Mathilda Schwalbach, Faces of the Nation Facing the World, screenprinting on cotton, United States, 1968
Samantha Comerford is a graduate student in Art History at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Collection Assistant in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.
In looking through the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection I was immediately struck by this printed textile and the many questions it raised. Who were these women? What are they saying or thinking?
This fabric was created in 1968 by Mathilda Schwalbach, a textile professor at the School of Human Ecology from 1945 to 1973. At the time, her department was referred to as the Department of Related Art, and she taught classes on screen printing and textile design. According to Bobette Heller, a student of Schwalbach’s, this piece was likely used as a teaching object to demonstrate the transfer of photographs to textiles. This technique allowed Schwalbach, and her students, to take images from newsprint and print them directly onto textiles.
Both the juxtaposition and communication of the imagery is striking in this piece. The textile is khaki-colored with the women printed in variegated shades of olive green. Viewed from a distance it has the effect of a camouflage. Within the context of the Vietnam War era this color scheme is loaded with military connotations, and to apply it within this piece is to convert these ideas to those of anti-war and protest. The three repeating women who are shown in full face appear stern and one appears to be speaking. They are not smiling; they look angry. The year 1968 brought great attention to the Women’s Liberation Movement with the protest of the Miss America pageant. There is a similar juxtaposition between the expressions of the three women depicted on the textile and the smiling, heavily made-up women of contemporary advertisements [figure 1].There is a passivity to the women in advertisements of the time, while images of feminists are very active. The women represented on Schwalbach’s textile display this action.
Screen-printed over the top of the women are red globes. One half is a rounded American flag. The other appears to be a ball of yarn. This is an icon that Schwalbach used on another teaching piece within the Textile Collection [figure 2]. In conversation with the women this symbol carries a special kind of weight. Schwalbach is engaging in traditional women’s work in a professionalized manner. Laying this symbol atop the images of feminist women she connects their work to the women’s work she is engaged in. Connecting these two symbols, the yarn, and the women, as well as the materiality of the textile makes a strong statement. It brings together textile work and political protest into the realm of women’s work.
These women played a role in the changes that were taking place at this time. Schwalbach titled the work “Faces of the Decade Facing the World”, making a statement about how these women’s faces served as symbols of political change throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. We may not know these women or what exactly they are saying, but they bring change through women’s work just like so many women at UW-Madison and around the world do today.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.