Friday, 7 January 2011

The Ice Saints of Johan Thorn-Prikker

Illustration: Johan Thorn-Prikker. Die Drei Eisheiligen (The Three Ice Saints) tapestry design, c1911.

Die Drei Eisheiligen or The Three Ice Saints to give it its English title is the name of a tapestry design produced by the Dutch artist and designer Johann Thorn-Prikker in about 1911. The three Ice Saints of the composition are St. Mamertus, St. Pancras and St. Servatius whose feast days traditionally fell on 11, 12 and 13 May. These three consecutive days were judged by many across Europe from the Netherlands to Poland as being potentially the last burst of cold before the summer weather, although the dates have now changed to the end of May on the Gregorian calendar.

Thorn-Prikker, although born and trained within the Netherlands, spent the last thirty years of his life mostly in neighbouring Germany where he was well known for his decorative and fine art work. From the very beginning of the twentieth century Thorn-Prikker, like many of his fine art contemporaries, was much more interested in the decorative arts side of creativity than he was in fine art painting. However, despite his undoubted enthusiasm for the decorative arts there was always a fine art sensibility to much of Thorn-Prikker's work whether he was involved in the mediums of stained glass, mosaics, book covers, furniture or textiles. Therefore, although The Three Ice Saints tapestry was technically a piece of interior decoration, practically it was a piece of woven fine art, a position that tapestry weaving has long found itself to occupy, with some seeing the discipline as craft, others fine art, others still somewhere in-between.

Whether Thorn-Prikker saw tapestry as fine art, craft, or art craft, is unknown; that he produced an extraordinarily interesting addition to the discipline is without question. Unfortunately, this is the only example of The Three Ice Saints that I have been able to find, and although an unsatisfactory black and white illustration, it still manages to show the artist's original approach to composition. The three saints inhabit their own space within the tapestry, but are worked within a very casual framework, with figures, motifs and the names of the saints themselves overlapping and being squeezed into a small enclosed narrative. The composition is even likely to give the impression of a vying for space, rather than that of a harmonious and spiritual triptych.

It is unknown if this piece was commissioned or was expected to have an eventual ecclesiastical home. It would appear that if was indeed to end up adorning a church interior, it would have been a particularly accommodating venue for the contemporary, not something that seemed immediately apparent, particularly for the era in which it was made, the first few years of the twentieth century. However, to be fair Thorn-Prikker does have a reputation as a religious creative, producing a substantial amount of decorative artwork for various churches throughout the Netherlands and Germany, usually, though not universally in the shape of stained glass. Some of the stained glass that he produced after the First World War and up until his death in 1932 is extraordinarily beautiful and fully contemporary with art and decorative movements of the period. His stained glass work may well be covered in a future article. 

What is interesting is to see this amount of contemporary creative freedom within a craft that was still relatively traditional in 1911. Thorn-Prikker, although choosing to work largely within the decorative arts format, did inject a large element of his fine art sensibility, both naturally his and that revealed during his training at the Royal Academy of Art at The Hague. That tapestry went on in the twentieth century to become a fine art form in its own right, is obviously not entirely due to the work of Thorn-Prikker. However, what this Dutch artist did do is to show that tapestry, rather than being a vehicle for direct imitation of fine art painting, could be used as a medium in its own right with its own rules and conditions which, if allowed to would produce a unique creative piece that was sensitive to both its materials and its construction.

Reference links:
Johan Thorn Prikker
The artist as Christ: The image of the artist in the Netherlands, 1885-1902, with a focus on the Christological imagery of Vincent Van Gogh and Johan Thorn Prikker
JOHAN THORN PRIKKER: GLASFENSTER, WANDERBILDER, ORNAMENTE, 1891-1932. / Johan Thorn Prikker: Stained Glass Windows, Murals, Ornamental Works, 1891-1932 - Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, Germany - 1966
Weaving Sacred Stories: French Choir Tapestries and the Performance of Clerical Identity (Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past)
Great Tapestries: the Web of History From the 12th to the 20th Century
Tapestries: The Great Twentieth Century Modernists
Demons, Yarns and Tales: Tapestries by Contemporary Artists
Soudoba Holandska Tapiserie (Dutch Contemporary Tapestry)

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