The tapestry “Serenity” is now completed and hanging in a private home in Laguna Beach, California.
Earlier this week, fifty-eight years after it was commissioned, a seventy-square-foot wool tapestry by Le Corbusier was finally installed at the Sydney Opera House. The work was originally commissioned by the architect who designed the iconic waterfront opera house, Jørn Utzon. At that time Utzon was an unknown and Le Corbusier, at the height of his career, rarely collaborated with other architects, reports Caroline Taïx, Le Monde’s Sydney-based correspondent
In 1960, Le Corbusier delivered the red and black tapestry titled Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast), but, as the opera was still under construction, Utzon kept it in his home in Denmark. Then, in 1965 amidst construction delays, budget problems, and creative differences, Utzon left the project. In 1973 when the opera finally opened, neither the architect nor the tapestry went to Sydney.
Utzon died in 2008 and The Dice Are Cast was sold at as part of an auction of his collection last year. It was purchased more than $300,000 by donors to the Sydney Opera.
Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textiles. The techniques used have remained the same for centuries. Remnants of tapestries woven in ancient Egypt have been dated as far back as 3000BC.
In the Middle Ages master weavers’ studios designed and wove great, colorful tapestries for wealthy clients. In the Renaissance artists such as Raphael were commissioned to produce cartoons for studios to copy, giving weavers less freedom of interpretation. Surviving tapestries from these times can still be seen, though they sometimes look rather dull and predominantly beige, blue and red. That’s because vibrant yellows, greens, purples and browns have disappeared as the dyes used have faded away.
Today, tapestry weaving is dominated by individual weavers producing their own designs, though a few studios where large tapestries are woven from artists’ cartoons still survive. Traditional fibers (wool, silk and linen) continue to be used, together with cotton and other more modern materials.
The following define a tapestry
|Tapestries are hand woven on a loom. Tapestry looms are either vertical (high warp) or horizontal (low warp).|
|The design is formed by the weft (horizontal) threads, which are tightly packed to cover the warp (vertical) threads. The warp threads are normally completely covered so play no part in the design. This is known as ‘weft facing’.|
|Each color of weft is worked only in its own section of the design, so there are many different wefts on the go at any one time. Unlike other types of weaving, it is rare for the weft to run across the entire width of the piece. This is known as ‘discontinuous weft’ as shown in the diagram.
|Tapestries are usually made to hang on a wall (though rugs, cushion covers and three-dimensional installations can also be made).|
Fine tapestries take a long time to weave, so have long been rare and expensive. Perhaps because of this, the term ‘tapestry’ has been purloined by other techniques to produce textiles and wall hangings, often resembling tapestry but at a much lower cost. Common culprits are:
On any tapestry you’ll see characteristic lines of ridges where the weft threads go over the warp threads. This tells you it’s a genuine woven tapestry. During weaving, and sometimes when completed and hung, these lines of ridges run vertically from the top to the bottom of the tapestry.
But the lines of ridges may run horizontally. This is because tapestries, especially large ones, are often woven so that the warps will be horizontal when hung. This distributes the weight of the tapestry better and prevents the wefts sliding down the warps with time (as happened with the Christ in Glory tapestry at Coventry Cathedral). When hung like this, the design has to be woven sideways on.
OPENING RECEPTION | MARCH 18, 6 – 8 PM | FREE
“Impact” explores the motivations of the artist to create. We ask the artist to answer through their artwork, “What inspires you? Who or what is the driving force behind your need to create? What has left an impression on you that lead you to become the artist you are today?” Whether it is a mentor, an event, a concept, or a personal revelation, this exhibition will examine the many avenues that impact the contemporary artist.
Ann Aurbach, Darcy Berg, Joyce Blunk, Matthew Boonstra, Christine Casten, Dion Dion, Emily Dvorin, Michael Fischerkeller, Morris Fletcher, Marni Gable, Jennifer Halli, Michelle Hamilton, Lisa Hinrichs, Mercedes Jelinek, Kris Kessinger, Ruth Kolker, Ulrika Leander, Heather Macali, Melissa McCutcheon, Ed McKay, Rachel Meginnes, Caitlin Metz, Linda Mueller, William Neukomm, Sara Nordling, Elizabeth Odiorne, Geoffrey Parker, Judith Repke, Rachel Santel, Carolyn Schlueter, Elizabeth Sharpe, Suzanne Sidebottom, Samuel Strecker, Michelle Streiff, Brittany Taylor, Ben Underwood, Barbara Watler, Jerry Walters, Teresa Wang, Peggy Wyman, and David Yates.
Jane Sauer is a studio artist, juror, lecturer, curator and former owner of Jane Sauer Gallery in Santa Fe, NM. She served as Chair of the American Craft Council 1997-2000, besides serving on numerous other art related boards, and is currently the owner of Sauer Art Consultants.
Sauer’s woven sculptures often consist of pairs or small groups and explore human relationships, particularly those in her own life. Her list of honors includes two NEA grants and taking first place at the Fourth International Exhibit of Miniature Textiles at the British Crafts Centre in London. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the American Craft Museum in New York, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Black Night (in 3 parts), Jane Sauer
Concurrence, Jane Sauer
Elaborate Layers, Jane Sauer
Foundry Art Centre
520 N. Main Center
St. Charles, MO 63301
”The destiny of the tapestry of today emerges: it becomes the mural of the modern age,” Le Corbusier wrote in his essay ”Tapestries: Nomadic Murals.” The Swiss-born Modernist architect, theoretician, painter, sculptor and writer (1887-1965) is not particularly known for his tapestries, but he did many drawings for them and clearly felt tapestries were works of art.
Many 20th-century architects and artists, including Picasso, Matisse and Braque, liked having their designs translated into woven wool tapestries, and Miró’s 35-foot-wide 1974 tapestry hung in the World Trade Center until its destruction.
Corbusier made at least 27 tapestry drawings, known as cartoons, from 1936 to 1965, La Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris says. Beginning in 1949, Corbusier began collaborating with a colleague, Pierre Baudouin, to translate his paintings and drawings into tapestries at the Pinton workshops in Felletin, France (next door to the city of Aubusson, another longtime weaving center). In 1961 Corbusier also collaborated with the weavers of Firminy, near Lyon, to have 765 square yards of tapestry made for the Palace of Justice in Chandigarh, India.
Corbusier tapestries do not turn up often, but a few are for sale. A second-generation antique carpet and tapestry dealer, Eddy Keshishian, at 24 West 57th Street, has one that he said ”is almost brand new.” He had planned to show it this weekend at the International Art and Design Fair at the Seventh Regiment Armory, which was canceled because the National Guard is using the armory.
Titled ”La Licorne Passe sur la Mer,” the tapestry was made by Pinton about 1962. It is an abstract design in cherry red, teal blue, white, gray and yellow that depicts women and a unicorn on the sea. It was taken from a drawing for an enamel work, and the white vertical line from that drawing was incorporated into the tapestry.
It is signed by the artist and the workshop and is 8 feet 8 inches high and 11 feet 7 inches wide. The price is $100,000. ”It is part of an edition of six,” Mr. Keshishian said. ”Two were held back by the workshop; one for the artist and one for Pinton. This is No. 4.”
He said a somewhat similar tapestry was shown in a 1992 show, ”Le Corbusier Domestique,” at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, Corbusier’s only building in North America. The building was completed in 1963, the year Harvard acquired its own Corbusier tapestry, ”La Femme et le Moineau” (”Woman With Sparrow”). It was woven at Pinton in 1957 and was later acquired by the center, where it still hangs.
Another Corbusier tapestry is at the Jane Kahan Gallery, 922 Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street. Titled ”Le Canapé” (”The Sofa”), it depicts an abstract figure lying on a couch. It is blue, wine red, beige and black, and measures 70 by 98 inches. Ms. Kahan said it was woven by Pinton after an image done in 1950; it bears the artist’s name and the title and is the first artist’s proof.
Mrs. Kahan added that she had access to seven other Corbusier tapestries. ”Corbusier tapestries are not as rare as Mirós,” she said. She has a Miró ”Night Creature” tapestry from the 1970’s that is 90 inches high by 120 inches wide.
Modern tapestries became popular between the world wars. ”In the 1920’s there was great cooperation between weavers and imaginative artists,” said Charles Fuller, the owner of L’Art de Vivre at 978 Lexington Avenue, at 71st Street, which sells modern tapestries. ”Weaving artists were in great demand. You see tapestries used for upholstery, as wall hangings and as special commissions for ocean liners.”
In the 1970’s the popularity of modern tapestries seems to have peaked. ”Interest in them waned in the 1970’s,” said Beatrix Medinger, the managing director of Viart, a Manhattan concern that buys art and manages collections for corporations. ”Too many were made, and tapestries became a bastardized form of art.”
Linda Parry, the head of the textiles department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, added: ”A number of French ateliers were doing copies of paintings rather than tapestries conceived as tapestries. The whole concept behind them is different.”
Today, many dealers in antique tapestries avoid modern examples. ”Dealers feel that 20th-century tapestries are licensing adaptations, not tapestries made as tapestries,” said Titi Halle, owner of the Cora Ginsburg textiles gallery in New York. ”These dealers do not see them as reflections of great art.”
Nonetheless, the pendulum may be swinging back. ”In the last few years we’ve become a center for fine tapestries because no one else is doing it,” Ms. Kahan said.
After she visited some French weaving workshops, ”I realized it’s a very important art form and more accessible than others,” she added. ”It’s an important medium on its own.”
Ms. Parry, referring to contemporary studios like the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne and the International Tapestry Network in Anchorage, said, ”In recent years, some tapestries have been accepted within the industry as art.”
Both the ancient Egyptians and the Incas buried their dead in tapestry cloth. Some scholars say the walls of the Parthenon were originally covered with tapestries. The Coptics made tapestries from the fourth to eighth centuries.
In the Middle Ages, European monasteries and convents became centers of tapestry weaving. By the late 15th century, tapestries had become status symbols among the aristocracy. Nobles moving from castle to castle took their tapestries with them, to show them off and to use them to insulate their chilly stone castles. Henry VIII reportedly had 2,000 tapestries in 17 royal residences.
In France, Aubusson became an important weaving center in 1662, when Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, designated the city’s workshops ”a royal manufacturer.” In 1663 Colbert imported Flemish weavers to start Les Gobelins in Paris. Some 800 artisans were employed weaving tapestries for the royal court there, and Louis XIV supposedly had 2,155 Gobelins when he died.
France’s tapestry workshops thrived until the French Revolution, when they collapsed from the lack of state support. The Aubusson workshops were not revived until the 19th century, and then they simply copied Renaissance designs.
This situation changed in the 1920’s, when artists like Picasso and Braque got into the act. They did not consider tapestries an inferior art; in fact, they exhibited their tapestries alongside the paintings that inspired them.
In the 1930’s French artists like the Cubist painter Georges Valmier produced cartoons for tapestries. L’Art de Vivre currently has an abstract Valmier tapestry dated 1930 in black, brown and beige. It costs $15,000.
In Aubusson, ”I was asked to bring a new spirit, expressing the spirit of the age,” Corbusier wrote in his essay. He continued, ”Tapestries, drawings, paintings, sculptures, books, houses and city plans are, in my personal case, one and the same manifestation of stimulating harmony at the breast of a new mechanical society.”
Tapestry As An Art Form
By Ixchel Suarez
When we come across the word tapestry, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Probably it would be those ancient huge tapestries generally called Gobelins, where the hunting scenes inscribed in the verdures, take our eyes into a deep field or forest. Or maybe we think of the great fantastic European castles with mythological animals like Unicorns or winged lions. Maybe we would go even further back in antiquity, when Coptic tapestries appeared in several areas of Greece, or we think of the Peruvian lands where plain weaves have been found that date from 1000 BC or even older.
Even though tapestries were known on the banks of the Nile River almost two thousand years before the Christian era, it is likely that the art had been practiced in other, adjoining civilizations even before then. Tapestries were made in western Asia and Greece and also in Pre-Columbian Peru or Mexico as well as in China during the T’ang period.
Since actual textile fragments are rarely preserved, our information about tapestry from those remote times is based largely on written descriptions, paintings or sculptures. Some samples of Egyptian specimen from royal tombs date from 1483 BC. Examples of Chinese tapestries from the 8th century are now in the Taimadera Temple in Japan. Tapestries hanging in the church of St Gereon at Cologne were probably made in that city at the close of the 11th Century. No doubt, these are the oldest examples of tapestry woven in Europe in the early Middle Ages. Tapestries have evolved from diverse techniques of textile forms and shapes. However, the basic structure has remained the same.
As we survey our evidence for the various types of basic weaves thus collected from a wide geographical and temporal expanse, we begin to see some emerging patterns. emerging. Broadly speaking, the materials used for weaving influenced the variety of application and the structure of the woven article in the Neolithic and Early Bronze ages. Eventually, these basic weave structures begin to influence each other. It is undoubtedly no accident that the difference between loom traditions correlates with the division between the European set of weaves on one hand (from the home of the warp-weighted loom) and the Egyptian and Middle Eastern traditions on the other (in two beam ground-loom territory). It is also no coincidence that this division, while it lasted, correlates with the fact who was and who was not using wool. Everyone was familiar with linen, but for Egypt it was in effect the only major fibre. For other groups, wool became more and more important and eventually eclipsed linen. One of the main reasons for the preferred use of wool was the fact that it was infinitely easier to dye and the colours were brighter and therefore even more attractive to the eye.
But let’s not get too deep into structural details. The question remains: Was tapestry an art form then? Is it still an art form now? There is a tendency to compare the art of tapestry with the inseparable art of painting. The distance however is considerable, for there is a basic difference between tapestry which is a manual craft, subject (but not exclusively) to a model, and painting, which enjoys complete creative freedom. Tapestry, one might say, loses certain spontaneity, yet other characteristics which distinguish it from painting contribute to its richness and provide it with immense artistic impact.
There was a time when tapestry was a collective art and could be compared to the performance of a symphony. The “composer” was the cartoon painter and the weavers were the “musicians”. And yet, when one transposes a painted cartoon into the woven work, the weaver, who is both artisan AND artist, must call upon the skill of years of training and even individual personality, to capture every nuance of the tapestry design.
Where, then is the essence or the heart of the weaver when one should follow a cartoon-project but on the way finds the media as the most expressive language? When, in the transfiguration, the project becomes one with the artist? What happens to all those inner forces that during the weaving process seem to attack us, make us feel drawn to this or that material for our project? Is it valid to let our explorations run free – – to interpret our feelings, or should we limit the creative process of weaving to suit the cartoon?
As a tapestry weaver and occasional painter for more than 24 years , I can tell you that one of my main design-related challenges in tapestry is precisely this problem: how to define the boundary between the design in the cartoon and the creative weaving process itself. My background as Graphic Designer has taught me how to compose and create my projects; my weaving skills on the other hand, have taught me how to create the flow, how to use the technique to make it into a defined idea; my artistic perception of the craft/art have led me to experiment with all the different materials available – – not necessarily following traditional practices. It seems essential to me, that sometimes, in order to pursue the idea, the weaver has to sacrifice something to accomplish a goal.
This is tough to do. As an artist, I am constantly choosing between the original project, the technique and the final vision of my work. To sacrifice one in order to preserve the other is for me the ultimate artistic expression.
During the Middle Ages tapestry was a “useful art”. Hangings adorned the walls of royal and princely residences but also those of churches. Chambers of tapestries were effective insulations against draughts. But the fundamental purpose of tapestry was to cover a large surface and offer the possibility of monumental decorations. However, it was the technique which provided the force of expression and it set mural tapestry on the level of great art. That was understood by every well positioned person enamored by beauty, regardless who created the work or where it originated from. . It is in this period that the greatest series of tapestries made their appearance, whether religious, pagan, mythological or realistic. The looms of Europe produced innumerable tapestries to celebrate great individual deeds and conquests or to proclaim the teachings of the Church. Thus we see that in every period in time, tapestry was considered a work of sumptuous, expressive and original art.
During the last century, tapestry lost its role of major importance. Today, after more than a hundred years, thanks to the joint efforts of cartoon painters and weavers, it has once again become an expression of the human spirit. However, it has also generated a particularly controversial debate regarding the division between design, craft and art. To clearly define the role between the painter who visualizes the project and the weaver, who either executes or interprets it, may seem to serve a practical purpose; it is also brutal and somehow rash. It makes no sense to me to get caught up in trying to establish a “supremacy” amongst the many people who are involved in the design and production fiber art. As art, tapestry becomes the media with which to explore and develop possibilities; as such, it is a glorious combination of aesthetics, concept and technique.
Contemporary fiber art is interesting and vital precisely because it exists in the space between the rigid and divisive categories of craft and art. . Tapestries are no longer classified as either functional/educational or aesthetic, but have become interpretations and expressions of individuals. As such, they exist on a new plane. Through these textiles, individuals are able to demonstrate a balance of design and craft.
While recognizing that an avant-garde approach is always important, there is also a need for good, sober, contemporary work that satisfies the mass of consumer design. Ultimately, it is variety that characterizes the renaissance of tapestry production. I am glad that reviving the art of tapestry is breaking free of dogmatism.
The contemporary movement is tolerant of all kinds of content. Tapestry has now conquered elements that have fractured previously strict traditional European techniques. A vast universe of textures, colors and sensorial stimulus has made the explorations of new ideas for tapestry projects possible. As such , it straddles the huge chasm between craft and art.
Tapestry weavers prove with their work that excellent knowledge of the craft of weaving is not enough. One has to be able to express aesthetically what fills the human soul. This has always been at center of the artistic element. Tapestry requires patience. It seems out of sync with the current speed of life, the technological advances and the many forms of rapid communications. Is there no place for such a “slow” and meticulous art as tapestry? Is there no time for infinite patience? My personal refuge is precisely to escape into this kind of “motionless” time. It makes my mind travel to other times and spaces. It makes my body enter into a relaxed state of mind where I can forget about – – but also deal with – – my every- day life stress. I always look forward to the moment when I can sit in front of my frame loom, and enter another dimension on my life.
Tapestry is not only about the craft of weaving, nor is it simply textile artists “doing their thing”. It opens up possibilities of expression and thought. It opens up possibilities to interpret the past and to examine the present. It makes us aware of dogmas and our ability to go beyond .
I wish you weavers many such “woven moments” in your life. Share your intricate feelings with your projects! Tapestry as an art form – – an expression of our innermost self – should never vanish.
For many European tourists in Egypt a stop at the art centre in Harraniyyah is an essential part of their holiday experience. The centre, which was founded in 1952 by the architect Ramses Wissa Wassef, is now a prominent landmark on the cultural landscape of contemporary Egypt and its artistic products are popular with collectors, museums and galleries around the globe. This article highlights a Harraniyyah tapestry recently acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum and considers its distinctive history and design aesthetic.
Despite its established reputation today, the art centre evolved from a bold piece of 1950s experimentation. Its founders, Ramses Wissa Wassef, his wife Sophie and her father, the educator Habib Gorgi, held a passionate belief in the inherent creativity of children; a creativity which they considered to be easily stifled by overly-critical parenting and teaching styles. They were also dedicated to the revival of traditional Egyptian crafts techniques such as pottery and weaving which they felt to be under threat from expanding industrialisation. In 1952 the Wassefs and Gorgi purchased a small piece of land outside the village of Harraniyyah, near the pyramids of Gizah, where they built a small studio in a traditional Upper-Egyptian mud-brick style. They selected several local children and provided each with a loom and locally-grown wool. The children were given no training in design skills and were encouraged to visualise their designs rather than make preliminary drawings in order to preserve the ‘freshness’ of their aesthetic vision. For the same reason, the woven portion of a child’s work was kept rolled up so that the weaver wouldn’t be able to see the whole until the textile was complete.
Design inspiration came in the form of day trips, outings and picnics but the children were also encouraged to draw deeply on their imaginations. No criticism was made of their work as developing the children’s confidence was paramount. Slowly, a distinctive style emerged. The most common subjects were aspects of village life and the natural world. Fantastical, imaginary scenes and creatures also featured. These were depicted in bold colour, with wools dyed onsite using natural dyes according to the centre’s emphasis on self-sufficiency.
Most of the committed weavers were female but in 1959 a twelve-year-old boy asked to join the centre. ‘Ali Salim went on to become one of its best-known weavers. The tapestry recently acquired by the V&A was created by Salim. It is dated 1985 and includes the weaver’s signature at the bottom right alongside the initials ‘W.W’ (for Wissa Wassef). On a label on the back, the maker’s name is also given as ‘Korayem Silem’. Typically, the tapestry depicts a scene from the natural world, ‘Animals by the watering hole’, in which elephants wade, baboons play in a tree, lions hunt their quarry (a herd of gazelles) and birds rest in the trees above. Despite its naïve style, the lively animals and the blocks of colour used to depict the trees, plants and natural landscape give the tapestry an energy and dynamism. The weaving technique is characteristic of the art centre’s style which sought to produce ‘woven paintings’ rather than conventional tapestries. Instead of carrying the weft thread across the full width of the loom Salim has used the coloured wool only where it is needed. This has created an uneven tension across the tapestry and a slightly rippled surface.
The donor of the tapestry brought it from a Harraniyyah workshop the same year it was created. Given to the V&A in 2008, ‘Ali Salim’s piece offers a unique contemporary counterpoint to the Museum’s important and extensive collection of Ancient Egyptian woven textiles.
At the World Fair in Paris in1900, two Norwegian artists were awarded gold medals for their tapestries. One was delighted, while the other was angry and disappointed. These differing responses give some insight into the manner tapestry as an art form would be regarded in the 20th century.
Frida Hansen (1855-1931) was elated at receiving the gold medal, which gave her international recognition. It followed that important museums and major collectors throughout Europe bought many of her tapestries. Gerhard Munthe (1849-1927) was the frustrated recipient. He considered himself a major artist, as a painter, he craved recognition for his painting and not for his”dabblings” with tapestry.
GERHARD MUNTHE. Daughters of the Northern Light (also called The Suitors), 1889.
Munthe was a capable if somewhat pedestrian landscape painter. Educated in Christiania (Oslo), Düsseldorf and Münich, it seems that he sensed a lacking in his naturalistic paintings. He confirms this by stating that he only found freedom to express his imaginative and exploratory skills in what he would term ”minor art forms” i.e. cartoons for tapestry, illustration, jewellery, medals and furniture. Ironically, it was for his”minor” works that he gained enormous public acclaim. These works were considered to express”the Norwegian Soul”, so greedily craved for by a nationalistic public who wanted independence from Sweden. Munthe himself was acutely aware of this and writes, ” When I first ventured into the realm of pattern and decoration, I heeded exactly the colours and forms that to me represented the very Norwegian identity”. His work struck the”spirit of the time” to establish a particular Norwegian identity. Today such a nationalist attitude and ideology would at best be found comic, at worst racist and dangerous.
Munthe’s involvement with tapestry was complicated. While enjoying fame and flattery, he was doubtful, even condescending, about the practice of translating and bastardising his”real art”, into soft woolly hangings. ”Oh, these weaving ladies” sighed Munthe,”they drown my Art in wool”. The dichotomy in Munthe’s thinking epitomises the difference between Fine Art and Applied Art that has had major influence on the development of Art & Design in the 20th century. This dichotomy begs the question”Is, what shall be deemed art, predetermined and prejudged by its media and material, rather than its visual strength and content?”
With a closer look at Munthe’s tapestries, they seem flat and lack rhythm in their contrived pseudo-mediaeval style. Their illustrative content represents a mixture of fairy tales, sagas, and folklore. In their time they were celebrations of a noble and heroic Norwegian past. Today they are interesting curiosities, yet uncomfortable mirrors of their time. They are monumental images that give a direct visual authenticity to the mentality and aspirations of Norway at the turn of the century.
FRIDA HANSEN. The Milky Way, 1898.
Unlike Munthe, Frida Hansen chose tapestry as the expressive media for her art. Her early life had been fraught by disappointment and tragedy. Hers is a story of riches to rags. She married young a wealthy businessman. They lived in grand style in a manor house. Her husband was declared bankrupt and lived abroad for some years. Being destitute and having to care for an extended family alone, Frida moved to a small house in Stavanger. Two of their three children died. In desperation, she started an embroidery shop in her own home. Occasionally old tapestries were brought for repair. These tattered old ”åkle” captured Frida’s interest in the art of tapestry. She received some basic instruction in the craft, had a loom made and began to make her own work. Within a short space of time she began to sell her tapestries, took students as assistants and had exhibitions in major cities. The years of hardship and tragedy had made her self-reliant and had given her an artistic resolve.
Frida Hansen was a self-taught artist. It appears that her knowledge and ability with colour, form and composition came from her gardening experience. The formal gardens she created at their manor house, Hillevåg, were so renowned that they were open to the public at certain times of the year. By the spring of 1895 she could afford to study Mediaeval Art in Cologne, followed by life drawing classes in Paris. Both these ventures are central to her development. The contemporary art of Europe changed the content and image of her art. It moved from a traditionalist and nationalist style to the international style of Symbolism and Art Nouveau. When asked where she got her ideas from, she replied”Ideas? Strangely enough craft and design don’t give me ideas; it is Art that gives me the most impulses”.
Hansen’s allegoric tapestries, elegant and rich in content and composition are ambitious in a renaissance sense. Not only does she speak in an international manner, she transgresses style and reveals personal, intimate aspects of her own life. Anniken Thue writes,” the meeting with French Art Nouveau meant that her beloved garden at Hillevåg was resurrected as pure poems in wool”.
The acclaim Frida Hansen received for her tapestry abroad was never quite equalled at home in Norway. She found herself in the difficult position of being a career woman at a time when women did not even have the vote. Her art was never considered Norwegian in the same idolatry manner that Munthe’s was. Nevertheless she must be regarded as one of the first Norwegian artists to have obtained international reputation.
From 1900 –1930 the art world experienced a fast moving revolution with an array of different movements, from Fauvism to Surrealism. Symbolism and Art Nouveau became passé and were frowned upon by the avant-garde and leaders of taste. At home in Norway, Frida Hansen ran a large studio and patented one of her innovations, called a ”transparente”. A woven hanging with an open warp, used as a ”portièr” or room divider, which allowed light to pass through. By 1920 her art was losing popularity and after her death in 1931 she was totally forgotten for 50 years. Had it not been for Anniken Thue’s resurrection of this artist, her art might still be erased from Norwegian Art History.
HANNAH RYGGEN. Grey Figure, 1961. ©BONO
After the first flourish of interest in tapestry in the early 20th century, very little seemed to happen. Both public interest and artistic impetus ground to a halt, except for one outstanding artist, Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970). She emerged as an artist in the Thirties and stamped her visions on the Norwegian conscience until her death. Born in Malmø, Sweden, she married Hans Ryggen, a painter, and they settled in Ørlandet, outside Trondheim. She started her adult life as a dissatisfied and frustrated schoolteacher. She said of herself that she was awkwardly shy and virtually mute for 20 years. A contrast to her mature years where she proved to be an eloquent and captivating speaker to large audiences, as demonstrated in a radio programme where with great delight she described the use of urine to make ”piss blue”. Hannah Ryggen had some early tuition from the Danish painter Fredrik Krebs in Lund. Tuition in tapestry was limited to using her eyes and asking questions as the course she wished to enrol in was full. Undaunted she bought a ”Flemish” loom and started to weave.
What is singularly special with Hannah Ryggen is that she shows an amazing ability to draw ”in the loom”. Indeed this is precisely what she did, never having a cartoon, drawings or even sketches, and never drawing guidelines on the warp. The whole tapestry was conceived in her head. She said,” the heart, the eye and the hands are the way of tapestry”. Inevitably she used the process of weaving, the structure of the material, and the function of the loom as governors of proportion and composition. Often her compositions are presented in geometric settings. Even more striking is the rhythmic repeat which measures exactly the length that is visible of the tapestry before it is wound down on to the roller. She obviously possessed an exceptional visual memory, coupled with an imaginative and intuitive use of the Golden Section. Her attitude towards tapestry was essentially traditional both technically and formally. She spun and dyed her own wool, using vegetable dyes. Much of her weaving technique and vision echo tapestries from the ”Golden Age” of Norwegian tapestry, 1550-1800.
The strength in her tapestries is its content rather than its technique. Her work was concerned with her close private life as well as great international political issues, and the fusion of the two themes. Intimate and public concerns conveyed with earnest directness. She says of herself ”I am not really a tapestry weaver, it just suited my temperament to express myself in the loom, I found my instrument”. Her ”instrument” played so loud and clear that it heralded many other artists who found tapestry to be their ”tune” In 1964 Hannah Ryggen was the first tapestry artist to be invited to show her work at the important annual exhibition of Norwegian contemporary art, the ”Statens Høstutstilling”. Yet, in the same year she represented Norway at the rather more prestigious Venice Bienniale.
SYNNØVE ANKER AURDAL. Portrait Bleu, 1986. ©BONO
It would take18 years before another tapestry artist would show at the Venice Biennale, Synnøve Anker Aurdal (1908 –1999). In her youth she learnt tapestry weaving in her hometown of Lillehammer, making copies of traditional Norwegian tapestries. She came from a cultured background and wished to be an artist. She applied to the Art & Craft School in Oslo but was refused. An event she remembered with disappointment as she often felt that she lacked the basic fundamentals of art that this school could have taught her. She became a student at the ”Kvinnelige Industriskole” and learnt drawing and flat-loom weaving. After this she started her own school and workshop with her friend Randi Holte.
In the 1940’s, during the German occupation, due to the shortage of weaving materials she made appliqués reminiscent of traditional Norwegian tapestries in their composition. It is with this collage method that we see the emergence of her style and authority. With a collage technique she found a compositional freedom. The elements in her cartoons had the possibility to be interpreted in an open manner in the loom. Synnøve Anker Aurdal is renowned for the experimentation she brought to tapestry. From early in her career she operated freely with the format, shape and proportion of her work in both 2 and 3 dimensions. She introduced untraditional materials, such as, beads, plastic, metal, and mirror, and experimented with surface and colour. In Synnøve Anker Aurdal one sees a thoroughly professional artist who pursued her art and career with discipline and energy. She is a good example of a modernist, her tapestries mirroring this in form and mood. Her work is not involved with narrative. Neither political statement nor feminine issues are subjects in her work. She deals in abstraction and aesthetics.
From her first exhibitions her work was well received. Her intimate acquaintance with the leading modernists of the time taught her much and amazingly didn’t hinder her career. It must be remembered that Modernism, or Abstract Art, was frowned upon in Norway until well into the late 50’s. Anything non-figurative, from Malevitch to Jackson Pollock, was regarded as without content and therefore a threat to Art itself. Synnøve Anker Aurdal’s work escaped this weird polemic only because it was tapestry. Tapestry was somehow outside the debate of real art.
The 20th century is often referred to as the Century of the Woman. Synnøve Anker Aurdal is the outstanding example in Norway of a woman who became a successful modernist with the peripheral media that tapestry is.
Hannah Ryggen and Synnøve Anker Aurdal are two tapestry makers who are involved with art and ideas primarily, and see technique, tradition and craft as a means to an end. Tapestry is often applauded more for its craft than for its visual idea. It is applauded because it is a slow craft that demands patience. Its technical skills can achieve the most virtuoso results. It is a craft that can interpret artists’ cartoons. It is a craftsman’s art, as well as an artist’s craft.
Else Halling (1899 – 1984), in contrast to Ryggen and Anker Aurdal, was primarily concerned with tapestry as a craft. In her view no tapestry could surpass the Norwegian traditional tapestries (1550-1800) in composition, technique or materials. She wished to conserve this traditional heritage. This led her to a thorough investigation into the spinning, dyeing, weaving techniques of these traditional tapestries in an effort to clarify how and why they look as they do. Her greatest discovery was that the old weavers used the hair and not the wool from a primitive breed of sheep called ”spælsau”. This hair was spun hard and gave a particular sheen to the surface. This material was easy to weave, took dye well, and was exceptionally strong and durable. She also found that these old tapestries were constructed using mostly dovetailing and interlocking threads, and believed, wrongly, that these techniques were uniquely Norwegian.
Else Halling ran a professional tapestry workshop, Norsk Billedvev A/S, from 1951 to 1968, where she produced, from artists’ cartoons, commissioned tapestries. These tapestries are to be found in many public buildings. She was also the head teacher in tapestry at the Kvinnelige Industriskole from 1941 to 1964, were she communicated with enthusiasm her knowledge and opinions. She was quite clear in her vision that one person created the cartoon and another with interpretative skills wove it. She didn’t think there was a schism between these two aspects. She didn’t see the point of her students and assistants making their own ideas. They were there to execute other artists’ visions, as indeed other professional workshops do the world over. She believed that she could not teach anyone to be an artist, but could teach technical skills. If these technical skills were not excellent then the tapestry was inferior. Else Halling had a passionate belief that the early Norwegian tapestries were the ultimate form for tapestry. However, younger artists had other opinions, aims and ideals.
JAN GROTH. Sign, 1994. ©BONO
Jan Groth (1938 – ) was one such young artist. While Hannah Ryggen, Synnøve Anker Aurdal or Else Hallings workshop never achieved a true international reputation and recognition, Jan Groth has. Known for his elegant non-figurative white motifs on black grounds, his work gives breadth to the nature of tapestry by incorporating vibrant contemporary western ideas with an understanding of eastern calm. His visual language finds expression in many media, drawing, fine prints, sculpture and tapestry. His ex-wife, Benedikte, in Copenhagen, weaves his tapestries while he has lived most of the time in New York and Oslo. In New York he taught, not tapestry, but the development of students ideas in many differing media. He works in a post-modern global situation, and this is reflected in his work. While some term him a minimalist, he says he is not, though his work is refined and sparse.
1968 saw the student uprisings in Paris and elsewhere. A call for change, political, cultural, social and educational was heralded. 1970 saw this revolution take place amongst Norwegians artists. Their Union campaigned, demonstrated and won the right to negotiate directly with the government and not through middlemen. This was an incredible achievement, which gave political and social benefits to Norwegian artists, and foreign artists living in Norway that was unheard of elsewhere in the world, with the exception of Holland who achieved similar rights with their government. The benefits that befell the artists included a guideline for qualification to the professional artists union, more grants and stipends, a guaranteed minimum wage for qualified artists over 40, and that 2% of the building cost of all state buildings would be allocated to the commissioning of art. These measures created a vast expansion of artistic activity, particularly in the field of public art where tapestry was very popular with architects. Art and artists were to be incorporated into the fabric of society. The term “artist” referred to all individuals involved in the Arts, writers, actors, musicians, etc. Norway had a long tradition of being a social democrat state, and with this background it is easy to understand how artists became political animals once the starting pistol had been fired in Paris. The impetus and energy of this movement enabled the creation of more chapters within the various Artist Unions. The Norwegian Textile Artists Association was founded, having a predominance of artists who worked with tapestry. The majority of people involved with flat weaving, fabric printing, embroidery, knitting etc. were organised in the Crafts Union.
Generally tapestry is regarded as a craft, an applied art, and not a fine art. With these political and social changes for artists something quite unique had been accepted. Tapestry was accepted as a fine art, which gave the status of artist and not craftsman to tapestry weavers. This meant that they could compete with other artists for stipends, exhibitions etc. They gained their own jury in the annual state exhibition (Statens Høstutstilling), which brought public interest and critical acclaim.
Through this political activity the work of many talented artists was given prominence in the 70’s and 80’s. As stated, tapestry became a significant partner with architecture in many state, county and private institutions. Tapestries for the first time were purchased by the National Museum for Contemporary Art. Many of the artists responsible for this breakthrough are still active today and their names and work, together with younger artists, can be found on http://www.absolutetapestry.com
Today tapestry no longer fights for its right to be an art medium. It is just one of the many vehicles available to artists for the expression of their ideas. Yet, in contrast to the electronic media that is fast, cool and fashionable, tapestry is an anachronism. It’s slow, tactile and sensual and appeals to different judgements and sensations. The contemporary attitude that it’s the idea that is paramount and the medium is of secondary importance is also applicable to tapestry, as can be seen in the work of many young artists.
Contemporary Norwegian tapestry is well represented in international exhibitions and certainly echo’s the sentiments of the jury for the Artapestry exhibition of 2005 who wrote: ”Today we actively seek a new form, directions, purpose, even justification for woven tapestry”, which highlights the search for a new dynamic for tapestry in the 21st century.
During the 20th century the terms art and craft, fine art and applied art and the status of art have had differing interpretations. Likewise artists’ attitudes, ideals and practise have also changed. The public, critics and historians have also found differing criteria for what is acceptable as art and art practise. Art itself is an organic organism that is constantly changing form, direction, content and meaning. Its nature and function are increasingly difficult to understand. Art is an on-going debate and knowledge of its past gives creative fuel for argument. Of the artists discussed here there are differing aspects worthy of examination. Hannah Ryggen was the most traditionally based artist in terms of her practise. She did all the work herself and could not have assistants as she wove directly from her ”heart”. Many lay people would call her a true artist because everything was hand-made by her own hands. However, Munthe, Hansen, Anker Aurdal, and Groth could never have achieved what they have produced without assistance. Does this make them lesser artists? Is their technique better because they didn’t weave the tapestries themselves? What is most important, who had the idea or who wove the piece? But it is quite clear it is the artist who gets the status and renown, not the craftsperson. It is quite curious that while it was, and is acceptable that Gerhard Munthe had ”ladies” to make his tapestries, it would never have been acceptable that others made his paintings. Why was this the case when it is recorded that Titian, Rubens etc. all had assistants who did the donkey work.
Where did Andy Warhol get his idea for ”the Factory”? It is Andy Warhol’s signature that creates his work, not the physical labour, as it was Frida Hansen’s style that gave her work its particular personality. But did Frida Hansen regard herself as an artist or a craftsman, or both. Were her ideas art, but her tapestries craft? Did the artists who produced cartoons for Else Halling consider the tapestries she made to be art, or just an applied art? Would Jan Groth’s art be better if he concentrated on weaving his tapestries himself? At different times during the last century these questions would solicit very different answers and opinions. Today the answers might be more similar. In the post-modern era new media has created new art forms. What was once seen as not art is art today. Photography is very much art today, yet fine prints are not acceptable if they are mechanically produced. They still must show the direct touch of the hand of the artist / craftsman. Ordinary mass produced objects become art by a change of context. Electronic media and performance has opened up new horizons. Artists are their own art as with Gilbert & George. Art can and is made of anything. Nothing is sacred. Plagiarism has become appropriation. Salvador Dali’s last great anarchistic gesture was to sign and sell blank sheets of paper for others to fill with the kind of (Dali-esque or not) art they liked.
Theories abound and none are correct. Questions are more correct than answers. Is art a part of the entertainment business? Are artists’ personalities more important than their art? Where would art be without its ability to shock, it’s craving for publicity, and the financial investment that is placed in it? In a fragmented society with a rich heritage the artists’ stands free to select whatever ideas, media, methods and content they wish
Swedish Landscape in Fine Art and Tapestry