Archie Brennan, World Tapestry Today


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World Tapestry Today


*Republished from the original 1988 catalog

A quarter of a century can be of little consequence to a process that has existed in sophisticated form for two – even three thousand years.

However, at a time when the pace of change in all aspects of living has been increasingly astonishing, and when, in the arts, the act of change alone; the simple fact of being different from before, is consistently lauded, the process of making woven tapestry seems, too, to have gone through radical re-thinking.

Time may well show that what seems to be major developments are in fact mere falters. Nevertheless 1962 was the year of tapestry’s first major international exhibition so it is appropriate, a quarter of a century later to look at tapestry today and to consider the changes.

I can recall, in 1958, a private moment of discovery when the surface of tapestry came alive. Today these discoveries may seem trivial and common place, but I remember a great silent excitement – a sneaking sense of guilt. As an apprentice I had tried out various warp materials, warp spacings and warp to weft ratios. But now, when weaving a small tapestry, I had woven a small scrap of seine cotton on top of a tiny passage of ‘standard’ woollen weft. I had been seeking a particular shade of near white but it was the surface contrast between the two materials that set me thinking. Within an hour I had juxtaposed wefts of linen, jute, rayon, sewing threads, silk, and various ‘on the spot’ hand spinnings of woollen yarns.  I had even tried lines of raised soumak knots and discreet tufts sprouting from the surface. And to be in direct contact with the changing surface I was weaving from the front of the upright loom (after ten years working from the back and using a mirror). I still have that tapestry, but it was some years before the real significance of that hour became clear to me.

My silence then was because I couldn’t share the excitement with any of the only three tapestry weavers I knew who were a hundred miles north in Edinburgh. The reality was that around Europe and in other parts of the world there were many weavers busy poking in the same corners and asking similar questions.

My sense of guilt was because I was breaking ‘the rules’ – tapestry rules that had been thoroughly argued in my training – rules finally established after much struggle and resistance in French tapestry workshops just a decade or so earlier.

I had been taught that a ‘proper’ weft was an unbleached worsted yarn of a 3/20 count which has been professionally dyed in 3 or 4 shades of some fifteen light fast colors; and that the right warp material was wool. Over a seven year apprenticeship I had spent long months practicing hatching techniques, open and closed sheds, slit sewing and linking, mathematically graded curves and shapes, stepping, lines, knotting and all the requirements of ‘good’ tapestry. We were advised, too, that tapestry was a mural art, essentially flat in design with no perspective, a bias of vertical movements, and ought to have some kind of protective border edge. But really a weaver should be content to follow the full size ‘cartoon’ drawings. Designing was for artists (in contrast we were also sent to daily drawing classes, given days off to go painting and encouraged to design – all a lively contradiction and an aid to independent thinking).

But there were those other weavers also breaking the rules – even some who never knew these rules, and the first International Biennal, in Lausanne, Switzerland, brought many of these weavers, and their tapestries, together. Wall hangings came from northern and eastern Europe, where the medium has continuous links with handloom weaving. Tapestries came from the established centres in southern and western Europe, from North and South America, and even from Japan. Many of the exhibits were in the ‘established’ manner, but many, too, were unorthodox, or so it seemed, and it is ironic that Jean Lurçat who had such a major role in earlier establishing the modern French movement, with its precise values and restrictions should also have done so much to bring about the Lausanne event. I have little doubt that if he had been born 25 years later than he was he would have been knotting and tufting with the best; certainly Pierre Pauli, a Lurçat enthusiast, a co-instigator of the Biennal and a wise and tireless worker for tapestry – I can recall devilment in the twinkle of his eyes at this turn of events; this new wave of weavers.

That was 1962. What were the changes that began then, and what has happed over the ensuing twenty five years?

It is probable that there is a greater area of tapestry woven today than at any other time in history. This is, in part, because the preferred weave is generally much coarser (and therefore faster) than before, and while some of the great centres of tapestry of the past may be less active, there are weavers everywhere, and the process is now established and flourishing in countries and in cultures with little or no previous tapestry tradition.

It is significant too that for the first time in centuries and perhaps for the first time ever there are more women that there are men involved in tapestry at all levels; as designers, administrators, curator, conservators, teachers, writers – and weavers. I risk some wrath (from either or both sexes) but I contend that women have opened up greater tactile sensitivity and have a great digital dexterity on the whole, and that is all good. (I recall in the early ‘50’s when it seemed so reasonable that girls were not apprenticed in tapestry ‘because after the years of training they would get married, have children and give up weaving’).

There is also irony in the fact that not long ago many people who found employment as tapestry weavers were frequently latent or aspiring artists, but an art education was beyond their reach. Today many weavers come from the ranks of painters, and art students and coming from a creative freedom to a severely controlled and technical discipline is a very different experience from the reverse. The traditional apprenticeship system has diminished. Art schools and frequent workshop classes have taken over much of the teaching and training.

The artist-weaver is now an accepted figure – once unacceptable in many workshops – and where the design process was once precise and pre-determined (although I am convinced that early medieval work gave the weavers a strong interpretive role) this recent period has work woven from the loosest of concepts. At a group workshop level, however, for major tapestry projects and commissions, gallery and museum curators and directors will rather tend to choose or advise that an established (and non-weaving) painter be the designer. This is an entrenched approach, particularly in the western European workshops, and was established in the early 16th century when the artist Raphael was commissioned to prepare cartoons for the series ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. Yet this approach is uncommon in many other regions where tapestry has long been woven, and less common over the whole history of the medium.

Although early medieval tapestries were influenced by and often originated in the illuminated manuscripts of the period, they soon evolved a language of tapestry and the mannerisms and characteristics grew unselfconsciously out of the weaving process. Coptic tapestry, perhaps the source of medieval tapestry which had flourished earlier in Egypt, had its own particular ‘rightness’ too, in a unity of process and purpose. Peruvian weaving and, interestingly, the later Norwegian tapestries had no graphic link whatsoever with brush or pen (and this has been a vital characteristic of much post 1960 work.) All these early tapestries were essentially figurative in content. They were largely narrative too, and again in Peru and Norway, were strongly stylized. From the time of Raphael, however, there was a growing and subsequently overwhelming influence from painters and painting and all the movements within this powerful medium.  The weaving process became extremely skillful and sophisticated. Anything was pictorially possible and the imitated woven brush stroke was commonplace.

The late 19th century brought about a further reassessment, this time in England by William Morris and the pre-Raphaelite group. Tapestry was only a part of this influential movement, and although the hangings were heavily overlayed by the Romantic/Heroic style of that time, the underlying treatment has repercussions as far away as the textiles of Antonin Kybal in Czechoslovakia. The modern French movement under Jean Lurçat has to recognize some roots from Morris, too, with a return to a simple colour range and a prestructured design. Marie Cuttoli’s venture in Paris in the ‘30’s, when paintings by Picasso, Braque, Rouault, Dufy and other ‘Modern’ painters of that period were carried out in tapestry did align tapestry with contemporary paintings but ‘the smell of turpentine’ was strongly evident in the weaving.

By the ‘40’s and ‘50’s Lurçat’s drive and influence had revitalized the French workshops. There was no sign of a painted surface origin in these tapestries. A strong and controlled character surfaced which, when looking back today seems to have links with fabric paintings or paper collage – perhaps because of what today would be called insufficient ‘hands-on’ weaving experience by the Movement’s leaders. There were, however, signs of what was to come, particularly in the design work of Marcel Gromaire then Mategot, Prassinos and Tourliere; in the weaving of Denis Dumontet; in the vision of cartonnier Pierre Baudoin and from a short lived but valuable publication “Cahiers de la Tapisserie.”

By the early ‘70’s and even from the more orthodox workshops, surface changes and different fibres were being used as least discreetly. Added to colour, tone, shape, line, form, rhythm, scale and imagery this “new” feature was now acceptable. Amongst artist-weavers softer natural and earth colours predominated and the surface grew richer and more heavily tactile. Shaped tapestry (re)appeared: sculptured tapestry; layered tapestry; off-the-wall tapestry – and veritable confection of tufting, knotting, crochet, knitting applique – all the textile techniques abounded. Everyone, it seemed was into tapestry or had a niece who was. Tapisserie and Patisserie were indeed being confused.

A number of more structured and restrained textile art works, particularly from Japan helped bring about some order. Sensuality yielded to control and this direction reformed under the labels of Art Textiles and Fiber Arts. The medium of tapestry weaving settled down once more – and not without some gains. These changes have left some confusion in Lausanne, and the Tapestry Biennal has to find a new name, or redefine its scope. This, however is surely a healthy outcome from a vital era which the Biennal did so much to foster.

We have seen the miniature textile movement emerge (more than just tongue-in-cheek counter to the mural nomad label which architect Le Corbusier gave to tapestry).

We delighted in the uninhibited work by the Egyptian children from Harrania. (Were they really ‘children’ – without art influence?)

I have records of tapestries by hundreds of Scots over this 25 years. To my astonishment I have visited some 20 other countries and been enriched by the works of weavers there. Yet my experience is only a small part of tapestry – and tapestry really is only a minor art form.

There are changes again taking place. The peculiar smouldering nature of richly dyed wool has returned to use. And whilst the weave and the very structure of the work has become the image, figurative illusion has again a place. There has emerged an incongruous affinity between photography and tapestry.  And even the ubiquitous hatch reappears.

I have my heroes – and a heroine from my formative years. The names Ron Cruickshank, Pierre Baudoin, Denis Dumontet, Pierre Pauli, Ramses Wissa Wassef, Hannah Reggyn and a lovely old Icelander who couldn’t read or write but wove such powerful images – they will probably mean nothing to the young weavers today.  Even the heroes and the many heroines of these recent years will slip into the shadows. Coptic and Peruvian tapestries may seem less striking, for awhile. The Devonshire Hunting tapestries, the ‘Unicorn’ tapestries, the ‘Apocalypse’ at Angers and those still underrated Norwegian works may seem to lose something of their magic. That is as it should be.

This exhibition of Tapestry Today grows from the long past and the recent history of the medium. And reveals glimpses of the works of tomorrow.

Archie Brennan

Maui, Hawaii, January 1988