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The Saint Louis Art Museum Explores a Cultural Tradition Gone Global

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Ceremonial Body Wrapper or Banner with a Large Sunburst (matahari) Design, 18th century; Indian, for the Indonesian market; cotton, painted mordants, block-printed dyes; textile: 76 3/8 x 109 7/16 inches; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, This acquisition was made possible with the generous support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust Fund (2015.28.1) 2022.133; © Royal Ontario Museum, Photo: Brian Boyle

Explore a traditional form of fiber arts still being practiced today at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The museum’s current exhibition, “Global Threads: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz,” will take patrons on a journey through several centuries, tracking the widespread market for this stunning and intricate fashion.

Chintz is a specific textile created by dyes and mordants both painted and block printed directly onto fabric with a spectrum of vibrant colors that could stand the test of time. Perfected in India, the technique quickly fascinated the world, and trade boomed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

“The exhibit is about a kind of fabric that was very popular for a long time and then became exported and highly desired,” explains Philip Hu, curator of Asian art.

“Our show will depict a global tour – starting in Egypt and then going to Sri Lanka, Iran, Indonesia and then to Thailand and Japan.”

The largest of these galleries showcases the chintz that survives in Europe, as well as many of the textiles that were exported from England and France to the American colonies.

“It was especially popular in Europe because they didn’t have this technology,” says Genny Cortinovis, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator of Decorative Art and Design, adding that the Industrial Revolution in Europe and later the United States did allow for them to catch up, with a much stronger focus on the mechanical processing rather than the hand-painted or -printed Indian chintz.

The exhibition was loaned to the Saint Louis Art Museum from the Royal Ontario Museum, and one of the changes made to it has been a larger emphasis on the consequences of global trade.

“We’ll have a section acknowledging the consequences of the factory-made imitations, the acceleration of the growth of the transatlantic slave trade and on the environment,” Cortinovis says.

“Global Threads” wraps up by taking the audience back to India today, where the traditional art of making chintz is still being taught and practiced.

“We’ll have a number of pieces from current designers in India who have taken up this technique,” Hu says. “There’s a strong movement to do things in a sustainable manner.”

Hu adds that chintz is specifically about the process, not the particular look, and that there is a wide variety of styles of clothing on display. There will also be a room with the raw materials needed to create chintz on display, as well as videos of people working on chintz today.

“We go into depth on how they’re made and the complex and fascinating process,” says Cortinovis. “You can really appreciate the craftsmanship and the creativity.”

Whether you’re interested in Indian history culture, historical fashion or a unique look at global trade, “Global Threads” is an exhibition that has something for everyone.

Saint Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive, St. Louis, 314-721-0072, slam.org

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