The Kjarvalsstaðir Art Museum is currently festooned with eye-pleasing patterns, hand painted originals, woven fabrics, print plates, books, furniture, stained glass and tiles by legendary British artist, activist, poet and craftsman William Morris (1834-1896) and his collaborators, friends and family.
The most celebrated artist of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris was a socialist and activist who founded the predecessor of the Labour Party in Britain. He also founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with his friends—later known as ‘The Firm’—producing handcrafted household décor. They worked in resistance to the industrial revolution by preserving traditional techniques, and giving recognition to everyone involved in the creation of each piece.
Sustainability and ethics
Museum director Ólöf Kristín Sigurðardóttir explains the aim of the exhibition is to bring to light not only the beautiful patterns that Moris is best known for, but also his political activism, his connections to Iceland, and the artists and collaborators who surrounded him.
“One thing that characterised him as a thinker and initiator is that he knew craft,” says Ölof. “He could do everything; he knew how to make stained glass windows, he knew the processes for making tiles, how to weave and embroider. He would acquaint himself with the processes from beginning to end. Sustainability in design is perhaps what that makes him interesting in our time. It’s exactly where we are today.”
Dungeons and Dragons
While the works are often craft-based, Ólöf says the body of work has an emotional appeal. “These works are emotionally charged, and the craftsmanship is excellent,” she says. “They’re not majestic, and they don’t discuss great events, but they deal with great emotions, even though the works look back to medieval times.”
William Morris built his Southeast London home, Red House, to embody his ideas. Every part was handcrafted, from the walls to the tables, with many medieval references. He often entertained friends, and it’s well-known that he and his circle owned armour. “Its evident that these guys were deep into Dungeons and Dragons,” Ólöf laughs.
Travel diaries and Middle Earth
‘Let Beauty Rule’ also displays items Morris bought in Iceland during his travels in 1871 and 1873, and sagas he translated from Icelandic with Cambridge scholar Erík Magnússon. Morris’s writing and translations inspired many fiction and fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, some of whose Middle Earth languages are believed to have been inspired by Morris’s Icelandic-sounding English. Morris also wrote extensive diaries about his time in Iceland addressed to his friend Georgiana Burne-Jones, which were poetically reinterpreted and republished in Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘Questions of Travel.’
William Morris’s work, politics and complicated love life have captivated people’s imaginations throughout the years. Ólöf references Jeremy Deller’s work ‘English Magic,’ which shows Morris as a giant throwing Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the ocean. “When we think about this work we see how close to the British spirit Morris is when he is chosen to represent what Deller calls ‘English Magic,’” finishes Ólöf. “At Kjarvalsstaðir there are, shown in tandem, collaborative works by Morris’s wife, Jane, and paintings of her by her lover Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The exquisite works of Morris, his daughter, wife and friends will interest anyone keen on beauty, handcraft, textiles, literature or politics.”
‘Let Beauty Rule’ was made in collaboration with the William Morris Gallery, London, and Millesgården, Stockholm. See it at Kjarvalsstaðir until Oct. 6th. To read more about art in Iceland, click here.
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