The distinctive deep blue and white of indigo print fabric, modrotisk in Czech, is the result of a material dying technique carried out in the Czech lands and Slovakia since at least the early seventeenth century. Its origins in Asia are thought to be a thousand years older. A white reserve is used to make patterns, a kind of negative print, illuminated when the fabric is immersed in dark inky blue. It became a popular technique in the nineteenth century and, as noted by the curator of Blue Innovations exhibition at Czech Centre London, Alice Klouzková, transformed from a luxury fabric to one produced in greater numbers, becoming an important part of folk costume. Klouzková’s research was based in the Moravian town of Strážnice’s indigo print workshop, with a long history in the field.
I was delighted to see this exhibition come to London as my own research into indigo print has focused on the work of the Centre for Folk and Art Production (ÚLUV, Ústředí lidové a umělecké výroby) in the 1950s and ‘60s. Makers working for this institution produced contemporary textiles and fashion using indigo print: from neat, full-skirted 1950s dresses with white sprigged flower pattern on a background of blue – folk wear for the modern socialist woman – to innovative 1950s shift dresses, where the gestural application of indigo print pushed the form to new limits. Strips of fabric designed by ÚLUV and produced in Strážnice hang in this new exhibition. Interestingly, exhibitions of Czechoslovak indigo print took place in Britain during the 1960s and 1980s. This current show adds to that lineage.
As Klouzková notes in the introduction to the Czech Centre’s catalogue, since 1989 the practice has decreased. There are only two indigo block printing workings currently in operation in the Czech Republic, mostly producing souvenirs or parts of folklore costume. But contemporary Czech designers and a small number of traditional manufacturers are keeping the form alive. The exhibition presents a selection of their work and documentation of craftspeople like Milan Bartoš, one of the last people in the Czech Republic able to make or repair the traditional wood blocks used to make indigo print.
The exhibition begins with poignant images of the small numbers of printers in existence. The tools of the trade – a pool of dye and raw natural pigment, samples of ornate woodblocks – placed on a podium nearby. Curator Klouzková’s own practice is accompanied by that of designers Monika Drápalová, Petra Valentová, Martina Dvořáková, Adéla Součková, RadenáValentová, Radana Sikorová, design duo Óda, Zuzana Martinusová, and students of the Studio of Textile Design at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague.
Klouzková is prolific in the field as a lecturer, curator, writer, researcher and designer – she uses indigo print extensively in her work and promotes it as part of the Czech Craft Heritage project. Particularly striking is her Indigo print shirt dress with white relief stretched in blocks across the fabric, through which the blue can only just be seen. Among her fellow exhibitors, Drápalová is credited in the text as ‘one of the few creatives whose reputation has reached beyond the frontiers of the Czech Republic’, working in Lyon with her brand Modrá(Blue). Dvořáková’s brand MADE BY ORDINARY makes men and women’s clothing, patterned simply by hand in imperfect stripes; and in her doctoral studies, Valentová combines Czech indigo printing with traditional wood block printing from the Rajasthan region in India.
The work of Óda (duo Johana Němečkováand Barbora Vildová)and Adéla Součková questions the formal values and context of indigo print. Óda’s fabric has the appearance of a night sky filled with stars – they aim to ‘disrupt the strict regularity of repeated patterns, typical for indigo print, and dissolve areas into random abstract nebula’. Součková approaches the material from her position as a ‘prominent figure on the Czech fine art scene’, creating performance, installation and video. Over the last few years, she has used indigo print to explore ecology, feminism, connections between nature and culture, archetypes and tradition. Her figurative hanging from exhibition On Earth, Awakening from a Restless Dream arches across the centre of the exhibition space and contrasts with the minimally patterned clothing, baseball caps and stretches of fabric.
It’s a small show but achieves a great deal. Material process is beautifully positioned in relation to technological, cultural and personal histories. Very familiar terminology is reiterated in the exhibition texts – terms like innovation, potential, honesty, cooperation and, most of all, ‘traditional techniques in a modern-day context’. Such wording has been used for decades around Czech indigo print. But the ultimate feeling is one of momentum – research into ‘tendencies’, an interest in interpretation, and the urgency of preserving this declining form alongside the thrill of extending the boundaries of indigo print.