An Exhibition Review

By Wendel R. Swan

The silk ikats from the Guido Goldman collection which are currently resident at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are, in a word, glorious. An absolute must for any student of the textile arts, there are many reasons to see the exhibit but none to miss it.

Alternatives exist for those who cannot get to Boston before the exhibition closes there on August 24, 1997. Over the next few years, various incarnations of the present exhibit will appear in other venues around the country. The first after Boston will be San Francisco; next will be the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. Subsequent cities include New York, Houston, Chicago and Detroit. The entire Goldman collection contains something like 300 ikat objects, 40 of which were chosen for Boston. The selection and number will vary as the ikats tour.

Why should anyone travel 400 miles, as I did, to see this exhibition?

First and foremost are the crisp and dynamic colors of the textiles themselves. Upon entering the gallery, one can be almost overwhelmed by the dazzling colors: those brilliant reds, the deep indigos, the clear yellows and the rich greens. There is little or no evidence of fading and, as a bonus, all are in excellent condition.

The highly saturated colors are combined to make exceedingly bold patterns, the images of which will remain with a viewer long after departure from the museum. It is a curious, but wonderful, phenomenon that these strong designs could have been created on such lightweight fabric.

The MFA seems to have done everything possible to enhance a visitor's enjoyment of the ikats. The gallery is of ideal proportions, the textiles are well mounted and the lighting is as bright as one is likely to encounter in any museum. Julia Bailey, assistant curator, Asiatic Department and Textile and Costume Collection, says that all of the lighting does not exceed the five foot-candles standard for museums. If the display creates the impression of enhanced lighting, it may be due to the fact that silk reflects much more light than does wool.

Although they appear sporadically in museums, at auctions and at dealer shops or booths (during rug conferences), it would be virtually impossible, in the absence of an opportunity such as this, to grasp the breadth of ikat weaving. Not only is Goldman collection comprehensive, it is also of the highest aesthetic quality. The only other time in my memory when a museum mounted an exhibition of just ikats was the Rau collection in the late 1980's. It seems unlikely that we will have this opportunity again.

Wall Hanging

Four Panels, 3'10"x6', mid-19th Century (Reprinted from 93 HALI at 93.)

The objects at the MFA are either panels, as above, or coats, as below. Ikats are woven in relatively narrow (several inches wide) and long (several feet) bands which are then joined together to form panels. The panels themselves are used primarily as decorative wall hangings or partitions inside homes, but they can be cut and further joined to create the coats.

Because of thoughtful planning, the coats can be viewed from both sides - especially interesting because the directional nature of the velvet reflects light on each side differently, depending on whether the pile runs up or down. Interspersed are photographs of 19th Century Central Asians wearing, making and using these fabulous textiles. A few felts and pile carpets are also depicted.

Central Asian ikats are not merely flatwoven variations of familiar felt and pile carpet designs. While there are elements which relate to other textiles, ikats have their own aesthetic, perhaps due to their unique structure.

One can ponder almost endlessly over how the ikat strips are made. The technique is most commonly found in Indonesia, but it was employed in Central Asia during the 19th century to create a profoundly different effect. Long silk threads which form the warp-faced ikats are fully resist -dyed and patterned before being placed on the loom. Somehow the weavers are able to keep track of which threads in each small dye bundle make up which part of the design. They are laid out in order and woven with either silk or cotton wefts.

Making the cut velvet is even more complicated, for the warp threads are several times the length of those used in the plain weave and must be looped over rods and cut to form the velvet. The velvet strips have supplementary warps which are not present or necessary in the plain weave.

Of the 40 objects on display in Boston, 32 are plain warp-faced, but eight are cut velvet - one of the most sumptuous fabrics imaginable. Trade talk has it that the art of making cut velvet (produced only in Bukhara) is now lost in Central Asia. Whether it is lost or abandoned, the fact is that cut velvet was only made in Central Asia during a few decades in the second half of the 19th Century, not before, not after.

Despite knowing that at least some parts of the exhibition would travel to Washington in 1998, I asked my wife (usually referred to as St. Diane) whether I should make the trek now or simply wait another few months. Knowing that I had always coveted the silk velvet coats, she said: "Go. Be true to your drool."

Silk Velvet RobeReprinted from 93 HALI 93 with permission

For me, the journey was worth it just to see the three intact silk cut velvet coats. Oddly enough the panels, whether plain or velvet, generally sell for more than do the rarer complete coats. Perhaps the ease of display accounts for this, but I have been captivated by the velvet coats since I first encountered them during the first ACOR in Boston in 1992. They were among the last of the objects to be added to the Goldman collection.

The Goldman collection of Central Asian ikats is widely recognized as the most important in the world. The full collection is illustrated in a large volume retailing for $250, but those shown in Boston are pictured in a smaller catalog that sells for only $40. The smaller catalogs are only available through the host institution. The larger volume is available through Calmann and King, among other sources. The illustrated insert in the July issue of Hali (Volume 93) includes an order form.

The larger book reveals that Guido Goldman must have used as much care in creating his collection as he did in overseeing its installation in his "hometown." I suggest that readers see Hali 93 for a profile of Goldman the collector, himself a resident of the most charming of the historic Boston towns. An earlier story appeared in Hali 27.

Go and enjoy. Wendel R. Swan

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