In Europe, making sculptures out of linen napkins is an ancient and ephemeral art form. These intricate pieces decorated the banquets of the European aristocracy during the baroque and Renaissance periods, to wow their honored guests. With time this labor-intensive tradition fell into oblivion, perhaps because it requires special skills that tend to disappear. However, even today fine linen is a mark of elegance at the table.
Waddesdon Manor in London presents an exhibition created by the virtuous hands of Spanish artist, Joan Sallas, who displayed a menagerie of sculptures made with linen serviettes.
Sallas, a musician by training, spent two decades researching the history and secrets of this forgotten technique throughout the centuries, and places its origin in the ateliers of 16th century Florentine tailors.
These animal sculptures, created by folding napkins into geometric, almost architectural images, can be used to decorate the most elegant tables and lounges, but also to adorn powder rooms and bedchambers.
The artist says he researched the existing bibliography about the art folding napkins and serviettes, which includes up to 3,000 books, mostly in German, although there are some texts in English and Italian. In Spain this art form was also fashionable and wide spread among royalty, but it has not been preserved in Spanish literature.
He points out that the European art of making sculptures with napkins is not the same as the Japanese discipline, origami. The techniques are different, and they only started showing similarities at the end of the 19th century. The first book he researched as a point of reference was published in Germany in 1629; the first Japanese text he found dates from 1797. It is a good argument to assume that the European version precedes the Japanese, but it might also be that Sallas is ignoring the role of oral traditions in the transmission of ancient knowledge, which is especially remarkable in Asian cultures.
The exhibition at Waddesdon Manor includes 120 sculptures based on the original texts, as well as 20 original pieces by Sallas. They comprise a suite of legendary creatures that includes eagles, lions, snakes, armadillos, crabs and turtles among others.
It took him 13 years to reproduce the sculptures from engravings and antique prints, and all the pieces will be destroyed at the end of the exhibition, according to British tradition. The exhibition will be on view until October 27. ■
PHOTOS: Hugh Palmer.