Hessie, Grillage, 1972-1975, fuchsia embroidery thread on cotton fabric, 157 x 92 cm, © Photo: Béatrice Hatala, © Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre
“Needlework, in other words sewing, embroidering, lacework, tapestry and knitting, are a historical part of the lives of women.” Aline Dallier-Popper, art historian and critic, 1976.
In the late 19th century, needlework distanced itself from the domestic sphere and gradually entered the world of art – first in the Arts and Crafts movement, then in the European avant-gardes. Mainly used by women artists, it would come to inspire much of their artistic output. Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Sonia Delaunay incorporated it into their works, progressively deconstructing the boundaries between applied arts, design and fine arts. Anni Albers and Sheila Hicks then reappropriated traditional techniques and/or materials to weave links between art and handicraft. Thus freed from its utilitarian or decorative function, textile became an artistic medium in its own right.
Its use in art became truly established in the 1970s in response to feminist movements. By repurposing the uses of needlework, artists created works that raised the issue of the status of women and of the roles traditionally assigned to them: Raymonde Arcier (Au nom du père [“In the Name of the Father”], 1977) denounced domestic servitude; Annette Messager (Ma collection de proverbes [“My Collection of Proverbs”], 1974) criticised gender stereotypes. The medium and its techniques became a tool of expression and of feminist awareness. The use of textile by artists is not a movement per se, but a heterogeneous practice: Ghada Amer combines painting and embroidery (Ma lune noire-RFGA [“My Black Moon-RFGA”], 2016); Françoise Janicot creates performances using string (L’Encoconnage [“The Cocooning”], 1972); Milvia Maglione uses fabric as mounting material (Dédicadé à L. [“Dedicated to L.”], 1973). Whether they be an expression of protest (Hessie, Grillage [“Grid”], 1972-75) or of something more personal (Louise Bourgeois, Needle (fuseau), 1992), textile practices are akin to a language with its own codes, which artists have made their own.