Beyond Function: The Art of the Folding Fan
On view May 23 – September 2, 2018
FAN, noun [Latin vannus.]
- An instrument used by ladies to agitate the air and cool the face in warm weather. It is made of feathers, or of thin skin, paper or taffeta mounted on sticks, etc.
- Something in the form of a woman’s fan when spread, as a peacock’s tail, a window, etc.
- An instrument for winnowing grain, by moving which the grain is thrown up and agitated, and the chaff is separated and blown away.
- something by which the air is moved; a wing.
- An instrument to raise the fire or flame; as a fan to inflame love.
Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828 edition
What is a fan? The word sparks immediate associations – blades that, when in motion, provide a cooling breeze. In that moment, the moment when you first thought “fan,” you likely didn’t think of courtship or etiquette. Or fashion. Or social or economic status. All of these uses take the folding fan far beyond the utilitarian and practical function of a cooling breeze. But step back in time to read Noah Webster’s 1828 definition, and all of those associations come to life.
The fan first came to Europe in the 16th century. Europeans had fanned themselves before then, but the introduction of Eastern handscreens and folding fans elevated the fan as an object to something beyond the practical. Within a century, fans had become necessary accessories for royalty and wealthy Europeans.
At the same time, folding fans were objects of great monetary value. Beautiful, intricately carved ivory, tortoise shell, and bone sticks were imported to Europe by the East India Company and others and combined with beautifully painted vellum or silk leaves. Often silver and gold paint adorned the leaves, and sometimes gems were inset into the guard sticks.
As time passed, fans became more eclectic. Painted vellum and paper leaves were joined by silk and lace leaves studded with sequins, and into the 20th century dramatic floral fans designed to make a statement across the room joined more art nouveau restrained designs.
Returning to our original question – what is a fan? While its function may define it, after viewing this exhibit you may believe that function is only the beginning.