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Kunsthistorisches Institut


An Iconology of the Textile in Art and Architecture

The fabrication of textiles is one of the oldest and foundational cultural technologies. The objective of the interdisciplinary research project is to investigate the historical meanings, functions and theories of the textile medium in art and architecture from the Middle Ages to the present. The exploration of this specific artistic medium should result in a historical theory of the textile in its artistic performativity. The traditional notion of iconology, which is currently undergoing a reevaluation within the hermeneutically oriented disciplines of image research, is the methodological point of departure. The project focused on the textile discourse engages in a field of research situated between art and architectural history and within cultural and visual studies, involving also other disciplines such as literary studies and social history. Moreover, it aims at connecting the two scientific cultures of the university and the museum, as the theoretical approach is accompanied by studies of concrete textile objects. It also draws transdisciplinary expertise from contemporary art. The project deals with interconnected subject areas such as textile media of painting and sculpture, constructions of space, sacred textiles, tapestries, and installation art. Other fields of research are the myths of the origins of the textile, questions of representation, relations between textuality and narrativity, transmediality, modernity and the assumed femininity of the textile arts. This cross-disciplinary perspective requires a variety of instrumental methods ranging from iconography to anthropological approaches, and from gender studies to textual analysis.
One Principal Investigator and several Doctoral and Postdoctoral Researchers aim to performing basic research in an innovative and contemporary field, in order to contribute to the establishment of the history of textile art as an academic discipline and to the advancement of art and architectural history towards a general history of images, artefacts, and media.
The project was in its first phase financed by the Swiss national science foundation (former SNSF Professorship, since 1 March 2008) and by the European Research Council (ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grant, from 1 September 2009) until 2012 and 2013 respectively. Since 1 September 2013 the research is conducted in a new form in cooperation with the Humboldt University of Berlin and financed by the Swiss national science foundation until 2016. TEXTILE is also an associated project of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Mediality - Historical Perspectives (Project E.8).

SNF Collaborative Project 2013-2016

The new collaborative SNF project proposes to explore the history of the textile from the Middle Ages until the present day, both from a European and a global perspective. Textiles are amongst of the oldest and most significant cultural technologies which are highly present in today’s culture, yet they still receive relatively little scholarly attention. The textile is a flexible and mobile hybrid between material, technology, medium and metaphor which crosses historical periods, cultural spaces and types of artifacts. The project aims at reconstructing the his-torical and multi-faceted aesthetic discourse of the textile from the Middle Ages until today. The hitherto existing domain of research on textile arts and visual representation, however, needs to be extended to non-European areas as to explore textiles as mobile means of cultural exchange. European textiles were always in dialogue and included materials, technologies and motifs imported from the East, and conversely they were exported from Europe throughout the world. Thus, European textile arts cannot be fully understood without taking global trade and cultural exchange into account, and vice versa.

The disciplinary approach of the project is art historical, because aesthetic textile artifacts and their representations imply a reflection on ‘textility’ itself. By retracing the historical identity of the textile medium from visual works of art and textual sources, the project aims at fostering Textile Studies, opening a more global view onto art history, and bringing together the two cultures of the museum and the university.

The collaborative project consists of two teams with complementary subjects: TEXTILE (An Iconology of the Textile in Art and Architecture) is based at the University of Zurich. Directed by Prof. Dr. Tristan Weddigen, the team includes one part-time SNSF Postdoctoral Researcher as a project coordinator and two SNSF Doctoral Researchers. This research group focuses on the European history of the textile in art and architecture and proposes three interconnected subject areas: Textile Mythologies, Textile and Painterly Metaphors, and Textile Spaces and Narratives. NETWORKS (Textile Arts and Textility in a Transcultural Perspective, 4th to 17th Centuries) is the DFG joint project based at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Directed by Prof. Dr. Gerhard Wolf, the team is comprised of two DFG Doctoral Researchers who focus on the history of the global migration of textiles and motifs. There are three interconnected subject areas: The Transfer of Knowledge and Its Making, The Sacred: Veiling, Enveloping, Creating Space, and Aesthetics and Iconology: From Textile to Textility. Both projects will share each other’s international networks of scholars and research institutions related to textiles studies.

The research activity of the Berlin team consists of the PI’s numerous publications on textile imagery and cross-cultural exchange which is also the subject a ongoing research project funded by the Getty Foundation. The two PI’s not only share textile-related research topics, but their respective scholarly networks and contexts also promise excellent synergies. Committed to methodologically and historiographically reflected scholarly practice, the research tandem embraces a broad view across media, periods and cultures. At the same time, the project has a clearly and rigorously defined focus of interest and thus hopes to contribute to the further development of art history towards a general history of objects and their changing meanings.

Weiterführende Informationen


Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 2003, private collection


Andrea Mantegna, Man of Sorrows, 1495-1500, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst (detail)


Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, New York, MoMA (detail)


Tiger-skin carpet, 19th c., Tibet, New York, MET


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