Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

International Arts & Crafts

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

International Arts and Crafts
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
17 March – 24 July, 2005
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis
27 September 2005 – 22 January 2006
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (De Young)
18 March – 18 June 2006

In recent years London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where International Arts and Crafts originated, has mounted several blockbuster exhibitions that investigate specific historical movements: Art Nouveau in 2000, Art Deco in 2003 with Modernism scheduled for April through July of 2006. But International Arts and Crafts is a more complicated venture than these prior shows. For a start, the movement was determined as much by moral and philosophical values as aesthetic ones. As historian Fiona MacCarthy puts it, the movement was “not a style but an ideology.” The Arts and Crafts Movement is also plagued by the deceptive sense of familiarity. For some it brings to mind craft studios in bucolic settings, floral textiles or sturdy furniture. But what is interesting to note is that the style it brings to mind, however familiar it may seem, eludes consensus. The reasons for this are as varied as the regions in which this exhibition proposes the movement appeared.

International Arts and Crafts presents the movement as vast, originating in Britain in the 1880s, but appearing throughout Europe, America and, several decades later, even in Japan under the guise of the Mingei or Folk Art Movement. Because of its moral rather than aesthetic underpinnings and desire to hold true to national forms of hand production the movement was, and I would suggest continues to be, quite distinct to each region in which it existed. Thus the challenge of consensus is further complicated by the decision to make this survey international, as one of the driving moral ideas of the movement was a resurrection or preservation of national craft traditions, each specific and unique to its own cultural, economic and social climate.

This exhibition proposes that the movement developed in Britain (few would argue with that) with John Ruskin’s writings as inspiration. It was William Morris who took Ruskin’s words to heart, words that Karen Livingstone and Linda Parry, curators and editors of a substantial text of the same name, see as “a shining beacon of sense to an audience demoralized by the powers of increasing industrialization.” As MacCarthy writes: “Morris rising at dawn in Hammersmith at dawn to weave on the tapestry loom in his bedroom in the early morning light. Morris throwing off his coat to make a sheet of paper from purest rag linen at Bachelor’s works at Little Chart in Kent. Morris seated next to Madame Richard Wagner at a London dinner party, his hands stained indelibly blue from the dye vats in which he had been experimenting with indigo. These are potent images. His unembarrassed passion for the tactile makes him a prime example of the social reorientation that was at the heart of Arts and Crafts.”

But Livingston and Parry assert that the Arts and Crafts Movement “was originally based on an idealistic set of principles for living and working, which were taken up and adapted in many parts of the world to meet specific social and national needs, integrating heritage, local skills, and resources.” Thus the social component to the movement’s ideology was in fact as varied as the aesthetic outcomes of its endeavours. For instance, Germany and America adopted a much more pragmatic approach to the inclusion of industrial manufacturing, believing that as long as quality was not compromised the use of technology in production was acceptable. “The new Arts and Crafts Movement in Central Europe, Scandinavia and Russia,” we are told “was characterized by a revival and development of indigenous techniques and traditional patterns and forms, particularly in domestic architecture, textiles, woodcarving and ceramics.” But it has to be recognized that in these less industrialised regions the value in handcraftsmanship was less a case of returning and resurrecting these values than the reality available to them at the time.

For the Victoria and Albert showing, four rooms were recreated, including Sidney Barnsley’s Cotswold cottage, a portion of the Mikuniso guest house from Osaka, Japan and an American living room based on a photograph printed in the 1904 issue of The Craftsman, published by Gustav Stickley. These efforts illustrate the belief in a Gesamtkunstwerk (the German term referring to a total work of art) central to the movement. Ceramics, textiles, glass, metalwork and jewellery, paintings, prints, photography and architecture were produced together rather than sectioned off into their own ghettos. In particular, textiles, often richly textured and coloured, contributed to this sense of whole design. Fashioned both by hand as well as machine (“providing it supplied the effects required and was strictly controlled”) they were accorded greater status than they had previously enjoyed because of the contribution they were able to make to the total work of art.

It is interesting to note that the notion of an artist unencumbered by artistic devotion to a single material is currently a sentiment experiencing a revival of sorts. In response to a question about the current value of the term “fiber art” David McFadden of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City recently explained his opposition to the term by noting, “today, younger artists are not married to a single material.” This idea of working with across material boundaries, searching for an artistic voice in several, rather than a single, medium seems strikingly similar to the values put forth by the Arts and Crafts Movement at least on a material, if not social and ethical level.

The Japanese Mingei or Folk Art movement is set apart by its later date (occurring between 1926 and 1945, nearly forty years after its advent in Britain) and geographic leap, but its inclusion reveals that influence and exchange between east and west under the premise of the arts and crafts values thrived, in particular through the connections the British potter Bernard Leach established in Japan. “What is particularly interesting about the Mingei movement,” write Livingstone and Parry, “is that, rather than abandoning or stripping away western ideas as a means to achieve a greater sense of national identity, it recognized that there was some value in the adoption of ideas from other cultures. Mingei was forged as a hybrid between east and west.”

Recognizing and appreciating the beauty possible in everyday objects is a central concern to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Understandably this is an enormous proposition. This exhibition has made considerable efforts to be expansive and all encompassing, but at some cost to the availability of specific comparisons. The Victoria and Albert Museum website www.vam.ac.uk offers extensive educational information, including a virtual tour of the exhibition and explanatory text from the various sections online. But because of the roughly chronological and geographically organized groupings connections between objects from different regions remains the responsibility of viewers with a keen eye and memory for what they have seen in prior sections. Perhaps a looser organization strategy, which juxtaposes many more objects for comparison regardless of region, would have begun to suggest just how, if at all, the various reincarnations of the Arts and Crafts Movement relate to each other.

Craft Arts International (No. 66, 2006: 84-85)