1. Herta Puls
Herta Puls was born in 1915 and studied embroidery at West of England Art College, Newport Art College and the London College of Fashion. She won first prize and the Silver Medal of the Merchant Taylors' Company for her City and Guilds Certificate in Advanced Embroidery. She chose as the subject for her thesis Applique of the Kuna Indians of Panama and her research led her to make several visits to the San Blas archipelago off Panama.
Older molas are mostly abstract in design and reflect the spiritual beliefs of the Kuna. A wider interest in molas among visitors to Panama has resulted in more pictorial designs, portraying plants, animals and even cartoon characters, reflecting the tastes and interests of the maker and appealing to visitors wishing to purchase. As Herta Puls says in Textiles of the Kuna Indians of Panama (Shire Ethnography, 1988):
The ingenuity of the Kuna woman seems to be well able to come to terms with new Western influences. They partly accept them, but at the same time do not seem to lose sight of their cultural heritage.
The traditional blouse of the Kuna women, as seen above in a typical example, consists of two highly patterned applique panels, one in front and one at the back, attached to a yolk and sleeves in a plain or printed fabric. The design consists of many layers of contrasting fabric, often using red, yellow, orange and green, with top layers cut away to reveal the contrasting colours below.
Antique molas, such as the one pictured above, tend to use just two or three colours. Modern molas, however, have small patches of many colours attached to the back of the work, showing a great variety of colours in the designs. See the example below. It shows, particularly in the vertical lines filling the background, how different coloured small patches have been attached to the back, giving scope for many more colours to be used. You can also see how the technique is used to depict living creatures, a common subject matter. Multi-coloured vertical lines are a common device used to fill the background of a design.
Such is the interest shown by visiting tourists, that, as well as still making molas for themselves to wear, many Kuna women are also making molas just for sale, as can be seen in the many molas displayed by the woman below.
Herta Puls made many visits to Panama, making an intensive study of the region, in particular the molas and their place in Kuna culture. In addition to repeated visits to Panama, in 1978, 1981 and 1985, she taught textiles for the ILEA Adult Education Authority and lectured on Kuna embroidery all over Britain, even on one (for me) memorable occasion in 1995 in Aberdeen. During this time, she wrote two books on the technique and culture of molas: Cutwork and Applique, Historic, Modern and Kuna Indian (Batsford 1978) and Textiles of the Kuna Indians of Panama (Shire Ethnography 1988) as well as articles for Embroidery and other magazines.
Her interest in tribal textiles has not been restricted to Panama and she also visited North and South America, India, Thailand and Indonesia, studying textiles.
Although now in her 90s, Herta Puls' interest in textiles and in teaching continues. She is involved in the University of the Third Age, is a member of the Embroiderers' Guild and is an Associate member of the Textile Study Group. She is listed in the Craft Council's Craft Directory, where she describes her work:
Inspiration from drawings of objects in nature and on travel is interpreted by layered applique (mola-work). Layered threads and embroidery, hand or machine stitched; using 100% cotton-poplin, thai-silk, hand made paper, embroidery threads, fabric-paints and dyes.
The mola work of the Kuna Indians of Panama is a unique example of a very striking technique, restricted to a small geographical area and maintained by a society that values and maintains its individuality and culture. It is firmly rooted in the past, but keeps up with the changes of modern society. We are much indebted to Herta Puls for her detailed study and for making its history and techniques known to a wider audience.
2. Wassily Kandinsky
Wallily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866 and spent his childhood in Odessa. He studied Law and Economics at the University of Moscow. A highly educated and cultured man, he was successful in his profession and, when aged just 30, was offered the Chair of Roman Law at the University of Dorpat.
However, he turned down the offer of a professorship and, instead, went to Munich to study painting, at first at a private school and later at the Academy of Fine Arts of Munich. His life-changing decision may have been influenced by an exhibition in Moscow in 1896 of paintings by Monet. Kandinsky was particularly taken with the famous impressionistic Haystacks, which he thought had a powerful sense of colour independent of the objects themselves.
Kandinsky said of Monet's painting:
That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradically on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour.
Kandinsky remained in Munich, with lengthy visits to Italy and Paris, until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. During this time, his paintings were moving increasingly towards the abstract, an art in which colour is presented independently of form, although at this time, they still retained hints and suggestions of recognisable subject matter.
One important early painting, Der Blaue Reiter, 1903, shows the beginning of this development and indicates the direction he would take in years to come. Although representational, showing a cloaked figure on a speeding horse, rushing through a rocky meadow, the figure is not clearly defined and the horse's gait is not natural. Kandinsky shows the rider more as a series of colours than of specific details.
|Der Blaue Reiter|
Coming from a musical family, Kandinsky was convinced that music and art were inextricably linked, sharing an expressive quality. Indeed he even used musical terminology to name his paintings, such as improvisations and compositions.
If seeing Monet's Haystacks gave rise to one moment of enlightenment to Kandinsky, another happened one day while working on a sketch for Composition 4. Growing tired, Kandinsky decided to go for a walk. While he was away, his companion, Gabriele Munter tidied his studio, inadvertently laying his painting on its side. When Kandinsky returned and caught sight of the painting, he was so overcome by its beauty that he fell to his knees and wept. Seeing it from a different angle had freed him from attachment to the object and enabled him to see it purely as a work of form and colour.
One particularly striking painting which Kandinsky completed in 1913, was Composition 7. It was, he said, the most complex piece he ever painted.
Kandinsky described it thus:
The sun melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the sould vibrating. But no, this uniformity of red is not the most beautiful hour. It is only the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.
Perhaps owing to his academic background, Kandinsky was always interested in the theory of art as well as in painting, having published On the Spiritual in Art in 1912 while in Munich. The influence of colour was always important to him, independent of the subject matter of the painting. He devised theories on the spiritual and psychological effects of colour and gathered around him, groups of artists who shared his interests and views. He helped to found the Kunstlervereinigung Munchen and became its president in 1909. Internal dissent between radical members like Kandinsky and members with more conventional views led the group to dissolve in 1911. Kandinsky then formed a new group Der Blaue Reiter with other like minded artists. The group published an almanac and held two exhibitions. More were planned, but the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 ended their plans and forced Kandinsky to return home to Russia.
While in Moscow between 1914 and 1921, Kandinsky devoted himself more to teaching and art theory and did little painting. However, his views on art were at odds with the official art theories in Russia and he returned to Germany in 1921, having been invited to teach at the Bauhaus School of Art and Architecture by its founder Walter Gropius.
At the Bauhaus, Kandinsky taught the basic design class for beginners and the course in advanced theory as well as conducting workshops in colour theory linking colour to psychology. During this time, geometrical elements grew more important to him both in his painting and in his teaching. Of particular importance were the circle, half circle, angle, straight line and curves. The development of his theory of forms came to fruition with the publication of Point and Line to Plane, his second major theoretical book. This was a very intense time in his work, exploring the freedom of using planes of rich colour. This can be seen in one of his paintings of this time: Yellow - Red - Blue.
|Yellow - Red - blue (1925)|
Composition 9 has strong diagonals in contrasting colours with pale yellow and green in the corners, giving a feeling of lightness and freshness. Various shapes floating across the surface hint at organic shapes. The central shape has been likened to a human embryo in the womb.
In Composition 10, coloured squares and bands stand out against a black background. The large maroon shape at the top left is covered with what appears to be symbols or heiroglyphics. The patchwork of coloured squares and the impression of busy movement give a pleasing liveliness to the composition, while shapes which look like folded sheet music fly like birds in a crowded cosmos.
Wassily Kandinsky's trouble-filled life would have made a lesser man give up (wars, revolution and the rise of Naziism all threatening his safety and security). Despite all of these, he was one of the first truly abstract painters and through his paintings, his teaching and his theoretical writings, had a profound effect on 20th century art, provoking useful questions about the role of colour form and meaning in art. He died in Paris in 1944.
3. Mitsuo Toyazaki
Mitsuo Toyazaki was born in 1955 in Chikuma, in Nagano Prefecture in Japan. He studied at Tokyo University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in 1979 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1981.
Since his graduation, he has combined an academic career with exhibiting his textile work and has worked and exhibited prolifically. His work has been shown in Poland, The Netherlands, The USA, The UK, Belgium, Hawaii and Australia. He is at present a Professor at the Kobe Design University, where he is the head of the Integrated Arts Division.
Mitsuo Toyazaki is particularly interested in everyday objects. In Art Textiles of the World: Japan (Telos Art Publishing, 1997) Toyazaki says:
I am interested in our everyday, ordinary senses. Of particular interest are people's thoughts in regard to clothing. What is it about clothing that creates anxiety? The question is linked to the objectives behind my work, and in particular to the considerations of two motifs: decoration and symbols. Objects which are created daily, acts which are repeated daily, an over-stretched civilisation, a wasteful consumer society ... I express myself by finding the meaning of beauty within everyday items, and by interpreting the warnings for human beings which they contain.
Toyazaki uses everyday objects in his art and is an avid collector with a prodigious collection of buttons. Many of his works of art are installations involving laying out buttons so as to make patterns. He has said that he is more interested in creating patterns rather than images.
The above image shows part of Dotty Dots (1997)
Once an exhibition is over, the buttons are returned to his collection. the transient nature of these installations is of particular interest to Toyazaki and it raises interesting questions of what a work of art actually is.
Toyazaki is interested in playing with words and their meanings and another of his works illustrates this. Safety Cloth (1988) consists of 80 000 safety pins woven to make a cloth which is used to cover a mannequin. See picture below.
Of this work, Toyazaki says:
In performing the difficult act of weaving safety pins, I question the very act of weaving. From ancient times, clothes have been woven for mankind's protection. Is weaving, then, essentially a prayer for safety, rather than an act of adornment? Safety Cloth is precisely that: it is composed of 80 000 prayers for safety.
Some examples of Toyazaki's Fault of Stripe series show how a printed fabric with a striped design can be cut into strips and piled on top of each other in a clear acrylic resin case, to reveal a new pattern, resembling a traditional Japanese kasuri pattern, often seen on kimonos.
I find Mitsuo Toyazaki's work particularly interesting in relation to Module 1 of the City and Guilds Embroidery Certificate, because much of his work shows elements of growth and disintegration. (In fact, one of his early works, consisting of work gloves, dyed indigo and laid in a row to look like cabbages, was actually entitled Growth.) The button installations show a pattern growing, with the onlooker's knowledge that, at the end of the exhibition, the pattern will disintegrate again into its constituent parts. The striped fabric above disintegrates only to be formed into a new pattern.
My favourite of Toyazaki's works is one which appeals to me visually, intellectually and emotionally. Pattern (1997), pictured below, is another one of a series, where he has used a lighted incense stick to burn holes in a discarded shirt. He says:
If this pattern were continued, the shirt would eventually turn to ashes. Through the process, by which this shirt is turned into ashes, a new design is obtained.
Visually, I find this work very beautiful and fragile. Looking deeper, the balance of growth and disintegration, co-existing and even co-dependent, is very pleasing intellectually. On an emotional level, in view of what Toyazaki has said about the protective quality of clothing, as the shirt progressively disintegrates, so too does the safety it provides to the wearer, thus exposing a feeling of vulnerability.
Matsuo Toyazaki continues to teach and exhibit all over the world. His work resonates with the viewer so well, because, starting from familiar, everyday objects, he challenges our intellect and makes our imagination soar.