Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol

This weekend, I visited this exhibition at Zandra Rhodes’ Fashion and Textiles Museum in London. The exhibition is accompanied by the book “Textile Design: Artist Textiles 1940-1976” by Geoff Rayner et al (Antique Collectors Ltd, 2012).

The exhibition begins by presenting collaborations between artists such as Matisse and Henry Moore and textiles companies in the 1940’s as part of a strategy to revive the struggling post-war British textile industry and appeal to an American market. At the same time, companies in America were collaborating with fashionable artists such as Salvador Dali to bring modern art to the masses. This work follows on nicely from William Morris’ ideal in bringing new art and design into people’s homes. These collaborations as a commercial venture reminded me very much of some of the modern ‘capsule collections’ we see on the high street, branded by high-end catwalk couture designers; or the work of artists such as Rob Ryan or the design house ‘People Will Always Need Plates’ who have worked with Clothkits in designing their clothing. This carried on into the 1960’s, and the exhibition presents many examples of work commissioned from Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. I felt that a lot of the designs seemed very dated, and I guess that this is a consequence of the aim to be commercially fashionable. A good example of this is Joan Miro’s ‘Dancing People’ designed for Fuller Fabrics in New York 1956, which is very anchored in it’s time. Others may, of course, disagree with my assessment.


In the 1950’s, companies including Heal’s and Edinburgh Weavers employed artists to design for them, or translated work by well known artists into printed woven textiles. An example I particularly enjoyed was ‘Whithorn’ by William Scott (Edinburgh Weavers) which was used widely in the interiors of Altnagelvin Hospital in Northern Ireland. I liked the contrast between fine marks and broad strokes, a primitive design in earthy colours with a large repeat. Although I liked the sample, I felt that it would be very austere and overbearing in any quantity. It seemed a heavyweight choice for a hospital setting, where today’s interiors use calming, clean and usually pale tones.





By far my favourite designs on show were those from the furnishing fabric company Hammer Prints, established in 1954 by sculptor Eduardo Paoluzzi with his wife Freda (textile designer), and the photographer Nigel Henderson with his wife Judith Stephen (anthropologist and sociologist). Judith was also niece of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Wolf, which helped establish them as the artistic definition of the Bloomsbury agenda.  This sample is entitled ‘Newsprint’, and stood out as the only design on show with any element of photographic imagery. From a distance the design takes on the feel of  a rugged landscape, with more details being revealed as you get closer. The lack of colour in their work also set them apart in the exhibition.



During the 1960’s, Picasso collaborated with American companies Bloomcraft Fabrics and American ski-wear company White Stag. ‘Musical Fawn’ for Bloomcraft was a particularly striking piece, and the juxtaposition of the fabric sample in colour and made-up dress in black and white allowed the viewer to appreciate the effect of colour and contrast on a design, and how different a sample can look from the fabric to the dress. The scale of the design and repeat also becomes particularly important and can completely change the feel of the piece. The large bold repeat works to show off the bold, stripped back composition.




Prior to this exhibition, I had not appreciated how much work Andy Warhol had done in textile design. His work had a naivety in both subject and it’s execution that was very appealing. I have seen many examples over the past 30 years of his work being directly copied or inspiring designs for modern apparel, but all of these designs by him in the textile medium were completely new to me.


A section on illustration in textiles was dominated by work by Saul Steinberg, who was commissioned by Piazza Prints in 1950’s America to design fabrics based on his satirical illustrations. I was mesmorised by the effect of the repeat, and how successful the results were. I would love to have a summer skirt from this directional print!



Finally,  a print that caught my eye was this pattern ‘Princess’ by Ben Nicholson, which features a portrait of his then lover Barbara Hepworth. I was interested to see how the repeat works with repeated elements within it and inversion of the main pattern block within the design. Despite the way in which the pattern is constructed, the design still flows in a pleasing fashion across the piece.



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