Friday, December 30, 2005

The Dignity of Craft


Today I went to see this exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I have long had an interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, so I really didn't want to miss it. I am sorry to say that it is ending in a week, and that Cleveland is the exhibition's last venue. Since you probably won't be coming to Northeast Ohio in the next week, I'll tell you a little about it.

The Arts and Crafts movement was at its height around the turn of the twentieth century, and was largely a reaction to industrialization and the attendant alienation of the laborer. In particular, they opposed the division of labor, and believed that all steps of the creative process --from design to execution-- should be done by the same person. The proponents were greatly inspired by medieval craftspeople and their guilds.

Key figures in the movement included textile designer and writer William Morris, designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The movement sought to blur the line between fine artist and craftsperson, to bring fine design within the reach of the typical person, to counteract the effects of industrialization on the worker, and to celebrate crafts that reflected national identity. While the movement began as a primarily artistic one, some of the proponents (such as Morris) also embraced socialism as the political extension of their artistic ideals.

The exhibit was incredibly comprehensive, including works in various media and from just about every country in which the movement flourished. Among the highlights for me were a paint cabinet designed for Gustav Klimt, who was a key figure in the Austrian branch of the movement, known as the Vienna Secession; a little pamphlet of the monograms of the craftspeople of the Wiener Werkstatte; an entire dining room designed by Peter Behrens; and the title page of Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra designed by Henry van de Velde.

I wish I could share some pictures from the exhibition catalogue with you, but copyright law precludes me from doing so. Instead, I suggest you visit the websites of the Arts and Crafts Museum in Cheltenham, England and the exhibition on International Arts and Crafts presented by the Victoria and Albert Museum. On these sites, you can see many beautiful examples of works from this period and also find many other useful links.

To tie this to knitting, I recently heard Brenda Dayne's podcast entitled A Knitter's Manifesto. In it, she talks about how tired she is of reading about celebrities who knit, and how knitting is the new yoga. She wanted to make a statement about what the craft means to an actual knitter. The ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement summarize why knitting is important to me. William Morris said, Art is the expression of man's pleasure in labour. When I am knitting, I am practicing not just craft, but art. Furthermore, I believe that we express our humanity best through creativity and altruism. Knitting has given me an outlet for expressing my creativity, and therefore, my humanity. As a little reminder of all of this, I changed the background of my banner to a detail of a fabric design by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Also, the quote from Chaucer on the sidebar was featured on the title page of Gustav Stickley's periodical The Craftsman. If you're still with me, I hope this post sounds heartfelt rather than pretentious, and that you have been inspired too!

3 Comments:

Blogger Theresa said...

I saw this exhibit! Trying to remember where . . . Maybe the MFA in Boston? I don't know. But it was great. Fabulous. Thanks for the recap.

10:02 PM  
Blogger chittavrtti said...

There was a wonderful Pre Raphaelite exhibit recently in Portland which also included some later pieces of the Arts and Craft movement. I love the fact that A&C wasn't strictly visual it was practical. Holding a (replica) book designed, typeset and written by Morris is amazing.***CV

11:32 PM  
Blogger Olga said...

beautifully written! thanks for the education...i don't know very much about the movement but was fascinated from the detail you gave. i wonder where the exhibition is going next? btw...you'd be interested in this exhibition i just saw at the mca in chicago on tropicalia. i thought the exhibition itself was very poorly curated, but if you have a working knowledge of brazilian culture, you might actually get something out of it.

2:16 PM  

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