Saturday, November 19, 2011

Textiles in Museums

Art museums that are not specifically dedicated to textiles tend to have very few items on display that are considered ‚textile art’.
During a visit to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, in April I saw three pieces of textile art: the first one was a woven rug by Picasso, the second one was called „Modern Tapestry“ by Roy Lichtenstein. (With either of these, the question remains: did they do the weaving or knotting? of the rugs themselves – I assume they would have done the design and let somebody else do the physical work.) Most interesting among the textiles in the Bechtler, however, was the third piece, given to the Bechtler family by J. Miró: this used to be the rag which he used to wipe off and clean his paint brushes, i.e. it was a torn and paint-stained towel. He had mounted it on a frame so that you could see it from both sides, added a dedication to the Bechtler family on the back, and signed it. So that’s proof for my hypothesis: it’s  the signature (by ...) that defines something as art.
Apart from that textiles are few in number. The Buchheim museum in Bernried, however, has a curious collection. Lothar Buchheimfilm maker, writer, journalist, and adventurer was also a collector of not only expressionist paintings when nobody wanted to have them, but also a collector of almost everything else. (Coming up in the museum is a special exhibit on his collection of wrapping papers for citrus fruit – remember the times when oranges were individually wrapped in little pieces of paper that conveyed the feeling of far-away countries and exotic luxuries...?) 

Looking down into one of the large exhibition halls
So on a trip through Africa in 1978 Buchheim bought a number of textile art pieces from artist Alphonse Yémadjè in the Republic of Benin. Ten of these are on display in the museum. During my recent week as a student with Margit Amann von Glembotzki part of the class program was a guided tour at the Buchheim museum with special attention on these textile pieces, located on the lower ground floor amidst the mostly uncommented Africa-section. The pieces are all made in appliqué technique, which was an art form traditionally reserved for a select group of families working at the royal court, and only the men in these families were allowed to do the work. The pieces are called “sewed chants” as they display arrangements of the country’s history, praising the strength, military success and power of various kings which would also be topic of the traditional oral history chants passed on from generation to generation.

Out of the ten, the four larger pieces show battles between the king’s army and an opponent and his followers (usually shown in smaller scale than the king). The other pieces are state of arms, or more mythological creatures and events of the kingdom of Dahomey, which is now in the state of Benin in Western Africa.
The guide had prepared this tour specifically for our group, as it had never been asked for before, nor had she herself paid much attention to these pieces, other than that she used to tell tour groups that the expressionist painters had seen and used these kinds of enthnic art for the development of expressionist style (e.g. the use of face color as expression of mood instead of a depiction of reality).
Sad to say, but the arrangement of the pieces completely out of temporal order and the scarcity of information given on the tablets next to them cause more disorientation than that they are helpful. This goes back to Buchheim’s opinion that the museum should be a “Museum der Phantasie” where visitors should be free to phantasize about what they were seeing rather than being fed with or ‘misled’ by information given. Which leads to the result that one goes through e.g. the African collection and, unless one has had a college education in anthropology and ethnology, gets absolutely no clue about what one is looking at.
Only after Buchheim’s death in 2007 were a few attempts made to alleviate this, however, the employee who was most dedicated to making the African collection more accessible for visitors has since left the museum and the whole process is stalled at current. Our guide certainly did a good job of putting things for us in historical order, and gave a lot of background information.
So this was indeed an interesting small textile section in a big museum. The pieces were well executed and very expressive in their color choice and topic. But the guide herself admitted that the pieces were only on display because Buchheim had been such an avid collector of everything, and that they would never have made it into another art museum. And even in this museum, where almost everything gets a chance to be considered and valued as art, they needed their proper attention by a guide to attract the visitors with an affinity for textiles. 

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