The Splendor of Textiles
Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
9 March - 19 May 2013
Review by Diana Stevenson
In an interview accompanying the exhibition ‘The Stuff That Matters. Textiles collected by Seth Siegelaub for the Centre for Social Research on Old Textiles’, (Raven Row) Siegelaub observes how as artefacts or art objects, textiles have been largely overlooked in surveys and collections, marginalised at the expense of their practical application:
‘We can speculate that they were so much thought of as practical things they weren’t taken particularly seriously as ‘art’, and even when they were taken seriously it was only because of aspects exterior to their nature.”
It is this complex relationship between textiles’ practical application and ‘art for art’s sake’ that is revealed in ‘The Splendour of Textiles’ at Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw. This exhibition, meticulously researched and elegantly installed, assembles an extensive and eclectic range that explores a hitherto un-documented history of the use of material processes in the evolution of Polish art during that last half century.
The purpose of this exhibition is to foreground the use of textiles as a means of making and thinking about art - to reveal the central role that weaving, stitching and tapestry have played in the evolution of art in 20th century Poland. What is now considered a golden age for Polish textiles, both artistically and industrially, coincides with the post-war period under communist rule, when the personal freedoms and material wealth of individuals were significantly curtailed. Despite this, Polish textile artists were dominating the international agenda, drawing particular attention at such significant events as the Lausanne Tapestry Biennial. At home, this innovation was fostered through a number of centres of excellence - the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, and the State Higher Schools of Plastic Arts in Poznan and Lódz, as well as the establishment of the International Triennale of Tapestry in Lódz in 1972. As the early rooms of this exhibition bear witness to, in what were straitened times for Polish society in general, artists found means and methods for personal expression in the materials that were available to them. For example, works by Wojciech Sadley, Jolanta Owidzka, Anna Sledziewska and Magdalena Abakanowicz dating from the 1960s reveal a preoccupation with technique and materials to make abstract, lyrical works in which the material properties of threads and the weave are foregrounded. In the case of Sledziewska, vibrant colours and repetitive patterns reference the kinds of geometric abstraction taking place in other centres.
However, it is in the subsequent rooms that a more playful, and indeed experimental approach to the medium is manifest, drawing in broader cultural and sociological themes. Antoni Starczewski’s ‘Crossed out text’ (1981 - 1983), inspired by the censorship procedures enacted by official bureaucracy, and Abakanowicz’s ‘Zycie Warsawy’ (1973), which shows the first page of the daily newspaper with Polish president Edward Gierek visiting a vegetable market correlate textile with text, remind us of the intimate relationship between the loom and the printing press, and how the evolution of one gave rise to the other. Indeed, while neither works are ‘legible’, especially to non-Polish readers, they speak to the immense power that access to information allows, as well as the possibility or limitations of public channels of communication.
A particularly important contribution to the exhibition is the tapestries dating primarily from the People’s Poland era, showing sporting events, military manoeuvres and the anniversaries of historic events. Produced at a time when all artistic activity, including tapestry, was tightly controlled by the state, these commissioned works were acquired by public institutions such as the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw, the Army Museum, Bialystok and the Museum of Sports and Tourism. Despite their grand themes, these tapestries have more in common with a folk art tradition, with small figures and abstract border patterns, a direct contrast to the heroic poses and nation-defining narratives found in the embroidered reproduction of the 19th century oil painting of the Battle of Grunwald with which the exhibition starts. Rather, these small-scale rugs, regardless of their homes in national museums, have more in common with domestic interiors than the palatial wall hangings of earlier times.
Teresa Murak’s ‘Nunnery Rags’ (1988) is a short video showing the artist cleaning the floor of a nunnery while near by, the rags themselves are displayed in Perspex. Bringing to mind key performance works of the 1970s such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation (1970-80), the inclusion of this video is interesting for the questions it raises about textiles as essentially ‘woman’s work’, and also their association with religious or ceremonial activities. As Siegelaub has articulated, textiles are more often than not looked at for the practical purpose they have served. Indeed, many works in this exhibition have currency in spheres other than art - in the political, religious and domestic worlds - but what brings them together for this exhibition is their status as art. However, it is the works such as Murak’s that problematise this multiple currency, eliding practical application, religious reliquary and artistic enquiry into one action.
Another example of this elision takes place in the large, heavy patchwork curtain that covers the main entrance to the museum. Performing a practical function of keeping out the freezing March wind and snow every time the door is opened, on closer inspection it becomes apparent that the curtain is made of sections of old clothes, encrusted with dirt and grime. For ‘Doorway Curtain’ (2013) Franciszek Orlowski exchanged his own clothes for those of homeless people on the streets of Poznan and stitched them together to make this windbreak. Located on the threshold between the state institution and the world outside, it is impossible to enter the exhibition without making very close bodily contact with material that had until recently, been the only protection for those with no other insulation against the elements than these scraps of fabric.
The scope of this review cannot begin to cover the full breadth and depth of this exhibition, that not only spans around 60 years of artistic production, but encompasses such a diversity of techniques and subject matter. At times unwieldy, it nonetheless resolutely united many disparate activities under the banner of textiles and in so doing, expanded the subject of art to accommodate them.
 ‘Nothing Personal’An Interview with Seth Siegelaub’ in The Stuff That Matters. Textiles collected by Seth Siegelaub for the Centre for Social Research on Old Textiles (exhibition catalogue), Raven Row, 2012, p. 23