Find Comfort in the Dark

What’s the use of darkness? We’ve had the most sombre December for half a century. And with 17 hours of sunlight so far, this January is heading for a sad pool position in the last thirty years.  One wonders how to get through these dark days.

The Celtic tradition may be useful: it sees the night as the starting point of everything, as the silent, dark run-up to the breaking-through of the light. When we generally talk about Spring, we actually mean its materialization, the moment when it becomes visible to us. But perhaps we could start acknowledging that Spring is already in action now: the seed is resting underground in order to gather strength to grow and blossom later. Flemish food writer and journalist Dorien Knockaert knows all this from her garden practices. And her reflection on the present darkness enables her to apply the principle to herself: to include herself in the cyclic pattern of a larger whole.

Maybe it’s indeed this simple. We humans also need rest. And that’s a hard ‘commodity’ to obtain in our 24/7 society. It may help if we see ourselves more as part of a larger whole. The obvious contender is nature. But perhaps our homes too can offer comfort in these days of darkness?

Summarizing the history of private life in one sentence, the American-English writer Bill Bryson states that it’s a history of getting comfortable slowly. We’re so used to having a lot of comfort, to being clean, well fed and warm, that we forget how recent most of that is. Until the late 18th century the idea of having comfort at home was so unfamiliar that there wasn’t even a word for the condition. ‘Comfortable’ meant merely ‘capable of being consoled’, what you offered the wounded or distressed.

Bryson’s account is fascinating, including his many references to the historical origins of certain expressions. For instance, we ‘make a bed’ today because in the Middle Ages that’s what you did: you rolled out a cloth sleeping pallet or heaped a pile of straw, found a cloak or blanket and fashioned whatever comfort you could. In fact, beds were hard work for centuries. Mattresses had to been turned and plumped regularly. And even then occupants quickly found themselves sinking into a hard, airless fissure between billowy hills. The mattresses lay on a lattice of ropes, which could be tightened with a key when the sagging got too uncomfortable. From which resulted the now affectionate expression ‘sleep tight’ (and the ‘biting bugs’ too were very much part of the age-old bedding discomfort).

Comfort doesn’t come to mind either when reading Bryson’s description of laundry duty. For apparently a good-sized country house produced six or seven hundred separate items of clothing, towels and bedlinen every week. And with detergents only appearing in the 1850s, a straightforward load – one involving sheets and other household linens, say – was likely to incorporate at least eight separate processes. To make matters worse, many loads were not straightforward. Difficult or delicate fabrics had to be treated with the greatest care. And items of clothing made of different types of fabric – of velvet and lace for instance – often had to be carefully taken apart, washed separately, and then sewn back together again.

When, first in America, all sorts of new conveniences found their entry in the home, they mostly eliminated work previously done by men, such as wood chopping. In fact, changing lifestyles and improved technologies just brought more work to women, through bigger houses, more complicated meals, ever higher expectations of cleanliness and thus even more voluminous and frequent laundry.

In the end it was improvements in textile and printing technologies that definitively transformed the home towards comfort. Carpets, wallpapers, upholstered furniture, soft and bright fabrics, all available in a range of rich colours, extended the decorative possibilities to the point that the modern house, such as we would recognize today, had finally begun to emerge. The first person to use ‘comfortable’ in its modern sense was the English writer Horace Walpole in 1770.

This begs the fascinating question of the importance of fabrics to the good life. I presume it’s stretching the point too far to claim that only textile can make a home comfortable – yet wouldn’t it be an interesting study that examines just what percentage of a house is covered in textile, and how that relates to its inhabitants’ sense of wellbeing?

Textile isn’t the particular focus of Flemish applied art specialist Hilde Bouchez. But in The Wild Thing she does explore how certain ordinary utility objects are extraordinary – comfortable indeed, both in the old meaning of being consoling and in its modern connotation of harmonious domesticity. Bouchez clearly doesn’t like the contemporary consumer culture that promises status but actually offers only products empty of meaning. They ensure that the purchasing cycle continues, despite the dissatisfaction we feel with it. In a disrupted world, where many people find their quest for meaningfulness frustrating, Bouchez draws from a myriad of theoretical explorations, insights and cultural practices from all over the world, with the aim to contribute to a better understanding of what the good life entails.

The traditional Kyrgyz home, yurt or ger.

Take the shyrdaks and ala-kizizs of Kyrgyzstan for instance. These felt carpets were traditionally very much part of Kyrgyz life, bedecking the yurts and accompanying important moments of life such as at births, weddings and funerals. But, as with so many traditions, interest in the craft dwindled, lifestyles changed, young people emigrated to the city. In 2012, the ‘art of Kyrgyz traditional felt carpets’, was included in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safekeeping.

Bright reflection of some very joyful children indeed.

Ironically, it’s globalization that has revitalized the interest in the felt carpets, with the curiosity towards other cultures happily accommodated by international market mechanisms.

The accompanying story sounds authentic. It talks about the dignity of women, their traditions and their identity. And that identity is very much bound up with a holistic world view in which everyone and everything is connected.

At the start of the making process a particular sheep is chosen to contribute its wool for the felt carpet. The women work together and transfer their positive thoughts onto the wool: intentions of success and abundance, happiness and love. And the joy of the children who jump upon the carpet to further the felting process, causes the colours to be bright and lively.

The women forcefully rub the felt with their elbows, the children will jump later.

Every part of the making process thus has its meaning and harmoniously connects the makers, what is made and the recipient with one another. In sum, the essence of Kyrgyz carpets is the transfer of intention and attention from the maker to the material, so that the material object ‘vibrates’ with creative energy – which it then passes onto the beholder.

I like this. I like the importance of intention and attention. I like the fact that craft values enable these women to live authentically and dignified. I like the valuation of material things, though I wouldn’t call a Kyrgyz carpet ordinary. And perhaps there’s the hitch: isn’t all this a marketing ploy to incorporate Kyrgyz culture in a globalized market that increasingly kicks on extraordinary imports from hitherto hidden areas in the world? Bouchez emphasizes how to the felting women themselves, the story feels genuine, legitimate, natural

Yet I wonder. What if it was us? What if in the constant search for improving export figures and tourist attractiveness the Flemish government would set up a programme to get women back to, say, lace-making? And accompany it with an involved story about Flemish identity and its traditions which Chinese or Saudi’s might consider ‘authentic’? Would this contribute to our comfort, to alleviating the disconnectedness so many of us experience in the dark, bad world?

Of course, this isn’t at all what Hilde Bouchez has in mind. She’s in search of beauty. She believes that deep down that’s what we all long for. And that it’s important to take that desire and its creative energy as the basis for material transformation. This, to her, is the path of craftsmanship. For crafts(wo)men pay attention. They transfer their attitude of care and connection to the material. And so offer that same care and connection to the receiver. Obviously this term carries very different connotations compared to the more usual ‘consumer’. This is why one can feel so moved by a seemingly ordinary object. This is also why it’s important to pay attention to such objects – and to select them carefully so that they can indeed make our homes comfortable.

For domesticity is delicate. Bouchez cites the philosopher Denis Diderot who reflects in Regrets on My Old Dressing Gown (1772) on the effect of a new luxurious dressing gown. Diderot discovers to his dismay that the gift fundamentally disturbs the harmony of his until then humble material surroundings. Where before there was coordination, unity and beauty, ‘all is now discordant’.

Diderot’s regrets were clearly hard felt. Here his portrait with the old dressing gown (c.1780).

The Diderot effect as it has become known, emphasizes the connection between a consumer’s identity and the goods (s)he possesses and purchases. If all goes well, that means that the objects complement each other and create coordinated beauty. But when an ‘alien’ object is introduced, a gift or an impulse buy, say, this can set off a chain of further consumption, in an often vain attempt to recreate harmony. One by one, Diderot replaced his old possessions – and utterly regretted the process.

Again, there’s the suggestion that textile plays an important part when it comes to domestic comfort. I’m not sure this is the case for everyone but its role is certainly underrated – or not even noticed. I’ve already mentioned that my home is full of fabrics. More generally, I feel I’ve created an harmonious home, which contains little that’s new: most of the objects are old and worn, inherited or found in brocante shops and jumble sales. Careful combinations create a whole that feels as if it’s grown organically. Furthermore, when I look beyond the whole to the individual objects, I see stories and memories. They offer both Bryson’s comfort and Bouchez’s connectedness.

So perhaps this is what the Winter’s darkness is about: it entices us to retreat indoors and ‘expose’ ourselves to our domestic objects’ vibrations of creative energy so as to be ready when Spring materializes. 

This brings me to one final observation. For some time now I’ve not made anything new. But I’ve been modifying and mending existing textile objects. Mending in particular feels strangely consoling to me. It’s as if by paying attention to material things, I’m looking after myself as well. In Knockaert’s and Bouchez’ terms, this is about positioning myself in a larger whole. In this sense, I’m perhaps allowing myself intuitively to prepare the Spring ground for later abundance – or so it may be hoped.

The motto is on the book’s spine, to make sure we pay attention.

The motto of Bouchez’ book stresses the importance of mending. Ultimately, its intention is to spread attention and care. The darkness is patient. Delight in its comfort. For it defines the quality of light when Spring eventually comes.

Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. (L.R. Knost)

Celebrate the Golden Speckles

Creativity is everywhere these days. Look at most job descriptions for instance and “creative” is part of the (long) list of the required competences. Alas, most people don’t consider themselves creative at all – and refrain from applying. In addition “creative” is appropriated by a very particular segment of the labour market which again distances many people. To give just one example: the Twitter account @creativeskills publicizes “jobs in the creative industry in Belgium” – which on closer inspection is restricted to web design and development (and similar jobs). If, in other words, you’re not an IT wizard, don’t bother.

This is a pity. People are too often discouraged to explore, let alone celebrate their creativity. Perhaps they weren’t very good at drawing or didn’t manage to crochet a straight oven lap in primary school. Perhaps they were never encouraged to try again. Sure, we can’t all be artistic geniuses but a creative speckle here and there, wouldn’t that enrich our lives? I believe virtually anyone can be creative – if they find a form of creative expression that really suits them. So let’s try and inspire you.

The New Artisans celebrate the “handmade-with-love ethos” of products that are “tangible extensions of someone else’s being”. The editor, Olivier Dupon, explicitly presents artisanship as a path to reconnect with humanity. And he further connects it with the politically charged debate on local supply versus remote manufacturing. The wide variety of creative expressions in these two volumes (and I hope encore is to come!), testifies to the huge resurgence of handmade craft: from quirky ceramics and glass-blown sculptures over felted portraits of beloved pets and exuberant textile art, to delicate faïence still lives and so much more. All the featured “artisans” use craft techniques rather than mass-production methods to create one-of-a-kind objects that are very covetable indeed. Dupon dedicates his book

     “to all those who are making a positive difference in the world today. It cannot be stressed enough that artisans, by making objects with love […] are slowly but surely reversing the trend of generic mass-consumption. Let us all put our party hats on. It is time to celebrate!”

Celebratory the books feel indeed: they not only widen our view of what ‘creative’ might be, they exude the love of craft. And connect it, mostly indirectly, to the good life. The featured artisans share their own process of making, the materials and techniques involved and their sources of inspiration. They also present an alternative way of living: they respectfully connect with traditions and re-shape them, they appropriate old materials to create innovative objects, and they very personally relate to those objects so that the latter embody the ideas of human connection and sustainability. Such encounters, even only on paper, are heart warming. I can very much recommend the experience. And hope for you too it re-kindles the creative speckles you had forgotten about.

Meet Mister Finch: toadstools, a stag beetle and a giant hare, spider and swan, all in
fabric, inhabit his fairytale world. And moths, larger than life. This is delightful.

 

 

 

 

My personal favorite is Mister Finch who, like all the other artisans, is featured over four pages in the second volume. This is barely an appetizer, fortunately Mister Finch presented his Fairytale World in a book himself. The Leeds-based artist works alone, without formal education in arts or textiles. But he is constantly triggered by what he calls “fabrics’ potential”. Making things is very important to him, especially when he can integrate “hunted objects”: “the lost, found and forgotten”. He consciously uses recycled materials not only as an ethical statement, but also in order to add authenticity and charm. Because in essence Mister Finch sees himself as a storyteller. And he makes “storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten …”

I’m not sure what it says about me but of those storytelling creatures the ones that stand out for me are the spiders, the moths and the butterflies.

Anyone still doubting the power of flowers?

 

Certainly not all those who are expected here!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s obvious that Mister Finch cherishes his creatures with great affection. Not unlike those of Louise Bourgeois, his spiders are made of tapestry and they are caring, to the point that they’ll be mother (what a delightful expression that is!) and pour you a comforting cup of tea.

Moths are seldom someone’s favorite creature. And certain kinds gorge themselves with our beloved fabrics. But Mister Finch sews them beautiful tapestry wings, makes them larger than life and humanizes them with added objects that trigger the imagination.

Dreaming of Cinderella or the 
ideal adornment for my stacked books.
Mister Finch doesn’t seem to be sure. 

 

 

 

 

 

The butterflies are equally delightful. They have tapestry wings or fly on simple cotton, dyed with tea or coffee and a dash of colour. When they fly together, they compose a poetic rainbow. And we are made to believe that the butterfly on the right will pick up the paint brush any second now.

 

Recently even more humanized creatures have come into being. It seems that Mister Finch wants indeed to inspire us to live in a fairytale world. Dressing up animals is something he does since childhood. He doesn’t seem to have been discouraged, or he managed later on to reconnect with his creative streak. He certainly hasn’t abandoned his childlike imagination: “I imagine them to come alive at night. Getting dressed and helping an elderly shoemaker or the tired housewife.”

This cutie will inspire us to have soft dreams,
while his brothers discuss what must be done. 
The rabbit threesome is already on the move.

 

 

Bert, Arthur & Charles wonder whether an inspiring speech from the soap box would get the work done faster. Or at least more enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is storytelling of an awesome level. Imagine having one of these creatures at home. And waking up at night, listening to whether they’ve started on the housework yet – I’d like that ;-). More generally, I believe craftsmanship has a particular contribution to make to the good life. In previous posts I’ve begun to explain what that might be – and of course there is much more to add. But it’s important not to forget the practice of craftsmanship – and inspire further exploring.

I find the practice of artists like Mister Finch very inspiring. And I like the idea of telling stories through recycled materials. I recognize Mister Finch’s pleasure in hunting down suitable bits and pieces. That hunt is very much part of the process for me. It’s an excercise in opening up my imagination to what can be transformed and being aware of the potential of what others have discarded. Especially when things are damaged, they speak of former lives that reverberate in the new hand-made object.

The scarf used to belong to the seller’s mother. She only wanted to depart with it when she heard I was going to transform it into a craft object.

With the work of Mister Finch in my mind I went in search of textured fabric. Not so much the tapestry he so often works with but something with a pattern that would transform under the technique of felting I intended to explore further.
I found this delightful but seriously damaged mousseline scarf – which suited just my purposes.

 

Watch the pattern disappear under the 
the merino wool, and how it then re-emerges, contracted, blueified,
with the golden stitches stunningly standing out.

 

 

 

 

The next steps: design the overall shape,
construct the butterfly’s legs, 
& sew the underside of the wings.

 

 

 

 

And here it is, my very own butterfly.

I made it for a dear friend. Cobalt blue is our shared colour. The butterfly tells the story of the metamorphoses our lives were stumbling through at that time. And it very much reverberates the hope – which I now happily extend to you – that each of us would be able to spread out our wings towards a celebratory future full of golden speckles.

Be Your Own Spider

You’ve already noticed that I read ecclectically ;-). How do I choose, you may wonder. Well, sometimes a book is recommended, by a friend, a reviewer I trust, a bookseller. Other times, I simply go into the bookstore and I let myself ‘get caught’ – by a cover for instance. Or by the back cover, a much underrated part of a book! Take this example:

blauw7Years ago I saw this picture in a bookshop in Amsterdam and I was intrigued. I bought the book 😉

In this volume of a series on important late 20th-century artists, Louise Bourgeois, a French-born American (1911-2010), takes centre stage. She is a complex artist. She seems to explore any medium at hand to develop her artistic vision:lb-boek1 the richly illustrated monograph shows sculptures, paintings, prints, installations … and fabric works! The blue figure, which turns out to be called Endless Pursuit (2000), is only one of many examples of the sampling tendency in Bourgeois’ work: the taking apart of existing materials in order to invent new possibilities. The same applies to the fabric works below, all Untitled (2000/ 2001/ 2000). How delightful for instance to turn old tapestries into a modern totem. But I knew nothing of the background of the artist or what she tried to convey. I also had a sense her work was ‘difficult’.

totem2
Remember the pastel colours, they return later 😉

totem1Or perhaps it simply wasn’t for me at the time.

 

I forgot about the book and about Louise Bourgeois.

 

lullaby-boek
The original ‘Lullaby’ is a series of 25 silkscreens Bourgeois made in 2006.

Until this Spring at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna: imagine my surprise that the artist whom I had considered difficult, had become the subject of a children’s book! Amy Novesky’s book is attractively illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault – but I didn’t recognise the images: there are much more colours ànd textile references than I remembered.

I did get a summary of Bourgeois’ life story, with a prominent role for her mother’s tapestry workshop. There is also some reference to the dysfunctional family in which she grew up, with Bourgeois’ father rarely at home (his philandering remains unmentioned in this book) and her mother dying when she was still a student.

I was intrigued again. And discovered yet another book, entirely devoted to her ‘Fabric Works’.  There I readlb-boek2 that in a virtually artless period (1955-66) Bourgeois returned from New York to Paris and opened an antique shop specialising in children’s literature and illustrated books. The children’s book with her story is not so strange after all! Alas I must omit a lot of Bourgeois’ multifaceted work: my focus here as in Cloth Lullaby will be textile.   

Louise Bourgeois has had a long artistic life. But recognition only arrived in the late seventies, with her definite breakthrough on the international stage with a retrospective in MoMu in 1982. It seems that recognition also ‘liberated’ her in the sense that she could finally comment on the artistic translation of the psychic wounds of her childhood. Yet many commentators insist that her work is not so much autobiographical as it is archetypical: it refers to universal themes as fear and hurt – and the need for recognition. As Bourgeois put it herself: “All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs we have. It’s about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognised, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognising oneself.” (LB 1988)

What is fascinating is that it’s through fabrics that Bourgeois attempts to recognise herself: she ‘sculpts’ with her own old clothes and turns them into records of her emotional life, into self-portraits in fact.

clothes1
Blue Days (1996)
clothes2
Detail of Cell Clothes (1996): “The cold of anxiety is very real.”
Femme-Maison 2001
Femme-Maison (2001)

 

 

 

 

 

The body is also omnipresent in Bourgeois’ work. She strongly believes that emotions live in the body – strong, intense, past and present.

rood-hoofd
Untitled (2002)
Arched Figure 2004
Arched Figure (2004)
The Child 2003
The Child (2003)

 

 

 

 

 

And her representation of memory and emotion is very much determined by her use of colour. She herself says: “Color is stronger than language. It’s subliminal communication. Blue represents peace, medition, and escape.” Note how much this runs parallell with the analysis of Michel Pastoureau which I mentioned earlier! “Red is an affirmation at all cost – regardless of the dangers in fighting – of contraction, of aggression. It’s symbolic of the intensity of the emotions involved.” (LB 1992)

The Waiting Hours 2007
The delightful textile book, The Waiting Hours (2007)
red-cell 1994
One of the so-called Cells: Red Cell (Child) (1994)

Would it be disrespectful to call Bourgeois a colour funda-mentalist? 😉

 

 

Red is omnipresent in Cloth Lullaby, presumably to indicate the intensity of Bourgeois’ artistic endeavour. This is no art pour l’art, the artist is deeply and personally engaged with the universal themes she explores. lullaby-clothesIn fact, the particular, such as the usage of her own clothes, gives body to the universal. As Novesky puts it: “Louise gathered all the fabric of her life […] and she cut it all up. And then she spent the rest of her life putting it back together again.” That seems like a fair synthesis. In the family business 17th- and 18th-century tapestries were repaired and resold: rentrayage, to make things whole again, is a dominant theme in Bourgeois’ work. The technique of assemblage that is so present conveys a deep urge for ‘wholeness’ that appears forever elusive and invariably infused by anguish. Her personal unhappiness is never very far way, yet she keeps exploring the hope that the damage can be undone or patched up. This is the driving force, the ‘endless pursuit’ illustrated earlier, behind everything she made: can one recover from the past? Is it possible to put back together the fragments that loneliness and neglect have scattered? In other words, taking clothes apart refers to Bourgeois’ fears of abandonment and disintegration. And sewing them back together is a form of reparation.

geel-web-moeder

geel-web-2005
Untitled (2005)

Cloth Lullaby rightly gives Bourgeois’ mother a very prominent role. In her pursuit of reparation the artist herself shifted her emphasis from the theme of the neglectful Father, to the capable Good Mother – patient spinner, weaver and sewer. It is not difficult to see how the background in Arsenault’s drawing (left) refers to a spider web (right) such as Bourgeois produced time and again. The reference is very much deliberate: “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of the spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs.” (LB 2007) Clearly this is what Bourgeois strives for: to let go of the anger and start again. It may be an endless pursuit but with every work the artist attempts to capture the past and thus allow a new present, to be her own repairer. 

The spider features largely in the artist’s work since first drawn in 1947. Seen over time, the changing forms of the creature reflect the development in Bourgeois’ oeuvre itself. The ‘Spider Works’ – and they are many – are both about fragility and about self-protection. 

The spider enters Bs work 1947)
The first appearance (1947)
spin-london 2007
Spider, sixty years later (2007)

The spider is a symbol of learning: one can capture one’s psychological condition and repair emotional wounds so as to rebuild the web of one’s life. Is it surprising then that the spiders turn (in)to tapestry?

spin-tapiss5-2003
in 2003 its body has become tapestry.
Spider 1997
In 1997 the spider protects the tapestry in a cell-structure,

 

 

As a patient spider Louise Bourgeois relentlessly re-created the past: her entire oeuvre can thus be interpreted as work-in-hopeful-progress. And the great news is: she did recover from her childhood traumas and her artistic intensity grew more gentle. This is illustrated by the change in the colours she used: pastels enter the scene and mark the transition from an aggressive fury to softer, more accepting emotions. As Bourgeois explained herself: “Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self.” (LB 1992)

pink-days
An early occurance in: Pink Days and Blue Days (1997),
pastel4 2002
pink weaving in: Untitled (2002),
pastel2
completed with ‘pods’ in: Untitled (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spider 2007
Now pastel & soft (2007)

The best illustration of Bourgeois’ growth and achievement is the conversion of ‘her’ spider. This is why the pastel spider adorns the cover of The Fabric Works: it illustrates almost intuitively the path that Bourgeois has travelled personally and artistically – and both very much linked. Spider (2007) is widely understood as an ode to her mother. The drama of the separation, from her father as well as from her own self, is resolved. She can allow softness both in material and in colours because she has allowed it into her own life. From 2005 onwards, the long journey of suffering thus has reached a ‘wholesome’ conclusion: “To create is an act of liberation.”

Liberation is also letting go. Once more Louise Bourgeois: “Fear is a passive state. The goal is to be active and take control … If the past is not negated in the present, you do not live. You go through the emotions like a zombie, and life passes you by.” (LB 1998)

The historian in me is not sure that the past must be negated: to explore it may of itself enable an active life. But I was (and am) inspired by Bourgeois’ emphasis on taking control over one’s emotions, on awareness and self-careThis is the essence of mindfulnessAnd I let myself further be inspired when in a box installation I explored the concept of letting go and its promise of repair.

loslaten-geheel2

 

The central image is based on a nightmare that kept repeating itself years ago: I’m a child standing in a room full of grown ups and I’m being attacked by a crow. The adults ignore my anguish. I can’t understand why I’m being abandoned and neglected. Feeling utterly lonely I fear disintegration when the crow would get to me. And “the cold of anxiety” is “very real” indeed. Until I discovered in yet another repetition of the dream that there was a door behind me – and I myself could open it and let in the light, which scared off the crow. I never dreamt the dream again.

 

img_6160
The fun of assemblage: actually Icelandic fish skins to be recycled into fish ‘leather’,
loslaten-rechts
a holder to fix rainpipes,
loslaten-hand2
and a crystal ball that was the centre piece of a discarded chandelier.

 

 

 

 

 

Any box installation uses assemblage, here of photos taken long ago and of objects mostly found at car boot sales. Together they create a new ‘whole’ – and express the hope of wholesome integration. In reality I was being torn by conflicting loyalties – and feeling utterly alone, surrounded by non-understanding and disdain for at times clumsily expressed sensibilities. Conceptually this installation is about the function of agency in the integrating process: if we actively acknowledge our fears and emotions, they loose their at times disabling power over us and we can let go of them. The past need not control us, we can learn from it. We can be our own spider and through the process of reparation, weave a ‘new’ life. Or to confuse the metaphors, the installation suggests snakeskins, symbol of renewal. In that new life, we can practice self-protection better: the pin of the ‘neck collar’ indicates where one’s boundaries lay – don’t come closer. And good self-care further promotes growth and enrichment which will strengthen the light and colour in our lives. “Being a self” is difficult. It’s a mission the ‘endless pursuit’ of which may at times be intense, painful, angst ridden, complicated, unrecognised, discouraged. But it’s also the herald of purpose and meaning. And I believe it to be worthwhile. 

I found the accompanying quote on the blog of Bart Moeyaert, writer and artistic leader of Flanders & the Netherlands being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in about a month’s time. The quote needs a little explanation: in Dutch the word for ‘glove’ is composed of two words, being ‘hand’ and ‘shoe’, hence handschoen.

loslaten-hand

bart6

loslaten-tekst2

You think of letting go, and you draw a glove.

In the installation I visually separate the two again – and concentrate the notion of self-protection in the needle felted hand. It’s obvious that Bourgeois’ spiders served as inspiration. I very much intended to associate the spider-hand with Bourgeois’ emphasis on the possibility of reparation and thus integration and wholeness. Whatever caused the ‘darkness’, the hand can let in the light. It’s also the tool par excellence to repair and make things. And being ‘assembled’ from wool, the self-care it administers is naturally gentle and accepting. Agency is very much part of life-in-hopeful-progress.

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.

schoenen eenhoorn
How exciting can shoes get?

tintin

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.

IMG_8742
In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration 😉
IMG_6143
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.