Textile Art The Ariadne Thread of High Art

Textile art is women’s work, arts-and-crafts or folklore. Prejudices about aesthetic work with woven materials are extremely tear-proof, all the more so when one approaches notions of high culture.

Chiharu Shiota “Love Letters” Chiharu Shiota “Love Letters” | Photo: Christoph Schmidt picture alliance © picture alliance / dpa The 19th century cliché according to which the male genius paints and sculpts while the female decorative talent weaves, knits, crochets and embroiders is astonishingly ineradicably knitted into the reception of great art. But this simple image reveals two crucial weave flaws: the wide-ranging use of textile materials in art finds as little expression here as does the major role that techniques from textile design have played in abstract art.

Recently, diverse exhibitions have created a veritable trend in shearing off out-dated pigtails of disparagement. In Turin, Mönchengladbach, Vienna, Bielefeld and Wolfsburg comprehensive exhibitions are reassessing the conflict between the significance and recognition of the use of fabric. Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne illustrates the influence of Moroccan Carpets on the avant-garde, the Paris Museum of Modern Art is assembling art carpets from Pablo Picasso to Albert Oehlen. And in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, a retrospective on Eva Hesse a female conceptual avant-gardist, followed one on a male pioneer of textile art, Franz Erhard Walther.

Taken together, these exhibitions show that textiles are less the decorative trimmings of high art than one of its central Ariadne threads. As early as ancient Egypt, tapestries were placed in tombs as grave goods. Since the Renaissance, the detailed mastery of depicting fabric on canvas significantly determines an artist’s status. But products of spinning also stood at the turning points of art history as aids, whether as perspective matrices in the development of perspective or wool yarn for comparing colours in the case of painters such as Van Gogh.

Textile pre-figurations of modern art

The fact that the art of textile making is “the primordial art from which all other arts derive their characters and symbols”, as the architect Gottfried Semper categorically declared in1860, has never been more clearly articulated than in the beginnings of modern art. The Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau achieved their impact through the stylisation of patterns and ornamentation, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard invoked fabrics in their luminous abstractions, and Cubism would also be unthinkable without the treasury of inspiration provided by textile prototypes. Ultimately, the liberation of non-representational painting took place in a close, in part personal connection between painting and weaving.

Markus Brüderlin, who curated the most comprehensive exhibition on this theme for the Kunsthalle Wolfsburg, locates the birth of abstraction from the spirit of the textile with the artist couples Anni and Josef Albers, Sonia and Robert Delaunay and Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The geometric fabric designs developed by the three women on the grid of their looms enabled the men to conceive of painting in its original purity once again, as Sophie Taeuber-Arp recalled. But the genres linked up with each other at the hands of other rebels of aesthetic austerity. Oskar Schlemmer’s most celebrated work consists of the costumes for his Triadic Ballet, the Russian Constructivists sought ways to connect pictorial abstraction with the new revolutionary wardrobe. And Casimir Malevich’s Black Square appeared for the first time in 1913 on a stage curtain for the Futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun“.

Collection of fabrics Fabric as Material

The Wolfsburg exhibition offers a fairly exhaustive survey of the spectrum of textile art. From wallpapers by Vienna workshops to the colourful tapestries produced by Gerhard Richter as follow-up to his streak paintings, from Jesus’ sudarium to the blasphemous pornographic embroidered pictures by the Egyptian artist Ghada Amer, from Joseph Beuys’ felt art to Louise Bourgeois’ maltreated fabric dolls, practically every aspect of the extreme diversity of approaches to fabric in art is represented here. Burak Arikan’s complex diagrams of power relationships reveal how metaphors derived from textile production such as “knotting,” “linking” and “meshing” have become a part of the methodology of art. Lucio Fontana raised awareness of the canvas as such by means of knife cuts on plain backgrounds, tent structures have been providing lightness in architecture since the Munich Olympic Stadium, and Sigmar Polke’s images on cheap fabric swatches elicit humour from the textiles.

The material of art

The other textile collections cannot really keep pace with the concentrated demonstration in eight chapters presented in Wolfsburg, but nonetheless intersect in numerous respects and condense others. “Textiles: Open Letters” in Mönchengladbach, for instance, focused on the interactions between textile design and the fine arts, while “Soft Pictures” at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin primarily assembles current artists working with textiles. But they all unveil the fact that the material of art more often consists of material than a mind entangled in obsolete assumptions might imagine.

„Textiles: Open Letters“ is shown in Vienna from 19.09.2014 to 01.02.2015 at the Generali Foundation, Vienna.