What is tapestry


What is Tapestry?

Tapestry is a great mural art. We look back to its high point in the Middle Ages and marvel at the power of those great suites. But why is this? Great tapestries tell stories. They record the past and project the future.” Sue Walker, “Threads of Life,” 2001

Here . . . are the dreams, the legends and the everyday occupations of our mediaeval forefathers, naively related by Gothic tapestries; the pomp, the power and the glory of kings boasted by the tapestries of Flanders, Italy and the Gobelins; and our 20th-century conquests, our joys and our anguish, and our artistic experimentation mirrored in contemporary tapestry.” –Joseph Jobe, 1965, Great Tapestries: The Web of History from the 12th to the 20th Century.(Edita S.A. Lausanne, Switzerland)

What is tapestry? From past to present, tapestry is arguably the most expressive and versatile of the textile arts. Tapestry-woven objects range from wall hangings to carpets and seat cushions, to garments, hats and shoes. They may be huge or tiny. They might be flexible or stiff, somber or bright, rough or smooth. And most importantly, their designs may be almost anything under the sun.

From prehistory to the present day, people from many cultures and times have created and used fabrics in tapestry weave (which is defined and illustrated below). Pre-Columbian Inca tunics, Egyptian Coptic medallions, Chinese k’ossu, Middle Eastern kilim carpets, European wall hangings, and Navajo blankets and rugs all utilize the handwoven tapestry technique.

Navajo Indian ye’ii rug designed & woven by Mary Long, Santa Fe Collection

Today, tapestry remains a rich art form, with varied imagery, textures, and shapes. Contemporary designs range from bold abstraction to convincing realism.

Tapestry Defined

What is tapestry? Tapestry weave is a specific, hand-woven, textile construction. In tapestry designs, the different colored threads of the weft interlace with the foundation threads of the warp, and the color makes a pattern. We define tapestry with a classic characterization by Irene Emery in her book, The Primary Structures of Fabrics—“weft-faced plain weave with discontinuous weft patterning.”

Tapestry weave with interlocked join Tapestry weave with slit junctures
Tapestry weave with dovetailed join Tapestry weave with diagonal juncture
Whether using horizontal (floor) looms or vertical (upright) looms, weavers may employ either simple or complex mechanisms, but the tapestry artist always operates the loom by hand and must interlace each yarn, pass by pass, across the fabric. The artist’s interlacing of adjoining colors, one by one, gives tapestry its expressive character.
Tapestries may contain yarns of any fiber or combination—wool, silk, linen, and cotton are the most common. The front and back of a tapestry may be identical, each with the completely finished design and all yarn ends concealed. In contrast, many tapestries show the final image only on the front, and the reverse side reveals a tangle of loose threads.

Tapestry Variations

The GFR Tapestry Center acknowledges the fascinating gray areas between tapestry and related techniques. Tapestry weave has spurred many innovations, sometimes through the use of differing fabric structures. For instance:

  • Kashmiri shawls employ a complex twill tapestry weave instead of plain weave.
  • Navajo weavers sometimes use a two-faced tapestry weave in which wefts have over-1/under-3 interlacement and different patterns appear on each side of a rug.
  • Navajo rug with two-faced twill & tapestry weaves, designed & woven by Lucy Wilson, Santa Fe Collection
  • Contemporary tapestry weavers may break with tradition by exposing warps, floating wefts over more than one warp, or embroidering on top of their woven work.
  • “After Big John’s Special,” a GFR Tapestry designed by Clifford Ross, woven by Mollie Fletcher in handpicked overshot weave (“rosepath” variation), 1978
In considering what books to add to our library or which artists to include in our reference files, the GFR Tapestry Program focuses on weavers worldwide whose works derive in some way from classic tapestry techniques. We tend, however, to be inclusive rather than exclusive in our choices. Hurrah for variety!

Commission a tapestry by Meghan Carter


DSCN2231    Wall tapestries have a long history that stretches back well into the Middle Ages where kings and lords commissioned large teams of artisans to produce elaborate suites of tapestries to adorn the walls of their castles. Amazingly, tapestry artists today are creating even more beautiful and elaborate works of art that can adorn the walls of your castle, or single-room, loft apartment. You can even have a tapestry commissioned, creating a one-of-a-kind, personal piece of art for your home. To help you do just that, I sat down with tapestry artist Pamela Tophan and had her walk me through the tapestry commissioning process. After all, who better to get advice from about tapestries than from a tapestry artist.Step 1: Determine What you WantHow can you find someone to make you something if you don’t know what it is you want? So, sit down, and spend some serious time reflecting about what would fit best in your home and in what location the tapestry would hang. You can find tapestries that range from gorgeous landscapes, Pamela’s specialty, to minimalistic, modern motifs. Use your imagination and see what comes out. If you can imagine it, you can find an artist to create it.

Step 2: Find the Right Tapestry Artist

Once you know what you want, it’s time to become more familiar with tapestry community. Search the Internet, browse galleries and find tapestry artist that do work similar to what you envision.
“Look around at many different tapestry weavers,” Pamela suggested. “You can see on the Internet now, you can find different artist, and it gives you the idea of the composition because it’s very hard to copy the texture. So, if you take some time to look around and find the kind of thing you like and then you might have a studio visit to that artist and sit and talk with them.”
According to Pamela, having an in-person conversation is very important because both you and the artist must be on the same page. The end result is really a collaboration between both your vision and the artist’s vision. So getting to know the artist and selecting an artist that fits with your vision in vital.

Step 3: Setting up the Project

Once you have narrowed your artist search and found the best artist for your particular tapestry, it’s time to make the necessary arrangements. Those include deciding on a size, rough timeline and price. The size is determined by what you would like in the envisioned space. The timeline will depend on the scale and complexity of your piece and the artist’s prior engagements.
“I could be able to say, ‘okay I can start that right away,’ or it could be, ‘I have to finish this and I’m putting together a whole show; I can’t start till next November,'” Pamela explained. “But if I can start it right away, then I’ll know about how long it will take, a month, two months, whatever.”
As for the price, that will vary greatly depending on the artist and the piece. But the important thing to remember is, no matter the price, get a contract. Often artists will let art galleries handle the business arrangement, which frees the artists to concentrate on doing what they love: creating the art.
“You can write out a contract so that everybody knows what to expect,” Pamela said. “Mostly I’ve dealt with the gallery, and they’ll write up the contract so that the business side is taken care of. If you’re doing it personally, sometimes that can be a little harder. So, it’s nice to have that professional, you know, the gallerist that knows exactly how this is done and that’s how they get their commission.”

Step 4: Approving the Mock-up

With the logistics out of the way, you and the artist can begin the creative process where you describe what you envision, with photos, words, in writing, etc., and the artist translated that into a rough sketch. Now, no two artists have the same creative process, but in general there will be a rough sketch, and once it is approved then the artist will start weaving the tapestry.
“For the most part you’re going to start with a drawing of some sort,” Pamela said. “You might come to [the artist] with a photo graph and say, this is a place where when I was in Italy, and I want this in tapestry.  Then for me I have to work from a drawing, I can’t work from a photograph. So I’m going to interpret that photo in a drawing, and then it goes from the drawing to the weaving.”

Step 5: The Unveiling

With much anticipation, the finished tapestry will be delivered on site and installed where it can be admired and enjoyed for years to come. Just as no two wall tapestries are alike, no two commission processes are the same, and the amount of satisfaction during the unveiling hangs on how well you handle the process as much as how talented the artist.

Art Consultants

An art consultant is a person who consults individuals or businesses about which pieces of art they should acquire. This advice may be used for a wide range of purposes, from building a personal collection for enjoyment, to designing an art program for a chain of hotels, to building an investment portfolio. Fine art is considered a relatively stable long-term investment, if properly handled, and so many individuals or businesses with money to invest turn to it in times of economic turmoil.

Wealthy individuals often turn to an art consultant when purchasing a new house, or redecorating an existing house, to help them get the art on the walls that they most want. The art world is in constant flux, and keeping track of which pieces are for sale, and what new artists are hot, is a full time job. A skilled art consultant will meet with a client and get a feel for their likes and dislikes, take down their budget, and note any specific pieces the client is looking for. They will then help track down the desired pieces at auction, and recommend new or unexpected artists to help fill out the collection. Rates for consultants vary widely, depending on expertise, overall budget, and the size of the desired collection.

Businesses are also often in need of art for their locations, and they may hire a freelance art consultant, or may have an in-house art consultant. These consultants are responsible for keeping a cohesive feel throughout the business’ many properties, staying within budget while reflecting the feel of the company. Hotels, for example, may use a number of art consultants to design a comprehensive art program for their chain, either with similar art throughout, or with regionally-appropriate art.

Finally, an art consultant may serve principally as an investment adviser to individual or corporate clients. In this case, the consultant is expected to have a very comprehensive understanding of trends in the art world, including which new artists are rising stars, which artists are undervalued, and where large risks may be taken for potentially large gains. These consultants work hand in hand with clients to diversify an art portfolio at auction, or through private sales to reach the level of risk-to-gain they desire.

Most art consultants have at least an undergraduate degree in Art History, or a similar major, and many have advanced degrees. Many art consultants have worked in some professional capacity in the art world before becoming independent consultants, often working at large auction houses, or in galleries. A number of large art consulting firms exist, as well, employing tens or hundreds of employees in order to cover various specialties for clients.

In addition to traditional framed fine art, many consultants work with other types of art as well. Some consultants specialize in textile arts, while others specialize in sculpture, or installation arts. Many consultants also have a background in interior design, and, as part of their services, may offer to broker other decorative pieces, such as antiques, or craft objects.

Contemporary International Tapestry


For Immediate Release                                                                                                                     Media Contact:

David Harding

Email: dave@hunterdonartmuseum.org

Three Generations of Tapestry Artists Featured in HAM Exhibition

Clinton, NJ  – Tapestries might conjure up images of medieval castles, unicorns and other mythical beasts, but a new exhibition at the Hunterdon Art Museum weaves a fascinating picture of how the art form has evolved in the past 70 years.

Contemporary International Tapestry highlights the work of three generations of artists from nine countries who are elevating tapestry to a whole new level of technical and aesthetic excellence. The exhibition opens Jan. 11, 2015, with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. featuring talks from artists from around the world. Everyone is welcome to attend.

“At the Museum, visitors can appreciate in intimate settings all aspects of the broad scope of today’s tapestries and the individuality of their makers,” said Carol K. Russell, curator for the exhibition and a leading expert in the field. “There is no sameness of imagery; no stiffness of the noble class; no disconnect from present-day life and concerns.  People, animals, symbols, abstractions – and even new ways of visualizing a familiar thought or theme – are brought to life in the hands of artists from various cultures and countries. “

The exhibition featuring 39 artists will fill three of the four Museum galleries, includes loom work by some of the most renowned artists working today, among them:

  • Archie Brennan, a leading international figure in tapestry for more than 25 years.  Brennan joined his fellow artisans in 1948, as an apprentice, and has served as director of the prestigious and award-winning Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh.
  • Joan Baxter is inspired by the rich cultural heritage and wild beauty of the highlands of Scotland where she resides. “I choose to work in the traditional woven tapestry medium because I like the way my initial ideas can develop and expand during the slow and deliberate making process,” Baxter notes. “The process, although a very ancient one, allows me to push boundaries in design, technique, materials and concepts.”
  • Designer Yael Lurie and tapestry weaver Jean Pierre Larochette have collaborated on work for more than four decades and across three continents.  Lurie, daughter of a painter, was brought up in a kibbutz in Israel and trained as a painter. Larochette, born in Argentina, is descended from a long line of French Aubusson weavers. The two met through the patronage of Jean Lurcat, the Frenchman widely credited for reviving tapestry in 20th-century France. “The history of tapestry in the U.S. in the latter part of the 20th century owes much of its success, direction and development to Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie” according to Susan Martin Maffei, another internationally known tapestry artist whose grand-scale tapestry appears in HAM’s exhibition.
  • Polish artist Włodzimierz Cygan has always been on the cutting edge of tapestry and textile architecture and continues to reinvent his medium and his messages. Such talent has been rewarded with the Bronze Medal at the sixth International Fiber Art Biennial from Lausanne to Beijing and Zhengzhou, China. His tapestry, Orbitrek 29, earned the Grand Prix at the 12th International Triennial of Tapestry in Lodz, Poland.

“We hope visitors will take away a new perspective on an ancient art form,” Russell writes. “Tapestry can and shall endure through the centuries, though its messages have become more personal. The art form has indeed evolved and become its truest self in the hands of individuals.”

Other artists featured in the exhibition are: Jo Barker, Helga Berry, Rebecca Bluestone,  Elizabeth J. Buckley, Soyoo Hyunjoo Park Caltabiano, Alla Davydova, Annelise De Coursin, Susan Edmunds, Alex Friedman, Ina Golub, Barbara Heller, Susan Hart Henegar, Silvia Heyden, Dirk Holger, Peter Horn, Constance Hunt, Susan Iverson, Ruth Jones, Aino Kajaniemi, Jane Kidd, Lialia Kuchma, Christine Laffer, Ewa Latkowska-Żychska, Bojana H. Leznicki, Lore Lindenfeld, Julia Mitchell, Janet Moore, Jon Eric Riis, Ramona Sakiestewa, Micala Sidore, Elinor Steele, Sarah Swett and Linda Wallace.

To commemorate and celebrate this exhibition, Russell has written a new book, Contemporary International Tapestry, to be released by Schiffer Publishing early next year featuring images and information about the artists included in the exhibition.

The exhibition closes May 10, 2015.

The Museum also plans several programs related to the exhibition:

  • Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, at 2 p.m. – Weaving Demonstration and Guided Tour with curator Carol K. Russell. Free with admission. Registration is required as space is limited.
  • Sunday, March 22, 2015, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  – A Day of Contemporary Tapestry featuring lectures with artists Archie Brennan and Susan Martin Maffei as well as an interactive demonstration with Brennan.
  • Sunday, April 19, 2015, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. – Handweaving Tapestries with Carol K. Russell for children ages 6 and up.


The Museum is at 7 Lower Center St. in Clinton, New Jersey, 08809. Our website is www.hunterdonartmuseum.org and our telephone number is 908-735-8415. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 am – 5 pm and suggested admission is $5.


The Hunterdon Art Museum presents changing exhibitions of contemporary art, craft and design in a 19th century stone mill listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Founded in 1952, the Museum is a landmark regional art center showcasing works by established and emerging contemporary artists. It also offers a dynamic schedule of art classes and workshops for children and adults.

The tapestry of the Skog Church in Sweden

From Pagan to Christian:

The Story in the 12th-Century Tapestry of the Skog Church, Hälsingland, Sweden

by Terje I. Leiren University of Washington, Seattle

The Skog Church Tapestry

This woolen tapestry on a white linen background dates from around the middle of the 12th Century, shortly after Sweden’s conversion to Christianity. The tapestry, originally from the Skog Church in Hälsingland, Sweden, has been in Stockholm’s Museum of National Antiquities (Statens Historiska Museum) since 1914. It is more than just a tapestry, it tells a story of a culture in transition.

The tapestry contains a stave church in the center with a congregation inside the church. On the eaves of the church roof are two dragon heads. There is a bell tower in the church and another next to the church itself. Animals, believed to be lions, are approaching the church from the left, while horses, and soldiers/knights, approach from the right. Traditionally, this has been seen as the church under attack. To the far left of the tapestry are three figures, usually thought to be Scandinavian kings/saints Olaf, Knud, and Erik. In fact, these are not only Christian saints.

The Viking Trinity

According to Adam of Bremen: “If plague and famine threatens, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Odin; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frey.” Because Odin, the All-Father, was generally more feared than loved and subsequently kept at a distance, his son, Thor, assumed the position as favored deity. He was the protector and trusted friend. Some myths associated with Thor had him as almost human, with his foibles and gullibility. His hammer came to be used as an amulet, not only to signify the wearers allegiance to the old faith, but also as protection against the evils abounding. Odin and Thor were the most prominent members of the militaristic Æsir family. Frey, god of fertility and fecundity, led the Vanir family, the early opponents of the Æsir. However, a truce between them brought Frey to Valhalla and elevated his status to be one of the Norse trinity. With the conversion to Christianity, the Norse trinity, although driven underground by the Christian church, nevertheless, remained significantly conspicuous, albeit in changed form. Scandinavian/Viking kings could easily be depicted as representions of the earlier pagan deities without the authorities of the Roman Church being any the wiser. In the same way that an anonymous woodcarver craftsman working on the Borgund Stave Church in western Norway could put a representation of the one-eyed Odin on the top of a column in the dark upper reaches of the sanctuary, so too could an artisan represent the pagan gods as medieval kings and/or saints. Consequently, with his axe, St. Olaf came to be associated with Thor and his hammer. In the tapestry, however, there seems to be a mixing of deities, as St. Olaf with his axe represents not Thor, but the one-eyed Odin who is placed next to a representation of a tree, perhaps the Yggdrasil from which he had hung. In addition, King Knud, killed at the alter of St. Albans Priory in Odense, Denmark, is placed in the middle, holding a Thor-like hammer(the crucifix?), while King Erik ( the fertility diety, Frey) flanks him on his right holding an ear of corn. This arrangement, with Thor in the middle, is similar to Adam of Bremen’s description of the idols in the great temple at Uppsala where Thor is said to be flanked by Odin and Frey.

The Bells

It was generally believed by medieval Scandinavians that bells cleansed the air, purging it of evil spirits. According to Rimbert in his Life of St. Ansgar, church bells were considered unlawful by pagans. Perhaps they frightened the spirits. Christians, of course, had no such qualms, indeed they probably sought to intimidate those very same spirits protected and nurtered by the pagans. Bells, of course, called the Christian faithful to worship, but there was a far stronger symbolism at work. When Gustav Vasa, during the Lutheran Reformation, around 1527, began confiscating church bells for metal to help restore the state treasury, it aroused such indignation among the citizenry that his royal authority itself was threatened and pretenders to the throne began calling for his overthrow.

Dragons and Other Animals

Just as bells frightened spirits and cleansed the air around a Christian church, dragon heads were placed on the roofs of stave churches to frighten away evil spirits. Although today, animal heads on the stave churches give it a quaint appearance, their use in the architectural structure in the 12th and 13th centuries was, however, very serious business. In old Icelandic law, it was illegal to bring a ship, with its dragon-head bow, directly into land for fear of offending the spirits of the land. Christian converts did not give up their traditional beliefs in pagan spirits, but instead of protecting and placating the spirits, it was the church and the worshippers inside which now had to be protected. Dragon heads, therefore, served a useful purpose as a part of the church structure. Dragon heads on the church in the Skog Tapestry face out as a protective force for the Christian faith, the faithful and the physical structure of the church itself. The dragon is only one of a number of animals (real and mythical) in the Viking religious universe. While the dragon is attacking the roots of the Yggdrasil (the World Tree), a squirrel runs up and down carrying insults between the dragon and the eagle in the canopy of the tree. Most prominently, of course, the Fenris Wolf and the World Snake are two of the representations of evil and chaos itself in the Norse world view. All animals were not evil or threatening. In Christian Scandinavia, the lion, an animal not found in Scandinavia, represents power and royal prestige. In the pagan world, Odin is also associated with animals –his magical horse, Sleipnir, and his two ravens (Hugin and Munin) who served as his “eyes and ears to the world,” bringing him news of all developments.


The transition from Paganism to Christianity in Scandinavia was not an easy one for Scandinavians to make. The Swedish writer, Vilhelm Moberg, called it the “300-year War.” From the time of the appearance of the first Christian missionaries in the early 9th century until the final conversions in the 11th and 12 centuries, Pagan Scandinavia was under constant pressure from the forces of the “White Christ.” When leaders converted, pressure on the people was increased, of course. Olaf Trygvasson’s forced conversions in Norway, as well as Charlemagne’s two hundred years before him in Saxony, were no less brutal than any pagan Viking raid. The transition between paganism and Christianity, however brutal and uncertain it might have been, nevertheless, saw a merging of cultures and beliefs. The art and the architecture of the time certainly demonstrate this. We see it reflected in various elements of stave church construction and also in such things as the Skog Tapestry. What, then, of the numerous gods and spirits? Many survived by going underground and are found in Scandinavian folklore and popular belief. Trolls are not unlike the giants of Jotunheimen who constantly battled the gods allied against them. In some instances, trolls are just as dim-witted as the giants themselves appear to have been. The principle deities, however, were too easily recognized by the authorities in the Church, and were, therefore, forced to take deeper cover. If you look carefully, however, you can occasionally find them in medieval iconography, often disguised as kings or saints. What better way to keep Thor and Odin alive and out of the clutches of the Christian authorities than to dress them up to look like medieval Christian saints? Terje I. Leiren Department of Scandinavian Studies University of Washington

Norwegian | English

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. Within this vast horizon of possibilities tapestry still has a role to play if the artist creates it.

The use and function of tapestries


Although it is not known exactly when the first tapestry was produced in Europe, by the early Middle Ages workshops throughout the continent were producing textile hangings, which were among the most prestigious objects owned by the well-to-do. When some unknown artist or weaver, probably in northwestern Europe in the middle of the 14th century, conceived the idea of representing stories in these weavings—as opposed to merely decorative patterns—tapestry embarked on its own glorious career in the figurative arts.

Tapestry bears a close relation to painting; it is a pictorial art and often done on a large scale. Moreover, some of the best tapestries were designed by artists who were renowned painters. Unfortunately, this connection has all too often cast a shadow on the medium in immeasurable ways. Some have viewed tapestries as mere copies of paintings or as little more than interior furnishings, leading viewers and art historians to neglect them or at best consider them of lesser significance.

Because tapestries are made of pliable fiber, they can be rolled up and are thus far more easily transportable than framed paintings. This flexibility permitted royalty, nobility, church dignitaries, and other wealthy tapestry owners to bring pieces with them on their travels. Tapestries carried in this manner included relatively small hangings with biblical images that were used as votive images for daily prayer and moments of personal reflection. In contrast, larger tapestries were hung in castles, abbeys, and mansions for decoration and to line drafty halls and rooms in an era before central heating. For major state and religious ceremonies, tapestries were also hung on the outside of buildings, suspended from balconies or attached directly to exterior walls, lining the streets (see illustration to the right).

Tapestries were often produced in suites (also called chambers) of multiple pieces that together tell a story. When hung together in a large space such as a gallery in a royal residence, a cathedral, or church, or even in a sizeable room, such a set could both command and unify the space. The pieces would frequently abut one another, creating a massive, continuous visual field akin to a mural, and that, like a mural, could be “read.”