Property from The Ascher Family Collection
The tale of Zika and Lida Ascher is one of survival, resolve, and creative innovation. Zika was born in 1910 into a Jewish textile family in Prague. An avid winter sportsman, Zika was selected to compete in the 1936 Garmisch games as a downhill skier. It was through his love of skiing that he met his wife Lida and in 1939, the pair departed Prague for a honeymoon in Norway. Their passion for skiing saved their lives as Hitler invaded Prague during their honeymoon and they were forced to flee to London as refugees.
Arriving in London in 1939, Zika and Lida had few contacts or prospects for business. After a short stint in the army he was medically discharged and returned to London determined to set up a textile firm. Unable to get his business started until late 1941 due to the Battle of Britain, Zika quickly incorporated his firm and set up a silk-screen print works in London. Zika and Lida had no formal training in design, but an innate sense of color, proportion and pattern. Their lack of formal training would prove an asset to the young couple as their loose impulsive designs stood out among their more formal competitors.
Zika had grown up with a keen interest in art, a passion which only grew through visits with his elder cousin Ernst Ascher, who was an African art dealer in Paris and a close friend to André Derain, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso. During the war, Zika would often wander the National Gallery looking at the works of contemporary artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and Ben Nicholson. Intrigued by the potential intersection of fine art and industry, and emboldened by the initial success of his firm, Ascher sought out Moore to propose a collaboration. Ascher felt that textiles were a medium that was accessible to the wider public, and would allow contemporary artists to communicate their modernist ideals about design to a larger audience. Moore was enthused with the concept and in late 1943 began work on four notebooks specifically for this purpose, two of which are included in this catalogue (see lots 184 and 192).
Ascher and Moore began translating the artist's drawings into textiles in 1944. Many of the artist's drawings that were made for the squares as well as for textiles are included in this catalogue. Textile Design: Boomerang (see lot 182) for example, was printed in repetition on a fabric that the artist's wife is pictured sewing into curtains to hang in their Hoglands home (fig.). The printing process was a collaboration between the two men and "the first design took six months of patient trials. The spirit or handwriting of the work was more important than an exact reproduction of every small mark and uneven line. Moore used wax crayon and watercolor wash for his sketches, so Ascher had the negatives for the screens made using the same wax resistant technique" (V.D. Mendes and F. M. Hinchliffe, Ascher, Fabric, Art, Fashion, exh. cat., Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1987, p. 25).
It was during this time of collaboration with Moore that Zika saw the potential of screen-printing as an artistic medium. Screen-printing allowed an artist to produce a work on a large scale that could be editioned and still retain all the original intent and characteristics of the artist's hand. With Moore as the first participating artist, Zika launched an initiative referred to as the Ascher Squares. The squares were produced in small, hand-numbered limited editions of 150-600; the screens from which they were printed were destroyed after the series had been made. These works could then be used as scarves or wall hangings. From Moore the project quickly grew through word of mouth among the British artistic community, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Graham Sutherland created works, while younger artists such as Lucian Freud and Robert Macbryde also collaborated with Ascher.
Having had great success with British artists, Ascher set his sights on the vibrant artistic community in France. Enthusiasm for Ascher's project was not shared by all, and Henri Matisse's agent said that he would not even present the artist with the idea. Fueled by his passion and belief in the project, he determined that his success was dependent on speaking with the artists directly. Picking up the phone he called Matisse, Derain, Picasso, and Braque. Productive relationships with both Matisse and Derain followed and once again the project blossomed. Soon Ascher found himself working with Marie Laurencin, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, Nicolas De Stäel, Oscar Dominguez, and Antoni Clavé among others.
By 1947, Ascher had set up a Paris office in an old gallery space, utilizing frames left behind from the previous tenant to display his squares. By presenting them in this manner, Ascher was likening them to oil paintings and the public seemed to agree, as the noted art critic Sacheverell Sitwell commented after the 1947 show of thirty-seven squares at the Lefevre Gallery: "It is after all, a method by which the sketches of great painters can be brought into many homes in England and abroad...Not a few of these Ascher scarves will be framed upon walls a hundred years from now, for they are among the best and most characteristic products of our day" (quoted in ibid., p. 28).
Harper's Bazaar published an article at the same time noting, "it is a symptom of the real importance of these textiles that they should hang in a gallery of such high prestige...These squares fall into two quite separate classes. Some are pictures; some are pure designs. But in every single case the artist's work has been translated with skill and sympathy into terms of fabric. The original sketches have been so carefully worked on that, through all the technical processes of reproduction, the artist's spirit and quality are retained" (quoted in ibid., p. 29).
Buoyed by the success of the squares show, Ascher determined to mount a second exhibition the following year of larger works, known as wall panels, which Ascher completed with Matisse and Moore. Matisse's contributions to the exhibition, Océanie, la mer (fig.) and its accompanying composition, Océanie, le ciel, occupy a critical position in the artist's late work. The genesis of the Océanie project dates to early 1946, when Ascher approached Matisse about designing a fabric wall hanging. Matisse did not immediately accept Ascher's offer, but asked him to visit again the next time that he came to Paris. When Ascher returned several months later to the artist's apartment, he found Matisse sitting on his bed, paper and scissors in hand, directing his assistant to pin cut-out shapes directly onto the walls of the room. Two adjacent walls were almost entirely covered with white silhouettes of birds, fish, sponges, coral, and seaweed, which Matisse proposed that Ascher reproduce as a pair of panels. In addition, Matisse would create two designs for squares and four works for repeating textiles.
These screen-printed linen wall hangings represent Matisse's earliest use of the paper cutout, his most important form of artistic expression during his last years, to create mural-sized compositions. The panels are the first works in Matisse's oeuvre that draw explicitly upon his memories of a 1930 voyage to Tahiti, the iconography of which would become the mainstay of his late cut-outs. Matisse wrote to Ascher: "The beauty of the sky, the sea, of fishes and coral plunged me into the inaction of complete enchantment. The local color of the objects was not changed but their reflection seen in the light of the Pacific, gave me a sensation comparable to one that I have experienced when looking into the interior of a large golden bowl, with eyes wide open I absorbed everything as a sponge absorbs liquid. Only today did I remember these marvels with a tenderness and precision, which joyfully enabled me to execute these two panels" (quoted in ibid., pp. 35-36).
Moore's contribution to the 1948 Lefevre exhibition were two large scale panels, Reclining Figure and Two Standing Figures, featuring the same vibrant colors and energetic lines as are seen in many of his textile sketches. The subject matter and overwhelming scale of the two panels is most closely related to Moore's preparatory drawings for his sculptures. The panels posed similar printing challenges as the squares for Ascher, who was determined to capture the texture which resulted from the interaction of the watercolor over the wax crayon in the artist's preliminary drawings as well as his varied color palette. Moore himself took an active role in the printing process, visiting Ascher's studio to carefully inspect each work (fig.) and to personally sign the pieces.
Concurrent to their work with artists, the Ascher business in the couture textile trade was flourishing. From the late 1940s on, Ascher's unique take on color and print design also found admirers in such designers as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Lanvin. Ascher's ability to trendset reached its summit in the autumn collections of 1958 when almost every single major designer used the same new innovative Ascher mohair fabric as a focus of their collection.
The Aschers' work in textiles and art represent the postwar ambition to do something different, something avant-garde. Their vision was to promote optimism in a postwar society that was often dreary and depressing. The concept of the Ascher Squares--of collaboration between artist and designer, of freedom within an industry that had always been highly structured--was new. No instruction was given, no restriction placed upon creativity. "Make art" was the request, "let inspiration be the guide." The artists so employed represented a cross-section of Europe itself. They were English, Spanish, Greek, Russian, American, French in a sense, the Ascher Square is both a representation of postwar liberation and the state of art in the whole of Europe at the time.
Christie's is honored to present an extraordinary selection of works from the Ascher Family Collection. The collection reflects the breadth of Moore's work on textile design as well as the contributions of other artists to this important project.
(fig. 1) Zika and Lida Ascher looking at designs, 1946
(fig. 2) Irina Moore in Hoglands making a curtain from Horse's Head and Boomerang, 1944-1945.
(fig. 3) Matisse's studio on the boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris, Summer 1946. On the wall, left: an early state of Océanie, le ciel; right: Océnie, la mer.
(fig. 4) Lida, Henry Moore, an assistant and Zika survey the Reclining Figure panel.
Property from The Ascher Family Collection
Textile Design for 'Four Heads, Half-Figures and Animals'