With a needle and thread, Jann Haworth (born 1941) stiches together autobiographical detail, fine art and pop culture references. Subversive in its making, materials and subject matter, her iconic soft sculpture Old Lady II (1967) challenges established creative conventions, placing female creativity centre stage. You can now visit Old Lady II in Decades | The Art of Change 1900–1980 at Modern Two, where it is currently on display in room five.
A pioneer of soft sculpture and a leading figure in the British Pop Art movement, Haworth began to explore the creative potential of cloth in the early 1960s. In 1962, while still a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, the idea to work with fabric came to Haworth during a bus ride home. Having learnt how to sew at a young age, Haworth realised she could use her skills as a dressmaker to manipulate fabric into sculptural 3D forms. In choosing materials historically associated with women and the domestic sphere, Haworth reclaimed a medium that had been persistently marginalised by art historical hierarchies and prejudice. At the Slade, where according to a tutor ‘the girls were there to keep the boys happy’, Haworth’s choice also served as a direct challenge. The artist recalled, ‘What thrilled me about cloth was that in the face of the air of male superiority at the Slade – I knew a whole language of expression that my male colleagues had no inkling of ... This opened the door to a vast territory of expression.’ When Eduardo Paolozzi, who taught at the sculpture department, advised Haworth to make her work in bronze, she swiftly retorted that it had been cast in cloth.
Haworth had a creative upbringing in Hollywood, where she regularly accompanied her father (the production designer Ted Haworth) to film sets. Here she would experience firsthand what it was like behind the scenes in the film industry: a world of celebrity, special effects and props. Reminiscent of her father’s film sets, Haworth’s earliest soft sculptures were designed to stand together in a staged domestic scene and included an old couple, a dog, a bouquet of flowers, a china cabinet and some doughnuts. These were followed by a cast of movie stars (e.g., Mae West Dressing Table (1965) and Mae West, Shirley Temple and W C Fields (1967)), and archetypes of American cinema, including Cowboy (1964) and Pom Pom Girl (1964/2004–5).
Old Lady II is Haworth’s second soft sculpture depicting older women – a theme the artist has repeatedly revisited during her long career. Her first, Old Lady (1962), famously appeared on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967) that Haworth co-created with Peter Blake. Her old ladies celebrate female wisdom and the visuals of ageing, rejecting the stereotypes that often influenced how women were represented in popular culture of the time.
Inventive and resourceful in her use of materials, in Old Lady II Haworth combined a mixture of bought and reclaimed fabrics with ready-made items. From the lace-embroidered Victorian christening gown that makes up the figure’s bodice, to the funerial sleeves of the gown underneath, the individual details trace the arc of a person’s life. The Old Lady is in the process of making a colourful patchwork, the elaborate patterns mirrored by the composition of her wrinkled face. She has sewn her own hand into the patchwork’s design, emphasising her creative authorship. The Old Lady’s craft is a direct echo of the artwork’s creation, rigorously hand-stitched by Haworth, who transformed strips of fabric into a luxurious rainbow skin, folded and fixed to the geometries of the human body. Evocative of quilt making traditions that saw women transform cloth into utilitarian art (often incorporating pieces of clothing associated with the people and places that made up their lives) the patchwork is also a playful pop reference to a comic strip: each fragment of fabric becomes a stand-in for a frame in a comic, a segment of time, a chapter in someone’s story. The stitches hold together the material that makes up our everyday lives, connecting generations of creativity in cloth.