Well before globalization and technology unified the world, trade in textiles wove it both practically and sumptuously together. In the Age of Discovery that began in the early 16th century, ships sailing from Europe to the East to find new routes for the spice trade carried textiles with them and brought even more home. Originating in China, Japan, India, Southeast Asia, Turkey and Iran, the textiles often functioned as currency and gradually became even more coveted than spices. They were used for bed and table covers, wall hangings and tapestries, carpets, curtains, clothing and a variety of religious purposes. The stories they tell about the cultures they came from and the people that acquired them prove to be as intricate as some of their most gorgeous patterns.
Gorgeous is the word for the exhibition “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800” on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 5. Drawing on the museum’s fabled collection for about two-thirds of its 134 objects, a team of seven Met curators have borrowed from seven different departments of the museum for a compellingly contextualized presentation. The loans come from other museums and private collections in the United States, Canada and Europe.
After Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India (1497-98), Portuguese traders set their sights on the southern coast of China and both coasts of India. A hybrid of weaving styles developed as Eastern artists incorporated Western motifs from biblical, classical and contemporary sources. The real show-stopper in this first gallery is “The Abduction of Helen,” a large hanging embroidered in China for the Portuguese market in the first half of the 17th century. It sets the classical Western story in a highly detailed Baroque city and embellishes it with a rich repertoire of Chinese motifs. The faces of the figures reflect a European approach brought to East Asia by Jesuit missionaries in the late 16th century.
By the 17th century, the empire of Portugal’s Iberian rival, Spain, stretched from Northern California through South America and across the Pacific to the Philippines. Colonial tapestries bearing Spanish arms became popular, and Andean weavers proved to be immensely gifted in providing a profusion of folk-like figures who could include Adam and Eve, Leda and the Swan or heroes and heroines from popular tales. For a typically multi-referential object there is a reverent painting of the “Virgin of Guápulo” (Peru, c. 1680), which presents the Virgin holding a scepter of roses in her right hand and in her left the Christ Child raising his right hand in blessing. Both are crowned and dressed in elegant white silk brocades. The parted red curtains behind and the gilded pedestal beneath the Virgin indicate that the painting does not represent her directly but rather her statue at the shrine outside Quito, Ecuador. There is another and darker side to the painting, of course, with its crowned figures sacralizing rulers in a continent of largely subjugated peasants.
When European traders first reached the Far East, wonders in silk had already been woven in China for over a millennium. A large and resplendent rectangular example done for the export market in the 17th century delights with its profusion of peonies, pheasants and peacocks, animals natural and mythical. While Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England traded with China through the Ming Dynasty and into the Qing, Japan was closed to foreigners from the 1630s to the mid-19th century. But the Japanese still eagerly sought the woolen cloth otherwise unavailable to them (sheep were not raised in Japan), and the Met’s exhibition includes a scarlet surcoat of wool such as Samurai warriors wore over their armor during the Edo period (1615-1868). Later in the show, an early 18th-century man’s morning gown documents not only the subtlety and sophistication of Japanese silks but also the rare privilege of trading in Japan accorded the Dutch in 1641.
Burgeoning international trade also provided textiles for religious purposes, and the exhibition includes dramatically installed vestments for Roman Catholic liturgies (chasubles, copes, chalice covers) as well as a Hindu temple hanging, a Buddhist vestment and a gloriously flowering Torah Ark Curtain.
Eighteenth-century shifts in European taste from the Baroque to the Rococo and then to Neoclassicism make themselves felt in examples of the so-called “bizarre silks,” with their large, abstracted and highly stylized patterns, produced in Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The florid, decorative delicacy of the Rococo is echoed in a ravishing, mid-18th-century palampore of cotton embroidered with silk, from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The evolving Neoclassical preference for simplicity and symmetry, by contrast, stands out in a late 18th-century dress and scarf in white cotton (the newly fashionable color) delicately embroidered with silk flowers and falling un-cinched to the floor.
No exhibition covering the whole world and 300 years of history can satisfy every particular interest. But visitors would do well to consider carefully what the catalogue acknowledges as “the brutality that facilitated the growth of global trade networks” and “the horror of the traffic in human beings” who were often bartered for with textiles. As for the brutality, a late 18th-century cotton quilt shows in detail the grisly death of Captain James Cook in the Hawaiian Islands, presenting him as a universal hero and martyr. Another small gallery offers materials that contrast Spanish imperialism in the Americas with indigenous insurrections and mounting European opposition to the slave trade. Here three small paintings by Agostino Brunias (1728–96) romanticize West Indian life, minimizing rather than revealing its latent colonialist instability.
Returning to its strength, the show closes with some wonderful pieces. Ralph Earl’s 1789 portrait of the merchant Elijah Boardman with his treasure trove of textiles takes on a whole new interest. One of his bolts of painted Indian cotton might even have been used to make a dress (robe à l’anglaise) that is shown nearby. An Indian palampore from about 1765, possibly given to Philip and Maria Van Rensselaer as a wedding present and still in pristine condition, boasts the usual fantastical flowers but pairs of birds, beasts and humans as well. See how it compares with the New York coverlet in linen and cotton or the Chinese silk palampore that are also in the gallery.
Marrying visual pleasure and historical insight in equal measure, the exhibition will be on view through the Christmas season. It is hard to imagine a better gift from the Met to all its visitors.