Homo Faber: inside the Venice exhibition celebrating craftsmanship

Put on by the Michelangelo Foundation, the sprawling exhibition was a testament to the power of craftsmanship and its relevance to today fast-paced world

Arriving on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and looking over the water to the main city of Venice, is like stepping into a Canaletto painting. Behind me is a Palladian church – hewn from snow-white marble, gleaming in the morning light – and a Benedictine monastery, the latter of which was founded in 982. San Giorgio Maggiore, after which the church and monastery are both named – was itself the subject of another artist, Claude Monet, who famously produced a series of paintings of it during his first and only visit to Venice in 1908.

Since the 1950s, the island has been home to the Cini Foundation art center but, for the past few weeks, it has played host to Homo Faber, a public exhibition of the European craftsmanship (homo faber is Latin for “Man the Maker” and denotes the concept that human beings can control their fate through the use of tools). And while much of Venice has been given over to art during that time, because of the Biennale, here on San Giorgio Maggiore, craftsmanship took center stage; art that is functional.

OK, first for some numbers: the exhibition featured 15 spaces dedicated to different aspects of craftsmanship, from fashion to floristry; it boasted work by over 400 artisans and designers, from over 40 countries; and more than 850 objects, representing 110 crafts. Passing through the cloisters of the monastery, and into the different spaces, you quickly got a sense of this scale.

This year, there was a focus on Japan, looking at the country’s influence on European craftsmanship across all these different crafts. In fact, the exhibition hosted work by 12 of Japan’s ‘Living National Treasures’. In Britain, we have living national treasures – David Attenborough, Alison Hammond spring to mind – but in Japan, this means something a little different, something a little more official. ‘Living National Treasure’ is a title bestowed upon an elite number of artisans – just 98 at any given time (someone has to die for a new one to be appointed) – who represent the very best in their fields.

Here at Homo Faber there was Noboru Fujinuma, who is known for his work in bamboo; several of his baskets were on display, intricately woven and varnished a rich, mahogany brown. And there was Yukie Osumi, who makes these amazing silver flower vessels; first beating them by hand, then gauging small holes into them, before finally pressing gold into these indentations. There was Kenji Suda, too, who crafts these beautiful boxes without using any nails or glue (I won’t try to explain the process – I won’t do it justice – but they were incredible).

There were also two kimonos by Sonoko Sasaki on display, made using natural dyes, produced from plants that Sasaki grows in her garden (she even waits until the right moon so that she can dye them properly and achieve the right hue – talk about perfectionism) . And were a couple of boxes by Kazumi Murose, which were the result of two years of work and over 200 layers of lacquer. Functionality was key to all these pieces which – as beautiful as they were, and painstakingly as they were crafted – are all fit to use. This was perhaps best demonstrated by lacquerware artist Onishi Isao, who refused to sell two of his bowls to the British Museum unless they were used for food, by families, for five to six years first, which I thought was rather punk.

Elsewhere, the exhibition was an opportunity to see artists at work in real-time. I met a young British leather artisan and whip maker called Mary Wing To, who studied fashion at London College of Fashion, before pivoting into saddlery, training under the only master whip maker in the UK. Among other things, she’s made a whip dressage for Charlotte Dujardin, who has been described as the dominant dressage rider of her era aka the GOAT, and rides the most famous horse in the world – a gorgeous Dutch Warmblood by the name of Valegro (though his stable name is Blueberry). We watched as Mary plaited leather over a tapered wooden cane. “Even though I’m showing whip making, you can make anything with leather,” she told me, indicating to a horse’s head that she’d crafted out of the material. “I love the feel of leather, it’s a natural material, all these challenges with it, still learning today. It keeps me interested, inspired and challenged. ” Each of Mary’s whips takes about four to five days to make and it was nice to see, in this age where everything is getting faster and faster, more and more instant, something being created in a way that can’t be rushed.

Among the spaces dedicated to different aspects of craftsmanship, the one devoted to paper was a highlight. Here, paper was cut into dresses, crafted into figurines, fashioned into bowls and lamps, or else modeled into insects and Whirling Dervishes. There was even paper laser cut to look like coral or carved to resemble fossils. You’d be hard-pressed to leave this space without looking at the material a little differently.

The space devoted to luxury fashion, fine jewelery, and watches was also a highlight. Here, we saw silks by Hermès, stones by Cartier (one cut, impossibly, to resemble a flower in a vase), and haute couture dresses from recent Chanel and Schiaparelli collections. There were eight looks from Pieter Mulier’s new collection for Azzedine Alaïa and it was amazing to see the designer’s form-fitting, flesh-flashing creations up close; the leatherwork was incredible.

Finally, we had the opportunity to meet some artists that are local to Venice. We traveled into the heart of the city, down a backstreet (back-canal?) Where a furniture restorer by the name of Alvise Boccanegra worked. After studying chemistry applied to restoration, Alvise started work on furniture and is now employed by dealers and private collectors alike, taking on a range of rare and valuable objects – predominantly from the 18th and 19th centuries. When we visited, he was repairing a gilded frame, painstakingly replacing pieces that had fallen off, and restoring the aged-gold finish.

The exhibition was a testament to the power of craftsmanship, its ancient and modern expressions, and its relevance to today’s fast-paced world. And while it is now over, Homo Faber does live on via other projects such as Homo Faber Guide, where you can discover more than 1,500 artisans across Europe and beyond.

Find out more on Homo Faber’s website.

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