand, after which printers take over, but this is also true of etchings sold for millions. The distinction seems to lie in the near limitless production of a textile compared to one-off paintings or artists prints, which are restricted to an edition of, say, ten, to ensure the high price that comes with exclusivity. It’s also down to the puzzlingly prolonged distinction between ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ art forms, with textiles and their usually anonymous makers consigned, for now, to the latter.
Mass production and repetition are themes that played a key role in Andy Warhol’s work. His very sweet ‘Happy Bug Day’ design interestingly predates his first silk-screen artwork by several years.
With this exhibition, the big (male) names and movements of the Western art world inevitably take over. The curators have used them to both structure the exhibition, with section titles such as “The 1960s: Pioneers of Pop”, and no doubt to attract an audience outside of the FTM’s usual fanbase. However, they have also paid tribute to lesser-known groups such as the Edinburgh weavers and Hammer Prints Ltd, whose intention to “anonymously encompass all aspects of interior design” reminds me of the ‘no-brand’ ethos of Japanese company Muji.
Although too many exhibitions now seem to be put together like books or essays, with visitors plodding through a beginning, middle and end in that order and only that order, I think it’s important for curators to wrap up with a summary or ‘take home message’. This show fizzles out rather disappointingly, leaving us wondering where the final section is. What happened to artist textiles after the 1960s? What about the rest of the world, outside of Britain and America? What are today’s equivalent artist-fashion company collaborations? Although the show succeeds as a comprehensive look at artist textiles specifically in Britain and the States from the 30s to 60s, it lacks the context and points of comparison that would allow us to see these designs in the bigger picture. It also misses out on a good opportunity to discuss issues in the textile and fashion industry; for example, the decline of textiles sold for home sewing as cheap, off-the-peg clothing took over.
‘Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol’ is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 18th May