“For the craft is by no means a mechanical and subordinate art, slavishly dependent upon that of the painter, which it is sometimes thought to be; tapestry is a particular art of interpretation which uses painting, but would go radically astray if it sought, as at times it has done, to imitate the effects of painting.”
Since moving last year I have visited quite a few tapestry exhibits here in NYC, among them Grand Design and Interwoven Globe at the MET as well as of course the unicorn tapestries up at the Cloisters. I am thrilled to be able to see such incredible tapestries in person and up close - there really is no capturing the essence of tapestry in photograph (That is especially true for the Grand Design catalog - all of that woven gold is lost in translation). I may have even crossed the security line once at Interwoven Globe - triggering an alarm, eek. It’s just that some of the tapestries are so finely woven that I had to get close and squint to see the warp grooves. I attended that exhibition with my friend jennadawn who was visiting from Montreal, to whom I gave a very rusty run-down of the history of tapestry designing as I remembered it from my university studies. When I got home that day I put my son to sleep and proceeded to plunk down on the couch and sink my eyes into my beautiful new fabric-covered catalogue of essays from the exhibition. Sweet textile dreams ensued, as did my inspiration for this post. So, I went back to my old textbooks to fill the gaps of the timeline I was piecing together for jennadawn. With the current resurgence of tapestry weaving in the art and DIY world I thought It might be interesting share some of my research here on the Everlea blog. Please excuse the most-likely improper use of footnotes and citations, I'm trying to figure out what works best for blogging, for ease of reading and with limited formatting options. Any tips?
Tapestry weaving is something I find myself daydreaming about a lot. I have a deep respect for it, not only as an artistic medium, but also as a historical touchstone in art, particularly in relation to painting and architecture. In the contemporary fine art world painting is generally thought of as having higher prestige than anything textile-based, yet during the renaissance painters were commissioned to create paintings solely as tapestry designs. Interestingly, it was commissions for tapestry designs by these kinds of artists (those who were painters, not tapestry designers) that lead to the loss of traditional tapestry weaving techniques (Lejard). It wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that tapestry designer and weaver Jean Lurcat fervently addressed the importance of traditional design in tapestry.
In order to fully appreciate and understand the works and teachings of Jean Lurcat, one must view them in the context of the history of traditional woven tapestry - particularly in regards to the decline of its existence during the rise of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a period in which tapestry was somewhat re-invented, whereby traditional techniques were misplaced through the process of likening tapestry to paintings. Jean Lurcat is largely responsible for tapestry's revival in the 20th century, when he redefined the importance of designing tapestry in a way that embraced the integrity of authentic tapestry from the middle ages; this would inspire artists like Picasso to acquire the skills to properly design tapestry cartoons (American Tapestry Alliance).
It was in the beginning of the 14th century that tapestry was first recorded as being practiced (Thomas et al). By this time the technique had been mastered - offering no reference as to when it was first put into practice. What we do know is that during the rise of the Renaissance in the early 16th century, the art of tapestry was alienated by a demand for the medium to emulate easel paintings. This led to traditional colour blending techniques, like hasseur and hatching, to fall to the wayside, forcing tapestry to experience an identity crisis of sorts. Techniques like shape-building dominated this new presence, creating an aesthetic dissimilar to that of traditional tapestry in that it achieved shading and implied dimension by building shapes - as opposed to blending shapes and colour with the above-mentioned techniques. In essence this created a new art form: a derivative of tapestry which effectively displaced traditional techniques.
Western European tapestry history spans the foundation of the Gobelins manufactory in 1662 to the beginning of the third republic of France in 1871 (Thomas et al). During this period the condescension to painting is observed as being the dominant characteristic of tapestry. The commission by Pope Leo X in the early 16 century of The Acts of the Apostles by Raphael (to be woven in the Brussels workshops) is thought be the turning point whereby tapestry was to henceforth be fashioned after designs supplied by painters(1) (Thomas et al). An important point of note is that tapestry's relationship to painting did not begin at the onset of the Renaissance, but in Belgium in 1476, when tapestry weavers worked from paintings which were deliberately created with the intent to guide weavers using traditional techniques. Ironically, at this time painters ostracized weavers for creating their own cartoons, an opinion which became inverted during the Renaissance, where tapestry designers were a specialized group quite separate from painters (Thomas et al).
The 1500's, also saw painters using paint on tapestries and later, specialized glazers (with only ink, wild-grain colour, or chalk) were commissioned to touch up and create defined lines around the shapes on the surface of woven tapestry (Thomas et al). The need for this integration of painting on tapestry has been observed as being the result of poor tapestry cartoons - yet another reason to address the changes in the tapestry world (Thomas et al).
Jean Lurcat himself began as a painter and later a tapestry weaver in 1915 when he was 23 years of age (American Tapestry Alliance). He became intrigued by tapestry weaving when he learned of its history and was especially influenced by the tapestries of Apocalypse of Angers of the 14 century, which he viewed in 1937 (Lurcat). He came away from the experience more sure that scale(2), emotional content and reduction of means(3), or 'scale of pre-arranged colour' were of ultimate importance to tapestry design (Lurcat). Lurcat was already practicing these values and was pleased to see them validated by such an illustrious and historically powerful piece (Lurcat). Consequently, his convictions about how tapestry should be viewed, regarded, and most of all, designed, became stronger. The opening statement of Lurcat's book Designing Tapestry (1950) distinguishes tapestry and easel paintings by their location: tapestry being custom made for a specific sites with large walls (Lurcat). He later refers to tapestry as a medium whose most authentic form is: 1) embedded with content; 2) is invariably large scale; 3) is designed with a scale of pre-arranged colours and; 4) is designed for, and thought of as being forever connected to, architecture (Lurcat); The artist asserts: "I want to remind you that Tapestry knew its proudest moments in a time when a style of extremely grandiose architecture reigned supreme" (Lurcat, 3).
There are many things about tapestry that Lurcat is sure of, like the emphasis of content(4) and the importance for tapestry to continue to thrive as a partner to architecture, ie tapestries would be designed for one specific wall with pre-arranged dimensions. But, the most recurring themes in his book, Designing Tapestry (5), is that of the strict design guidelines of which should be followed in order for the weaver, who is presumably not the designer, to have no artistic freedom so as for the designer, as a result, to be able to design a tapestry cartoon and achieve exactly what they had envisioned. In essence Lurcat recommends a non-interpretive code in which the weaver would have no question as to what the designer requires of them.
Additionally, Lurcat designates that the idea of fashioning a tapestry after a painting, especially one that had originally been painted with no intention of becoming a tapestry(6), was unrepresentative and disrespectful to the art form (Lurcat). An important point of note is that fashioning tapestry after paintings does not allow for a scale of pre-arranged colours - a collection of between 20-40 colours, dyed and then numbered, each shade of red chronologically numbered followed by each shade of the next colour etc (Lurcat). Lurcat believed this method was sure to keep the designer from falling into the tendencies of painting (Lurcat). This approach is also more cost effective in terms of dyeing while allowing for a multitude of combination possibilities. Tapestries woven from paintings during the Renaissance had no limit to colour range, allowing for an innumerable amount of them - which didn’t pay respect to the ‘means of economy’ ie. slowed the process of weaving (Lurcat). Furthermore, Lurcat believed that this characteristic was responsible for distracting from the emotional content of the piece (Lurcat).
“the determination of a few painters, led by Jean Lurcat and Gromaire, hard at work during some of the darkest years our century has ever known, has done more than give us hope for the future, it has given us a lesson to remember”
After a long winded technical explanation, asserting that "Technique and poetry are completely tied up and are essential to each other", Lurcat proclaims that emotional content is essential to a successful design, and states, "Technique is an indispensable tool but it is only a point of departure" (Lurcat, 41), He later states that, "What counts, and it is the only thing that does, is the actual wall hanging and its impact on the spectator" (Lurcat, 53). As I mentioned, Lurcat believed that tapestry fashioned after paintings had the disadvantage of allowing for the possibility of innumerable colours, an aesthetic he believed detracted from this important connection between emotional content and technique (Lurcat). Furthermore, Lurcat boldly states that tapestries which are made after paintings are neither “fine, rich or great” (Lurcat 53).
1) During this time workshops were employed by Flemish weavers who were directed by painters. They are also thought to have influenced the drastic shift in tapestry aesthetic. (TA155)
2) Combined the series of Apocalypse of Angers tapestries measured 724 square meters! (Lurcat)
3) The Apocalypse tapestries were woven utilizing between 17 and 22 colours (Lurcat) - a modest pallet especially in comparison to a painter’s pallet.
4) Lurcat's own tapestries have recurring imagery of animals, plant life, and the sun; that which gives life to everything.
5) Jean Lurcat's Designing Tapestry (1950) was originally called Tapestry Français before it was translated to English in 1950, three years after its first publication. The translator seems to have chosen this title as it more effectively sums up the content of the book.
6) In 1930 eleven artists were contacted (including Picasso and Lurcat), with short notice, and asked to supply paintings that were to be made into tapestries for a traveling exhibition. Only one other, besides Lurcat, was familiar with tapestry designing. The result was that many small scale (1.5 meter canvas) tapestries, woven based on preexisting easel paintings, were exhibited around the world and resulted in many controversies regarding the designing of tapestry (Lurcat)
Lejard, Andre. French Tapestry. Paul Elek Publishers, Paris: 1946
Lurcat, Jean. Designing Tapestry: fifty-three examples both antique and modern chosen by the author/Jean Lurcat ; translated into English by Barbara Crocker Rockliff, London:1950
Panorama of Tapestry: A Tribute to Jean Lurcat. American Tapestry Alliance: 1986.
Thomas, Michel, Christine Mainguy, Sophie Pommier. Textile Art: Embroideries, Tapestries, Fabrics, Sculptures. Rizzoli, New York: 1985.