Tapestry of love: Khalili’s Swedish textile exhibition weds art and tradition
By David J. Craig
In late 18th-century Scania, a rural region of southern Sweden, nothing advertised a woman’s marriageability quite like a collection of decorative textiles. Daughters of prosperous farmers in the area were taught at a young age to create colorful and intricately designed bedcovers and other woven goods to show off their domestic skills and to offer a suitor as a dowry.
Such works, created between about 1750 and 1850, today are considered by art critics and collectors to represent the Golden Age of Swedish textile production and are among the rarest and most highly valued pieces of folk art in the world. From September 5 through October 26, the BU Art Gallery will present an exhibition of perhaps the most comprehensive collection of special Swedish marriage textiles outside of Sweden -- part of a larger collection belonging to international collector, benefactor, and scholar Nasser David Khalili (Hon.’03). Monument to Love: Swedish Marriage Textiles from the Khalili Collection displays 64 of Khalili’s 91 Swedish textiles. It is the first showing of the materials in the United States and one of the few exhibitions of Swedish textiles ever in this country.
An opening reception will be held at the BU Art Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 4. The gallery also will host an interdisciplinary panel discussion focusing on women in weaving at 2 p.m. on Saturday, October 25, featuring Barbara Gottfried, a CAS instructor in women’s studies, and several art historians and textile artists. In addition, Melissa Renn (GRS’04), the exhibition coordinator, will lead a gallery talk at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, September 24.
“Our objective in organizing this exhibition was to celebrate the artistic significance of these beautiful and vibrant objects by calling attention to their ties to long-established textile traditions and stylistic precedents,” says Stacey McCarroll (GRS’04), the gallery’s director and curator. “But we also call attention to the social circumstances in which they were created. These objects have a very private origin and were made by women whose identity has been lost to history, so that raises interesting questions about the categories we use to define art.”
Private and public
Like all folk art, Swedish marriage textiles tell important stories about the common people who created them. In her book cataloguing Khalili’s collection, Swedish Textile Art: Traditional Marriage Weavings from Scania (Oxford University Press, 1996), author Viveka Hansen describes how in the mid–18th century, farming communities in Scania enjoyed newfound economic stability after having endured generations of devastating civil wars and plagues. As farming became lucrative and landownership common among peasants, she writes, women no longer worked the fields and could devote time to leisure activities.
Looms became increasingly common in Scanian homes, and mothers taught their daughters to weave seat cushions, wall hangings, covers for benches and carriage cushions, and bedcovers to demonstrate their handiwork and good taste. In addition to comprising her dowry, a young bride’s best textiles were displayed during her wedding celebration -- usually an elaborate event that lasted as long as five days -- after which they were taken out of storage only for special occasions.
Characterized by bright colors and bold geometric patterns, the textiles often feature heart shapes and other intimate images reflecting the anticipation of marriage. Some works are monogrammed with the artist’s initials or those of another family member or her groom, but otherwise the women are unidentified.
“Their designs were often symbolic of fertility and long life, and a sense of hope and joy can clearly be seen in the objects,” writes Khalili, a visiting professor in the department of art and archaeology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, in his preface to Hansen’s book. His Swedish Textile Collection is just one facet of the celebrated 25,000-piece Khalili Collections, which span Islamic, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish art.
End of a tradition
Although most weavers in Scania lacked formal art training, the marriage textiles show far-reaching stylistic influences. According to Hansen’s book, the region had a rich tradition of weaving dating back to the 12th century, when an ancient trade route linking China and the west passed through Sweden, exposing local weavers to Byzantine, Islamic, and Asian design.
The Swedes adopted from ancient weavers a predilection for animal imagery, superstition, and myth. In addition to depicting birds, unicorns, lions, werewolves, and reindeer, their textiles often show a supernatural horse-shaped water creature called the bäckahäst, which according to Scanian legend lured riders onto its back and disappeared with them.
According to Renn, who researched and wrote the exhibition’s wall text, those objects with the most complex and subtle patterns were made using a technique called dove-tail tapestry, which uses a vertical loom and allows the weaver to create curved lines and complete one section of a design before beginning another. Most of the exhibition’s works were woven on horizontal looms using double-interlocked tapestry, a technique that dates to ancient times and restricts weavers to simpler geometric forms.
The marriage textile tradition in Scania tapered off in the mid–19th century, when industrialization led to the breakdown of local rural communities. As the works became unfashionable, Hansen writes, some “met a sad end as horse blankets or doormats.” Others were stored away as family heirlooms until Swedish agricultural and historical organizations made sustained efforts to preserve them beginning in the late 19th century.
While scholarly interest in Swedish marriage textiles peaked in the early 20th century, McCarroll says, the BU exhibition has popular appeal, in part because of a recently renewed interest in textiles as art objects in the United States.
“Many of the textiles look quite modern,” adds Renn, a graduate student in art history, “because of their bright colors and bold geometric designs on a plain field, which in some ways recall early modernist art. At the same time, you can see the local traditions at work in the artists’ choice of images and in the use of some of the simpler geometric forms, which of course was a limitation of the weaving style many women used.”
For gallery hours and other information, visit www.bu.edu/ART. To learn more about Swedish marriage textiles and the Khalili Collections, visit www.khalili.org.