Remember how we were taught about Christopher Columbus and the drive to find new routes to spices in the East? Well, it seems that all along, somewhat below the radar, another equally lucrative trade was taking place between and among the nations of Europe, India, Asia, North and South America – the Textile Trade. And it is the sleuthing of the history of design through the medium of textiles (South American dyes found in 16th century European tapestries; Indian cottons popular in 17th century Europe) that is the focus of this truly fascinating and timely new exhibition at the Met, Interwoven Globe. (Top photo, Robe, Netherlands, 1720-40, cotton, linen.)
As Met Director Tom Campbell noted in his opening remarks, while we assume that global trade and global style is a modern concept, in fact, the world was globally connected centuries ago, which is why images of wooden galleons — the container ships of their day — are an appropriate backdrop for the entrance to the exhibition.
American Decorative Arts curator Amelia Peck, inspired by the Met’s encyclopedic textile collection, came up with the idea for the show, then organized and oversaw a collegial team of eight curatorial specialists (from Asian, Islamic, European, African and other Met departments) in a four-year effort to identify, trace and display the interrelationship of textiles, commerce and taste from the Age of Discovery to the 19th Century. Two thirds of the 134 works displayed (many never seen before) are drawn from the Met’s collection.
Interwoven Globe is a history lesson, a design education and a visual delight. It begins with digital maps of major maritime European trade routes at the beginning of the 16th century, then moves into nine other galleries, some organized by geography, others, thematically.
Portugal was the first nation to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope, and its merchants launched an active trade with China and India. They quickly recognized the superior skills of local textile workers, introduced them to European imagery, and were the first importers and consumers of Indian embroideries specifically made for the European and English markets. At the same time, Chinese and Indian artists began to incorporate European imagery into their textiles, sold domestically and throughout Asia. Cross-fertilization was off and running.
Though the objects in this exhibition are stunning – even if you know nothing about their provenance — this is not a show you can breeze through. Much as I dislike having to read Wall Texts, plug into Audio Guides or listen to experts explicate the meaning of this image or that symbol, this is one of those exhibitions where such strategies are absolutely essential if one is to understand the intermingling of cultures within each object, such as a very American-looking Mexican wedding coverlet made with silk from China. I was awed by and grateful for the scholarship, as I believe most visitors will be, too.
I learned all sorts of new information, including the fact that cloth was so valuable it was one of the key commodities traded for slaves. I learned that Indian textiles became so popular in England and France that during the early 18th century they were prohibited from being imported, which in turn launched the production of domestic imitations in Europe. I learned that sixteenth century Spain, the first European country to cross the Atlantic and control vast areas of South America, launched the global trade of Peruvian dyes as well as Mexican tapestries made with Andean materials and techniques.
The images that follow just hint at the treasures to be found in this exhibition, which will have a long run through early January. Anyone interested in art history, fashion, and textile design as well as how trade and technology intermingle to create new cultures and styles, shouldn’t miss it.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade (1500- 1800)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 16 – January 5, 2014