Postwar fashion was the perfect showcase for artists’ textiles. Nothing sets off an ambitious pattern better than a full skirt, and the foulard, a commonplace accessory in the 1940s and 1950s, proved the ideal soft canvas. With the styles of the day in mind, and aware that a handful of artists were becoming household names, companies such as Fuller Fabrics in New York and Ascher in London banked on the input of figures such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and Alexander Calder to promote sales. It was a win-win situation: art was made accessible to the masses, business boomed, and exports rose. In the U.K. the government became involved and artists’ textiles were a feature of exhibitions such as Britain Can Make It and the Festival of Britain.
In many cases the artists’ enthusiasm for textiles seems to have matched that of the manufacturers’. More than simply licensing his work to Dan Fuller to produce as part of the company’s Modern Masters collection, Picasso appears to have been actively involved in the process. The exhibition includes a photograph of Picasso deep in discussion with Fuller and another of the artist’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, dressed in a blouse made from a Picasso-designed Fuller textile titled Notes. Picasso also persuaded fellow artists Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, and Fernand Léger to contribute to the Modern Masters series and the last photograph of Léger taken before his death in 1955 has him posed, apparently very content, next to the model Anne Gunning wearing a dress of his print Parade Sauvage.
In Britain it was the Carlisle-based company Edinburgh Weavers that produced the most consistently avant-garde artists’ textiles. Under the second-generation ownership of Alastair Morton, who was a painter himself and a friend of artist Ben Nicholson, the business encouraged artists to design everything from dress fabrics to rugs. Demonstrating Morton’s cosmopolitan outlook, the exhibition includes some particularly striking furnishing fabrics designed for the company by the Hungarian-born Paris resident Victor Vasarely. The Independent Group artists Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi and their wives, the anthropologist Judith Stephen and the textile designer Freda Paolozzi, took things a step further. Rather than just licensing their work to be realized in fabric, they set up their own textile-producing artists’ cooperative called Hammer Prints. Alongside cloth, the team created other household items such as ceramics and furniture. Their designs were inspired by the popular and everyday, including textures such as newsprint and graffiti—fascinating to look at, challenging to use.
The exhibition ends with some densely illustrated, delightfully quirky textiles designed by Saul Steinberg and a set of Andy Warhol fabrics, any one of which I would wear right now. According to the accompanying book Artists’ Textiles 1940–1976, Warhol was indiscriminate when it came to commercial work and would design for anyone willing to pay. On the strength of the fabrics in this show, I would say he could afford to be. His line never fails. That said, while the Warhols have the strongest contemporary pull, if I could take a single item from the show to wear myself it would be a Picasso, specifically the velvet cord cocktail culottes realized in a fabric called Musical Fawn. Intended as après-ski wear and produced by a company called White Stag, this wide-legged all-in-one would allow you to wear your art with swagger.
Emily King is a London-based design historian and curator.
Artists’ Textiles Picasso to Warhol is on view through May 17, 2014, at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London.