Textile, a Language for Art

The current boom in textile as an art form continues to grow. Many artists and exhibitions highlight the use of textile as a language and showcase various weaving, tapestry-making, knitting, embroidery and other textile assemblages of all kinds.
In terms of textile-as-art, the golden age was without a doubt between the sixteenth and seventieth centuries, when there was a rich production of tapestries, woven in Flanders, France and Italy according to sketches done by the master painters of the epoch. In Paris, the Gobelins Tapestry Factory (who participated in Maison d’Exceptions in 2011) entrusted its direction in 1663 to the French decorator and painter Charles Le Brun so as to assure the creative value of their productions. Throughout the nineteenth century, with the advent of industrialism, an emphasis was placed on the development of techniques and technologies; consequently, creativity in textiles floundered, and the aesthetic quality of the products was impoverished.
In the continuing spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement begun at the end of the nineteenth century in Great Britain by William Morris, the inter-war period saw the emergence of a new artistic figure: that of the textile designer — notably the case in Germany with the Bauhaus and its disciples such as Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl, and in France with Sonia Delaunay and Eileen Gray.
It was not until the 1970s that a return to a sense of craftsmanship and hippie-chic in Western culture led to a reemergence of textile expressions such as embroidery and tapestry in the field of art: Annette Messager, Sheila Hicks and Alighiero Boetti were pioneer promotors before these practices once again became rarified in the 1990s as art grew increasingly conceptual and interested in emergent intangible supports such as video and digital images.
The current wave, in many sectors from fashion to design, of rediscovering the value of artisan skill and craftsmanship has led to the development of the project Maison d’Exceptions, initiated in 2011 by Première Vision, in order to showcase the numerous international textile techniques which are sources for luxury houses and fashion designers. In the field of fine arts, there are several notable examples of artists currently working with textiles as a primary medium (for example, Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, Karina Bisch, Irene Alvarez and Carissa Rodriguez, who are already profiled on the Maison d’Exceptions website).
While international museums specialized in textile design, such as the London Fashion and Textile Museum, devote more and more of their exhibits to the creation of art textiles, in 2013 the Modern Art Museum of Paris surprised by producing a show identifying the use of tapestry in contemporary art and establishing a parallel with older and sometimes quite popular tapestry productions. From July through October 2014, the city of Guimaraes in Portugal welcomes Contextile, the second edition of the biennial of contemporary textile art which brings together some fifty international artists.
At the same time, private initiatives are not lacking. This spring, in tandem with Art Brussels, the city’s contemporary art fair, the exhibition Textile Languages gathers in a modernist villa a selection of works by fifteen artists who work with textile, video, photography and performance. Caroline Achaintre, Alighiero Boetti, Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Sheila Hicks, Ali Kazma, Jonathan Monk (see illustration), Jimmy Robert and Philippe Terrier-Hermann, to name a few, open many doors to consider more closely the questions of textile and clothing as materials in art, their modes of production and historical roots.
Illust.: The World in Workwear, Jonathan Monk, 2011 – Textile, 156×197,5cm – Private collection, Brussels