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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Folded Beauty: Masterpieces in Linen, Exhibition Review

The first UK exhibition of its kind, Joan Sallas' Folded Beauty gives us a peek into the art of napkin folding.

Written by Jessica Cook

Holburne Museum Illustration of the Holburne Museum by Hannah Smith

I’ve never been very napkin friendly. By which I mean, at meals, rather than lay one on my lap, I’m substantially more likely to leave myself open for the peril of meal related stains. A little tomato sauce here, some balsamic vinegar there, it all comes out in the wash in the end, right?! Although my napkinophobia is more likely down to remnants of childhood indignation than a genuine dislike of linen, it is with the interest (and hesitation) of a non-napkin user that I attended the Folded Beauty exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath to see the artworks of a genuine napkinophile.

Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty

Joan Sallas is the go-to guy for historic linen folding, and this exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK. Recreating examples of table decorations from high society in days gone by, these pieces offer a glimpse into the elaborate creations of napkin foldings past. Sallas’ interest in the art of textille folding was brought about through a fascination with the Japanese art of paper folding and there’s a definite appeal to this unique art, which Sallas has almost single-handedly revived. Centrepieces in the style of those that graced dinners in Royal European Court way back when make for dramatic art. These banquet-side fabric sculptures are based on designs and patterns that go as far back as Renaissance Italy and as far forward as the 17th Century when this dinner-table decoration practice reached its peak. Whether it’s a pair of doves with their beaks pressed together in comfort, or a griffin towering above the tabletop, the variety and skill in the pieces is the most impressive part of this exhibition. Animals and architecture are just a few of the things recreated through folds in this exhibit. Sallas, a Catalan cartoonist and origami artist, created all these works using ancient techniques and patterns with the help of his lovely assistant and a heavy dose of research.

Taking place between the 2 February 2013 and the 28 April 2013 this exhibition is part of Bath in Fashion and there’s a whole host of other stuff lined up on the calendar for this festival. For more information you can check out my listing for Bath in Fashion here.

Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty by Gareth A Hopkins
Folded Beauty by Gareth A Hopkins

Although before I entered this exhibit I imagined that it might be a little stuffy for Amelia’s, once I’m here, I understand the playfulness of the art form. Napkins and linen are shaped into snakes, tortoises, forts and even mountains as part of this renaissance of the Renaissance art of napkin folding. I’m a sucker for all things cute, and any exhibition that can put a historical context onto a fort filled with bunnies and birds is OK by me. The birds and bunnies are there as a nod to a particular fancy meal in 1593 where live creatures were captured inside a castle decoration and the gates opened so they could escape as the guests entered the room (accompanied by music and fireworks of course).

Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty

There are children here, I know there must be before I actually see any because I hear a parental voice repeat “don’t touch anything” at least three times in the same number of minutes. As I crouch down to take a photograph of the fabric snake below the main display table a little girl points at the snake conspiratorially and looks at me. “Ssssss,” she hisses and giggles. “Snake,” she says. She presses her hands against the glass and I imagine for a second how she might see the monochrome exhibition: as a Ballroom sized zoo. I hear her mother say one last time “don’t touch anything,” and they are gone.

The exhibition reminds me that fabric has a tang of cardboard-box-possibilities about it. In the same way a simple brown cube can become a space ship, a cave, an oven or even a submarine on a journey to the centre of the earth, these napkins have become creatures, mythical beasts, flowers and (humping) chickens. It reminds me of coming back to a hotel room after a long day at the beach and finding hearts or crocodiles made from towels on your bed. When I was little, a towel-made mother swan and a hand-towel baby signet were smuggled back in a suitcase by my parents for me, they still sit on my dressing table today. Such is the magic of creating something from nothing, and the potential lasting appeal of a fabric creation. Probably because of those two swans, this exhibition resonates with me in an unexpected way.

Folded Beauty by Louise Smith
Folded Beauty by Louise Smith
Folded Beauty by Louise Smith

Working from engravings and records, this virtuoso folder has brought alive, not just the art-form, but the napkins themselves. The centrepiece of this exhibit is a 1.5m high table fountain surrounded by marvelous heraldic beasts. All the elements of the napkin creations that appear in the exhibit are taken from designs from the Baroque era. It’s great insight into the elaborate dinners of ye olden times and a brilliant example of the potential of fabric. There’s even the opportunity to have hands-on group lessons from the artist to shed light into how these wonderful linen beasts are made.

Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty

When you sit down and write exhibition reviews, you discover that if there’s one thing that museums don’t actually provide all that much of, it’s information. This might sound like a strange observation, but when you’re writing a review, a few sentences hardly seems long enough to satisfy your own interest in a piece, let alone the readers. Especially when museum info sheets have been oversimplified to such a degree you can usually count the facts you’ve learnt on one hand. We leave at closing time and when I ask about the possibility of more information, the staff, all around my age, just look at me slightly flumoxed. “We have postcards,” they say. I politely decline.

Folded Beauty by Karolina Burdon
Folded Beauty By Karolina Burdon
Folded Beauty by Karolina Burdon

This show is in partnership with Waddesdon, Nr Aylesbury, Bucks which will host the exhibition from from 22 May to 27 October 2013, meaning that if you’re not located in the Bath area, you might still get a chance to see it. Although the exhibit is moving to a different museum later in the year, once his shows are over Sallas is known for unfolding all his pieces and starting again. This reminds me of short story The Destructors, which I haven’t read, but is infamously mentioned in Donnie Darko. In the story destruction is suggested as its own form of creation. In the same way, the destruction of each of these napkin creations, leads to a new set of wonderful linen beings and objects.

As we exit I fold the exhibition pamphlet in my hands, running my fingers across the paper until it resembles an airplane. I wait for the first gust of wind and I let it go. I don’t look back.

Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty
Folded Beauty

The Folded Beauty exhibition at the Holburne is part of Bath in Fashion and is open between 2nd February 2013 and 28th April 2013. This exhibition is free.

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