April 30, 2014

Threads of Heaven

Taft Museum of Art
image source  https://enjoythearts.org/events/1327
The Taft Museum of Art, located in downtown Cincinnati, is a wonderful little gem of a museum. Despite updates made before first opening in 1932 and extensive renovations and expansion prior to it's re-opening in 2004, the museum's permanent collection is charmingly displayed in the historic Baum-Longworth-Taft House. Not having visited the museum prior to this past weekend, I can't comment on how the early ought's expansion changed the look and feel of the museum. However, I found the appearance, feel, and flow of the expansion well integrated and respectful of the Federal Palladian house built around 1820. I have to admit that I was so relieved to have found the Taft without once getting lost (a first for me while navigating Cincinnati!) that I did not pause to ogle the spectacle of this last example of wooden domestic architecture still standing downtown, dwarfed by it's towering neighbors, before entering the on site parking garage with relief.

I visited specifically to view the articles in the special exhibition gallery (a space added in the latest expansion). Threads of Heaven: Silken Legacy of China's Last Dynasty was organized by the Denver Art Museum. I am grateful to them for putting together the show and the accompanying catalog. I strained my eyes trying to discern the tiny embroidery stitches in many of the items on display, from ceremonial silk robes to eyeglass cases. I tried, and failed, to sketch one stitch pattern in particular, a geometric floral ground filling the skirts worn by figures on a pair of embroidered sleeve bands still contained in an uncut silk panel. Thankfully, there's a detailed close up of these stitches in the catalog as well as a couple pictures of the piece of clothing I found most fascinating, an unassuming undershirt of all things.

But what genius! It must have been excruciating to be weighted down under a heavy robe in hot, steamy, humid, sweltering weather. I practically feel nauseated and light-headed imagining myself cooking inside one of those robes. Here's where the undergarment comes in. Cotton thread strung with short pieces of narrow bamboo, like tubular beads, fashioned in a lattice pattern was worn against the skin to create an air pocket between the wearer and the robe. Air could flow against the skin, cooling sweat. Also, because it elevated the robe from the skin, the undershirt protected the elaborately embroidered robe from damage and staining (not to mention odor - oh wait, I just did) due to perspiration. Simple genius.

Unfortunately, I do not have permission to share photos of the copyrighted material included in the exhibition catalog. Here's a couple shots of items included in Threads of Heaven from the Denver Art Museum's website. Nope, those images cannot be shared either, but you can view them here. The Threads of Heaven pieces are the fourth trio of images at the bottom of the page. Plus, in the 3rd paragraph on this page you can download a video with a 36oº view of the installation at the Denver Art Museum.

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