Saturday, March 28, 2009

'Twixt Art and Nature

Yesterday, I woke up at 5am to catch a bus to New York City for the day to see the exhibit English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: 'Twixt Art and Nature at the Bard Graduate Center.

To give you a sense of the importance of this exhibit to me, you must understand that the first thing I do when approaching any new museum for the first time is to check to see if they have any textiles on display. Due to the fragile nature of textiles, they are not usually permanently displayed and every now and then you get lucky and they will be showcasing a piece that's been briefly taken out of the tissue-lined, dark drawers in which they're kept. Usually, I'm lucky to see maybe two pieces or, during an exhibit, a few more. But most textile curators have a tough time competing for the limelight with painting and sculpture -- so you just don't get to see it very often. OK -- now imagine...

The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns about 200 examples of English embroidery from the late Tudor and Stuart era in it's collection; arguably a golden age for embroidery. Of these 200 examples, they exhibited 85 of their finest pieces -- including furnishings, fashion accessories, biblical narratives and pastoral imagery!!! For more information surrounding the exhibit, a must read is Roberta Smith's article in The New York Times titled Seeing History in the Eye of the Needle -- one of the most well-written essays not only on this exhibit but on the communion of history with the art of embroidery.

Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed so I have no close up images to show you. I took copious notes and drawings and am still digesting all that I saw. I could have spent an entire day with one piece let alone try to absorb 85 pieces over 4 hours. The book from the exhibit, is well worth every penny of the $50 purchase price but none of the pictures do justice to the beauty of the pieces you see in real life.

Overall, the exhibit is shown in extremely dim lighting in order to protect the embroideries and many of the embroideries used real silver thread which has tarnished over time and cannot be restored without damaging the pieces. That being said, the overall feeling you get at first glance is one of darkness, grays and browns --

until you get up close and begin to see the light play off the silk; the glitter of the gold thread -- the vibrancy of the colors of thread selected. It's still there -- it's just dimmer. In fact, the tour guide mentioned that the embroidery threads used had all the same vibrancy as our threads do today. So I could easily imagine how stunning they would have been with all the metal threads shining their brightest and none of the colors faded.

A reproduction of this jacket has been undertaken by Plimoth Plantation and continuing through Tricia Wilson/Thistle Threads. You can watch it's progress here. And you can here what the reproduction team felt about the 'Twixt Nature and the MET jacket here.

My overall take-away from the exhibit, after I ceased hyper-ventilating, is that the quality of the work is beyond anything I've ever seen or ever attempted. I was struck by how minute the stitches thin the threads were and how small the needles must have been...where would I find the materials to even begin this level of complexity of work? Even our finest stumpwork, goldwork and blackwork artists are working on a much larger scale than these masterpieces.

Exquisite is all I can say. If you can make it to New York before April 12 to see the exhibit before it closes, you should. You may not get another opportunity like this for a very long time.

Having said all of that, I walked out of the dimly lit gallery after four hours of awe and wonder; inspired to do a bit more research to try and figure this out. The sun was shining, it was a beautifully warm Spring day in New York's Central Park and I was struck by what I saw there...

To be continued tomorrow...

Note: All pictures of embroideries contained within this post are copyright of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture and are taken from their publication English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: 'Twixt Art and Nature


Vicky~ stichr ~ said...


verobirdie said...

The pictures are amazing, I imagine how great the real stuff is. No you are right, I would be fare beyond their magnificence.
Thanks for sharing this experience.

Debra said...

Such dedication and devotion to one's embroidery is mind-boggling!

Elmsley Rose said...

Wah no photos, but thanks for the hi-res scans. :-)

So gorgeous!

Carol said...

While I was reading your post, I was thinking about how women of that era always had their needlework nearby. With no TV, they could devote time to perfecting their skills. Enjoyable passtime for most, I would think. Then my mind went off in wild thoughts as it usually does and I have determined that you were one of those ladies, in a prior life.

Mary Corbet said...

I'm green with envy! If the exhibit were lasting until the week after Easter (instead of just up to Easter), I would certainly head to NYC that week to see it!

Instead, I will just have to settle for the book!

I kinda want to make one of those boxes. Wouldn't that be fun?!

Judy S. said...

Don't I wish? NYC just isn't very close to here unfortunately, so thanks for sharing what you saw! Isn't it great that this work has been preserved?

Allison Ann Aller said...

Amazing...with no electric lighting and probably no glasses either.

Truly you must have been over the moon. I am so happy you got to see this.

Lynn said...

Thank you sooo much for sharing this exhibit! And don't you just love Central Park?? I love the juxtaposition of buildings to incredible nature in just a few steps. My favorite part of the City!

I've never seen such old needlework other than lace. It boggles my mind to think of the conditions in which these works of art were created. And how they managed to survive all this time. Magic. Pure Magic.

Nellie's Needles said...

How wonderful for you to see so much wonderful embroidery with your own eyes. I can appreciate your experience based on mine of getting to see up close the tapestry exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago earlier this year.

Cathy K said...

The opportunity of a lifetime to see such exquisite historical embroidery. I'm ordering the book, and appreciate you sharing your experience with us - I always seem to learn something and come away richer for having dropped by. Hugs, Cathy PS - sure puts our humble efforts in perspective, doesn't it??

Jane said...

Hi Susan, glad you enjoyed the exhibition, these things are wonderful aren't they. When you visit the UK I'll volunteer Carol-Anne and I to take you to the Royal School of Needlework and/or the Embroiderer Guild to see more treasures.


Pigtown-Design said...

WOW! That's all I can say!

Barbara C said...

Thanks for the visual treat. What a privilege it must be to see these beautiful objects in person.

TattingChic said...

OMGoodness!These are absolutely amazing pieces! Thank heavens they are preserved after all these years!

Hope you stop on by for my 1st Blogoversary/100th post celebration! I'm even having a giveaway! Do come on over! Everyone is invited!!! :)

Mary Timme said...

This is magnificent stuff. Whenever we work with paper or fabric, you just have to know it won't last long. This is a mind blowing exhibition! Thanks for sharing it!!!!!!

Wanda said...

Thank you SO MUCH for taking me there with you through your thoughts and pictures. It is/was breathtaking!

the glass pingle said...

Thankyou so much for putting these photos up ! I love these embroideries but it so hard to get to see them close up !

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