If somebody said to you that there was a time when wearing a print dress meant death, you'd think they meant fashion death, or at the very most social death, wouldn't you? You wouldn't think they meant DEATH death.
But indeed, in the 17th and 18th centuries France and England were so worried about print fabrics, especially cotton prints, ruining their silk and wool industries that they "banned the importation or wearing of printed foreign fabrics. Restrictions and bans were also placed on domestic production. However, despite harsh penalties (including death), smuggling, evasion . . . [and flouting] of the laws [were] common."
That's one of many, many things to be learned from "Colorful Impressions: Printed and Surface-Patterned Cloth" at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Like the Walters Art Gallery's manuscript gallery, the BMA's textile gallery is a good idea that we should have lots more of: a gallery devoted to a specific area of art, with periodically changing temporary shows (a few times a year) on subjects related to that area, accompanied by adequate didactics. These are, actually, teaching galleries (though that makes them sound dull, and they aren't), and they do one of the things museums can (if they will) do best: Use their permanent collections to instruct people in aspects of the art they have to offer.
"Colorful Impressions" is a good example. It amounts to a kind of mini-history of printed cloth in the modern era, 17th to 20th century, including where printed textiles came from, how they were made, what sort of designs were used, even laws that pertained to them.
All of this information is accompanied by photographs, printing blocks, and about two dozen examples of printed cloths, primarily from France an England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some were made as recently as 1951; some go back as far as 4th century Egypt. There are examples from India, Japan, Java, the famous Viennese modernist studio Wiener Werkstatte of the early 20th century, and the great British 19th century designer William Morris.
Those last two are among the show's most striking pieces, but there are a number of others including my own favorite, an early 19th century Western European example printed with a representation of the goddess Diana, the cloth such a rich yellowy cream color that it seems to glow. The potential viewer should know that these examples are for the most part pieces of fabric, not entire costumes or curtains or the like.
If anything there may be too much text here. But better too much than none at all in this type of show; after all, we can all stop reading any time we get tired, but we can't start reading if there's nothing there to read.
The show runs through July 5 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets. Call 396-7100.