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New exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art: Buttons and other ornaments
Installation view.

TEL AVIV.- A button is a small disk usually made of synthetic substances or metal, used in the clothing and fashion industry. At times buttons serve as decorations – a type of artistic expression. They are fabricated from a wide range of materials, including wood, ceramics, bone, ivory, mother or pearl, tortoise shell or antlers, and various metals (gold, silver, bronze, brass, etc.), as well as synthetic materials such as celluloid, glass, Bakelite and plastic.

At times, all we have left from a certain garment are the buttons, which then become souvenirs, nostalgic relics. Button collecting is an act of passion, for some, almost an obsession. Placing the miniature, Lilliputian button as the “hero” of an exhibition is a somewhat subversive act, meant to direct a special type of attention to it.

Until 1000 years ago buttons were not used for fastening or unfastening clothes – which was done with pins or lacing – but mostly for decorative purposes. Fastening buttons were invented in Asia in the Middle Ages, and when the Crusaders returned from their 12th century expeditions to the East – they brought them to Europe. In the 17th century, a “button war” (!) erupted in France, following the invention of buttons made from fabric or wound string, which were cheaper than the common buttons. The manufacturers of traditional buttons (ivory, bone, wood or different metals) were afraid of losing their livelihood and demanded the government fine tailors who dared use the new “textile buttons”. The second button war (La Guerre des boutons( was the 1962 French Film War of the Buttons, directed by Yves Robert. This film depicted a fight between two groups of children from neighboring villages; it was understood as an allegory for the wars and struggles between people throughout history.

In the 18th century, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia ordered sewing buttons onto the jacket sleeves of his assistants and servants – in an attempt to make them abandon their awful habit of wiping their (permanently running) noses on their sleeves… Slowly buttons became the typical mean of beautification, forcing the Church to denounce their excessive use. Many types of buttons were very expensive, and when a certain item of clothing got worn out, went out of use and was thrown away – the buttons were removed from it, and reused in a new item.

“Gilding the Lily” is an idiom referring to the act of spoiling something already perfect by trying to improve or decorate it. Why take a beautiful lily and gild it artificially with gold? Will this act necessarily “better” the flower? In other words: we sometimes come across things that have been over-designed or over-styled with various excessive decorations.

Button Collectors
The objects presented in this exhibition demand much love for tiny items and for collecting them. In most cases it is a matter of passion, addiction, obsession, and compulsion – all pathological symptoms that mostly interest sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists. Collection is an addictive experience. Collectors are like hunter-gatherers, constantly chasing after the objects of their desire. They are driven by the passion to possess something, and cannot simply be satisfied with the enjoyment of seeing items in museums or belonging to someone else. One might wonder if collecting can be considered “occupational therapy” or rather that it is the disease itself. What do anthropologists have to say about collecting? Does this phenomenon occur also among animals? Well, one Australian bird, the Satin bowerbird, collects shiny blue things to impress potential mates. Sounds familiar? Sigmund Freud claimed that in many cases, the collection is a substitute for toys of which the collector, for some reason or other, was deprived during childhood. Therefore collectors develop a real erotic joy from items. Do objects possess magic power? Is it indeed about forming emotional bonds with items (a famous example: the shoe collection of former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos). The collector has a tendency or compulsion to “put the chaotic world in order.” The act of collecting requires an inclination for hording, abundant knowledge and also being able to classify and catalog. Collectors in fact create their own universe, microcosms – over which they are “small gods.” This is how the 16th and 17th century “cabinets of curiosities” were created, their drive being to “amaze and entertain.” These magical rooms were actually characterized by a lack of discipline in their arrangement, although that aspect did gradually improve. Collectors meticulously seek to accumulate entire series. It is said that whoever catches the collecting “disease” will never be cured. Does the collector, when buying an antique object, indeed acquire some part of the past, of another era? Is collecting a phenomenon that characterizes only the affluent, a product of a leisure society? Not necessarily! In fact, anyone can collect buttons, stamps or other small items. And finally, let us not neglect the nostalgic motive. Collecting takes the collector back to his or her childhood as a child-collector, or to lost items that were particularly close to their heart.

Curator: Dr. Doron J. Lurie. Designer: Chanan De Lange

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