Tapiserije: The Art of Atelje 61 in Vojvodina, Serbia

Atelje 61 From Sketch to Tapestry           Atelje 61 Tapestries from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s          Curator’s Biography


This exhibition is part of ATA’s Laffer Curatorial Program, funded by a generous donation from Christine Laffer.


Essay by Ulrikka Mokdad

The Petrovaradin Fortress stands on the top of a cliff on the right bank of the Danube. On the left side of the mighty river lies the city of Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia and the administrative seat of the province of Vojvodina. When the fortress that dates back to the 17th century, had no longer any military significance after World War II, the army moved out in 1952 and large parts of Petrovaradin were transformed into artists’ studios.

In 1961, some of the residing artists decided to set up a workshop where professional weavers were to create tapestries from artists’ cartoons. Especially the renowned painter Boško Petrović together with textile artisan Etelka Tobolka took an active share in establishing the Atelje 61, as the workshop was named. Petrović, Tobolka and the others were inspired by the re-creation of European tapestry art, which had taken place in the French tapestry workshops of Aubusson during 1936-1945 under the leadership of Jean Lurcat. An exhibition of French tapestry art that was shown in Belgrade in 1953 made an indelible impression on Petrović, and became crucial for his idea of introducing woven tapestry as an art form in Yugoslavia.

The newly established workshop Atelje 61 came to occupy Boško Petrović’s empty studio in the middle of the Long Baracks of Petrovaradin, where the workshop can still be found today.

During the first decades, the financial situation of the workshop and its staff was often insecure. A number of times Atelje 61 faced the threat of being closed down. In 1980, however, the Atelje 61 was recognized as a Labour Organization for the Making of Tapestries of Special Importance to Society, and the City assembly of Novi Sad signed itself as its founder.

Marija Vajda, Letters, 84″ x 79.5,” 2013, photo: Ulrikka Mokdad. Wool, cotton. woven by Mirjana Dobanovački and Željka Popadić

The weavers

As Serbia and the rest of Yugoslavia had proud traditions of flat-woven rugs in kilim technique, it was not difficult for Petrovic and Tobolka to find capable weavers among the inhabitants of Novi Sad. Opposite to the workshops of Aubusson, where tapestry weaving had been carried out by male artisans since the Middle Ages, weaving was considered women’s work in former Yugoslavia. Thus, the first generation of Atelje 61 weavers working in the 1960es and 1970es were weavers who had learned the craft from their mothers. The present permanent staff of eight talented weavers have a very different background compared to the first generation of weavers. They have all received artistic education at the Novi Sad School of Design “Bogdan Suput”, except for Ewa Kozielska Djukic who is originally from Poland and who has been trained at the renowned tapestry school in Zakopane. Ewa moved to Serbia at a young age and she has worked at Atelje 61 since 1984. She teaches all the weavers how to work at the high-warp loom and quite often, she still weaves the most challenging parts and details of the tapestries. During its more than fifty years of existence, the incredibly skilled weavers of the Atelje 61 workshop have produced more than 800 tapestries designed by more than 200 different artists. Every single artwork produced in the workshop is marked, not only with the cartoon artist’s initials, but also with Atelje 61’s monogram in the lower left corner. On the reverse side of each tapestry, the production year and the weavers’ names are attached.

The looms

In the workshop, four very large and solid high-warp looms are located, each one of them can be set up for tapestries up to about 4 meters wide. The looms are set up with a thick un-bleached cotton warp from a Serbian spinning mill. Most tapestries are woven with 7.6 epi, but in special cases cartoons with large amounts of very small details require a closer set up of 10.1 epi and a slightly thinner warp. The tapestries are woven face up, and instead of working with bobbins, the weavers use butterflies of yarn for the weft, which is beaten down by ordinary table forks. Most of the weft yarns are made of wool, sometimes un-raveled, though also linen, cotton, silk and other materials, such as plastic or tapes, may be used depending on the wishes of the authors.

The tapestry colonies

In 1988, the Museum Collection of Atelje 61 was founded, and by that time, a cataloguing began of the almost 100 tapestries in the workshop’s stock. At present, the Museum Collection consists of more than 260 artworks, most of them designed by famous Yugoslav painters. In recent years, however, quite a few foreign artists have been invited to Novi Sad in order to supply the weavers with new cartoons for weaving. After weaving, all cartoons are stored in a special storeroom, while the new tapestries woven from the guest artists’ cartoons enter the Museum Collection. Ten years later, in 1998, The Atelje 61 started to arrange the so-called Boško Petrović tapestry colonies in order to develop and encourage the art of tapestry. Every second year, a small group of artists are invited to stay and work at the Petrovaradin Fortress for ten days. Each participant must prepare a sketch for one cartoon, enlarge it to full size on brown paper and then colour it during the time of the colony. For the first colonies almost all of the participants were artists from the academies of Novi Sad and Belgrade, but recently the tapestry colonies have become more international with invited guests from the Croatia, Slovenia, Finland, Bulgaria, Canada, The Netherlands, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Poland and, in 2014, also from Denmark.

Nynne Savery, “Flipper of the Whale,” 71″ x 71″, 2015, photo: Filip Dolinaj/ Atelje 61. Woven by Jelena Božić and Vesna Grbić, wool and cotton

The exhibitions

Back in June 1962, the 19 very first tapestries produced by Atelje 61 were exhibited at the Army Hall in Belgrade, and already in July the same year, they were presented to the public of Novi Sad at the Matica Srpska Gallery. The first twenty years of the workshop’s existence were characterized by an intense exhibition activity. Thus, the tapestries travelled around the globe and were exhibited in museums as brilliant ambassadors of Yugoslav textile art. The tapestries were sent all the way to Rio de Janeiro in 1963, and the following year they reached Sao Paulo and Mexico City. In 1964, a number of the tapestries were shown in Scandinavia as part of the exhibition “Yugoslav Rugs and Ceramics”. From 1967-1969 a travelling exhibition named “Yugoslavian Tapestries” was shown at 14 different art galleries and museums of the US, including the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

About 1980, however, the number of exhibitions began to decrease and fewer invitations came from the galleries and museums in foreign countries. The 1990es became a quiet decade when it comes to exhibition activity, while the world surrounding the Petrovaradin Fortress and the tapestry workshop broke into flames due to nationalist tensions between different ethnic groups of former Yugoslavia. The tensions turned into a violence that resulted in several wars – and finally led to the division of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In recent years, the number of exhibitions have begun to increase again, although most shows take place in Novi Sad and Belgrade as well as the neighboring countries Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovenia. One can only express the sincere hope that once again the large museums all over the world will send for the tapestries of Atelje 61, thereby allowing new generations of spectators to experience this unique textile heritage.