There were many things about my recent trip to Prague that didn’t quite go according to plan. The antiques shop, famous for their stash of antique lace was closed for unexpected reasons, as was one of the museums I had wanted to see, and the whole country went into a ‘State of Emergency’ thanks to You Know What. However, despite my best laid plans going to waste, I found some unexpected gems, including the Museum of Decorative Arts, and completely fell in love with a city that I’m just going to have to go back to.
One of the fun parts of visiting a country for the first time is finding out what they are famous for and what the local speciality crafts are. A really good resource for starting your research is UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list that details some of the specialities of a country that are deemed particularly worthy of recognition. I cannot make any particularly educated comments on how beneficial the scheme is in real terms for many crafts but as an idea I completely love it and the work they attempt to do in terms of preservation and education.
One on the list for the Czech Republic is blaudruck/modrotisk/kékfestés/modrotlač which is indigo dyeing/block printing, and the subject of today’s exhibition visit. Another recent entry that has been nominated is a type of lace known as Vamberk lace – I can’t see it listed yet so I guess it is still undergoing evaluation by UNESCO – but this is a gorgeous style of lace that has put another Czech town on my ‘must see’ list.
Luckily for me, the Museum of Decorative Arts happened to be hosting an exhibition containing both Japanese and Czech textiles in indigo. I have to admit I didn’t realise that indigo dyeing was so popular in traditional Czech textiles – it is true that indigo is not native to the country but there are still two indigo workshops that are still in production.
As well as the breath-taking textiles, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole museum to be honest. It’s an incredibly affordable museum – 150 CZK (~ £5) gets you access to the whole building and any exhibits. The ticket doesn’t just get you access to the Museum of Decorative Arts but also some sister exhibitions at other sites, which I think includes the famous Cubism exhibition at the House of the Black Madonna. If you can, I’d take the stairs between floors – the building itself is also incredibly beautiful.
While I’ll focus on the textiles today, there was also an exhibition of Czech glass pieces and Korean dolls that were both fascinating. Czech glass has had a long and famous history but the exhibits on show focused between 1940 to the 1990s. A significant amount of the pieces had been recovered from the period of Communist rule in what was Czechoslovakia at the time, where art had become a complex subject embroiled in a great deal of political complications and relative isolation from the outside world. The whole collection is a fantastic celebration of technical and artistic mastery.
A lot of the pieces in both the Czech and Japanese collections were contemporary pieces, with a number of obi by and yukata by Shihoko Fukumoto that are breathtaking. What was really interesting as well were some rollers for the kagozome technique which is a way of getting uneven colour placement on the fabric that are works of art in themselves as well as the katagami stencils which were used to produce these lovely koi patterned fabrics.
On the Czech side of things, a few artists get notable mentions for pioneering, and later reviving, the indigo textiles, including Radoslav Kratina and Jana Kubínová. If you read books like The Fabric of Civilization and other textile history accounts, it is clear that the rule of law and taxes can have a profound impact on fashions and textile design. The normalisation period in Czech history is no exception, and indigo printing is one of the techniques that underwent something of a revival post that, with many fashion designers adopting the traditional blue and white fabrics as part of their collections.
Botanical motifs and geometric shapes are very common motifs in indigo printing. Like many other crafts, it also saw a move towards mechanisation and increasing industrialisation making it more efficient to produce larger amounts of fabric which was devastating for much of the cottage industry production. Common materials included homemade linens and later on, a move towards softer and more luxurious cottons. The resists would be painted onto wooden blocks and pressed onto the fabric and apparently the exact recipes for the resists used would be carefully guarded family secrets.
The patterns are just fantastic and while I think there were ample textiles to enjoy in the exhibition, it was so good I wish there had been even more. I have to give credit as well to the excellent information with all the exhibits as well – as always it’s a bit much to take in a single visit but it was a lovely introduction to a craft and history I knew very little about.