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Rediscovering an Ancient Art Form

A show of tradition-breaking textiles demonstrates that tapestry-making is still fresh, vital

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 24, 1992



WASHINGTON

BEHIND the red brick Georgian mansion with huge shutters lies a world of tapestries, exotic fabrics, and embroidery and rugs known as The Textile Museum.

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Its founder, George Hewitt Meyers, bought the first of his many Oriental carpets as a Yale undergraduate and began studying rugs and other textiles.

He built such an extensive collection of them that by 1919 he was asked to mount a show at the Smithsonian Museum.

Meyers had bought for himself and his family the Georgian brick house designed by National Gallery architect John Russell Pope.

He decided in 1925 to found a Textile Museum in his home and an adjoining mansion. At that point, he owned over 275 rugs and 60 related textiles.

Today, the museum's collections, which span the years from 3,000 B.C. to now, include over 12,600 handmade textiles and 1,400 oriental carpets, most from non-Western cultures.

The mansion - a warehouse to the ages - is currently exhibiting "International Tapestry Network: Exhibition II," a show of 35 works by contemporary artists from around the world.

The tapestries are far from traditional; no unicorns or hunting scenes like those from hundreds of years ago that are on display elsewhere.

From the United States, Mary Lane's "Holding Down the Moon" lassos the moon with thick purple yarn from which fall red carnations against a navy sky.

In Australian Catherine Hoffmann's "The Gymnasts," rainbow-colored, almost abstract people leap and bend and shoot through the air against a black background.

Brazilian Henrique Schucman's "The Clerk and the Ballerina" is like a huge, grainy photo developed in pale and dark tones in which the lightness of the ballerina at left is superimposed on the plodding clerk at right.

Much like an oriental painting is Latvian Lija Rage's haunting tapestry with gold-and-orange desert sands on which stylized human figures and a giant bird with human legs float.

As Rebecca Stevens, consulting curator for contemporary textiles at the museum says, "Visitors who think tapestry-making is a tradition from the past will be surprised to find that a whole new generation of artists have rediscovered the power of tapestry, one of the world's most ancient art forms."

Another exhibit, "In the Language of Stitches," is an arresting display of folk embroideries of India and Pakistan that glints with mirrors and gorgeous colors and ranges from a bridegroom's scarf to be used against the desert's dust to intricate veils and wall hangings and even to hand-stitched decorative head-coverings for camels, bullocks, and horses.

The Textile Museum is also anticipating its first International Exhibition of Thai Textiles and Culture. It will premiere the exhibition in the US from Oct. 2, 1992 to Jan. 3, 1993. "International Tapestry Network: Exhibition II" continues at the Textile Museum through Aug. 30. Its US tour also includes shows at the Mitchell Museum in Mount Vernon, Ill. (Sept. 19-15), and the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, Fla., (Dec. 13 - Jan 24, 1993).