Christmas is for telling stories, even in museums. This story – the interrelationship of textiles, taste and commerce – is told with magnificence and aplomb by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s dazzling, 10-room show, ‘Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800’. Of the 134 pieces, mostly large, in mint condition and not exhibited before, two thirds are from the museum’s own vaults.
Once the post-Renaissance Europeans ramped up their navigation skills and sailed around the vastness of Africa to faraway places they had to find names for, the trade-controlling Venetians and Ottomans were bypassed and beaten. Big-time maritime trading took off, especially in textiles.
Luscious silks and fine muslin cottons were embroidered, painted or fancily woven expressly to be traded from one culture to another. Known as trading textiles, their production hub was India, already renowned for its top quality fabrics. They had long been currency for buying spices; now they were increasingly an essential tool in European interior design and fashion. It was not long before there emerged the first globalisation of style in textile design.
The show’s first exhibits give a taste of this cross-fertilisation: a glowing mustard-gold quilt depicting a large Genoese trading ship (on its way to India or China, perhaps?); an Indian cotton block-printed with arabesques for the Egyptian market; another painted and dyed to suit Indonesian tastes; yet another embroidered with silk to please the Portuguese. Like the clothing store Zara today, different products were made for sale in different markets.
Masterpieces abound. One is a huge silk hanging made at Satgaon in Bengal, Eastern India, in the early 17th century. The image, tightly chain-stitched in white on a blue ground, shows a triumphal arch commemorating the arrival of Philip III of Spain in Lisbon in 1619, who ruled in Portugal as Philip II. Here is a Portuguese patron supplying an image for Indians to record, in a most refined way, a moment in his country’s history.
Another is a ravishing bedcover of animals frolicking among strawberry-pink blossoms and delicate arabesques, was made a century later in Gujarat, Western India, for the English market. Here, we have English embroidery designs – themselves a local concoction of European, Indian and Chinese imagery – being sent out to their original source, where they are given an extra dash of Mughal court sophistication.
There is an abundance of floral imagery: geometric scarlet blossoms for the Japanese elite of the Edo period; a Japanese-style chintz of a fecund landscape for the Dutch market; a tree that blossoms roses and pineapples for the Sri Lankans. And, just to keep visitors sharp-eyed, some ‘bizarre silks’ like swirling Art Nouveau designs that were made in France, Italy, India and China, the cross-influences zipping back and forth on those merchants’ trading ships.
‘Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800’ is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 5 January 2014.