The Battle of the Colours

Funny how even a shop called ‘Blue Earth’ turns all red.
Moodboard Fall 2017

This Fall the streets will turn red. Already the shops in the high street show clothes in all hues of red. It makes me happy. It’ll bring warmth and colour in those many grey days we have around here. If people dare to wear it, of course. For some people find red threatening. The power the colour carries also means that about the first advice about professional attire is not to wear red, out of fear to attract hostility and aggression. In fact, that colour interpretation relates to that other Fall. Confused? Read on, all will become clear.

According to my favourite colour expert, Michel Pastoureau, the history of colour is always the history of the society in which it features. In this sense colour – and indeed its manifestations in fashion – is not superficial at all: it offers elements to understand society better. And one of the reasons why I like Pastoureau so much is that he always includes illustrations of materiality and craftsmanship to make the point.

This booklet offers a good summary of all Pastoureau’s ‘colour books’.

Pastoureau’s work is complex and detailed. I can heartily recommend all his books: they’re full of fascinating stories and delightful insights. Let me share a few with you.

Nowadays about 75% of Westerners name blue as their favourite colour. To make us understand how remarkable this is, Pastoureau goes to great lengths to demonstrate that for most of human history it was red that was most preferred. The battle of the colours will take place later, let’s stay for a while with the supremacy of red. 

Think of the caverns of Altamira for instance: they’re Unesco heritage because of the 150 drawings they contain, estimated to be some 15.000 years old and mostly in reds. 

Also Unesco heritage: the amazing wall paintings in Pompeii (80BC) where the intense red greatly contributes to the powerful experience. Almost in passing Pastoureau points out that, contrary to what many think, the garments, the private houses but also the temples and the sculptures within were, in classical times, full of colour.

The first dyes were vegetal, including ochres, which turn colour when burnt, and the popular madder.  The latter is a plant that carries the pigment in its roots. Which begs the question how humans got the idea to go searching underground for tinctorial matter? 

Over the centuries animal colourings were added such as kermes and the New World cochineal, the story of which has been wonderfully written by the American historian Amy Butler GreenfieldIn the middle of the 18th century an estimated 350 ton per annum of cochineal was exported to Europe, providing Spain which had the monopoly, with a revenue which almost equalled that of silver. 

The New World cochineal lives on cacti, only the female yields the dye (1777).

It goes without saying that garments dyed with cochineal were very expensive and thus became a symbol of power and luxury.

Pastoureau gives the materiality of colour a great deal of attention: he tells the stories of the successive chemical and technological advances in the craftsmanship involved. And he offers, to our contemporary eyes, surprising illustrations of that materiality. 

For centuries brides at the countryside for instance would wear red, not of the cochineal variety of course – which was too expensive and also forbidden for ‘ordinary folk’, but the local dyers mastered the red vegetal and animal pigments the best. Red was in other words a good material choice for a radiating bride.

Dyeing was a labour-intensive, intricate activity (Barthélemy l’Anglais & Jean Corbechon, Le Livre des propriétés des choses, 1482). On the right both bride and groom wear red: their festive attire accentuates the significance of the sacrament of matrimony (detail Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, c.1470).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also like the story of Louis XIV’s brother who allegedly introduced high heels at the 17th-century French court. The idea was to make up for the short posture of both brothers, which failed utterly because the new trend was taken up swiftly by all courtiers. Fascinatingly the heels were bright red – on the outside, which provides historical support to the failure of contemporary designer Christian Louboutin to obtain trademark protection for his signature red-lacquered soles.

Both at his marriage and when he was 63 and in full royal gear, Louis XIV sired red-heeled shoes (Antoine Dieu, Marriage of Louis of France and Marie-Adélaïde of Savoye, 1678; above right detail after Hyancinthe Rigaud).

In comparison, the Louboutin red seems conservative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much less light-minded is the Church’s use of colour. In fact, the original Bible hardly contains colour references. It’s only over the centuries and across translations, especially in the vernacular languages, that the Bible becomes increasingly more colourful – in itself an illustration of how colour testifies of changes in society.

These changes resulted in an ambitious colour symbolism that from the 5th century onwards exercized its influence in many domains of religious life (liturgy and costume for instance), social practises (garments, ceremonies, heraldic arms and insignia) and artistic and literary creation. And that for about a millenium. That’s powerful cultural heritage indeed.

With regard to the colour that concerns us here most, the Christian symbolism was founded on two principal references, namely blood and fire. And each was considered in both its good and bad aspects.

Blood in its positive connotation is of course the symbol of life. Even more specifically, it’s Christ giving his blood who has saved mankind, thereby warranting eternal life. In his footsteps followed the Church’s martyrs who accentuated the promise of salvation and the community of believers. This red sanctifies, fertilizes and unites. It’s also the colour of the very powerful Christian concept of caritas.

Both the so-called mystic press on the left and the Lamb of God above illustrate the growing symbolism attached to the blood of Christ (French miniature, 14th-15th century; detail Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1427-9).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But inevitably blood is also associated with violence and impurity. That’s why crime, sin and above all revolt against God were depicted in reds. Hangmen and torturers often wore red garments which had, of course, the additional advantage that their ‘activities’ were not too visible. In more general terms red became the colour of control, inhibition and sanctioning: think of a “red list”, the red pen used to correct exams, the “red line” not to be crossed. Red thus became very much associated with power and authority – which is also why the colour became the exclusive privilege of society’s elites, religious, political and economic.

It’s no coincidence that the guilds’ coats of arms were predominantly red (Ghent, 1524). The power of heraldic red continues to play even now, with 75% of the current UN members having red in their flag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside blood, it’s fire that features prominently in the Church’s colour symbolism. Biblical divine interventions are often accompanied by fire, as in the case of God speaking through a burning bush to Abraham who’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The most powerful image in this respect are the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Here we have divine love that regenerates, purifies and fortifies. Hence also the association with more mundane manifestations of seduction and love, remember the wedding dresses. Alas, fire is not always benign. Undoubtedly the strongest reference in the medieval mind is Hell, with the Devil as the personalization of temptation and evil. In that sense it wasn’t surprising that heretics were burnt – with no hope for salvation.

The two dimensions of fire in Christian symbolism: on the left the fiery tongues bringing regeneration on Pentecost (Hunterian Psalter, c.1165-70), above eternal damnation for heretics (Chronicle From the Creation of the World until 1384).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In sum, these four interdependent dimensions constructed a powerful symbolism that coloured the High Middle Ages very red indeed. But things were about to change.

A first crack in the red supremacy came from an unexpected rival: blue. The Romans disliked it, interpreting it as the colour of the barbarians. In the medieval West, it hardly features socially or artistically and it carried no religious or symbolic connotations.

Note the same bright blue for the Virgin’s coat and the sky. Interestingly, the angels are both blue (on the earth) and red (circling God in heaven) (Nativity, in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1415).

This raises the question whether the promotion of blue was prompted by technical advances, newly discovered pigments for instance or better ways of mastering the dyes. Pastoureau argues that the ideological mutations preceded the chemical ones: it was the association with the Virgin Mary that set kings, later all nobility, to adopt blue. 

Hitherto depicted in sombre colours, referring to her bereavement, Mary gradually sires a blue coat – which also becomes more bright and luminous. And that brighter blue, miniature artists use to paint the sky, which was black or golden before. This is also the period which saw the construction of the Gothic cathedrals with their famous blue stained windows.

The ideological promotion of blue through the Virgin, queen of the heavens, had some serious material consequences too. Blue upstarts so to speak broke through the dyeing guild’s monopoly and set up their own, rivalling organizations. Severely affected in their economic activities, the red dyers resorted to moral warfare to protect their position. Pastoureau tells of two instances where the red dyeing guild tried to convince their stained windows colleagues to represent the devil in blue – in an attempt to discredit the colour altogether. They failed.

I found one example with both red and blue devils. It’s probably not surprising that this Last Judgement (c.1500) adorns St Mary’s, Fairford. Being one of the so-called wool churches, it’s a testament to the wealth of the wool trade in the Cotswolds region. The stunning windows are 
the only surviving set of medieval stained glass in England. I think the blue devil above rather cute but that must be my wicked modern mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red’s downfall continued with new sumptuary laws and sartorial decrees that the civil authorities increasingly promulgated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The purpose was threefold: economic, moral and social. These laws and regulations fought against luxurious and thus unproductive spending. They also condemned new fashions which were considered frivolous, indecent, scandalous even. And above all they aimed to reinforce the boundaries between the different social classes so that all, in their appearance and ways of life, would remain in their stations.

The Reformation of the 16th century concluded the case. Not surprisingly in view of the powerful symbolism set out above, red to the Reformers represented the Papist Church against the many corruptions of which they so ardently fought. Red thus lost its positive connotations and became exclusively negative. Most particularly, red became associated with sin, pure and simple.

Being banned from Paradise was not a pleasant experience (Ulm Münster, 1461).

And this is where the other Fall comes into the picture. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Wisdom, it’s the sanctioning red angel who expulses them from Paradise. But with original sin also originated the need for garments. The fact that we wear clothes, is a continued testimony of our inherent sinfulness. Fashion is not only superficial and frivolous, it’s proof that we humans are flawed. It’s therefore right and proper for clothes not to express status, let alone pride: they must contribute to our awareness that we need to be modest and humble. The Reformers had much less faith in salvation or charity, the perspectives were bleak. Hence a much muted down colour palette, if not dominantly black.

Compare these two Holy Families: on the left the Protestant Rembrandt
uses a very muted palette (1634), the Counter Reformation diplomat Rubens (above) paints his colours as bright as can be and even includes a frivolous parrot (c.1614).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although in reaction the Counter Reformation re-enforced red in all its splendour, in more ordinary circumstances the West has actually adopted the more neutral palette of the Reformation. The dark colours that are dominant in office surroundings for instance still refer to a work ethic that since Max Weber is related to Protestantism. Pastoureau concludes more generally that red has almost entirely been banned out of our daily lives, including the public sphere. 

This conclusion struck me to the point that I went out to test it in my home city. And indeed, there is surprisingly little red in Ghent (I’m discounting the reddish bricks and roofs, and publicity signs). And where it is present, it refers to the authority of the Church, and by extension to the old civic powers. Interestingly the positive connotations are in the majority: who wants to see it, finds evidence of divine and mundane love, charity and the power of the city. The references to violence and revolt are much more muted.

Without the truck you might miss the muted red in the roof windows of the Cathedral,
the Beguinage church tower is already somewhat more obvious,
in the Counter Reformation charity building there is no more holding back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright red gate of the medieval belfry reminds us of the value of the city’s freedom.
 The so-called Dulle Griet (1431) was moved to Ghent to fight the Spanish. The impressive canon, stretching over 5 m and weighing more than 12 ton, now stars mostly and predictably in selfies. 
The fire reference in the streets is benign: in case of emergency the water supply will be easily found.

 

The least you can say is that the much-discussed circulation plan, recently introduced to give pedestrians and cyclists more space, brightens up the city centre.

The only modern exception, where red was relatively recently introduced in the public domain, are the sea, rail and land traffic systems. Here too though the reference is old, with the red indicating control and inhibition.
Why green was introduced, is unclear: the symbolic contrast red/green is unprecedented historically. Some (in the book unnamed) countries contrast red and blue – which is a surprising reference to the battle of the angels and the devils. In Japan they use green but call it blue.

A postbox in front of my favourite building in Ghent: the Castle of the Counts.

There is the material suggestion (also not in the book) that red is simply very striking to our eyes. This might explain why telephone boxes (now extinct on the Belgian streets) used to be red. We still have the red post boxes (but not in the author’s France).

Because Pastoureau pays so much attention to materiality, I don’t think he would disagree. But his conclusion is much more powerful: although red is no longer the preferred colour in the West, it remains the strongest colour symbolically. That’s why red still provokes such strong emotions. With reference to the historic symbolism we understand better why that is so. And it’s fun to adopt a different mindset and observe the battle of the colours.

Where once was the entrance to the red light district, the Ghent artist Jan Van Imschoot painted several scenes of the local history (2000).
Detail of the wall painting: seductive red stockings.

So, do wear red clothes this Fall and decide whether you’re creating your own private Counter Reformation, or simply want to add more blood and fire to your life – in the positive meaning of spirit, charity and love, obviously.

And on a wall very close to where I live, what should always be the final word.

Craft Agency

Everyone in Flanders knows Bokrijk: it’s a popular school destination from the 1970s onwards. And very boring I remember it too. The Provincial Open Air Museum presented a stilted version of the past, with old farms and chapels for instance transported from their original settings, and loads of old utensils and machines that breathed dust and irrelevance.

Something has changed between the traditional clog workshop and the Bokrijk 
presentation at the latest edition of the Interior Biënnale Kortijk (2016).

 

 

 

 

 

Textile is not very prominent in Bokrijk but Flemish fashion designer Tim Van Steenbergen will experiment next year on this restored loom (Photo Bart Dewaele).

It took some time, which is okay when we all want things to slow down, but Bokrijk is increasingly transforming into a social laboratory where the relevance of cultural heritage is clarified and where cross-pollination projects with a multitude of partners feature prominently. The Museum presents an ambitious programme that enables the past to say something relevant about today – and the future. Contemporary craftsmanship is at the core of this programme, with its capacity, among others, to make us think about mass production.

I’m delighted that craftsmanship gains an increasingly prominent position in societal discussions. There’s of course the danger that this is a hipster trend, soon to be obliterated by another. I think craftsmanship deserves better. To follow Bokrijk’s lead, to think about mass production equally means thinking about its effect on the climate, about the way we relate to objects and ultimately to one another. For if we define ourselves exclusively as consumers, there is no human connection, bar competition in the upcoming sales perhaps. Consumers don’t think about the circumstances in which objects are made, the often miserable lives of their makers and the total absence of appreciation for their expertise. Consumption itself is seldom fulfilling and it casually robs its practioners from their agency.

The question then becomes how we can anchor craftsmanship solidly into the debate about society and keep it sustainably relevant. And whether what we could call craft agents can help us think differently about objects, meaningful human (inter)action and the good life.

Craftspeople come in all shapes and sizes. I picked two radically different examples to explore the point: the students of the Master in Textile Design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) and, first, a 19th-century Norfolk fisherman.

There’s nothing hip or trendy about John Craske (1881-1946). In fact, very little is known of his life. And it’s to the English biographer Julia Blackburn’s merit that she threads together what little she could find of what most would see as an ordinary, insignificant life.

Yet John Craske managed, it seems, to survive through his craftswork – literally. When he became ill in 1917 and was pronounced, in the subtle language of the time, “imbecile”, his sea life was over. Having been born into a poor, for generations seafaring family, this was a financial debacle. It also turned out to be a mental disaster: when he wasn’t in what he himself called ” a stuporous state”, Craske desperately longed for the sea. The family doctor recommended that Craske went to live by the water, because “only the sea can save him”. When that wasn’t possible, Craske created his own solution: he recreated the sea, painting on any surface he could find. Later, when he could no longer stand for any length of time, he took to embroidering seascapes, sea related scenes and ultimately, based on the reports on the wireless, the Evacuation of Dunkirk. 

  Postcard painting (The Duigan Collection)
A rare boot at rest: Craske mostly & most realistically depicted storms. And included prominently his signature.

 

 

 

 

 

Rescue at sea

& detailed embroideries of his former livelihood.

 

 

 

Craske’s death prevented him from finishing the Evacuation of Dunkirk (NUA Gallery, Norwich). The embroidery is over 3,3m wide & 64 cm high.
Detail of the action at Dunkirk.

Threads is a delicate book. While Blackburn rescues Craske’s life from obscurity, she also weaves through her own, very personal stories. There is little definition whether Craske’s work is art rather than craft, nor a conclusive judgment whether his life was ultimately meaningful through his work. If anything, the storytelling is kind and compassionate. 

The loose ends of the Dunkirk embroidery.

And by quoting from her notebooks and reporting searches that yielded nothing, Blackburn shows the messiness behind the biographer’s own craft. To expose such loose treads is to invite a slower pace and the acceptance that not all efforts yield result. Life is sometimes messy, as the reverse sides of Craske’s embroideries equally show. Interweaving his pictures with her writing, the story becomes a meditation on resilience and creativity. And how craftsmanship can pull us through illness, immobility and hardship. 

Put differently, we’re shown different types of agency, nothing with grand impact but powerful nonetheless. This can inspire us with regard to the power of the imagination in what is too easily seen as an ordinary life. This is about patience and mercy. About the consolation of art/craft. About attention to small detail and an open mind, ready to learn and apply unknown techniques to depict what’s in one’s eye’s mind. John Craske impacted immensely on his life because despite serious financial and mental hardship he refused to submit his agency. 

I very much hope the Textile Design students and alumni at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) don’t need to experience such hardship in order to master their craft. They have in any case the glorious space of the Ghent Design Museum where ‘Plain / Purl. 10 Years of Textile Design KASK’ now shows. The subtitle of the exhibition ‘Textile between Art and Design’ makes explicit the tension Blackburn mostly left unmentioned: it invites ideas of debate, controversy, dissent and contrast.

The accompanying catalogue explains that Textile Design in Ghent has very much at its core the students’ own investigation. They’re actively encouraged to research, experiment and practice through the varied textile landscape. This also implies that KASK puts a high value on maintaining a certain distance from the direct demands of the workplace and society. Its higher education programme is clearly envisaged as a sanctuary with ample space for theoretical contextualization, critical reflection and research. But it’s no ivory tower: interdisciplinary experiments and collaborations are very much encouraged, there is an acute awareness of textile’s climatic and social impact, contemporary questions summon innovative disruption.

Two untitled works by Louise Bourgeois (2008), presiding over Sophie Schreinemacher’s experiments with wood & rope (2016).

All this has found its expression in the exhibition. Functional design and visual art join side by side, in a non-hierarchical way, as are the young, experienced, student and internationally known makers. Visitors are encouraged to touch some of the works and thus get connected and engaged themselves.

But the most telling aspect of the exhibition is the fact that many of the works on display are not finished products. They’re experiments, encounters at the crossing of different disciplines, illustrations of a particular stage in the research process.

They’re presented in a collage or in a row, not so much to suggest uniform design but rather a shared philosophy of an open mind. Of agency to impact on materials and techniques. On objects, people and society.

These are clearly other craft agents than was John Craske. Yet they also practice creativity to deal with life. With its messiness perhaps. With the fact that there’s too little mercy, too little attention to detail or circumstances. That pressing societal questions need an answer but also time – so as to cut loose superficial trends and embroider a real, sustained alliance with so-called ordinary lives. To find, with patience and resilience, the right perspective on meaningfulness. 

Fien Embrechts, Embroidery on latex (2008)
Britt De Groot, Research Laser Cutting (2011)
Bettie Boersma, Finding Form for Perspectives (2016)
Hella Jongerius & Jongeriuslab Bovist, Vitra (2016)

This seat with Alice and the rabit running late, sits at the heart of the Design museum, now transformed into a place of time slowing down, of encounter and exploration. The core of textile craftsmanship has in the exhibition become an open space to connect and feel the fabrics.

Textile is very much alive. Its crafts agents featured here show us how it’s embedded a myriad of concepts, values and practices that remain powerful and relevant today. If we manage to feature craftsmanship more prominently into the debates and practices of society, we may not find a hipster Wonderland but contribute to the co-creation of the good life. 

 

This is the Craske’s smallest surviving painting: the ship’s red sail is a single brush stroke. Who would argue that Craske’s aspiring to peace of mind and fullfilment can no longer inspire?

Express the Century

We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradise or The Ladies’ Delight (the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.

To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?

The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:

“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”

This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.

The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delight was Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce. 

Contemporary illustration of the grand architecture of the grand magazins.

In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.

With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’ Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation: “Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.

On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.

It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:

“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”

It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.

We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.

Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.

Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.

The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.

With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.

It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment Kant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘s maturity. 

As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.

Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.

This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.

All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”. 

For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.

Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.

The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Fest organized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.

My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization.  At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.

I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.

Alternative Creationism (1)

It’s my firm belief that creation is a wonder. Rest assured that I’m not into alternatives as propagated on the other side of the ocean these days. Nor indeed in the customary interpretation of the title’s noun. It’s human creation that interests me, and more specifically in the alternative sense of what its contribution to the good life might be.

This is an existential exploration, as illustrated by Bill Watterson’s delightful character Calvin:

@Bill Watterson

The question of why we do what we do is also the central query of an intriguing book that has just won the Dutch prize of the Best Spiritual Book 2017– and which I hope will receive an English translation. In Restlessness the Ghent based ethicist and philosopher Ignaas Devisch advocates an immoderate life to be understood as a life of desire, passion and creativity. His argument is intriguing for at least two reasons. One is that the author very explicitly challenges the manifold calls to slow down, be it in food, science or living. Second, he does so with an extensive historic reconstruction of the societal presence of restlessness –  which is not recent at all!

Restlessness belongs fundamentally to modernity.

Aware that this is an unfamiliar statement, Devisch spends most of his book elaborating it. This leaves a mere ten percent of the book explicitly devoted to the praise of the immoderate life, as we’ll see later. But first the historian in me delights in stressing the unusualness of the argument, even more so because Devisch transcends the often stark division of the so-called Dark Ages and Modern Times on the grounds that the late Middle Ages prepared that modernity in fundamental ways – including the arrival of restlessness.

Of course it’s tricky to pinpoint the birth year of a concept such as restlessness, but if one year deserves the ‘honour’, it must be 1348. With the outbreak of the Black Death a torrent of angst ran over Europe and undermined the Christian ideals of heavenly awards for the toils of this earthly life. If death can be so horrible and sudden, better make the best of this life – now. This is the beginning of the end for the medieval worldview. And the beginning of the modern project that, from the start, included the desire to live here and now. How topical that sounds!

Devisch gives the 17th-century French philosopher, theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal a central role in his exposé. Probably his most famous expression is that “man cannot sit in a quiet room alone”. This is the boredom Calvin refers to. But Pascal’s interpretation is actually much more bleak. Pascal understood the modern race against time as a secularized version of our inability to deal with the inescapable, death. In the expression “get the most out of life while you can”, we would stress the first part, probably even leave the second unmentioned. For Pascal the escapist movement away from death was essential and essentially modern. A central theme in his Pensées (published after his death in 1669) is divertissement: modern man diverts himself – in order not to face the terrible reality of life.

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

This is indeed not a very attractive position. No wonder that man wants to stay busy. Pascal stresses the existential objective of diversion. Devisch rather emphasizes that almost inadvertently that diversion gave rise to human agency. And both make the point that modernity is thus equal to movement and freedom.

With the religious frame of the afterlife shattered, and all the normative structures that came with it, emptiness arises – which can, Pascal would say must, be filled again. At a collective level, this explains why progress is so central to modernity, although Devisch hardly elaborates on this (I’ll turn to this in the next installment of this blog). At an individual level, modern man (and of course I always mean “woman” as well) is free to do what he wants – to be whom he wants to be. This is why modern man is essentially individualistic: there is no more fixed identity, it’s up to him to make something of his life. Modern man has become an agent.

And with the agency comes the restlessness: there’re choices to be made, not once but time and again. There’re always opportunities to better oneself, to move up in the world. There’s the drive to be or more accurately to become someone. Living in the secular modern world is a permanent undertaking, a project. Put like that, it’s also clear the work is never done. There’s no point where I can say: I’ve reached my destiny, I’m me now.

This lightbox was a Christmas present. I hadn’t yet read Devisch’s book but the question I composed is appropriately modern and thus restless.

With some exaggeration, Calvin’s thoughts shown earlier summarize one of Pascal’s key arguments: boredom originates from the emptiness of modern life – and both are expelled with creation. Or again, modern humans craft themselves. And as any craftsperson knows, perfection is never reached. Perhaps one is content with the outcome for a little while, but even while planning a new (stage in the) project it’s clear that the skills need further tuning to do better. There’s no upper limit, it’s never (good) enough. And so one becomes restless – again.

If, in short, restlessness is so very much part of what it means to be a modern human being, there’s no escaping it. Devisch actually argues that the question is put wrongly. In essence he challenges the negative connotations of restlessness: since when is a life in balance desirable? Pascal would say: do you actually want to spend your life alone in a quiet room? Or in Calvin’s words: do you really want to be bored? Of course not. We like activities and interaction, we search for things to look forward to and to strife for. We like to be busy and make progress.

As restlessness has been with us for over six centuries, it’ll probably last (at least) our lifetime. Devisch advises to stop fighting what you cannot change. Better still, recognize restlessness for what it really is, namely the crucial factor for an interesting and creative life. In management books this would be called “positive stress”. What would our lives be if we stopped moving? If we had no further desire to better things and or ourselves? So the argument finally turns positive: give in to your desire to get out of the room, go and do things, live life to the full. In brief, Devisch advocates the immoderate life:

Embrace your restlessness!

With the full story of its centrality to modern life, we now understand restlessness is positive energy that is available to us. The real question then becomes: what will we do with it? Devisch concludes with the adagium of a passionate life: “engage your restlessness for things that make life meaningful, whatever that may mean”.

Here we reach the weakness of the book. It’s obvious that Devisch doesn’t want to dictate how we should live. That indeed would go against his own argument of modern freedom and the virtually endless choices that entails. Yet difficult questions remain. Such as: how free are we really? Don’t many people feel, not mobile as supposedly inherent in modernity, but its very opposite, namely stuck? And how many of us experience their life as “meaningful”? Do many not continue to suffer from the emptiness of modern life Pascal was obsessed with? How many can say that they fight off Calvin’s boredom with a good life? How many feel in existential control over their lives’ ‘project’, rather than lost? Devisch admits that restlessness does become a problem (think: time pressure, loss of control, negative stress) when people don’t experience the meaning of their actions anymore. His suggestion is to find “ways to stand less restlessly ‘in the mobility’.” But what if you don’t know how to do that?

Devisch has chosen to concentrate on the individual level. And that’s of course legitimate. As historian I’m delighted with his rephrasing of “nothing new under the sun” that brings a much needed sense of nuance and relativity into the current debate. The strength of his book is that it opens an alternative perspective for each of us: we understand better why we, as individuals, are restless – and how that can be a good thing. But, alas, and as most of us experience at least sometimes, it often isn’t.

My own argument for alternative creationism has two components. In my next post I will explore the collective level which Devisch hardly addresses. My hunch is that problematic restlessness has less to do with a misperception of our individual drive than with the collective implications of the modern project. More specifically, the sense of being lost and stuck is often connected with the conditions of work. Devisch points a few times to the continuing need critically to evaluate the consequences of competition and time pressure on the labour market. He also refers to the current discussion about “workable work”, including the difficult realization of “meaningful” work, but he doesn’t elaborate. I aim to show that alternative perspectives can also re-insert meaningfulness in work. But first I unashamedly advocate craftsmanship as an individual choice to craft the good life.

‘Making’ is an undervalued source of wonder and joy. I maintain it’s also a meaningful way “to stand more firmly in the mobility of modern life”. It requires sitting (or standing) in a quiet room alone and to engage one’s energy towards something meaningful. You’re in control over what you decide to make – and the range of possibilities is virtually endless. Yet you’re also happy to be challenged and to be lost in the flow for that’s part of the fun. This is creationism because of its focus on creating. It’s alternative in the sense that that creating is considered to be an end in itself. Although there usually is a ‘creation’, a ‘product’ if you want, the process of getting there is not (essentially) instrumental. And that’s why the combination contributes to the good life.

Craftsmanship is about energy. It’s about connecting mind and body, so that you can grow towards a more integrated human being. It’s about exploring your imaginations and intuitions and searching for corresponding forms of self-expression. The experience itself creates a space in which you can discover meaning, as Calvin has put it. That focused space enables living in the present. And it is filled with kairos that allows us to remain in Pascal’s room.

Yet the skills that are thus developed, such as practicing patience, engagement and perseverance, exercising autonomy, judgement and agency, achieving a level of expertise or mastery, also craft a personality that stands more firmly outside that room – about which of course there is much more to be said, and that’s a promise.

 

January Blues

Blue Monday has come and gone, yet the January Blues will still be with us for another ten days or indeed longer. Wondering what to do about this, it struck me that each component of that set phrase carries a ‘two-faced’ meaning (at least).

Take January, derived from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transition, time, doorways, passages and endings. The traditional portrayal is a man with literally two faces: he sees both past and future. Janus is thus about time – and how we deal with it. In January we seem to hang somewhere in between. The parties are over, there are no big festivities in sight and Spring (light!) seems a long long way away. Interestingly, the gates of the Janus Temple in Rome were closed only during peacetime, which was very rare: the common practice was open doors meaning war and conflict. We have not had a peaceful year, yet Janus has closed it. And opened another, must we expect (more) conflict? Or put differently, ‘something’ has ended, do we trust it will be followed by a new beginning? And what might that entail?

Janus flask, 1st century AD (The J. Paul Getty Museum).
An interesting modern Janus. I’m not sure though what the hole might signify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a similar vein, the other component of the phrase, blue is equally ambiguous. As most of us, the French historian Pastoureau and the French-American artist Bourgeois associate the colour with rest and peace. Yet blue clearly also evokes melancholia and dissatisfaction with the way things – we – are. How can it ‘work’ both ways?

In On Being Blue the American philosopher and writer William Gass defines blue as ‘the color of the interior life’. And we all know that interior life isn’t always as restful as it could be. Gass’ inquiry itself is not very calm. I must admit the booklet rather unnerved me as I didn’t get a grip on what it was trying to say or do. I started reading it a number of time – and put it away in frustration. Learning a little more about Gass himself helped. He’s usually associated with American Postmodernism and he conducts experiments at the level of a sentence itself: he’s for instance much more interested in the sound than in the meaning of the words. And because he finds readers overall too hung up on content his euphonic style aims to free them from the linear conventions of narrative. No wonder I was flabbergasted! It’s nice of Gass though to define this different way of experiencing the beauty of language (in his collection of essays A Temple of Texts) in textile terms:

The act of reading [is the act] of looping the loop, of continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving what’s unwoven, undoing what’s done.

In fact the colour is almost a pretext for the listomaniac Gass who demonstrates, repeatedly, how a small word of four letters can delight us with so many shades, tones, flavours, meanings, connotations and expressions. On Being Blue is above all a inquiring reflection on language – and the melancholia it provokes. 

Melancholia is also very much present in Bluets by the American writer Maggie Nelson. Here again is a little booklet that testifies to the love of blue and combines it with the loss of love and (bodily but also mental) health. Again it does not associate blue with being restful or at peace. Nelson also seems to have something with lists and challenging ‘ordinary’ narrative: her ‘story’ is made up out of numbered paragraphs, the function of which is not immediately obvious. And she too seems to be weaving: personal feelings, experiences, anecdotes and thoughts add up to a quest into obsession and the (im)possibility of human connection.

Both Gass and Nelson offer wonderful lists of expressions in English that contain the word blue. And they are many, certainly compared to Dutch – are we to think of Dutch speakers as less interested in ‘the interior life’? To leave something blue blue (iets blauw blauw laten) for instance means to leave something for what it is, obviously not a good start for a quest of any kind. And to run a little blue (een blauwtje lopen) is to be rejected in love – a failure in connection that most likely will cause the blues. There is only one common expression that surprisingly has a totally different meaning in either language: in Dutch a ‘blue Monday’ stands for ‘a short time’. What’s even more intriguing is that blauw used to have the figurative meaning of ‘insignificant, null, of little value’. Among a number of assumptions about this etymology, my preferred one is the so-called wool-colouring hypothetis.

Display of indigo materials in the Museum of Industry, Labour and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent.

In the textile regions of the Low Countries the wool dyers were a powerful guild. And thus introduced their interpretation of dying with indigo into the Dutch language. The laborious indigo process takes various stages. First the wool is soaked into a yellow looking dye. It’s only when the wool is hung up to dry and thus exposed to the oxygen in the air that the colour turns blue. Traditionally the soaking was done on Saturdays, the drying on Mondays. On a blue Monday then the wool dyers couldn’t work: the day was thus ‘of no significance’. Or rest – that isn’t valued.

Summarizing where all of this has got us, both January and blue carry a multitude of meanings and associations which together form an altogether ambivalent mixture. Perhaps that in itself is the current attraction of the phrase: we ourselves feel ambivalent. Especially in a month that is still defined by endings, we’re uncertain and reluctant to contribute to the creation of new beginnings. And it seems we’re not very good at dealing with uncertainty and risk. 

Yet already in 1986 (1992) Ulrich Beck defined the Risk Society as a new stage of modernization in a way that matches our experiences: society’s characteristics, its power structures, its knowledge and authority norms, its definition of identity have changed – are changing. What is distinct about this stage of modernity is that the risks are the product of the modernization process itself, that is, they are man-induced. According to Beck risk society is thus characterized by an absence, namely the impossibility of attributing the hazards externally. That means that (most of the) risks we’re facing depend on human decisions and are thus politically reflexive. The awareness of the ecological problems for instance is illustrated by the now common concepts of sustainability and the precautionary principle.

It seems that Beck mainly wanted to warn against risk management as an exercise in bureaucratic rationality or technocracy, including the contempt for the public perception of risk. This is a powerful plea against both TINA (There Is No Alternative) and downplaying the anxieties of ‘ordinary’ people who, because modern risk is spread unevenly, have reason to fear it. This is written more than thirty years ago! But we don’t appear to have done much with Beck’s analysis. 

And it begs the question what is to be done now. If it were up to me I would argue for more reflexivity, for more people involved in that reflexive exercise and thus being equipped to partake. In Flanders the reform of secondary schooling is very hot right now but I’m not sure it includes the tools we’re talking about here. I fear we forget too often that ‘school’ is derived from the Greek σχολή (scholē), originally meaning ‘leisure’. And surely leisure must be blue according to the common association of the word: it requires a certain peace at the level of the interior life, so that being open to new experiences and learning new things become possible (again).

Reflexivity requires time and space. It requires the revaluation of rest. And it requires resilience, in the first place to be able to stand in ‘the heat’ of uncertainty, to feel and live it fully – before taking action of any kind. Of course I believe that ‘making’ in the earlier named sense of aspiring craftsmanship, flow and kairos can induce a good climate for ‘enlightened’ reflection. 

To stay within the theme: blue weaving in what is actually a knitting pattern
& linear felt lines – to return to a more restful narrative?

 

 

 

 

 

Here I would like to suggest another path which, of course, many others have favoured far more eloquently, including the English writer Jeanette Winterson: turn to beauty! This is for once no advice to do something but to be. Accept that we live at a critical conjuncture, don’t resist it but wallow in it so to speak. We don’t need more instant opinions or immediate debates. We need space to be and wonder, stillness to reflect and define better the quest of the good life. When we are touched by beauty, we are ‘null’ and ‘insignificant’ in terms of of economic utility – and that’s the point. Let’s create more space outside productivity and consumerism and thus bolster our sometimes fragile human nature. Think of it as a temporary respite that allows restocking on energy. In Winterson’s words:

Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield,

and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out.

Put differently, art can sooth us and thus strengthen our resilience – which we’ll need when it does become time to act. I’m very much looking forward to Kairos Castle at Gaasbeek near Brussels: conceptualized by the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen I expect the exhibition to refer to her argument for restful space, in order e.g. by art to become spirited again. But the exhibition opens only in Spring. I also know visiting a concert or an exhibition isn’t always possible and it generally involves doing a number of things. So what to do about our January Blues?

Perhaps it doesn’t always need to be arduous. We are talking about a temporary shield after all. It can take different shapes at different times, as long as it replenishes us in terms of wondering inquiry and energy. Wouldn’t simply listening to or looking at beauty do the trick right now?
Years ago I experienced great flow compiling a handmade booklet with (to me) beautiful blue images. Nobody ever saw it.

The ambivalence of being & wanting blue.
Composing the collages was fun
yet the eye has remained very blue indeed.

 

 

 

 

But low and behold, our ‘modern’ times have created not only man-induced risks but also marvelous ways of summoning sources of inspiration and joy – and the ability to share them. I happily put you on your way with my textile discography and three citations from my Pinterest board Feeling Blue.

Don’t leave the January Blues (here by Natalie 
Foss) blue blue, go for an inspiring & spirited quest for
beauty & don’t forget to wrap yourself kindly.

 

A Resolution to Your Future Self

The holiday season is again upon us. I’m always delighted when I come across textile interpretations of all the lovely feelings we want to spread around this time of the year. For instance, how wonderful is it to save a Christmas tree and compose one instead with wool bobbins! This one stands in the window of a hairdresser’s in my lovely city of Ghent.

What a delight to come across such creativity, simply passing in an unassuming street.
Here, I presume, the hairdresser who came up with this great idea.
And he has an eye for enhancing details!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet despite all the messages of peace and harmony, the holiday season is usually a rather stressful period for most of us. One unmistakable factor causing the stress is finding the right present for the ones we love. The present we’re expected to come up with, is preferably something unusual and clever, entirely suitable for and thus desirable to the person it’s aimed at. The result is almost unlimited consumerism, last Sunday was the penultimate shopping day in Belgium since records began!

The question is: do we really need more stuff? Will that make the New Year happy? Aren’t we supposed to be making resolutions about (among others) sustainability and becoming more aware of the environment? To be more content with what we (already) have and more importantly, with who we are? I’m certainly not the first to note that objects don’t satisfy for long. But putting a sustainability resolution in a box with a bow won’t do of course. So how to get out of this predicament?

I have a simple suggestion. And of course it involves fabrics 😉 but I’m sure you can come up with all sorts of other applications. What I’m suggesting is that we don’t so much give things as time. Our time.

How much stronger can a message of affection be when you’ve thought of something to make, wondered about what materials you need, where to find them and how to apply them with what techniques, and then, with a lot of attention, devotion and patience, turn your mind’s image into realization? With a bit of luck both you and the receiver experience genuine satisfaction: (s)he gets a unique present which communicates love and focal attention, in the creative process you feel the earlier mentioned energizing flow.

I know. The process of the making preferably ends in a present – which is of course still ‘stuff’. I don’t really have a solution for this: as any resolution, time does not fit easily into a box. But can we agree that it’s not the product that is important but its symbolic value? That would have the additional benefit that its form hardly matters: the idea is to spread the well-intentional sentiments of the season and be broadminded enough to support them in all shapes and sizes. But of course the holiday season is already here. Even if you can overcome the first objection, there is the now more pressing one that you don’t have the time anymore to make those handmade lovelies.

As this is the season of compassion and generosity, be merciful towards yourself too. And be kind towards your future self! There is indeed no point to get all worked up and let yourself be defeated by the sheer impossibility of the task. What you can do now, is to make an unusual and clever resolution:

I will explore my creativity this coming year. And I will do so in a way that I will look forward to the next holiday season – for I’ll have all my crafty presents ready long before the first Jingle Bells! 

 

The benefit of making the resolution now is double. First this is together with the Summer probably the period of the year that you have more time than ordinary to be curious and explore, in terms of subject, materials and or techniques. Be nice to yourself and offer yourself that time and space to experiment, to see what comes out of your creative process, and wonder whom you will delight with the result next time you find an occasion to celebrate (and inventing those occasions is permitted!).

Second the season offers plentiful inspiration. It provides a whole series of themes, figures and settings that invite creative interpretation. I’m happy to share some of my earlier explorations. But remember: they’re simply meant to inspire, nót to re-create the stress that you’ll never find the time to make so many presents at once. I didn’t either: I made them slowly, patiently, throughout a great many years. 

There is these days a curious, rather tiring discussion in Belgium about whether a nativity set is neutral enough to decorate a public space. I think the discussion ridiculous. It heightens both anxiety and hostility when we should be reflecting harder and better on what’s happening in our world. Why not be inspired by the spirit of the season and understand that to include mildness and generosity?

Fortunately my nativities were never meant for public display. And I like nativity sets: because we all know the story of Christmas, it almost doesn’t matter which components you include, play down or highlight. It is in other words a perfect theme for your very own interpretation.  

My five variations on the theme each 
include felt & vintage finds.
Note the subdued sheep above,
which here have turned very playful!

 

 

 

 

This is my personal favourite: small felt figures, each containing a loadstone which on a vintage platter made magnetic enables movement. Here the arrival of the Wise Men from the East with their precious gifts.

 

Another option is to select one component of the nativity set and explore the various ways in which you can convey all the lovely feelings you want to spread around. The messagers from above seem a good option: surely there are no people who object to angels?

Angels can for instance be reflective or exuberant. Left they’re
entirely made of felt, above & right, it’s a humble wine cork 
which supports their crochet outfit & wings.

 

You could also do stars or candles or Christmas trees. Or take the most humble part of the nativity which in itself suggests softness, warmth and cuddliness: perhaps sheep transmit the seasonal aspirations best? 

First there were two,
then they multiplied in numbers & in colours,
finally to make a very merry flock indeed!

 

Bet anyone’s ears will feel warmer with these merry sheep coming along?

And in case you like more ‘useful’ gifts, why not transfer your theme to objects that equally add to the glow of the season?

 

 

 

gen.er.ous adj. 1: free in giving or sharing

2: noble syn open-handed

It’s not fortuituous that two of the central figures of my favourite nativity set, Mary & Balthazar,
have their arms wide open.

In giving or sharing our time, we practice not only our craft but also our generosity. And being open-handed can lead to an open heart and mind. Which are qualities we very much need in these times.

 

I wish you this season much softness, warmth, mildness, and an open mind and heart for all that life has on offer for you in 2017. And good luck with the resolutions to your future self! 

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

The Promise of the Unicorn

I love specialists who make the effort to tell a good story, to translate their specialist knowledge into something which can move us all. Michel Pastoureau is such a person.

Pastoureau started as a medieval historian of heraldry: he studied coats of arms and their iconography, in particular the symbolic meaning of their featured animals, symbols and colours. Having written a great many specialist books, he moved on to delightfully insightful ànd greatly legible books on the colours blue, green and black. 

bleu

vert

noir

 

IMG_0439
My very personal version of worrisome Northern blue 😉

To give just one example: did you know that the classic Greeks and Romans disliked blue? They associated it with the eye colour of the worrisome barbarians from the North – which made it totally obnoxious. Much has changed since: it’s very likely that blue is your favourite colour, as it is for over half of the Western population!

Pastoureau’s explanation is that blue has become symbolically less ‘marked’ than other colours. Because of the association with security, calm and peace, the symbolism is almost neutral – which also explains why large international organizations such as UNESCO or the European Union choose the colour for their flags.

The author remains of course a specialist: almost imperceptibly he smuggles in an amazing amount of history which serves to demonstrate the social practices of the colour at hand: daily life, art, sartorial codes and, of course, the crafts involved to dye fabrics 😉 

And Pastoureau regularly returns with great panache to his old love of animals, as in the book in which he applies himself to uncover The Secrets of the Unicorn. LicorneIt was the Greek medic Ctesias who first described this intriguing creature at the end of the 5th century BC. This, incidentally, is an illustration of the cross-fertilization of the Silk Roads as the medic situates the unicorn in the East – which he never visited. And although “very few had the privilege of perceiving it”, it was only during the Enlightenment that it was decided the animal really didn’t exist. Amazingly Ctesias’ description survived all that time – and continued beyond, into romanticism, symbolism and further.

The unicorn is ‘known’ to be fast, therefore hard to catch. But because it is itself immaculate, it’s attracted by purity: a unicorn will lay its horn into a virgin’s lap – and thus risk death at the hands of hitherto hidden hunters, who are interested in the healing qualities of the horn. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a considerable commerce in all products unicorn: powders, ointments, purgative waters, etc. And every important family, abbey and monastery had its own unicorn relic. 

What did change over time, was the gender of the unicorn. In Latin and the earliest vernacular languages the term was masculine, the later French word ‘licorne’ is female. The gender shift illustrates the feminization of the whole concept. As the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, there was little reason to doubt its existence. Its purity and healing qualities were furthermore understood to symbolize the Christ, with the horn seen as a spiritual arrow or referring to the cross. At the end of the Middle Ages, the time of courtoisie, the unicorn came to be associated with profane love and the amourous chase; yet the feminization also allowed for an interpretation that celebrated the purity and spirituality of the Virgin Mary. Quite a layer of symbolic meanings!

In an extensive interview Pastoureau emphasizes how the imaginary is very much part of reality and that the unicorn is bien vivante today: from the moment the creature is definitively declared non-existant by science, it’s enthusiastically adopted by the arts, especially by the symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century. Even now the unicorn is “la vedette du bestiaire fantastique”. Think little girls’ toys, T-shirts and shoes, comic books, Harry Potter …, the list is endless.

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How exciting can shoes get?

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And Hergé’s Tintin album Le secret de la licorne is the explicit reason for the title of Pastoureau’s book – plural, because there are so many secrets. 

 

The most celebrated unicorn in Western art features in a series of late 15th-century Flemish tapestries called La Dame à la licorne. It is the director of the Cluny Museum in Paris which now houses them, who in Pastoureau’s book summarises the situation of the research. Yet despite her own very specialist expertise Elisabeth Delahaye stresses what is perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of the unicorn tapestries: very little is known of their origin. 

And it’s precisely the mystery surrounding the tapestries that opens creative perspectives – to which call the American-British author Tracy Chevalier has answered with the delightful novel The Lady and the UnicornChevalier3Chevalier  is clearly a lover of fabrics: in another book, The Last Runaway, it’s quilting that takes centre stage. Here she operates within Pastoureau’s universe: she declares herself very much intrigued by the several layers of symbolic meaning in the tapestries. All its ingredients are present: the lady’s seduction of the unicorn, spiritual and corporal desires, the latter represented in the visual rendering of the five senses. And the question of how the people designing and making the tapestries wove together such different interpretations is very much at the heart of the author’s endeavour. 

Chevalier does a great job. I have to admit that the first time I read the book, I was so keen to know what would happen to the main characters that I almost missed the textile focus. I reread the novel this Summer and was delighted – again.

The story starts in Paris, 1490. An ambitious French nobleman commissions six luxurious tapestries to flaunt his rising status at Court and hires the arrogant but superbly talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. The lady and the unicorn dominate the iconography, the explicit reference is that of the senses. Nicolas is, however, not as innocent as his name suggests: he creates havoc among the women in the house – mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting – before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the commission – his finest, most intricate work. The tapestries change the lives of all that are involved. And the result is simply magnificent.

touch
Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
taste
Taste, and:
desirsm
‘Mon seul désir’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chevalier’s story concentrates on the inner life: what is the désir of the different personages? But the craft of tapestry making itself features largely and adds to the novel’s riches. The reader learns about the particular challenge of weaving back to front, hence the need for ‘cartoons’ that are the mirror images of the original designs as well as of the final tapestries. Also, the weavers cannot see their work as each finished strip gets wound onto the loom – until the ‘cutting-off’ reveals whether the design has accurately been translated into wool. Throughout the story telling details sketch the times, such as the mentioning of little work in Winter as the roads are far too hazardous for commissioners to travel from Paris and elsewhere, or that the Guild would punish with closure any workshop that allowed women to weave. And as Chevalier realises very well, most readers are not familiar with the technical vocabulary of tapestry making (such as a heddle or a warp). So she lets the members of the workshop explain the terms to the Paris painter, who gradually becomes impressed with the quality of the Brussels craftsmanship.

I was very much charmed by the eminent role for the master weaver’s blind daughter. Aliénor maintains an exquisite garden which serves to provide the cartoonists and weavers with real examples of the flora that enlivens the so-called millefleurs background of the tapestries. The young woman knows the symbolic meaning of all those flowers, fruits and plants and it’s her expertise that allows the workshop to build its outstanding reputation on the realistic rendering of the millefleurs 

Realistic flora was indeed a crucial component of Flemish art at the time. Recent research has demonstrated that at least 423 different types of flowers and plants feature in thé masterpiece of the Flemish Primitives, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The project Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece allows you to zoom into any part of the triptych of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and discover for yourself the elaborate details of flora ànd textile. 

Lam GodsIn addition the Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster in Ghent (which incidentally is just around the corner from where I live!), holds until September a small but illuminating exhibition on the multitudinous flowers in the triptych and their symbolism. 

lam gods bloemen bis
Details of a Madonna lily,
plooien
a pilgrim’s
plooien2
cloak,
lam gods bloemen3
and male peonies.

 

 

 

 

 

The conclusion then is that medieval craftspeople – of both sexes! – owned a knowledge that is completely lost to us. This, according to Chevalier’s story, also goes for the symbolism of the unicorn: all the personages know the Biblical references to purity and healing, whereas it’s the Paris painter Nicolas who explains to any woman who happens to to come near him, the later interpretation of profane seduction. But he also saves Aliénor – I can’t elaborate without spoiling the plot, let it suffice to say that even he succumbs to the ‘charms’ of the unicorn. 

In short, the unicorn is rich in meaning. And its mysteries are full of promise. Perhaps that’s why little girls like them so much – and I propose that all non-little-girls equally be encouraged to be inspired by the wondrous creature.

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In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration 😉
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A while back I decided I wanted my own unicorn.

Purity may sound like a quality that doesn’t correspond well with our times. But do we really want to maintain that there is no past knowledge that might come in useful? In addition, would it be no improvement if we found a good way to allow different inter-pretations to co-exist without conflict? And perhaps most importantly, are many people not longingly in search of ‘healing’? Is the current interest in mindfulness not an indication that we want to be more aware, more connected with our senses – both corporal and spiritual? And do we not also hope for more appreciation for our inner life and its quality? 

Understand the unicorn to stand for authenticity, for a strong désir to reconnect with our own true selves and grow as a result of it, and it becomes very contemporary indeed.

Glorious Silk

Books are a great source of joy to me.

Especially (but not exclusively) when they also mention that other love of mine: textiles. I greatly admire novelists who manage to smuggle in all sorts of interesting information which may be technical, without disturbing the story. It is one way of making fabrics truly alive.

Alessandro Baricco is an Italian writer whose publications (in translation) I follow with great curiosity. Barrico has developed a wide variety of styles, which turns every new book into a surprise. The Barbarians Barbariansfor instance explores cultural shifts caused by the recent global connectivity. The author makes interesting observations about new developments in areas as different as football, wine and books. Unlike many others he resists cultural pessimism – which is one reason why I have recommended the book many times.

My Baricco favourite is Silk which tells the story of a nineteenth-century French trader turned smuggler of silkworm eggs, named Hervé Joncour. Because in Europe the silkworms are affected by disease, he must provide the many silk mills in his hometown with silkworms from much further afield, requiring him to travel to Africa, later to Japan and China. In Japan he becomes obsessed with the Bariccoconcubine of a local baron, she remains unnamed and they cannot communicate for the lack of a common language.

Almost in passing Baricco refers to the internal political turnmoil and growing anti-Western sentiment in Japan, which interests me being an historian – and which makes Joncour’s task even more ponderous. He delays his departure in the hope to see the concubine again but thus allows the eggs to hatch. As a direct result three of the silk mills in his home town are forced to close down. Joncour appears to have an affectionate relationship with his wife Hélène but here too communication is scarce. He doesn’t tell her about his obsession, she doesn’t tell him she knows. Eventually he receives a letter he believes to be of his Japanese beloved, only after Hélène’s death it turns out she wrote it, in the hope to see him happy.

Silk_film
Poster of the film based on Baricco’s novel.

Silk is almost a poem, in the sense that rather heavy emotions are expressed in a lyrical but serene language which allows the reader to sympathise with the different characters in a quiet, peaceful manner. Perhaps it’s the slow process of realising where true love resides, which makes the story so compelling: it is as if the precious silk worms stand for the quest of what is truly important in life. The poetic novel was made into a film in 2007.

Silk equally plays both a literal and a symbolic role in Zijdeman (Silk Man) by the Flemish author Kathleen Vereecken. Here too the vicissitudes of the silk industry provide the context of the story, but this time set in eighteenth-century Paris, the emphasis lies with different members of the same family, trying to come to terms with the disappearance of the father. Determined to be able to create silk himself and thus to become a more independent entrepeneur, he set off to buy Zijdemannot the fabric as he had done until then, but the silkworm eggs – never to return. It’s daughter Camille and son Louis whom Vereecken gives a voice. Camille lives in the safe cocoon of the silk shop but feels unsettling emotions of growing up and wanting freedom. She is also aware of the unrest in the city, which is based on the historic Parisian uprising of 1750. Louis is much younger and absolute in his belief in the father. He lives unencumbered in his phantasies and prepares for the father’s return by – successfully! – cultivating silk worms himself. The switching of perspectives (also emphasised by different lettertypes) works very well, the voices sound authentic and the reader is moved by both the heartfelt coming of age of Camille and the young boy’s perseverance. In this story too silk works well as a carrier of rich feelings – which does not unravel easily.  I’m very curious to see how this in its turn will be translated into a film, possibly with the use of motion capture.

IMG_0455
The different stages in the process   (1) silkworm on mulberry leave,      (2) emitting silk, (3 & 4) cocooning, (5) cross section of cocoon.

Both books refer to the miraculous process of the silk production which, as Louis discovers at first hand, is hazardous and time consuming. Little is revealed about the industry itself, how one manages then and now to unwind the silk threads – anyone who has handled simple wool will know how easily even twined threads get tangled – , and how the threads are then further processed into silk fabric. This may have lead the authors too far, they focus instead on the ‘natural’ process itself.

And so,  it was reading that got me fascinated by the cocoons.

I first saw them in Marrakech but didn’t know what they were then. In a Beijing silk shop they served as window decoration.The shop girls were very surprised indeed that a foreigner could be interested in such basic stuff, there was a lot of giggling before a price was settled. And fair it was too, as I discovered when I later found them in my local craft shop in Ghent.

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The cocoons resemble small eggs but they are in fact soft and textured. And the silk threads are intriguing fluffy and brittle.

 

IMG_0454
Antique silk bobin, textile paints & silk cocoons, one cut in half with the brown remnants of the worm.

It would be great to have a try at silk making but that’s probably taking my fascination a bit far.

Instead I wondered what I could do with the cocoons as I found them. Silk threads are so malleable, surely the cocoons would lend themselves to various manipulations as well?

IMG_0448
Silk cocoons, cut in circles & dyed, assembled into a necklace (work in progress).

 

I decided to try and make some jewelry: the cocoons are soft and light and will not irritate those who are allergic to the sensation of wool on their skin. I have a sense I’ve just started to discover the possibilities – watch further posts!

 

And I’ll be reading Silk Roads this Summer. With a subtitle that reads   A New History of the World I’m sure there’ll be more to share about               the glorious world of silk.

 

Elephants & Butterflies

I’m a big fan of Carll Cneut who is a glorious Flemish book illustrator, based in the equal gloriously city of Ghent.

Cneut’s illustrations are painstakingly built up in many, many layers of paint, in a manner which is reminiscent of the Flemish Primitives. He spends patient time getting the image just right. Last year’s exhibition In My Head allowed an intriguing insight not only in his oeuvre but also in its sources of inspiration which lay largely in the West Flemish province of his childhood. Cneut himself moved into the Sint-Pieters abbey for the duration of the exhibition (six months!), visitors could thus see his illustrations emerge – slowly.  His folio and bibliography are nothing but impressive, a recent interview gives a further idea of his character and his work method.

Because I adore his images so much, I spent quite some time thinking how I could bring testimony to their extraordinary quality. In the end the answer was simple: what better way than to translate them into fabric?

I started with an all-time favourite: One Million Butterflies, in which Edward Van de Vendel narrates a delightful story about growing up and the advent of first love. Cneut illustrated the book beautifully and surprisingly with the protagonists being … elephants. I’ll leave you guessing what in the story might be the role of the butterflies.

Here Carll painted the butterflies on a black background
Here Cneut painted the butterflies on a black background,
Carll's butterflies on a scarf & a bum bag
I felted them on a scarf & a bum bag.

 

After felting the butterflies onto the black fabrics of scarf & bag, I coloured them in by hand. Not as beautiful as Cneut’s though.

 

IMG_5593
Designing and cutting the pattern to apply the butterflies onto fabric took quite some time.
vlinders
The book also shows the butterflies on a lighter background

 

 

 

 

And the result is a butterfly brooch
And the result is a butterfly brooch … 
and a festive shawl.
and a festive shawl.

 

These       are a few examples of how I find inspiration all around me. More will follow ;-). How do you get inspired?