Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol

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Zandra Rhodes’ vision to stage cutting edge shows which present textiles as an artform is a valuable resource for those within reach of her London museum. For those unable to visit the current show, which traces the history of 20th century art in textiles, there has been a lot written about it online and it is well worth a Google search. Also look at the museum website for official information. I will share some thoughts having visited recently and will be interested to hear the views of others. My reflection in this blog focuses on a different angle to most reports and explores the line between art and design.

In many ways there is no line. Creativity exists through imagination and thinking ‘outside the box’ makes designers and artists versatile characters. This exhibition gathers an incredibly impressive hoard of original textiles (over 200 pieces) from the 20th century created by some of the world’s greatest, and most famous, artists. It is beautifully curated with the layout of the show keeping surprises around every corner. I kept thinking I had come to the end and then discovering another ‘room’ of treasure.

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Visitors may consider what is to be gained by having a fine art painter create a scarf, dress or curtain rather than a designer who specialises in textiles? What happens when the conceptual motivation of the artist becomes secondary to solving the design problem of wearability or upholstery? This show offers several responses; in some cases the artist simply reproduces their familiar imagery onto fabric and in other cases that familiar style becomes a repeat pattern or a border.

Designers and artists both seek originality and one way to find this is by working in unfamiliar territory. Applying a painting to a fabric and turning that fabric into a dress requires a collaborative effort which has clearly paid dividends for both sides of the partnership. The fashion designer has to work with imagery not usual to clothes and the artist has to adapt colour and see the painting as a three dimensional, movable object. Both challenges are exciting and reinvent the original work.

Does this process of bringing art into the everyday devalue it in any way? Is it acceptable to sit on the work of a painter while it wraps a chair rather than adorning a gallery wall? This exhibition shows how the merging of art and design is not about squeezing one way of working into another genre; but rather that the versatility of character referred to earlier allows an individual portfolio to grow beyond the boundaries often imposed by our training in specific disciplines. Sometimes education can pigeon hole us into certain ways of thinking related to course titles – it has to do this to teach and to assess – but we need to remain conscious that boundaries only exist if we build them. This exhibition is a demonstration of how much there is to gain by taking risks, stepping beyond one’s comfort zone and exploring the unknown.

There are still a few places available for the study visit to this exhibition on 10 may. Details here.

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