Auratic presence and mass manufacture: a review of ‘Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol’

“New Fabrics Put Modern Art in Fashion,” article published in Life, November 1955

“New Fabrics Put Modern Art in Fashion,” article published in Life, November 1955

Salvador Dalí, Classical Armour, Screen-printed headscarf, Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc., New York, c. 1946

Salvador Dalí, Classical Armour, Screen-printed headscarf, Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc., New York, c. 1946

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Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks Inc, New York 1955 using ‘Fish’ by Pablo Picasso for D.B. Fuller & Co. Inc., New York, 1955, roller-printed cotton

Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks Inc, New York 1955 using ‘Fish’ by Pablo Picasso for D.B. Fuller & Co. Inc., New York, 1955, roller-printed cotton

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Dress history students in London are spoiled for choice when it comes to exhibitions, with numerous institutions and galleries catering to fashion-related interests. The Fashion and Textile Museum is one such organisation. Their current exhibition, Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol (21 January-17 May, 2014), showcases textiles and clothing produced by key figures of twentieth century art and design. Focusing on Britain and the United States, it explores the relationship between the aura of the artist and the ubiquity of mass-manufactured objects and the way in which artist textiles disrupt the binary of high art and popular culture.

Looking at artist signatures featured on a number of exhibited textiles, it is difficult not to think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the auratic presence of unique works of art. This is especially relevant to the many scarves featured in the exhibition. Mounted like canvases, they invite the visitor to study them as they would paintings. Dali’s designs for Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc. encourage this mode of viewing, transforming the flat fabric surface into a dream-like three dimensional plane. His headscarf ‘Classical Armour’ (c. 1946-7) depicts a derelict urn and suits of armour whose contorted shadows stretch across a nondescript landscape. Cracks along the illustration create the illusion that the scarf was made of a heavier substance than the silk it was printed on. With its many recognisable Dali tropes – drooping forms, melancholy landscapes, sardonic humour – the scarf seems to blur the boundary between art and design, transforming the wearer’s body into a mobile site of display. Furthermore, by drawing attention to the artist’s signature, in this case shown on the lower right-hand side and as a broken coin in the foreground, viewers are encouraged to forget that they are studying a mass-produced object.

Such examples displayed in the exhibition indicate that collaborations between artists and fabric manufacturers proved a lucrative endeavour, targeting audiences that were keen to gain cultural capital by acquiring textiles that featured well-known modernist designs. Instead of destroying the cult status of artworks then, such printed fabrics reinforced the aura of the artist genius and played an important role in familiarising a wide audience with the modernist canon. Although these objects may be viewed with academic suspicion due to their commercial appeal, the exhibition aims to dispel such concerns by focusing on how artist textiles allowed people to engage with modern art in their everyday lives. Wall texts, advertisements and magazine excerpts convincingly suggest that these fabrics served as an interface between high art and popular culture. At the same time, it would have been beneficial to learn more about how the displayed objects were worn and perceived by an enthusiastic public.

Although the exhibition predominantly focuses on the collaboration between artists and textile manufacturers, examples from the work of designers, such as Adrian and Claire McCardell add an exciting variety to its scope for audiences interested in fashion history. Commissioned by Fuller Fabrics to produce garments from their ‘Modern Masters’ range, McCardell used Picasso’s ‘Fish’ print (1955) to create a dress that featured some of her signature trademarks, which included the use of natural fabrics – in this case cotton – and details that accentuated the wearer’s body, such as belts and gathered pleats. Fuller Fabrics’ decision to hire McCardell indicates that some ready-to-wear designers were becoming increasingly influential in America during this period. Viewed within the context of the exhibition then, this dress points to the crucial role that mass-produced fashion played in twentieth-century material and visual culture by disseminating ideas and ideals of modernity.