Cotton in bloom – at Leeuwarden’s Frisian Museum

Flowers everywhere: swirling in wonderful patterns and brilliant colours which will delight you. You are shown 16th century bedspreads, printed fabrics, clothes, accessories, a centuries old kimono, a modern tent. Videos explain traditional methods, used to produce prints. Or they show how centuries old methods, which are slowly disappearing, can be used to create modern art. This wonderful exhibition revolves around … chintz!

Unable to attend a press preview or the official opening, I went the first day it opened to visitors. After the museum’s extremely successful exhibition on Alma-Tadema, I wondered if this exhibition would be as wonderful. Chintz – aren’t they frumpy, naf-naf, old-fashioned? Forget it: this is another exhibition worth drooling over!

It is hard to imagine, cotton was once unknown in our world. On one of the exhibition walls, there is a quote from a Roman writer. He only knew the cotton plant and cotton itself from hear-say. It would take another few centuries, before cotton took Western Europe by storm.

In the late 16th century, European merchants first came across the magnificently printed cotton fabrics with their Mughal and Persian designs which they called chintz. From the early 17th century, Indian chintz was imported in increasing quantities. Yet at first, only the rich could afford these.

A craze and market developed, import increased. Indian designers had already adapted prints for the Asian market. They adapted patterns to please the new, booming European markets.

Towards the end of this exhibition, specially ordered bedspreads are displayed. The exhibition not only describes the discovery and introduction of chintz. It explains the adaptations in designs right up to the special orders taken from the Netherlands to India.

Within a few decades, not just the very rich aristocrats and burghers could afford chintz. Chintz became part of traditional Dutch costumes, especially in Frisian Hindeloopen.There are plenty examples. The reds became traditional bridal wear. Widow weeds were blue, while purple and similar colours were reserved for lighter mourning.

There are huge hand-woven hand-printed palempores – the bedspreads – measuring over 3.5 x 2.5 meters. There are small children’s mittens, bonnets, clothes. There are hats, patchwork blankets, dresses from the 17th and 18th century.

There is the traditional costume complete with “German hat”. Regardless which century – fashionistas continue to baffle.

Sun-hats cover part of a wall in a mind-blowing display. At the other end of the wall are what the museum dubs early versions of the bra. Ah well – the patterns are impressive, lovely, wonderful! The model? Extensive tweaking over the next centuries was clearly needed.

Baby mittens and kids’ clothes are totally cute – and there is a young girl’s dress, made of over 70 pieces of chintz: no scrap wasted! The jackets remain must-haves, which would combine well with jeans or a skirt. All exhibits are from the museum’s own collection and perfectly preserved.

Merchants became rich, trading in chintz. But as with the Dutch tulipomania, the bubble burst. Cheap imitations became available. During the end of the 18th century, the market caved in. Some European countries had introduced laws banning imported chintz.

Nevertheless, traditional chintz continue to inspire. At the end of the exhibition are examples of contemporary projects. Together with Indian craftsmen who still master the traditional methods, modern artists and designers continue to create great art.

Bangalore designers, craftsmen, the Dutch Textiel Factorij ensured the Fries Museum is able to not just show the brilliant past. They created exhibited stunning modern chintz-art, using traditional methods and craftsmanship.

Walking around the modern tent, near the end of this exhibition, my head was swirling. How much would chintz cost? You see: I craved them all. The brilliant reds, the beautiful blue or purple ones, the glorious greens … Unfortunately, once home, it turned out traditionally created chintz remain luxury products. As in the 16th century: chintz do not come cheap.

Fries Museum, Leeuwarden: Chintz, cotton in bloom, can be visited till the 10th of September 2017.


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