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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition on textiles entitled Interwoven Globe certainly accomplished the goal stated on the show’s website, which was to “explore the international transmittal of design from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century through the medium of textiles.” Its scope was impressive, as was the great variety of textiles on display, whether in terms of geographic and chronological span or category type: fashion, liturgical textiles, marriage quilts, raw fabric, etc. The exhibition could not have come at a better time, perfectly in step with the museum’s declared interest in becoming more global and inclusive (“one Met, many worlds”). The show reflected an open-mindedness about what constitutes art in the museum, encompassing the wider world of visual and material culture. Interwoven Globe consisted of nine rooms, each with a particular geographic and thematic focus related to the textile trade spanning the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Particularly effective was the exhibition’s explanation of the networks of trade, influence, and status represented by these objects.
That being said, my one complaint is that the focus was only on the trade of textiles; not much context was provided on the workers, those who produced this material culture, and as a result the show emphasized instead the mercantile aspect of trade, so prevalent in modern corporate culture. The exhibition broached colonial consequences such as slavery, but it might have added at least some discussion of textile workers. For example, in certain countries in Europe such as Italy, most of the ecclesiastical textiles in the early modern period were woven by young women in convents and houses of reform whose labor was often exploited by patrons and merchants. Similar conditions existed elsewhere. The exception to this would be colonial embroidery, created in the homes of young, upper-class women.
The exhibition was accompanied by a handsome and informative catalogue, meticulously researched and written by important scholars in the field. The catalogue was edited by Amelia Peck and includes essays by the curator of the Ratti Textile center, Melinda Watt, among others. The catalogue itself was wrapped in a colorful textile as dust cover, an apt choice for such a volume, making a statement both witty and beautiful. Most importantly, the engaging essays remedied much of the lack of information present in the exhibition itself regarding topics such as slavery and postcolonialism. The following is a selection of some of the highlights from this groundbreaking show.
The first room began with a tapestry from a set depicting the story of Helen of Troy. The tapestry was made in China in the first half of the seventeenth century but for a Portuguese market. Like a number of objects in the show, this tapestry is not normally on display, and one wonders why. The theme is taken from Western mythology, so the Chinese weavers would have relied on European sources for the prints, but then also added their own motifs such as the phoenix. The Chinese artists may have been trained by Jesuits, which explains the faces painted in European style as well as the multicultural dimension of this object and of the world of textiles in general. The Portuguese room included digital maps to help the viewer understand and trace the geography and routes of the textile trade, a welcome addition.
The second room covered colonial Mexico and Peru and included a show-stopping painting of the Virgin of Guapalo with the Christ Child of Cuzco. The painting is by a Peruvian artist but modeled on a statue of the Virgin from Ecuador. The work illustrates the Spanish tradition of dressing religious statues with actual textiles, and it represents hybridization in that the figure of the Virgin is inspired by the Pre-Columbian Andean earth mother, Pachamama. She is shown wearing a crown and an elaborately patterned dress that transforms the body of the Virgin and the Christ child into two cone-like shapes. Apparently, Incan noblewomen often wore European designs on their clothes to indicate status. The textile in the painting displays the native absorption of Christianity along with its transformation, wherein Christ takes on the characteristics of a Pre-Columbian Mayan deity. This room also contained an eighteenth-century wedding coverlet depicting a man and woman standing hand in hand. The materials are a combination of Chinese silks and European and American dyes (including cochineal red, made from the crushed bodies of the cochineal beetle) on Mexican cotton—a wonderful example of the interweaving of both European and American elements in textile production.
A similar transformation took place in rooms 3 and 4. Room 3 contained more examples of Chinese silk textiles, this time imported for use in a Japanese market. One of the highlights of this room was the compass cloak, a cape of incredible span, made for the Japanese market but using Chinese fabric as part of the trade in luxury goods. Room 4 included Indian painted and printed cottons such as chintz, but made for a European market. For example, a man’s morning gown or banyan was transformed into a Japanese kimono pattern, but using Indian cotton for a Dutch market. Additional context on the Dutch East India Company would have been helpful here, as one of the blankets was produced for a wealthy merchant of the company. The Indian textile has thus acquired new meaning, co-opted for wealthy European males as a symbol of status and sophistication.
Room 5 presented religious textiles, but also put these objects into the context of ritual and use. For example, the Lenten curtain is from eighteenth-century Peru, made of painted cotton and depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Here the traditional iconography of the crucifixion derived from the Jesuits was adapted by the locals to include designs normally found on local women’s garments. This textile was used during Lenten rituals to hide the high altar from the rest of the congregation, a textile version of the rood screen. Rood screens had disappeared from Italian churches during the sixteenth century in order to allow for an uninterrupted view of the altar after the Counter Reformation. Interestingly enough, a remnant appears as a textile in the New World. This object could have been used to increase the sense of theatricality regarding the miracle of transubstantiation during the Catholic mass for native audiences.
Room 6, among the most fascinating, dealt with the theme of East to West. Some of the objects it contained included portraits of European women in exotic Eastern dress, as well as examples of American embroidery, along with costumes from the period, all inspired by cross-cultural trade and interaction. Other pieces included mirrors with English stumpwork, a type of embroidery using raised pieces of fabric that give the textile a sculptural quality. This room was particularly rich in terms of different forms of textiles; however, an explanation of textile workers’ tools and methods would have been helpful.
In this room women’s gowns mingled with carpets and wall hangings to show how Turkish designs and fabrics crossed boundaries between furniture and fashion. The gallery also included two portraits by Joshua Reynolds of European women dressed a la Turka, a style of dress destined to become very fashionable in Europe, especially after the Napoleonic campaigns. A small case which might have gone unnoticed contained the personal letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, describing her voyages to the East. This case also included an embroidered American sampler depicting a harem scene, possibly based on texts such as Wortley’s travel writings. Here I felt that the Metropolitan could have provided a bit more of an explanation of embroidery in terms of gender roles and its importance as a tool for the education of young women in the colonies where it functioned as an example of virtuous work for proper young ladies.
Room 7 contained one of the highlights of the exhibition, a complete suite of French eighteenth-century tapestries from Versailles depicting the four continents. These tapestries tell the poignant story of the end of the French monarchy of Louis XVI. Alas, Louis ordered these fine tapestries during his reign, but would not live to see them installed. They are magisterial, an example of luxurious production; and yet the set is closely related to democracy and revolution. They depict the continents Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa using allegorical figures and characteristic flora and fauna. Most significant is the novel iconography of the Americas, perhaps suggested by Benjamin Franklin (as noted in the exhibition catalogue, 271). The personification of America is not as a wild Amazon woman (as in some previous depictions), but as a demure young lady protected by Minerva as symbol for France, a reference to that country’s support of America during the revolution.
In room 8, the theme of “Conquest, Conflict and Global Trade” was exemplified by an English quilt from the eighteenth century, a toile textile depicting the voyage of Cook to the Hawaiian Islands in 1779, set in what appears to be bucolic scenery. Upon closer examination, the viewer realizes that one of the vignettes illustrates Captain Cook’s death at the hands of the island’s inhabitants. This room hinted at some of the perils of travel in the textile trade and also introduced the more violent sides of globalization and conquest in the colonial period. The irony is that toile is normally considered to be a fabric used to depict lovely pastoral scenes, and yet here is a scene of murder and horror, nonchalantly hidden amid beautiful flowers. The piece is a testament to the narrative potential of textiles and the power of images to activate memory.
Room 9 contained examples of textiles from both the North and Latin American markets as well as objects and paintings from the colonial slave trade. Early American paintings depict sitters wearing some of the textiles represented in the show, such as the portrait of textile merchant Elijah Boardman in his shop, pointing to the objects of his trade. Other paintings included images of slaves being sold in the textile markets of the Caribbean. One of the most remarkable artifacts in the exhibition was a British sampler book of swatches from 1771 that displayed all the textiles available at this particular company. For those who think we only now live in an era of consumer choice, I would like to note that there were some five hundred examples of cotton available.
This room also included East Indian goods for the North American market. Although the English placed a restriction on the use of imported cottons after they began their own production, in a move of free enterprise, the colonies commenced independent trading for these luxurious cottons. Eventually, the final room arrived at the crux of all of this trade, textiles, and colonialism: the slave trade. Here again this section could have used more information regarding slavery in relation to the textile trade, although there is a reference to slaves buying fabrics at a West Indian trade market in a painting by Agostino Brunias. As mentioned earlier, the exhibition focused primarily on textile commerce while giving scant thought to the makers. It is left to the catalogue to remedy the situation with essays that describe the intricate differences in social hierarchy, even among the slave population, indicated by the wearing of different fabrics and styles of headpieces for women.
Overall, Interwoven Globe was a fascinating and much-needed exhibition that loudly announced the Met’s global mandate and intersected with both material and visual cultures. The final object brought this concept home to the colonies via a brightly colored textile of Indian palampore (cotton with painting and dye) from 1768. The blanket contains a tree-of-life motif, a theme often found in Indian textiles, but re-elaborated here to allude to marriage and fertility in the early colonial context. This textile may have been a wedding gift for a wealthy merchant in Albany; as such, the iconography represents a cross between Indian and colonial beliefs. The tree of life is combined with the two lions used to represent the Dutch East India Company, a symbol especially appropriate for its probable wealthy Dutch patron. This example thus connects Europe, America, and South Asia through the metaphor of marriage and the medium of material culture.
Adjunct Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Hunter College
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