Wednesday, July 12, 2023

In Short: It was Mind-Blowing

 I returned from a tour of tapestry in France two weeks ago and I'm still processing what I saw and learned.  I expect to be doing that for a long time to come.  Under the expert guidance and unfailing good humor of our leader Cresside Collette, we journeyed from Paris to Angers, Albi and Soreze, and Aubusson, with a few side trips thrown in.  We saw what my Art History 101 professor would have called the "key monuments" of tapestry:  The Lady and the Unicorn, the Apocalypse, and Jean Lurçat's  The Song of the World.  We also saw lots of contemporary work and got behind-the-scenes looks at some of the auxiliary businesses that support the tapestry industry:  mills, dyers, conservators and independent weavers.  It was full-on immersion in tapestry with a wonderful group of textile fans.  I am deeply grateful that the tour did occur, after being postponed three times since 2020.

During the tour, I posted daily on Instagram and Facebook some of my photos and thoughts, so I will not recount all that information here.  The question I keep hearing from fellow weavers--and the question I asked Rebecca Mezoff when she returned from the same tour in 2019--is "how do you think this will impact your own work as a weaver?" (By the way, Rebecca's blogposts on the trip are very complete and well worth a read.)

As you might expect, my answer is complicated and still evolving.  Here are some of my thoughts so far:  

Size matters.  The historic tapestries and many others we saw that were produced by large workshops are huuuuuge.  The viewer is engulfed in them.  You have to stand far back to take them in, and then move in close to appreciate the fine technical detail.  They are spectacular, awe-inspiring, overwhelming.  I came home energized to work larger again--even if as a tiny one-person practice I can't make something wall-sized.  See below Who pays, etc. for more on this. 


Partial installation view of the Apocalypse in Angers.  The full tapestry is over 100 meters long. 

Tapestry commissioned by and hanging in the Cité:  La Famille dans la Joyeuse Verdure (The Family in the Joyous Verdure). 3 meters high by 5 meters wide. 

Technique matters. . . but for me is not enough.  I was in awe at the perfect weaving technique I saw everywhere, the attention to a uniform woven surface, perfect selvedges, gorgeous color blending, beautifully executed hatching and so on.  I returned newly determined to continue to improve my own technique and not to shy away from difficult bits of weaving if it's important to the concept of the piece.  


detail, the Family in the Joyous Verdure

That said, I saw pieces whose technique was impressive but the subject did not seem to me to justify the huge size and the expense of time and effort.  Why did Tolkein's small watercolors need to be translated into a series of large tapestries?  


Conversation with Smaug, Original watercolor by JRR Tolkein, 1937.  3.2 meters by 2.48 meters.  Cartoonists Anne Boissau and Delphine Mangeret.  Woven by Patricia Bergeron, Elisa Gastaud-Lipreau, Aiko Konomi and Natalie Mouveroux of Atelier A2, 2022 

Why do the images of Hiyao Murasaki need to find giant life in woven wool, when they already wow audiences in movie theaters? 

The Moving Castle at Sunset, based on still from film Howl's Moving Castle of Studio Ghibli-NDDMT.    5 meters by 5 meters. 2022-23.

The Cité states that the purpose of these monumental series of work is to reach a worldwide audience for Aubusson tapestry, to pull in with popular narratives the younger viewers who might not otherwise go to see a tapestry.  Fair enough.  Tapestry has always been about depicting epic narratives, and the Miyasaki tapestries have found wide acclaim in Japan.

Who pays for the weaving?  Who designs the tapestry?  Who weaves?  For whom?  These questions may sound crass, but they are at the heart of how tapestry has always been done in France and how much of it is done today.  Huge blockbuster works have always been underwritten by those with power, status and deep pockets.  They are designed to impress, and in some cases intimidate, viewers.  The designs are created by artists who are not weavers, though they may (one hopes) be deeply informed about both the potential and the limits of translating designs conceived in other media into tapestry.  These designs are woven by weavers who expertise is critical to make the best judgments about color and technique to interpret the design.  

This is a very different tapestry ecosystem than most of us individual designer-weavers are familiar with.  We weave on spec, usually, often mostly for our own pleasure, perhaps hoping to find an audience and  a buyer if we are lucky and work hard at it.  We determine constraints of size, timeline, purpose and audience based on our own circumstances.  For most of us, this means we are not weaving tapestries that are both huge and insanely detailed.  

The most extreme version of the workshop system is found at the Gobelins state manufactory of tapestry in Paris (which I thought of privately as the CIA of tapestry, so focused were they on secrecy).  Since the time of Louis XIV, since the time of Louis XIV, workers there--and also at the Beauvais state workshop--have made tapestries for France.  Today, they may take up to ten years to complete a single tapestry that will go into a national storehouse of works available to decorate French buildings and embassies.  Weavers at the Gobelins and at Beauvais may never know where a tapestry that they worked on for years actually ends up. That said, they are on the federal payroll. . . to weave!


Composition after Roberto Matta.  2.72 meters by 4.70 meters.  Wool and silk, 2016.  Woven and displayed at the Gobelins.

Weaving is a powerful creative language.   I am re-committed to exploring weaving as my primary medium, even as I explore other techniques.   As impressed as I am by the power of traditional pictorial tapestry, I am also confirmed in my own recent direction toward mixed media and shaped or 3D work.  I admire so much the expert weaving I saw--there is something undeniably magical in rendering a recognizable scene in tapestry--but that work no longer feels like it is mine to do.  The modern and contemporary weavers I saw who are experimenting with the potential of tapestry were tremendously exciting to me.  

For me, the most moving work retains an essential mystery at its core, a stillness.  I experienced this when looking at the Lady and the Unicorn, the Apocalypse, and the Song of the World.  I will say more about this in the next post.  Here's one 20th century example to whet your appetite:

Zohar. Thomas Gleb, designer. Woven by Atelier de Saint-Cyr/Pierre Daquin, Saint-Cyr-en Arthies.  Cotton and wool. 1970. 

detail, Zohar