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ART SEEN - Chintz: Can fabric change the world?

Mid Morning Mix // Art & Culture // By Uli Van Neyghem // July 13, 2018

Chintz. How a fabric changed the world

Does the title of the temporary exhibition at the Château de Prangins sound a little sensational to you?
You'd be surprised! The intriguing title is actually spot on.


There are so many fascinating angles to this fabric, that is not only decorative but became the first true global product. 

Chintz has its origins in India, hence its French name 'Indiennes'. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it caused an unprecedented craze on all continents known at the time; at first imported from India, but later imitated by European workshops as well. Made from cotton, it is washable (which is almost impossible with woollen cloth). This is one of the reasons why Chintz became popular in a much wider range of the population, instead of remaining reserved for the wealthy elite.

The huge success of the colourful materials, both in clothing and interior decoration, caused the influential European wool and linen industry to feel threatened. Protectionist laws were put in place and Chintz became the subject of prohibition in many countries, making it highly profitable contraband. Even drastic punishments for smuggling (like galley penalties) could not put a stop to the lucrative illegal activities.

Although, compared to the rest of Europe, the decorative fabrics were not as popular among Switzerland's population (probably due to a more sober taste), Swiss business acumen immediately identified its huge opportunities in manufacture and trade. Factories were founded in Geneva, the Jura, Neuchâtel, Biel, Basel, spurred on by the arrival of skilled experts, the Huguenots, fleeing France due to the prohibition.   

Chintz has countless stories to tell, from the political to the humorous (such as one design showing a bedroom scene, involving an enraged older husband, his scarcely clad young wife and the young lover of the latter, peaking out from behind the paravan). Its designs by talented artists depict topics of incredible variety from floral and bucolic motifs, to literary and musical subjects (like Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro). 

But they also reflect current events of the times, such as the first balloon flights, the storming of the Bastille, or, on a more Swiss note, the legend of William Tell. After the campaign of Napoleon's army in Egypt, for example, prints with pyramids and camels became big sellers. Sometimes, even new designs had to be altered quickly due to new political realities: kings no longer being King (after the French revolution) or battles lost (Napoleon at Waterloo).

Got curious? This is not all there is to discover: manufacturing and trading with the sought-after product Chintz also had a dark side!

Visit this truly inspiring exhibition and see for yourself. 

Note: The descriptions next to the exhibits are in French and German, but little booklets with the English translations are available at the entrance to each floor.


Where:                             Chateau de Prangins, Swiss National Museum, Av. Général Guiger 3, CH-1197 Prangins
When:                              Now - 14 October 2018. Tuesday - Sunday 10:00 - 17:00. Additionally August 1 and September 17 
Entry Fees:                      Adults: CHF 10 (Children: free entry until age 16 / Groups: CHF 8)


 

 

 

 

Art Seen is sponsored by Africa - the Ecstatic Religions exhibition at MEG - Musée d'ethnographie de Genève. 

 

 

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