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.