Art by the Yard: Textile Exhibitions In Toronto
I was weaving my way around Toronto recently, enjoying three spectacular textile exhibitions. The first stop in my travels was at the Textile Museum of Canada, to see Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol. It is a fascinating overview of 20th century art history through textile design. Organized and circulated by the Fashion and Textile Museum from London, England, it shows how, in the 20th century, artists' fashion and furnishing textiles brought their work to broader audiences.
Although painters usually paint on canvas, which is a textile after all, it still seems innovative to see painters applying their art to manufactured textiles. This is no doubt because "...the artists...created unique designs especially for use on fabrics...They're not designs that existed already and were then transposed and adapted." At the exhibition, I really admired Sonia Delaunay's silk fashion textile, Raoul Dufy's 'Les Violins' cotton furnishing textile, and Henri Matisse's 'Echarpe No. 1' silk headscarf.
Known primarily for his sculptures, I was surprised and intrigued to see a 'Standing Figures' rayon headscarf from 1947 by English sculptor Henry Moore. In Britain, in the late 1940s after WWII, the textile trade was an important part of the economic recovery export drive. Artists such as Henry Moore were involved in this initiative.
Meanwhile, in the 1940s in the United States, I was interested to learn that there was an enthusiasm for modernity, and Surrealism was popular in fashion and home furnishings. Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí's 'Classical Armour' silk headscarf on display with its bright red torsos in an other-worldly landscape, is emblematic of his style.
Another Surrealist, Joan Miró, designed a textile, 'Farmer's Dinner," depicting cockerels on a light green background, which here has been made into a dress. Marc Chagall's romantic style is stunning on his 'Belles Fleurs' cotton and rayon furnishing textile - the flowers look fresh-picked! My favourite textile in the exhibition, however, is Andy Warhol's 'Buttons' cotton fashion textile, a cheery repeat pattern of colourful buttons. Andy Warhol's skill with textiles came about because he "started out as an illustrator. He was a commercial artist...He understood scale; he understood colourways."
As comfortable as Andy Warhol was with "producing commodity, basically," Pablo Picasso had an "uneasiness with sacrificing creative control over his product. The artist famously stipulated that his textile designs could be used for any purpose - except something that could be sat on." I did notice in the exhibition that Picasso's 'Fish' print cotton textile is made up into a dress, and his 'Musical Faun' cotton corduroy velvet into an extraordinary 1960s garment, hostess cocktail culottes. So, while both garments made of Picasso textiles could not be sat on, they could be sat in!
While I was at the Textile Museum of Canada, I also went to see Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray. The 50 photographic portraits on display in the exhibition were taken between 1937 and 1946 by Frida Kahlo's friend and lover, the Hungarian-born Nickolas Muray. These photographs of Frida Kahlo are extraordinary, with her direct gaze softened somewhat by being captured by her intimate photographer friend. Wearing the traditional Mexican dress which expressed her fierce pride in her Mexican identity, Frida Kahlo not only was an iconic figure of the 20th century, and one of the most
influential artists of modern culture, "She, herself, absolutely, was possibly her greatest work of art."
Along with the photographs can be seen examples of traditional Mexican blouses, earrings and necklaces of the type Frida Kahlo would have worn. Also on display is the huipil, a traditional Mexican loose-fitting tunic, a garment favoured by Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo's costume was such a part of her aura, "...you could hear her before she entered a room from the sound of all of her big clanking jewelry and the rush of her skirts." Within these loose-fitting clothes, Frida Kahlo also covered her physical infirmity, the result of polio as a child and then a horrific bus accident when she was a teenager. When she died in 1954, Frida's husband Diego Rivera locked away her wardrobe until it was unsealed in 2004.
The third exhibition I went to see was ¡VivaMéxico! up on the fourthlevel at the Royal Ontario Museum. There are 140 pieces on display, including complete costume ensembles, textiles, embroidery and beadwork. Textiles in Mexico have an impressive 4000 year-old history, from the Maya, to the Zapotec and Aztec cultures, to the Spanish conquest in 1521. There are some magnificent handwoven sarapes, or men's overgarments, on display. The sarape represented wealth and male prestige in 19th-century Mexico, and today the sarape is an emblem of masculinity. Worn like a cloak or a Peruvian poncho,
it is also seen as a symbol of "mexicanidad" or Mexican identity, in much the same way that the huipil, or tunic was, when worn by Frida Kahlo. The textile for the huipil is traditionally woven on a backstrap loom. Incredibly, the backstrap loom has been used for 3000 years, with one end of the loom tied around a fixed object, such as a tree, and the other end around the back of the weaver.
The cochineal insect is used to produce red dye for colouring fabrics, and was once one of the world's most precious commodities. I was fascinated by a video at the exhibition about how this treasured dye is extracted.
With the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Roman Catholic church fostered the teaching in convents of Spanish needlework techniques. There are stunning examples of Huichol clothing on display, cross-stitched by hand, as well as embroidered samplers. My favourite piece of clothing in this entire exhibition is an exquisite blouse with silk satin-stitch embroidery of flowers and birds, by award-winning embroiderer Faustina Sumano García.
I enjoyed visiting all three exhibitions, and appreciated the different societies and historic periods they represent, but really the common thread running through all of them is a visual feast of beautiful textiles!
This summer, for free, you can go on your own or take a friend or your family, to the Textile Museum of Canada and the Royal Ontario Museum with a Sun Life Financial Museum + Arts Pass, available at Toronto Public Library.