The marks used for the very graphic shading on the faces and necks in both of these tapestries rejects the idea of subtle, illusionistic shading, celebrating instead the graphic mark making of the woven color blending techniques. This small fragment from Northern Europe shows a similar application of flat pattern on a garment and a stylized rendering of hair.
Maffei’s method of weaving without a cartoon might be believable when we consider the smaller pieces or the tapestries with single figures that we have seen to this point. However, her facility in thinking directly through the warp and weft has grown in ambition. Washington Square is an early example of how all the factors present in Maffei’s work – the emphasis on discrete shapes, the use of strong flat colors, the manipulation of pattern and the shifting spatial planes are brought to play in developing an image which is more complex pictorially and narratively. Maffei speaks of her process in the following way,
“ I form a visual picture in my mind of the possible overall structure or composition. … Sometimes I will resort to thumbnail sketches to try and clarify the overall tonal relationships. … I…begin to weave. The first bit being the most crucial since it can often set the scale for everything to come. In most instances the piece will follow the general overall image and the working out of details is what allows the the day dreaming aspect of long hours to develop the story.“ 3In Washington Square figures build upon figures in a vertical fashion, one shape on top of another as the weft progresses up the warp. At a distance the crowded group becomes an abstract pattern of contrasting values and colors. Up close we recognize the individual elements of the image. Maffei states,” I see the overall image and the mark making of the details as two separate items that work on different levels and develop at different times to form the whole.”4 Different levels of interest at different viewing distances is also a characteristic of medieval European tapestry. At a distance tapestries such as “The Vices Beset Sinful Man” appear as a broad composition of figures and action. Despite the difficulty of reading the image at this distance it holds our interest because of the way the placement of the colors creates a dynamic movement across the field. Up close we see the individual details of dress and action that allow us to recognize the specifics of the narrative.
In Washington Square figures and buildings overlap each other, but the sense of three dimensional space is confused by the density and uniformity of the figures, the use of strong, flat colors, the exaggerated recession of the chess board, highlights occurring on different sides of the windows, the flat cutout appearance of the buildings and the lack of a horizon line. The large figures peering out of the tiny window in Maffei’s tapestry are reminiscent of this detail from the 6th tapestry in The Hunt of the Unicorn set. Washington Square is both a lively and patterned narrative of chess players and, through its mixed messages regarding space, a commentary on representational conventions.
3 Artist Statement.
4 Artist Statement.