The Underlying Beauty of Tapestry

Perhaps there’s something inherently intriguing in the binary structure of a tapestry. Absent the rich, wet application of oil paint, a canvas isn’t very interesting, and without a chisel, that block of marble won’t be carved. It’s the same with warp and weft, the twin forces without which there would be no tapestry: The warp threads create the unseen structure holding the whole thing together, and the weft threads form the pretty pictures visible to all. Usually the two are joined on a vertical loom via skilled human hands.

Threads—whether wool, silk, linen, or even gold—also draw us with their texture. “Part of the appeal is the medium itself—it’s tactile,” says Alice Zrebiec, a consulting curator at the Denver Museum of Art. The warmth of a tapestry isn’t just visual. In the old days before central heating, tapestries were hung to prevent drafts from getting through stone walls. A painting never had such an elemental, practical duty.

Shown above is one of a pair of radiating tapestries, Purple Cool/Warm by American Richard Anuszkiewicz (b. 1930).

Tapestry as Social Commentary

But tapestries are no longer just charming throwbacks for viewing in museums. The other track of the current resurgence is among contemporary artists. In an age when nearly everyone is considered a multimedia practitioner, the woven textile is proving irresistible. “The whole tapestry format has been revived to an extraordinary extent,” says David McFadden, a curator at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City.

He points to Turner Prize–winning British artist Grayson Perry’s traditional textiles that comment on modern society. Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry of 2009 (shown above) has the teeming pattern of a Baroque beauty, but on closer inspection, the names of powerful brands like Microsoft are woven in, too. “He’s part of a generation that has rediscovered the pictorial format of tapestry and found it extremely seductive,” says McFadden.

A Living History

Part of the appeal to today’s artists comes from our basic need for stories. “Sequential narrative goes back to ancient times,” says the Met’s Campbell. “Tapestry, because of its scale, provides a place for lots of narrative.” That was part of the appeal for William Morris, who led a mini revival in the late 19th century because of his fondness for medieval arts. “And there was a further renaissance in the 1930s and ’40s” among French artists like Jean Lurçat, says Campbell.

Pictured above: Led Zeppelin founder and lead guitarist Jimmy Page collects Pre-Raphaelite tapestries such as The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail (1890–1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. It is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through May 19. See their website for more information.

Art and Collaboration

Some designers only create the cartoon—as the preliminary design is called—and then outsource the actual weaving to a skilled workshop to create the tapestry on a loom. That was the method for some top artists of the 20th century, which saw a resurgence in a form that had changed little since the Renaissance. It was especially true among artists better known for working in other media.

Alexander Calder, famous for his mobiles, applied his unique sensibility to tapestry; so did the great modernist architect Le Corbusier and the painter Sonia Delaunay. They showed that unicorns and hunting scenes weren’t the only subjects appropriate for tapestry; the form could also be abstract or gestural. Made in editions of six, these tapestries are more available today than pieces that are centuries old.

Shown above is Russian-born painter Sonia Delaunay’s abstract Helice from 1971.

Tapestries in Contemporary Culture

The developments of the 20th century paved the way for artists like Sheila Hicks, who had a large retrospective in 2011 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. She alternates between making free-form fiber sculptures and weaving tapestries at a loom. Hicks, who is based in Paris, is currently in the middle of a commission from the French government to create a tapestry in the famed Gobelins workshop, established in the 15th century as a decorative arts center with tapestry at its heart.

“They’re so labor-intensive,” says Hicks, who is devoting two years to this new project. “It’s so much more challenging to make one, but once it’s finished, there’s a great sense of accomplishment.” Her current 9x6-foot piece at Gobelins, an abstract composition that references landscapes, will be in wool. Her colors are evocative in and of themselves: gold, bronze, ochre, cadmium, and moss green, the last of which is a venerable tapestry tone because of its frequent use in woven Renaissance landscapes.

Hicks loves many things about this form, including its portability. “A tapestry is an old-fashioned thing that fits our nomadic existence,” she says. “You don’t just hang it on the wall and contemplate it. It’s an extension of your life. You can even wrap yourself in it.”

Shown above is a 20th-century French tapestry woven in the Aubusson workshop of Raymond Picaud and signed by French artist Marc Petit.

Working with Modern Materials

But who says tapestry has to mean wool and silk? Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese have been working for nearly 10 years in their Brooklyn studio on 50 Different Minds, a fiber-optic tapestry that’s woven on a loom. The fiber-optic threads get their orders from electronic sources. One of the sections is fed by Twitter—if a lot of people use the word crimson, it turns red. “In the 21st century, we find our stories threaded and networked through the Web,” says Ligorano. As Reese puts it, “Data is just another material.”

The glowing, mysterious beauty of the abstract composition they have created is merely the next step in the tapestry story, which has been going on for thousands of years and shows no signs of ending.

Shown above is the digital tapestry, 50 Different Minds, woven in fiber-optic threads by artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese.

I See Unicorns

Living with tapestry doesn’t require a castle. The large interiors common to modern suburban houses are surprisingly amenable to them. “They were conceived for large spaces, and they look great in modernist interiors,” says New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Campbell. “Paintings, when they’re large, have a sheen and a reflection. But a large textile brings a warmth and a unique coloration.”
Campbell discusses top tapestries to seek out:

• The Unicorn Tapestries, the Met (Cloisters), New York. These seven panels, woven in Brussels around 1500 and depicting a unicorn hunt and capture, “have a complex allegorical scheme, like great poetry,” says Campbell, who explains the tapestries have a higher-quality weave than that of their Parisian counterparts.

The Lady and the Unicorn, Cluny Museum, Paris. Six panels, woven in Flanders in the late 15th century, take human senses as their allegorical theme. “Magical,” says Campbell. “The figures have a poetry and grace to their conception.”

The Hunts of Maximilian, Louvre, Paris. Flemish painter Bernard van Orley around 1520 had 60 weavers working for two years on this famous series about a Hapsburg duke’s outing. “Perhaps the richest visualizing of Renaissance Europe that survives,” says Campbell. “They have a cinematic sweep.”

Sistine Chapel tapestries by Raphael, Vatican Museums, Rome. “People don’t realize the Sistine Chapel was originally hung with tapestries woven in silk and gold,” says Campbell of the commission by Pope Leo X to depict lives of the Apostles. “They cost even more than Michelangelo’s ceiling.” Raphael challenged the weavers to introduce perspective, “opening up a whole new era in tapestry design.”

A Tapestry of Your Own

You don’t have to be an archduke to buy a tapestry. “There are some amazing older tapestries available at auction for $20,000 to $30,000,” says the Met’s Thomas Campbell. Or less: A mid-18th-century piece from the great weaving center of Aubusson went for about $12,000 in 2009 at Sotheby’s London. (That city and Paris are the best places to buy pre-19th-century tapestries.)

If the cartoon design is by a famous name, it will go for more. François Boucher’s The Flute Player, circa 1778, is $185,000 at New York’s Vojtech Blau gallery.

Shown above is a tapestry by French designer René Fumeron.

A Tapestry of Your Own

For animal- and nature-themed pieces by the likes of Jean Lurçat, who led a revival among French weavers in the mid-20th century, pieces range from $10,000 to $100,000; the same is true for the work of Le Corbusier, Sonia Delaunay, and Alexander Calder, who made their names in other media.

Whatever the tapestry, a few rules apply: Keep it dirt-free and out of the light. “The sun is a killer,” says dealer Simona Blau. “And no major temperature changes, as the fibers expand and contract. Silk is the most delicate.” When it comes to tapestry, age is ultimately less important than condition.

Shown above is Alexander Calder’s Green Ball, woven in Aubusson in 1971.

Reading List

If you were awed by the Met’s “Threads of Splendor” show (and who wasn’t?) in 2007, read Met Director Thomas Campbell’s Tapestry in the Baroque: New Aspects of Production and Patronage.

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Tapestries in the 21st Century

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Tapestry as Social Commentary

But tapestries are no longer just charming throwbacks for viewing in museums. The other track of the current resurgence is among contemporary artists. In an age when nearly everyone is considered a multimedia practitioner, the woven textile is proving irresistible. “The whole tapestry format has been revived to an extraordinary extent,” says David McFadden, a curator at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City.

He points to Turner Prize–winning British artist Grayson Perry’s traditional textiles that comment on modern society. Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry of 2009 (shown above) has the teeming pattern of a Baroque beauty, but on closer inspection, the names of powerful brands like Microsoft are woven in, too. “He’s part of a generation that has rediscovered the pictorial format of tapestry and found it extremely seductive,” says McFadden.

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