”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.”