Last weekend we travelled to Oxford to see a groundbreaking new textiles exhibition at The Ashmolean Museum. “Threads of Silk and Gold – Ornamental Textiles from Meiji Japan”, presents textile pieces using traditional Japanese skills but made primarily for a Western audience. (Sadly, there was no photography allowed in the exhibition but I did sneak a couple of snaps to give a flavour of the show.)
Cover of the beautiful catalogue
Japanese art and crafts were hugely popular in the West between the 1870’s and the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912. Textiles were part of this export trade but have been little studied until now.
Although there are token exhibits of weaving and Yuzen dyeing, this is an exhibition of Japanese embroidery. Ranging from superb exhibition pieces and large artworks to examples of what are frankly “tourist kitsch”, the craftsmanship is uniformly superb and shows a level of hand labour that is now unimaginable.
Detail of Cranes and Wisteria – Size 201cm x 279cm (Ashmolean collection)
This screen of cormorant fishing is the star of the show
Many of the largest pieces (up to nearly 4 metres high) were exhibition works for various World Fairs, or were produced for the richest foreign tourists to take home from their visits.
Detail of the Cormorant Fishing showing the free stitching technique
Detail showing the fire basket. This is painting with stitches!
I have long loved Japanese embroidery but always felt that there was a stiffness and very “rules-driven” approach to its execution. With the notable exception of the Cormorant screen, this is still visible here but where the designs are so grand and original the end-result totally escapes any limitation from the fact that every feather on every bird is executed using precisely the same stitch technique. Indeed, the whole exhibition is an object lesson in the possibilities and limitations of craft techniques; the truly original works exceed the limitations of technique while even the best craft skills cannot rescue the dreadful pot-boilers.
Detail of the peacock shown on the catalogue cover. (Photo of catalogue illustration)
Outside the exhibition was an education exhibit on Japanese embroidery techniques (where photography was allowed) and on the day we visited there were also embroiderers staging demonstrations.
Many exhibits feature 3D embroidery. This is a modern imitation
Demonstration piece showing basic stitches
Techniques for couching gold thread
Modern, embroidered handling-piece
Silk-weaving is now the only affordable substitute for large fully-embroidered pieces
“Threads of Silk and Gold” runs at the Ashmolean until 27th January 2013. For more information see the Ashmolean website