12 June 2010
I recently finished two enjoyable books, Indian Textiles in the East: From Southeast Asia to Japan and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.
The Indian Textiles book is a profusely-illustrated scholarly cultural study. Before the European East India Companies muscled their way into Asian commerce, colorfast Indian cloth was traded in a regional exchange system, with merchants also sailing from Muslim Arabia. This engagingly-written book documents this trade of textiles for spices from the time period, roughly, of 1600 - 1858. Maps, primary documents, contemporary images and, of course, color photos of stunning historic textiles all serve to explain the fabrication and origin of regional textiles, how the printed cottons and silk ikats were made, and the degree to which products were adapted to the requirements of each market, whether in Malaysia, Sulawesi (Indonesia) or Japan.
The author, John Guy, was formerly Senior Curator of the Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is now Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art in the Department of Asian Art at the Met.
The other book is Behind Closed Doors: at Home in Georgian England, by British history professor Amanda Vickery. The cover image and book title suggests a focus on salacious behavior or outlandish dress; there is neither, although one discussion of an aristocratic divorce begins to read like a People magazine of the 18th century. A good review can be accessed at this link:
For me, the most important chapter was entitled "What Women Made," a discussion of "amateur" crafting and female accomplishments. Art history hasn't known what to do with regard to the production of embroidery, cut paper work, shellwork, decorated boxes, fire screens, etc. Is it art, occupational therapy or make-work? Were women just decorating their own cages? As Ms. Vickery states, "The domestic context of female decorative work has guaranteed its low prestige. A founding legend of women's history narrates the withdrawal of middling and privileged women from productive work and relegation to a separate sphere of home as a consequence of industrial capitalism." Somehow, objects made in one's "leisure time", i.e. by women not in the work force, became ripe for parody and disparagement.
Although the two books feature very different subject matter, what is clear in the Guy book is that in historical Asian cultures textiles represented status and wealth in the way that precious metal jewelry and objects function in other societies. Traditional Asian culture, as I understand it, did not establish a dichotomy between "high" and "low" arts; textiles were not relegated to "decorative art" status, as opposed to "fine art" status. Indeed, textile designs even influenced architectural detail and decoration.
Guy's research and analysis has reinforced the status of these textiles as art. Those of us who value needle arts can only hope that more research on objects made by women in past centuries will undoubtedly lead to a reassessment of these products as well.