Art As Fashion: New Exhibition Uncovers The Textiles of Picasso, Calder and More

by Christina Donoghue on 15 April 2023

You may be familiar with the paintings of Pablo Picasso or the sculptures of Alexander Calder but what about their textiles? A feast for the eyes and mind, GRAY M.C.A's latest exhibition, Styled by Design, looks at the marvellous world of textiles explored by modern art's great 20th-century masters.

You may be familiar with the paintings of Pablo Picasso or the sculptures of Alexander Calder but what about their textiles? A feast for the eyes and mind, GRAY M.C.A's latest exhibition, Styled by Design, looks at the marvellous world of textiles explored by modern art's great 20th-century masters.

Donald Hamilton Fraser, 'Cyclades', 1962

You may have noticed a surge in exhibitions saluting the world of textiles recently, but if you haven't, take our word for it. We may be in the Year of the Rabbit, but if the UK's art scene is anything to go by, 2023 doubles up as the Year of the Yarn. The latest in a cluster of shows tackling fabric forms is Styled By Design, curated by Ashley Gray of GRAY M.C.A gallery - only this one comes with a twist.

'Textiles in 2023 seem more relevant than ever', Gray told me via email. And he's spot on. First, we had Althea NcNish: Colour is Mine which travelled from the William Morris Gallery to the Whitworth in Manchester last year. NcNish's reveal was quickly followed by the Bernat Klein: Design in Colour show at the National Museum of Scotland; both shows close to the public on Sunday, 23 April. Sliding in to take its rightful place in the spotlight is Andy Warhol: The Textiles at Zandra Rhodes's Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, which opened last month and will remain so until September. 'Textiles can inspire and surprise us. They tell us stories, not just of fashion or interiors but of communities, designers, artists, makers, and ourselves. It is little wonder that textiles feature so prominently in 2023', affirmed Gray.

'Our clothes act as a signal of our personal identity; the fact that in our lives from the moment we are born to the moment we depart we have an intimate relationship with textiles.' - Ashley Gray

A spectacle different to the rest, Styled By Design's USP is that the works included don't belong to textile artists or even fashion designers. Instead, they are the result of efforts from some of the most accomplished fine artists of the 20th century. So, if you think you're a know-it-all on the subjects of Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Barbara Hepworth and even Henry Moore, you can think again; it's not their paintings or sculptures predictably in the limelight this time around, but their fabric drawings. 'The Styled by Design exhibition tells the story of what historian Alan Powers describes as "a special moment in time", notes Gray. 'A moment when artists and makers came together, and modern art entered the mainstream'.

When diverse fabrics such as silk, rayon, woven wool, linen and cotton provided a new medium for modern artists, the likes of the aforementioned Picasso, Calder and Hepworth answered, as did their contemporaries Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Donald Hamilton and Patrick Heron; all of which are brought together here, revealing these artists as masters of all artistic disciplines rather than confined by singular practises. Through experimentation, the fabric-led combination of texture and colour brought both new life and a new audience to their work, decorating the homes of the masses during the period. 'Through textiles, modern art literally became a part of the furniture in homes across the country,' asserts Gray.

When people think of legendary patterns and art prints (such as William Morris') that decorate everyday items, the noun 'kitsch' easily comes to mind. Asking what Gray would use to sum up the works on display, his answer is simple in all its matter-of-factness. 'Visionary! Visionary because these powerful textiles from the most respected modern artists of their day were about as far from kitsch as it possibly gets. Visionary because through textiles, modern art itself was democratised. It brought modern art into the home through interior design and out onto the streets through the power of fashion.'

Alexander Calder, 'La Mer',1947

Although there is a considerable focus on the 20th century, the present is also documented through textiles in the exhibition, as seen through the inclusion of artists such as Diana Harrison and Beatrice Larkin, whose contemporary works mirror the tradition of the Bauhaus. Then there's award-winning artist Caren Garfen, whose messages on mental health and antisemitism are woven through every textile piece she creates. By including these artists too, the show proves that the relevancy of textiles has as prosperous a future as it does the past. 'Visit any Art School Degree show, and it is the textile department that inspires, moves and holds our attention', Gray tells me. 'Their warmth, softness or harshness, their protection, their feel; our senses are stimulated by textiles every day of our lives.' Styled By Design is more than viewing textiles in the context of fashion; it weaves these designs around a vital pillar centring the work of history's greatest modern masters of the last century.

In terms of generation-defining moments that changed the course of art history, Gray quickly points out the obvious but vital truth that the last century she's talking about 'saw two shattering periods of war', catastrophes that, at minimum, changed our cultural landscape indefinitely. Just like how Futurism, Constructivism, Dadaism and Surrealism were notably all reactions to the old establishment, modern textile design is no different. 'The old rules were demolished by war, and change was building momentum. Essentially, art movements and debate were at their most dynamic. Modernist textiles in Britain emerged in the lead-up to WW I. Bloomsbury brought textiles to the Omega workshop, and Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist also established The Rebel Art Centre with dynamic textiles.' Gray's list pointing to textiles flourishing during this period is endless, going on to note that 'The Fauvists, the Wiener Werkstätte and the Bauhaus also influenced British textile design in the years before WWII... 'the aftermath of WWII was a dark and lean time for artists, rationing continuing until 1954. It is with little wonder that when artists such as Henry Moore were approached by Zika Ascher - or Sutherland by Horrockses - for fashion designs, they leapt at the chance. Moore filled countless sketchbooks and described the process as being 'like a holiday'.

Elisabeth Frink, 'Snowy Owl', 1983

However, despite the show unearthing these forgotten ideas, 'Styled by Design as an exhibition is really the beginning of a journey,' considers Gray. 'Consider it merely an invitation to explore the wider works in different media of the great modern artists of the twentieth century. A journey that might lead to a visit to Coventry Cathedral where so many modernist artists were commissioned, and the Sutherland tapestry cannot fail to amaze. A journey to Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh where master weavers work with both contemporary artists and the estates of 20th-century modernists.'

Asked if Gray has a personal favourite in the show's collection, he acknowledges the rarity that is 'Ben Nicholson's 1937 Vertical'; a staggeringly beautiful jacquard of rayon and cotton from Alistair Morton's Edinburgh Weavers Constructivist Collection. 'The incredible selection of yarns and variations of weave and texture provokes dramatic contrasts of dark and light, yet the whole thing is only one colour', Gray points out. 'The contrasts are astonishing, simple yet deeply complicated. Vertical never ceases to fascinate.' However, although Gray knows his favourite, having one may be more challenging for visitors who consider themselves art enthusiasts. 'For any lovers of modern art, Styled by Design is a revelation and a feast for both the eyes and the mind, ' promises Gray.

Whether you agree or disagree, if Ashish: Fall In Love and Be More Tender at William Morris Gallery is an exhibition for the fashion industry's darlings, the artists of this world rightfully deserve to have Styled By Design - an oasis for those who are filled with the need to meaningfully create. At the very least, this exhibition will encourage you to 'think outside the box', finishes Gray. 'Styled by Design serves as a reminder to contemporary artists of what can be achieved through this versatile and dynamic media. For collectors, it showcases a wider story of modern art that is still affordable.'

Styled By Design by GRAY M.C.A will be on show at Cromwell Place, SW7 2JE from 18 - 30 April.

Patrick Heron, 'St Ives', 1948
Fernand Léger, 'Parade Sauvage', 1955



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