Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stitching Stories - Now and Then

Among the many splendors of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the extraordinary Asian collection, which includes not only the usual treasures in ceramic and on paper but entire rooms and buildings - a Chinese hall, a Japanese tea house complex, and an enormous Hindu temple construction. These days it's perhaps best not to look too closely into how they got there, but these wonders makes for a very moving museum experience. On the way to investigate them with a visiting Chinese friend last weekend, I detoured into a quiet gallery off to one side and entered a world of Bengal art, including some of the most charming embroidered art I've ever seen. I'm always attracted to visual narratives, no matter the media, and these certainly fit into that category. My pictures are a bit fuzzy, but I hope you at least get an idea of the lovely details of subject and technique. These quilts which were often made out of worn garments, are called Kanthas. The two examples I saw were made in the 19th century, apparently for home use, but they tell grand stories of Hindu culture and belief. Processional chariots, called rathas, carry a linga, the phallic symbol representing Shiva, letting us know that it is a religious procession, and in a second quilt Radha holds hands with her divine love, Krishna. Further searching helps set the quilts in their historical moment, for you can find figures dressed in contemporary clothing, including one in a military costume. Such delicate, laborious work serves a documentary as well as artistic and utilitarian purpose; these quilts brought to mind the Bayeux Tapestry (a misnomer - it is embroidered, not woven) created in the 11th century to commemorate William's conquest of England (note the nice narrative detail at the bottom of the soldier stealing the shirt from the dead enemy.) I then went on to wonder about contemporary embroidery art. A quick search and I had at least one very good answer - Eleanor Hannan is a wonderful artist who lives in Vancouver and does amazing painterly work in this medium. Her colors and way of handling thread and stitching range easily and with mastery across the areas of tradition, technique, and innovation. Her website is well worth a look