Textile, Vitrail, 1955
In 1953, Dan Fuller, president of Fuller Fabrics, invited five of the 20th century’s most distinguished artists: Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, and Raoul Dufy, to collaborate on a line of textiles to be called the Modern Master Series. The concept was unique in that the artists were not commissioned to produce original patterns specifically for the textiles. Instead, Fuller worked with each artist to select motifs from their existing body of work, which were then translated by the company’s in house designers into repeating patterns. Fidelity of reproduction was essential, and Fuller’s designers worked diligently to render the motifs accurately for engraving. The patterns were roller printed rather than screen printed, because the fabric was intended to be mass produced and sold at low price points—less than $2 a yard—for use by both garment manufacturers and home sewers. Each artist approved the final patterns derived from his work and was involved in the selection of the colors. Marketing was a key element of the project. The Modern Master Series was launched in the fall of 1955 with both a museum exhibition as well as a documentary film that featured the artists in their studios, the original works of art, the finished fabrics, and the production process. The exhibition and film opened at the Brooklyn Museum and then traveled to other American museums. For a five-page editorial spread in Life magazine, “Modern Art in Fashion,” Life’s fashion editor, Sally Kirkland, enlisted the participation of her friend, fashion designer Claire McCardell. McCardell designed a wardrobe of separates and dresses using Modern Master fabrics, which were featured in the Life photo essay. The collection of 60 designs was much celebrated when it was launched. American Fabrics applauded Fuller for its daring and courage in bridging “the abyss” between fine and applied arts. At the time of acquisition, the museum holds six other fabrics from Fuller’s Modern Master Series in its collection: The Bullfight, Birds, and Poisson by Picasso; Vitrail by Léger; Femme Ecoutant by Miró; and Evening Enchantment by Chagall. In 1951, Fernand Léger designed 17 monumental stained glass windows (vitrail, in French) depicting the Instruments of Christ’s Passion for the new Eglise du Sacré Coeur in Audincourt, France. The design for one of these windows, which featured pincers and nails, was used as the pattern for Vitrail. Catholic church windows seem an unlikely design source for a fashion fabric; one garment manufacturer used Vitrail for drip-dry cotton bathing suits, in a colorway of deep pinks. Léger was not a religious man, however. His goal in designing the Audincourt church windows was to create something that was objectively beautiful, not “sentimental.” His choice of the pincers and nails motif for Fuller’s Modern Master Series seems to underscore the intent of his original window designs: to “produce a pattern of forms and colors that was relevant to all, believers and non believers alike.”  Geoffrey Rayner, Richard Chamberlain and Annamarie Stapleton, Artists’ Textiles: Artist Designed Textiles 1940–1976 (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2012), 139.  "Trying abstraction on fabrics; adaptations from Picasso, Miro, and Léger." Artnews 54, (November 1955): 43.  Kohle Yohannan, and Nancy Nolf, Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 126.  "Fine arts and textiles come to terms." American Fabrics no. 35 (January 4, 1955): 49.  ] Fernand Léger as quoted in André Verdet, Léger (London: Hamlyn, 1970), 38.