Art & Textiles. Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art from Klimt to the Present

12. 10. 2013 — 2. 3. 2014


Nothing, no material, no technique is as capable of touching our sensual and mental existence so univer­sally as textiles, parti­cu­larly at a time that is in danger of becoming ever less sensuous due to incre­a­sing virtua­liz­a­tion. Textiles with their abundance of weaves and textures that evolved over the millennia are the ideal medium to fulfill this need for sensuality.

The Kunst­mu­seum Wolfsburg again devotes itself to a central aspect of human life from the perspec­tive of art in a histo­ri­cally far reaching, inter­di­sci­pli­nary multi­media exhibi­tion that encom­passes the most diverse cultures. After “Interior/Exterior” in 2008 and “The Art of Decele­ra­tion” in 2011, this exhibi­tion repres­ents a further step in the pursuit of modernism in the 21st century that the museum has been under­ta­king since 2006.

This large-scale exhibi­tion encom­passes appro­xi­mately circa 200 works by 80 artists as well as 60 further anonymous artists whose names have not been preserved, among them major paintings by Gustav Klimt, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock. But artifacts whose creators’ remain nameless can also be viewed in the circa 2700 square meters large exhibi­tion space, for example a pre-Columbian textile fragment from the collec­tion of Anni Albers.

Our explo­ra­tion of the signi­fi­cance of the textiles also involves a kind of “re-reading” of the history of modern art from Art Nouveau to the present. The modern separa­tion of applied and fine art resulted in the syste­matic, decades-long exclusion of all handi­c­rafts from the art histo­rical canon. In the process, modernism drew decisive impulses from the ties between art and craftsmanship.

Those expecting to primarily be confronted with textiles in this exhibi­tion will be surprised. Visitors will not only encounter works of art made out of textiles, for example the typical knitted pictures by Rosemarie Trockel, but also paintings illus­tra­ting textiles like the hanging laundry in Edgar Degas’s “Woman Ironing” or the sumptuous Ball-Entrée that envelopes Marie Henneberg in a textile cloud in her portrait by Gustav Klimt (1901). Videos deal with the notion of the textile (Kimsooja) or immerse the viewer in a cosmos of constantly shifting nets (Peter Kogler). Objects are further­more on show that one otherwise encoun­ters solely in ethno­gra­phical museums, for example fine African Kuba cloth.

Its compre­hen­sive approach makes “Art & Textiles” a funda­mental exhibi­tion. The origins and comple­men­tary supple­ment can be found in counter­part, the 2001 Ornament and Abstrac­tion exhibi­tion (Fondation Beyeler) that examined the signi­fi­cance of the ornament for the develo­p­ment of abstract art. The intel­lec­tual patron of that show was the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl whose universal history of form from 1893 led from humankind’s earliest patterns to the Egyptian lotus motif and the Greek palmette and from there to the arabesque ornament. The thesis of the exhibi­tion was that they can be traced further in abstract art. In doing so, Riegl responded to Gottfried Semper, who in 1863 saw techno­logy and the dealing with material as the origin of forms and symbols. “Form follows material”: This is the formula that can be applied to the    “Art & Textiles” project.

The “Art & Textiles” exhibi­tion begins during the eventful Art Nouveau period when artists and designers such as William Morris and Henry van de Velde in Paris, Brussels, London and Vienna set about breaking down the hierarchy between art and handi­c­raft in favor of a compre­hen­sive life plan. Textile fashio­ning was also the connec­ting link to painting that was in the process of becoming abstract after Édouard Vuillard, Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt. The visitor follows the golden thread of the exhibi­tion to the Bauhaus in the German cities of Weimar and Dessau, where textile design reached an initial highpoint and the founda­tions for the enfolding of so-called fiber art were laid. But it was less the heralding of a separate art movement that proved fruitful than the ever more self-evident use of textiles as a medium, technique, material and concept in avant-garde art, for example in Material and Anti-Form Art (Eva Hesse), Soft and Pop Art (Sigmar Polke), Fluxus (Joseph Beuys) as well as Minimal Art (Agnes Martin). “Textile Art” itself was long stigma­tized as being a mere handi­c­raft and dismissed as a “women’s matter” associated with domestic housework until Rosemarie Trockel produced her first knitted pictures in the early 1980s, reeva­lua­ting the cliché of the textile as a gender-specific form of expres­sion. The chapter “Spider Women” is conse­quently devoted to the most important protago­nists of feminist art, including, alongside Trockel, Louise Bourgeois, Mona Hatoum and Ghada Amer. Artists have consi­der­ably expanded the textile’s range of meanings since then and present-day art produc­tion is virtually inters­persed with works made from yarn and fabrics, sewn sculp­tures and crocheted installations.

But the “textile cosmos” extends far beyond the realm of art, funda­ment­ally bearing on our appro­pria­tion of the world. “To be human is to be involved with cloth” says the textile scholar Beverly Gordon. Textiles literally accompany us all our lives, from the diaper to the burial shroud. As Gottfried Semper already deter­mined in 1860, spinning and weaving concern a primal technique from which all the other arts developed. “Civiliz­a­tion first exists,” Hartmut Böhme explains, “when it has mastered the cultural techni­ques of ‘binding’ and ‘connec­ting.’” The Jacquard loom, this exemplary archetype of indus­tria­liz­a­tion, intro­duced the punched card principle, making it a prototype of digital pictorial culture. This highly topical analogy of mecha­nical weaving and digital proces­sing tempts one to compre­hend the World Wide Web as a kind of weaving loom of the Internet age.

The exhibi­tion at the Kunst­mu­seum Wolfsburg also pursues the question concer­ning the share of textile techni­ques in the birth of abstrac­tion. The ortho­gonal fabric structure of warp and woof finds its equiva­lent in the rectan­gular grid pattern that conquered modern painting in the late 1920s (Piet Mondrian). “Art & Textiles” also pays parti­cular attention to the second main occur­rence in modern art, namely the exit of painting from the picture into space. The exhibi­tion traces the “thread from the picture into space” based on histo­rical instal­la­tions in addition to those that have been produced for this occasion (Leonora Tawney, Fred Sandback, Chiaru Shiota, Peter Kogler).

The largest chapter featuring exhibits from Africa, South America, and the Orient is dedicated to the inter­cul­tural dialogue. The univer­sa­lity of textiles makes them a kind of world language. “Global Art” that is suppo­sedly no longer oriented on the Western concept of art is being discussed every­where. But how should it be exhibited by a still Western-oriented art world? Ethno­lo­gical museums and museums of non-European art, for example the future Humboldt­forum in Berlin, must ask themselves this question. The Kunst­mu­seum Wolfsburg suggests its own presen­ta­tion model in this exhibi­tion that is based on combining objects from various art histo­rical and cultural contexts.

The Wolfsburg wall system facili­tates a versatile staging of the exhibi­tion, and even occasio­nally becomes an exhibit itself, for instance in the repli­ca­tion of the unique Café Samt & Seide constructed in Berlin in 1927 by Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe.

The exhibi­tion catalogue can also be ordered online (EUR 42.00).