[Russian roller-printed cotton, 19th century, detail from image in Russian Textiles by Susan Meller]
Repeat patterns – repeating and potentially unbounded designs of the kind found on wallpaper and printed yardage – crop up everywhere. So much so, that we sometimes barely notice them. In Western art especially, they’ve often played a subordinate role, serving merely to fill a patch of unwanted vacant space, frame a composition, or supply some texture to a pictorial scene. Repeat patterns commonly function as elevator music: background to the main conversation. Except, of course, when they are the conversation.
Many people with all-around training in art (rather than training specific to textile design) have created repeat patterns for industrial production – frequently bringing to a specialized craft the broad strivings, ambitions, and concern with meaning typical of fine art. In addition, many artists doing non-industrial, labor-intensive original work like painting have included repeat patterns in it. Sometimes these patterns become the focus of the work, if not the whole of it.
[Picasso, Jar with garlands, 1957, detail from image in Picasso: Sculptor and painter in clay edited by Marilyn McCully]
I’m trying in this article (or series of articles) to explore some of the tensions between the technical demands of repeat-pattern design and the expressive needs of the artist. Is repeat-pattern design a generally useful discipline (like learning to draw in charcoal) or just a bag of tricks handy for turning out yardage on roller printing machines? Does putting an image into repeat somehow drain it of meaning and turn the resulting artwork into pure decoration? Maybe pattern itself has come to suggest domesticity, at least the context of Western art. If so, is that a reason for some artists to steer clear of it?
I don’t have any all-purpose answers. But I have chosen to gamble my own time and energy on the expressive possibilities of pattern. (I’ve been writing software for turning images into repeat patterns and also making making art that involves such patterns.) It does reassure me that, over the centuries, a great many artists have pushed against the boundaries of traditional textile design, seeing repeat patterns as a vehicle for the presentation of quite varied content.
[Jean-Baptiste Huet, copper-plate print on fabric, 1784, detail from image in Toiles de Jouy by Judith Straeten]
One way of coping with the constraints of repeat-pattern art is to use very large repeats – sometimes elaborate landscapes or urban scenes. The picture above – a worker pounding mordant into cloth while finished printed fabric hangs drying in the background – is just one detail of a much larger repeat. Working on this scale gives an artist room to spread out. It also minimizes the number of repeats on any given length of cloth (or wallpaper or whatever). Since laying out repeat patterns is a tricky and technical business – it’s all too easy to wind up with unplanned and unwanted stripe or plaid effects when placing many copies of an image side by side – large repeats spare the artist some headaches. And large repeats focus attention on the image itself, rather than on the way multiple copies of it fit together.
While monochrome toile de Jouy like that pictured above has become a cliche of interior decoration and tends, for this reason, to be treated as background music, some artists have turned this tradition-bound, ubiquitous, and hence barely noticed fabric into the main conversation. In 1990 two designers who met at the Glasgow School of Art founded a studio called Timorous Beasties (after the Robert Burns poem – see http://www.timorousbeasties.com/about). Timorous Beasties has produced, among other things, Glasgow Toile, a fabric with drawings in the toile de Jouy tradition but content that’s altogether different. The fabric shows disturbing street scenes in contemporary Glasgow: homeless people, crack addicts, and grim-looking buildings.
I’m not sure how most viewers would read this less-than- or more-than-decorative art. I can see it as a clever reuse of historic forms, as a manifestation of grunge aesthetics or the desire to shock, as possibly sincere social commentary, or, maybe, as a combination of all these things. Whatever meaning we assign to Glasgow Toile, it shows how far the art of repeat patterns can be pushed.
[Battlefields, cotton kimono fabric, Japan, 1930s, as shown in image from Wearing Propaganda: textiles from the home front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-1945 edited by Jacqueline Atkins]
[Twelfth Air Force, woman’s scarf, United States, ca. 1942, detail from image in Wearing Propaganda]
Smaller repeats offer less room for detail and force the pictorial artist to work with simplified imagery. But even simple images can convey quite specific ideas and don’t necessarily lose their meaning when repeated. The Battlefields fabric above shows helmets and barbed wire fences; the Twelfth Air Force scarf is clearly about warplanes and would read that way even without the included words. The stripped-down graphics of moderate-scale repeats seem well suited to conveying stripped-down messages in time of war.
[Marya Anufrieva, Women harvesting 1928-32, watercolor design for printed cotton, detail from image in Soviet Textiles: Designing the modern utopia by Pamela Jill Kachurin]
A more sophisticated experiment with propagandistic textile design occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the Soviet Union. In a utopian and ultimately unsuccessful effort to create new clothing for a new kind of person, artists brought their modernist training to bear on a special problem in textile design. In keeping with the desires of the new government, they tried to blend symbols of the country’s coming industrial age (tractors, wheels, gears etc.) with the familar (often floral) traditions of Russian printed fabric.
Some of the results seem to me beautiful and moving, even if horribly out of touch with the realities of the time (famine and scarcity). In the design above for printed cotton, images of machinery, suns, and women holding wheat meld into a unified whole that’s at once decorative, celebratory, and full of human meaning. (There’s hardly any recurring theme in art more basic than sunlight and celebration of the harvest.)
[Sonia Delaunay, Untitled, 1929, detail from image in Sonia Delaunay, Atelier Simultane 1923-1934]
Of the many textile designs that refuse to subside into background music, only a few strive to make an overt statement. Most communicate indirectly. In the gouache painting above we can see the beginning of a repeat pattern, one that’s not yet developed into a repeat. In this loose early state it has the look of fine art, not the rigid geometric layout of roller-printed fabric. To me the design has a psychological/political aspect. It looks ominous, reminiscent, maybe, of Robert Motherwell’s elegies for the Spanish Republic. Given the abstract nature of the shapes, there’s no way to assign them a definite meaning without knowing more about the context within which Sonia Delaunay did this particular work. Maybe a printed dress fabric derived from this design would function simply as fashion and decoration. Then again maybe not. That uncertainty and ambiguity is part of the allure of repeat patterns.
[to be continued next month…]