by Cynthia Fowler. Bloomsbury Academic, February 2018. 280 p., ill. ISBN 9781350033313 (h/c) $114.
Reviewed September 2018
While fashion books packed with full-bleed close-ups of luxury textiles spill from bookshelves everywhere, The Modern Embroidery Movement feels serious, almost prim, but its subject is surprisingly timely. Aware of the gendered hierarchy ranking women's needlework low in artistic prestige, a group of women artists in the 1920s and 1930s created a space for it within modernist American art. They specifically valued the medium of embroidery as a way to revalue women's skills and the expression of women's ideas during a time of social progress. Embroidery in this context is not fashion or decoration, but deliberate artistic practice incorporating abstraction, non-descriptive color, collaboration, and reactions to modern life.
The Modern Embroidery Movement is an expansion of the author's 2002 dissertation on the embroidery of Marguerite Zorach. Fowler also published a chapter on Zorach's embroidery in the 2017 catalog for a Farnsworth Art Museum exhibition, one of the few monographs on Zorach's work. Much less has been published on Georgiana Brown Harbeson, Mary Ellen Crisp, Marian Stoll, or Marcia Stebbins, so Fowler’s research on these artists and their practice contributes new discussion points in what she calls “an important dialogue between embroidery and modern art,” looking back to Sonia Delaunay and forward to Judy Chicago.
Fowler writes in plain academic prose, delineating events in the artists’ lives and analysis of themes in their work. She carefully sets out the book's goals in its introduction and ends each chapter with a separate conclusion. The book ends with almost forty pages of endnotes, a selected bibliography, reference list, and index. As a scholarly text examining lesser-known artists and a neglected medium, it is recommended for academic and museum libraries whose researchers focus on American art, alternative modernisms, textiles, and women artists.
With the exception of the cover, the book's illustrations lack close detail—a point perhaps in keeping with the author's desire to focus on the modern and painterly qualities of the embroideries rather than stitching techniques. However, many readers will wish for more photography like Zorach’s beautiful cover image. The illustrations are mostly black and white: seventy-five figures and a center section of sixteen color plates, none full-page. The book reproduces rare images from private and museum collections as well as contemporary publications, including the magazine Needlecraft (published 1929-1935, held by only twenty libraries), often documenting works whose whereabouts are now unknown.
One could imagine a more Instagrammable version of this book, a glamorous evangelist for its subject with full-color, high-resolution photography and a provocative title emphasizing the progressive lives of this group of modern women. This is not that book—but Fowler’s foundation of solid research enables scholars and curators to look again at a marginalized piece of modernism's evolution.