The following is from the Aug. 13, 2007, edition of The Dallas Morning News

Valencian tile makes a dazzling exhibit at SMU's Meadows Museum

From the Exhibit

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Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Don't be put off by the dry title of the exhibition at the Meadows Museum. "Tile Design in Valencia: From the Middle Ages Through the Early 20th Century" is indeed a scholarly undertaking that comes with an imposing catalog and more than 100 significant loans from three Spanish museums devoted to ceramic tile. But it is also a visually stunning show, filled with objects that range from jewel-like fragments of medieval Moorish tiles to such a showstopper as an early 19th- century tile floor that measures 19 by 23 feet.

Valencia, on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, has been an important port city since the days of the Roman Empire. Trade made it wealthy and cosmopolitan, and one of its chief products has always been ceramic tiles. Valencians produced tiles for the Romans, but it was with the Moorish invasions of the eighth century that new technologies began to transform the industry.

At the Meadows, the earliest tiles date from the 14th century, fragments and components of the abstract monochromes that would have been used to create elaborate, patterned decorations for mosques and palaces. Soon, however, Christian iconography begins to appear, and with the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims in 1492, a new industry aimed at both the clerical and secular trade developed.

Cathedrals and monasteries required decorations, and Valencian workshops provided a predictable array of holy scenes, hand painted onto multiple titles, depicting the Trinity, martyrdoms and patron saints.

Given their small scale, many were probably intended for private devotion and hung in either a monk's cell or the studies of devout patrons.

Among the 18th-century examples at the Meadows is an austere flagellation of St. Vincent rendered in blue monochrome, a technique that hearkens back to earlier styles. On the much larger scale of 6 by 5 feet is an almost Technicolor image of the Holy Family that includes along with the principal players an infant John the Baptist, St. Elisabeth, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, a lamb, a wise man and some other indeterminate lookers-on, possibly the patrons who commissioned the work. An elaborate garland in gold and multi-colored blossoms surrounds the figures.

Aristocratic patrons also had palaces to decorate, and they commissioned mosaics that ranged from abstract patterns to genre scenes. One 19th-century rondo depicts Sancho Panza tormented by rowdies and tossed into the air from a blanket. This work represents one of a series of Don Quixote scenes produced for a patron with literary enthusiasms.

Others show romantic trysts in the countryside and such everyday scenes as churning butter and baking bread. Enormous palace kitchens were completely walled with tiled scenes of the activities that took place there, and humor abounded. In one scene an elegantly dressed man and woman are about to serve the newly fashionable import chocolate to guests, but he is so distracted by her beauty that one cup spills from his tray.

By the 19th century, stencils made it possible to produce work more quickly and cheaply. The enormous tile floor mentioned above could not have been made without using them. And although that floor was still a one-of-a-kind creation, stenciling meant that popular images could be reproduced for a growing global market.

Stenciling meant more, however, than simple repetition. It brought with it its own aesthetic of elaborate variations made possible by rotating motifs and using their mirror images. A relatively simple motif of a green ribbon lined in yellow from the mid 19th century creates an arabesque design that would not be out of place today in any gallery of contemporary art.

The final portion of the exhibition focuses on works from the art deco period, a moment where the desire for complexity, intense color and sheer visual delight initiated a renaissance in Valencian tile design. Perfectly symmetrical cranes standing in shallow water, lily pads viewed through a stained glass window, peacocks drinking from a flower-filled urn the factories around Valencia continue to not only keep pace with the tastes of the times but to outdo themselves with sheer invention.

Invention and technology are the underlying themes here. For as impressive and dazzling as the most recent works on view may be, before leaving take another look at that small chunk of 14th-century flooring that opens the show. Its freeform structure of interlacing lines enclosing irregular polygons is quite a feat of technology and invention in itself.

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