I’m standing in front of a red dress by Lanz of California, 1955. Featuring nipped-in bodice, square neckline, half-length sleeves, gathered mid-length skirt and a dainty white lace trim, it has an approachable Sound-of-Music quality. On closer inspection, the white-scribble printed cotton carries the distinctive mark-making of Pablo Picasso.
A few yards away is another 1955 dress, this one with a bolder fish design, also by Picasso. The streamlined chic cut is signature Claire McCardle, the doyenne of modern American fashion.
Astonishingly, these special dresses aren’t behind glass. I could (but wouldn’t) touch. In the low light I lean in to examine the texture of the cotton fabrics. To think that these were designed by Picasso himself. Not a design interpreted by someone else from his painting, but actively intended by the maestro to be roller-printed onto cotton textile. And then worn by ordinary everyday people, everywhere.
I’m at Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol, a new exhibition tracing the history of 20th century art in textiles. The location is Zandra Rhodes‘ Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, South London. Artist Textiles showcases over 200 rare items, a lot from the private collection of guest curators Geoff Rayner and Richard Chamberlain. It’s a rare opportunity to see these works as many have not been on public display before. And the roll call is extraordinary: Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Sonia Delaunay, Raoul Dufy, Barbara Hepworth, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Ben Nicholson and Andy Warhol.
Art by the yard was what Dan Fuller of New York-based Fuller Fabrics had in mind when he launched his Modern Masters project. His vision: to sell fashion yardage by famous artists on a mass scale for just $1.50 to $2 a yard. He managed to secure an extraordinary group of modern painters including Picasso (who jumped on board, it seems, because the project dovetailed with his own political belief that art should be accessible to the masses), Joan Miró, Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall and Raoul Dufy. Here’s a 1955 print designed by Joan Miró, entitled ‘Farmer’s Dinner’. The maker of the dress isn’t specified.
Again, it’s good to be able to get close to these textiles.
You can’t cover the subject of fine artists and textile design without mentioning nineteenth century English artist, political theorist and textile designer William Morris. Morris saw the production and mass marketing of textiles as a way to combat the elitist tendency of art: “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Into the early 20th century, the Fauvists, Futurists and Constructivists took up textile design, graphic design and book illustration as legitimate – in fact, important – areas for their artistic endeavour.
But the story told by this exhibition effectively starts in the 1940s when the relationship between artists and textiles became particularly close and fruitful, paving the way for Fuller and others.
With post-war Britain on its knees, textiles were central to national recovery efforts. An export drive was directed with the American market very much in mind. Zika Ascher, the London manufacturer of luxury textiles, cajoled Henri Matisse and Henry Moore into designing scarves and fashion yardage to aid the recovering couture industry. It wasn’t necessarily an easy sell; Picasso turned him down, and Matisse didn’t say yes straight away. This little film, Fame in Fabric, made by Pathé in 1945, shows Ascher searching galleries for suitable artwork, gives a glimpse of the screen-printing process, and shows some of the finished textiles and scarves being modelled.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, New York textile converter Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics captured the zeitgeist in a confident, post-war, modernist America, engaging several prominent Surrealists including Dalí and the Franco-Hungarian painter and graphic designer, Marcel Vertes to create a range of headscarves. Dalí’s c.1947 design, ‘Number Please?’, used artwork originally created for a 1946 Disney cartoon, Destino. The film was never released.
Back in Britain, long-established Lancashire cotton goods manufacture Horrockses Crewdson & Company Ltd set up fashion subsidiary Horrockses Fashions in 1946. It snapped up British artists’ offerings, including designs by Alastair Morton and Graham Sutherland. In the 1950s, the Horrockses dress came to epitomise the English cotton summer frock, worn by everyone including the Queen, Princess Margaret, and prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
I was taken by the snowdrop print. Interesting that it was used horizontally.
Perhaps my favourite design of all featured was this 1951 fashion border print designed by Ken Scott. Entitled ‘A Fish is A Fish is A Fish’, it looks remarkably fresh and modern.
Upstairs at the exhibition, the story continues into the 1960s. In 1963, two major Picasso projects launched; one for White Stag après-skiwear, one for Bloomcraft Fabrics, producers of furnishing textiles. A Look magazine feature (December 1963) about the Bloomcraft project claimed, slightly mischievously, that the maestro’s designs were suitable for every form of interior decoration except upholstery: “Picassos may be leant against, but not sat on.”
There was so much more upstairs, but I had Sarah Campbell’s talk to get to – which will fill another post – so I whizzed past the Andy Warhols.
And zipped past an appealing section of whimsical New York book illustrations. On a day of transport disruption (I’d walked from Paddington to Charing Cross to catch the overland train to Bermondsey – greater love hath not textile-phile), I was drawn to this 1952 border print, ‘Paddington Station’ by Saul Steinberg. Not so far off the real thing, though the trains have changed. This would make a cracking skirt for the First Great Western corporate summer uniform, don’t you think?
Back soon with a write-up of the Sarah Campbell‘s talk. It will feature work From Start to Finish, an exhibition of the prolific textile designer’s recent work (post 2011) which will be also be on display at the Fashion and Textiles Museum for the duration of Artist Textiles.
Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol runs until 17th May 2014 at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, Bermondsey, London, SE1 3XF. Nearest overland train station: London Bridge. The museum has a pleasant cafe, Teapod@FTM, offering a selection of hand-made cakes, salads, soups and stews. FTM also has a shop selling products by up-and-coming design talent, plus vintage and new fashion-related books.