Friday, March 24, 2017

Module 2, Chapter 13 - Three artists

Hans Holbein, the Younger

According to Margaret Pascoe in her book Blackwork Embroidery double running stitch, the basis of the counted thread technique known as Blackwork embroidery, is also known as "Holbein stitch", used to embellish clothes at the beginning of the sixteenth century. She goes on to explain that "Evidence for the early use of blackwork comes from portraits and religious paintings, particularly from the works of Hans Holbein the Elder (c. 1465-1524) and his son Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 - 1543)".
The actual stitch, Holbein stitch, was named after Holbein the Younger who, according to Mary Gostelow was "supreme among blackwork artists".

Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg circa 1497. His father, Hans Holbein the Elder, was a well known portrait artist. Hans Holbein the Younger travelled extensively, reaching England in 1526 with a letter of introduction to Sir Thomas Moore from his mentor Erasmus. Holbein spent the last 11 years of his life working in the English court. During this time he painted about 150 portraits. He also left behind  a series of designs for buttons and buckles and book-bindings, amongst other accessories. Many of the costumes he painted depict blackwork embroidered designs.

The earliest evidence of blackwork on a costume comes from a painting by Hans Holbein the Elder in 1516, with three blackwork bands on the sleeve:

In 1526 Hans Holbein the Younger painted a portrait of Anna Meyer in her wedding gown featuring four blackwork patterns:

Holbein stitch was also sometimes called "Spanish" stitch. In her booklet A New Modelbook for Spanish Stitch, Kathryn Epstein writes that "Peter Quentel was the first pattern book printer to refer to the double running patterns he copied from Schonperger as "Spaniche stiche" in 1527." She goes on to suggest that since these bands of double running stitch were so frequently found in Holbein the Younger's paintings, they were named after him. However the patterns and stitches only became known as Holbein in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Hans Holbein the Younger died in 1543. His portraits were deemed to give an accurate depiction of their subjects and his greatness as an artist was acknowledged in his lifetime and beyond.

How to work double running stitch:


*Blackwork Embroidery, Margaret Pascoe

*Blackwork, Mary Gostelow

*A New Modelbook for Spanish Stitch, Kathleen Epstein


Bridget Riley:

Bridget Riley, born in 1931, is an English Op-Art abstract painter who became well known during the 1960's when her black and white paintings were exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The geometric patterns and designs in her works create an optical illusion of constant movement and shifting ground, often creating an effect of disorientation in the viewer.

She studied art at Goldsmiths College, London from 1949 - 1952, followed by the Royal College of Art until 1955. But having experienced great swathes of freedom as a child, playing by the sea near her home, the artist found it difficult to succumb to the rigidities of the institutional college's teaching regimes. Later in her life she recalled the influences which her early childhood memories of open space, light and colour, has continued to effect upon her work.

At the end of the 1950's after a traumatic decade, she met Maurice De Sausmarez, who encouraged her to study the painting of Georges Seurat. She began to experiment with Op-Art when she was teaching in the Hornsby College of Art from 1960-61, painting simple geometric shapes in black and white. After her major success at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, she rose to critical acclaim, though some critics dismissed her work as trivial. But Op-Art was gaining popularity in the sixties, and so was Bridget Riley. Op-Art is a kind of geometric abstraction devoid of sentiment. In the words of Bridget Riley herself, “I couldn’t get near what I wanted through seeing, recognizing and recreating, so I stood the problem on its head. I started studying squares, rectangles, triangles and the sensations they give rise to… It is untrue that my work depends on any literary impulse or has any illustrative intention. The marks on the canvas are sole and essential agents in a series of relationships which form the structure of the painting.” 

Kiss, 1961

Throughout this period Bridget Riley worked primarily with black and white imagery, sometimes incorporating tonal shades of grey. It is these works which interest me most, bearing as they do a relationship between the striped and cut Fibonnaci samples produced for earlier chapters in this module. Studying Bridget Riley has inspired me to continue playing with the apparent simplicity of black and white in conjunction with basic geometric shapes and simple stripes.

Movement in Sqaures, 1961

The predominant shapes in Bridget Riley's art have largely been geometric in form, including lines, squares, circles, ovals and curves. Stripes feature prominently and regularly. In a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of her work in 2014 the following observation was made:"The London show, her most extensive presentation in the city since her 2003 retrospective at Tate Britain, explored the stunning visual variety she has managed to achieve working exclusively with stripes, manipulating the surfaces of her vibrant canvases through subtle changes in hue, weight, rhythm, and density."

 Pause, 1965

In 1967 she began to explore colour in her work. But she was wary of the unforeseen effects of colour since the perception of hues is less stable than the perception of black and white - the latter can be controlled by the artist in a way that colour never could. Still she continued her colour experiments incorporating hue with lines, both straight and undulating. By spacing the colours effectively she could generate the illusion of movement.

Cataract 3, 1967

By the middle of the 1970's Bridget Riley was working with more curves, in conjunction with a more nuanced use of colour and light, thus generating an increased emotional intensity to her paintings, many of which were given poetic and musical titles. Interestingly up until the late '70's she restricted the use of colour to just 3 hues per painting, extending this to 5 in 1978.

Zing1, 1971

Well travelled, much of her work evokes the spirit of the landscapes which inspired her. She spoke of her "Egyptian palette" after her visit to Egypt in the early 1980's. It was around this time when her work shifted away from the disciplined structure of her earlier op-art to the "assertive gestures of the Neo-Expressionists". Entranced by the colours she saw around her while travelling through Egypt she wrote, "The colours are purer and more brilliant than any I had used before". Here was where she finally learned how to use colour and light in the manner she had been seeking.

RA 2, 1981

Throughout the mid 1980's and 1990's Bridget Riley began to explore a new geometric form, the diagonal lozenge. Here she worked with form and colour, with an emphasis on contrast of depth, tone, hue and even direction. She considered both form and colour as "ultimate identities, as things in themselves".

From Here, 1994

From 2000 onwards the shape changed again, this time growing more fluid and curved. The colours were softer too, eg blues and lilacs.

 Two Blues, 2003

Bridget Riley's modus operandi reminds me of the painstaking approach which many contemporary art quilters adopt in the making of their textile art. She begins with a sketch of her design which she then enlarges. Everything is done by hand and with great precision. A single painting may take 6 - 9 months to complete.




*Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961- 2014

Artist of my choice: Alice Kettle

The instructions were to choose an artist whose work relates to some aspect of this module: blackwork, tone, machine stitchery, decorating fabrics with dyes/paints, 3-dimensional items. I chose Professor Alice Kettle because of the impact her work made upon me after viewing her textile art which was exhibited at The Knitting and stitching Show in Dublin many years ago. What struck me most of the sheer depth of emotional content which resonated through the meandering lines of her freely machined stitch. And then there was the size of each individual piece, the immensity, almost overwhelming volume of line upon line upon line.
Alice Kettle's art evokes a sense of otherness, a mysterious interrogation of some of life's most unanswerable questions. Her machine embroidery is so much more than the sum of its parts. For each stitch, each line seems to be placed precisely where it is supposed to be. There is nothing superfluous added, no sentimental pathos, or hyperbolic noise. Just a statement of one of life's mysteries, sketched like a question mark written in rayon.

Perhaps it is her emphasis on the fragility of the human figure which generates such fathomless responses from the spectator.

"The figure is the absolute essence of the work, the human content, the emotional link for me as an artist."  Alice Kettle

Three Caryatids, 1988-9

"The theme I develop is often subconscious - it emerges in the making. I like images that are universal, that sum up some inherent quality of human existence. I like playing with contrast and paradox: these Caryatids are made of something soft, delicate and flowing, but are they stone, or even human? They are made from something intricate - but they are monumental." Alice Kettle commenting on her work Three Caryatids.

Though the figures are shapeless, sometimes faceless, they are never anything less than beautiful And yet her art is beyond decoration, for her works always reference something beyond themselves. As her art progressed in depth and vision, a new sense of universality began to emerge, so that by time she embroidered "Creation" the main figure was genderless, ageless, raceless. This is concept art at it's most notable. For to combine an idea with the perfection and beauty of execution requires the skill set of a mature and experienced practitioner, which Alice Kettle displays in abundance.

Creation, 1991

Alice Kettle studied Fine Art from 1979-84 at the University of Reading, followed by post-graduate studies in textile art at Goldsmiths College, London, until 1984. She is an honorary member of the prestigious textile art 62 Group.  Amongst many fellowships that she holds, she is also a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University. Though she began with painting, it wasn't until she switched in 1985 to textiles that she finally found her niche.

Alice Kettle works intuitively, following where the stitch wants to go. She prefers to work this way instead of laboriously planning her art, so dyeing and printing methods are not for her. Unlike hand embroidery, machine embroidery allows her to fill the canvas with long, sweeping lines of stitching. She uses coloured threads in much the same way that a painter uses oil paints or acrylics.
Furthermore, the act of over stitching layer upon layer creates a rippling effect in the canvas, transforming a 2 dimensional flat piece of work into a shimmering 3 dimensional surface.

"It was as if the canvas itself was also changing, rather than me just putting more and more into the surface of it." Alice Kettle

Alice Kettle's huge embroideries bring to mind the ancient art of tapestry weaving in both form and content. And yet, though evocative of many of the mythological stories from the far-flung past, her machine sewn embroideries are anything but ancient. Instead they are thoroughly modern in mode, if not in meaning. For once again we notice that it is not alone the vague generalised outlines which represent universal figures, but the emotions evoked through the narrative threads are common to all times, all eras, all beings.

"I like images that are universal, that sum up some inherent quality of existence." Alice Kettle

Odyssey, 2003

Alice Kettle is a master colourist, evidence of her earlier days exploring the interaction of hue and light while painting in college. But while most of her massive scaled embroideries are swirls of illuminated colours, there are a few equally striking even though they are bereft of colour. What follows are a selection of some her monochrome embroideries with accompanying commentary from the artist. I was especially drawn to them in that they seemed to suggest a very new and post-modern approach to the traditional form of blackwork embroidery, where the lines of delicate stitchery echo the gentle art of double running, or Holbein stitch.

Anthracite II, 1989

"Black and white has so much power - it dispenses with the 'prettiness' of embroidery."

Niagra, 1995

"Working in black and white gives me great freedom - without decisions of colour the line takes on paramount importance. Black and white brings me back to the essence of stitch."


*Eye of the Needle, The Textile Art of Alice Kettle, edited by Matthew Koumis

*Alice Kettle, Mythscapes exhibition catalogue

*Machine Stitch Perspectives, Alice Kettle & Jane McKeating

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