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Gunnar Wennerberg Tapestry design

Illustration: Gunnar Wennerberg The Willows tapestry design c1913

The Swedish designer Gunnar Wennerberg is probably better known inside and outside his native Sweden, for the innovative glass and ceramic decorative work that he produced during the last few years of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century. However, Wennerberg also produced a certain amount of textile work, particularly but not exclusively for the Handarbetets Vanner and the Licium.

Wennerberg produced a number of tapestries during the first decade of the twentieth century and those shown in this article give some indication at least as to the style and compositional qualities that were very much associated with him at the time.

Wennerberg is often seen and categorised as an Art Nouveau designer, particularly as regards his use of foliage and flora for decorative means. However, his style bore little resemblance to the excesses of French and Belgian Art Nouveau and some would see it as somewhat typical of the Swedish love for nature based themes. This is born out distinctively with The Willow tapestry, which although having certain aspects in common with Art Nouveau, tends towards a much sparser and tranquil examination of nature than would be expected within the general Art Nouveau movement. This was one of Wennerberg's particular traits and it can be seen within the other compositions also shown here.

Illustration: Gunnar Wennerberg tapestry design c1905

It is interesting to note that it could be said that Wennerberg's extensive work within the glass and ceramics industries, was somewhat reflected within his later textile work. The imagery and compositional balance are interestingly similar in style with what would be expected both within stained glass work and also that of ceramics. The use of light, particularly within The Willows, is almost similar to a ceramic glaze, and perhaps this was not purely coincidental but could be seen as that of a conscious or unconscious bleeding through of ideas and strategies from another medium altogether.

The greatest boon to cross discipline designers and artists is when the tools and vocabulary of one discipline are used either for the same purpose or for that of a completely different aspect within another discipline. It is this cross-fertilization that has given us many purposeful creative constructs and indeed a number of happy accidents as well.

Wennerberg, although not strictly a textile designer or artist, should be included within the framework of Sweden's prestigious textile crafts, particularly that of tapestry design of which Wennerberg produced some excellent examples that were neither derivatave of the rest of contemporary Europe, or indeed that of Swedish traditional crafts. His work is an excellent example of the individuality that can be achieved by both artist and designer when considering the importance of the uniqueness of an individual's creative journey, rather than that of fashion, fad and styling.

Illustration: Gunnar Wennerberg tapestry design c1909

Incidentally Gunnar Wennerberg should not be confused with the other Gunnar Wennerberg, who was the Swedish poet and composer who died in 1901, Wennerberg the designer died in 1914.

Reference links:
Scandinavian Design (Taschen 25)
Rorstrand Porcelain: Art Nouveau Masterpieces
Vavda tapeter (Swedish Edition)
SWEDISH TEXTILE ART: Traditional Marriage Weavings from Scania (The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Swedish Textile Art)

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Coptic Textile Design Work

Illustration: Silk textile design from Alexandria, 6th century

Some of the most colourful and obviously charming textiles to come out of what we would see as Ancient Egypt were those produced during the early Christian era. These Coptic textiles, named after the Christians of Egypt, the Copts, have little that seem at first to be immediately identifiable as belonging to Egypt. Many of the designs and pattern work derive from sources closer to Greece, Rome and Byzantium than they do Thebes or Memphis. However, these textiles come from an era when Egypt was first a province of Rome and then of the Greek Byzantine Empire and so the outside influence is obviously much stronger than that of Egypt itself.

Illustration: Textile roundel design from Egypt 6th century

Many of the examples that we can see today were actually robbed from Christian cemeteries in the nineteenth century. Interestingly it was gold ornaments that were at first surreptitiously removed from graves and then sold in the markets in and around Cairo, while the textiles were cast aside. However, when a steady market was discovered for ancient textiles in Europe, much more care was taken and grave robbing took on a more professional and careful stance. Unfortunately one of the habits of the local robbers was to divide spoils equally therefore a number of textile pieces were cut up and divided between individuals. These pieces were not always sold together and so original design work was often scattered across Europe. Another form of dividing fabrics was to cut out interesting motifs, panels or medallions and sell them separately from the rest of the garment. While this made good business sense, it has left us with lots of interesting detailed work, but relatively few intact garments, and so it is sometimes difficult to put the work in the context of a costume.

Illustration: Woven tapestry panel of wool on a linen background, Egypt
Much of the Coptic textile work that was sold by this method ended up in European museum collections. The V&A procured an increasingly large collection through the influence of the British in Egypt who occupied the country from 1882. The textile work robbed from graves was mostly in the form of clothing, much of it either woven or embroidered. Woven linen was the usual construction, with embroidered work often in wool which was unfortunate as although the linen survived largely intact, the wool was prone to be attacked by insects and eaten. However, some fine examples were produced that still had their original colouring largely intact and it is these items that today make these Coptic pieces so valued and popular.

As said earlier, there is little to truly identify these pieces as immediately Egyptian, rather than any other Eastern Christian region. The motifs used are largely standard Christian ones and any ornamental text is usually in Greek. The decorative work identifies quite closely with that of mosaic pattern and design work found right across the later Roman Empire and Byzantium. However, there are small, but definite reminders of Egypt's past, in particular the use of a stylised lotus motif that is not always prominent in the decorative composition, but is often placed perhaps as a reminder of Egypt's past uniqueness.

Illustration: Tapestry inlaid into a linen cloth background, Egypt 3rd or 4th century

It is sometimes hard to imagine the sheer longevity of the Egyptian culture. Egypt was already old in the period of Classical Greece, and when it became a province of the Roman Empire it had existed as an entity for over three thousand years. It is the power of Egypt's uniqueness that we are in awe of today. However, although there is an element of an unchanging and unbroken nature to the culture of Egypt, it is interesting how vibrant and young these textile pieces appear. It may of course have something to do with a culture adopting a relatively new religion, but it perhaps says much more about the lively human condition, that although a nation, empire or region may appear to be old and intransigent, the people who inhabit it are anything but, and the zest for creativity continues unabated.

Illustration: Woven tapestry and needlework star ornament, Egypt

It is difficult to try to condone or quantify grave robbing in any form. The dead were not expecting to relinquish their grave goods and certainly were not expecting to be stripped of their clothing to fuel Europe's expanding Museum collections. However, the textile skills of these anonymous Egyptian weaving, tapestry and embroidery crafts people is so spectacular that an uncomfortable balance has been formed between extricating grave goods and applauding the techniques and skills base of this particular Egyptian phase of their culture.

Reference links:
Looms and Textiles of the Copts: First Millennium Egyptian Textiles in the Carl Austin Reitz Collection of the California Academy of Science (Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences)
A Coptic Textile Fragment Egypt, circa 4th-7th Century AD Giclee Poster Print, 36x48
Coptic Textile Designs: 144 Egyptian Designs from the Early Christian Era (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Coptic Weaves: Notes on the Collection of Coptic Textiles in the Merseyside County Museums
Coptic textiles;
Coptic Textiles in the Brooklyn Museum
Late antique Coptic and Islamic textiles of Egypt
Coptic Fabrics
The Coptic Tapestry Albums: And the Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet
Early Coptic textiles: Stanford Art Gallery, Stanford University, May 4 to May 25, 1969 (Stanford art book)

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The Influence of Islamic Decoration on the Victorian

Illustration: Wall tiling decoration of the Pavilion of Mahubay, 16th century

The influences and origins of nineteenth century English decorative arts, its pattern work, design styles and principles, is both complex and wide ranging. However, at the forefront of these influences is undoubtedly the impact of the decorative arts of Islam. From the reform principles of Owen Jones to the accomplished founder of the English Arts & Crafts movement William Morris, to the many designers, decorators, critics and writers of Victorian Britain, Islam proved to be a particularly rich deposit of what determined to be the fundamental level of all design, decoration and pattern as seen by the Victorians. Many saw and were on record as stating, that the principles behind the Islamic decorative arts system, along with its extremely effective visual record, was the only effective means of producing contemporary surface or flat pattern work.

Illustration: Islamic wall tiling decoration, 16th century

From woven and printed textiles, to carpet weaving, wallpaper design and ceramic tile work, the Victorians took Islamic design principles to heart. Non-representational, flat and graphic inspired pattern work was produced across design disciplines, and while some may dismiss this appearance as a form of fashion or intermittent enthusiasm for the decorative effects of Islamic design, very much as the revival movements that plagued the nineteenth century, this particular movement was much more centrally based within the Victorian decorative psyche.

Islamic designers were particularly expert at producing surface pattern. They had an innate understanding of both the materials used and the medium of surface decoration, as well as a mature approach to colour and tone. This greatly appealed to the English design reform movement. These reformers were trying to make sense of the muddled and chaotic decorative arts that had been a product of the first half of the nineteenth century with its new, wide-ranging but undisciplined manufacturing and retail system. They were determined that the second half of their century was to see a more settled period that used good judgement and sound design principles. They had particular issues with the whole aspect of the use of three-dimensional style illusions used on flat surfaces.

Illustration: Wall tiling decoration of Qasr Radwan, Cairo, 17th century

One of the fundamental points of surface decoration and design is to understand and therefore appreciate the surface that is to be decorated. Textiles in particular need good judgement when working out pattern work. Although three dimensional illusions may appear to be acceptable within the framework of the history of decoration and particular that of Europe, in general they are ill suited to the medium. Flat and graphic style pattern work is much more sympathetic to a textile medium and can produce much more in the way of variation between simplicity and complexity, colour and tone, than can ever be achieved with the slim palette of realism.

Illustration: Wall tiling decoration of Qasr Radwan, Cairo, 17th century

British design reformers saw Islamic principles of decoration as a perfect format to be used within their own decorative arts system. Colour and form were to be placed above that of any type of realism, or false illusion as they preferred to term it. From this fundamental view of decoration, all pattern work it was hoped would eventually one day be based. Much of the decorative styling of the eighteenth century was either dismissed or treated as essentially flawed. Although this attitude and perspective on the decorative arts was by no means universal, it did take on an aspect that eventually proved to be amongst the building blocks of Modernism.

In some respects it could be said that there is a linkage, however tenuous, between Islamic decoration, the reform movements within Europe and the eventual Modernist stand that has shaped much of the world we live in today. Although the Modernist movement might well have arrived at and achieved its ultimate goal of form follows function, without Islam, it is interesting nonetheless to speculate whether the same result might have been delayed or have taken a tangential route even, without the timely example of Islamic decoration and the principles underlying that decorative work.

Illustration: Wall tiling decoration of the Mosque of Amir Shaykhu, Cairo, 18th century

Reference links:
Islamic Designs for Artists and Craftspeople (Dover Pictorial Archive)
The Majesty of Mughal Decoration: The Art and Architecture of Islamic India
Islamic Designs in Color (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Islamic architecture and its decoration, A.D. 800-1500;: A photographic survey
Nishapur: Some Early Islamic Buildings and Their Decoration/E0058P
Ornament and Decoration in Islamic Architecture
The Language of Pattern: An Enquiry Inspired by Islamic Decoration (Icon Editions)
Islamic Designs (International Design Library)
The Art of the Islamic Tile
Islamic Ornament
Islamic Designs for Cornice, Balcony and Mashrabiyah Decoration, from "Art and Industry" Giclee Poster Print by Jean Francois Albanis De Beaumont, 12x16
Islamic Design (Dover Pictura)
Splendors of Islam: Architecture, Decoration and Design
Pattern in Islamic Art
Arabic Geometrical Pattern and Design (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Ornament and Design of the Alhambra (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Geometric Patterns from Islamic Art & Architecture