||19th and 20th Century Tapestries
England: Arts & Crafts Movement
Most 19th-century tapestries were reproductions of paintings or previously woven designs. The influence of the Industrial Revolution was significant of course, not just in tools, materials and dyes but also in the emergence of a new middle-class market and its demands. The arrival of tapestry-making machines and mechanical weaving became an obvious threat to the survival of the original craft, prompting much debate by artists belonging to the Arts and Crafts Movement of late 19th-century England, who recognized the need for a renaissance of decorative art in general, and tapestry art in particular. Highly critical of the loss of individual creativity, these artists revived the traditions of medieval craftsmanship in order to counter the effects of industrialization on the decorative and applied arts. The movement was led by the artist William Morris (1834-96), who set up a tapestry factory at Merton Abbey in Surrey near London. Morris himself, together with the painter-illustrator Walter Crane (1845-1915) contributed cartoons, but most of the tapestries woven at Merton were designed by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). Other, bolder tapestry designs were created in the 1880s by the artist Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851-1942), who in 1882 founded the Century Guild, the first of many groups of craft-designers and artists to follow the teachings of William Morris. The latter also influenced a number of progressive artists in late 19th century France. For instance, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Emile Bernard (1868-1941) were among several painters who took an interest in tapestry weaving, though they did not actually do tapestry cartoons as did Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). Arguably the most adventurous British-designed tapestry of the 20th-century is the enormous “Christ of the Apocalypse” (1962), which was designed for Coventry Cathedral by Graham Sutherland (1903-80), and woven in France on Aubusson looms.
Scandinavia and Central Europe
During the late 19th century there was a resurgence of tapestry in Europe based on folk traditions. This trend, already evident in Norway when great efforts were made to base a modern tapestry art on native medieval weaving traditions, was led by Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929), a well-known painter, and Frida Hansen (1855-1931), a traditional weaver. More recent 20th century developments have occurred in Sweden and Finland, thanks to the work of Marta Maas-Fjetterstrom (1873-1941), one of the best known Swedish tapestry artists, and the freer, more colourful tapestry art of Finland exemplified by Martta Taipale, Laila Karttunen, and Dora Jung. The religious authorities in Scandinavia have been unusually receptive to this art. Traditional folk weaving has also sparked a revival of tapestry making in central European countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and especially Poland where mid-20th-century designer-weavers like Magdalena Abakanowicz and Wojciech Sadley have employed unconventional materials such as sisal, jute, horsehair, and raffia, to emphasize the nature of the material, and its tactile plasticity.
Germany also experienced something of a revival of tapestry weaving around the turn of the century. At Scherrebek, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, a small tapestry industry was established during the period 1896 to 1904. This was followed by similar ventures at nearby Kiel and Meldorf. However, the most significant development in German textile art (as well as in most other applied art), took place at the Bauhaus design school, where tapestry was produced during the period 1919-1933. Abstract in composition, Bauhaus designs were rooted in the idea that the technology of the craft should be revealed in the work and in the nature of the materials used. Anni Albers (1899-1994), wife of the abstract painter, stained glass artist, and Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers (1888-1976), was the leading Bauhaus tapestry weaver. Following World War Two, tapestry workshops were opened in Munich and Nuremberg, while individual weavers worked throughout Germany and in Vienna. But unlike in France, German artisans turned more towards stained glass, rather than tapestry.
Although there are a small number of individual designers working on their own looms in the United States and Canada, most large-scale American tapestries are European imports. In Latin America the revival of indigenous folk crafts has aroused interest in tapestry making in Mexico and Panama, while other centres of tapestry design have emerged in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.
20th Century Tapestry Revival
Following World War I, coinciding with the avant-garde ideas emerging from Germany’s Bauhaus, France instigated and then led the 20th-century revitalization of tapestry as an art. Many of the great modern artists – Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque (1882-1962), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and Joan Miro (1893-1983), to name but a few – gave permission for their works to be reproduced in 1932. These reproductions were executed with exceptional fidelity under the direction of Marie Cuttoli. The Aubusson tapestry factory, which was chosen for this important weaving, once again became a great centre of activity. At about the same time the French painter and tapestry designer Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) – under the influence of Gothic tapestry, especially the 14th-century “Angers Apocalypse,” and in conjunction with Francois Tabard, master weaver at Aubusson – formulated the basic principles that were to make tapestry a collaborative art in its own right. Under Lurcat, tapestry rediscovered the coarser texture and bolder if more limited colour palette that characterized original medieval tapestries.
Somewhat later, in 1947, Lurcat established the important Association des Peintures Cartonniers de Tapisserie (Association of Cartoon Painters of Tapestry), in which a number of Lucat’s disciples like the French tapestry designers Marc Saint-Saens and Jean Picart Le Doux were also active. Dom Robert, a Benedictine monk whose fantastic tapestries were mainly inspired by Persian and medieval European manuscript illumination, was another follower of Lurcat. Other important French designers included the artists Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), as well as the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965).
By the 1950s, tapestry designs were becoming increasingly abstract. Among the most distinguished sets were the monochromatic tonal abstractions designed by the sculptor and engraver Henri-Georges Adam (1904-67). Other abstract textile designers of post-war hangings included the sculptor Jean Arp (1887-1966) and the painter, later Op-artist, Victor Vasarely (1908-97).
Post-war Belgium witnessed its own mini-revival of tapestry art. In 1945 the Forces Murales movement was set up in Tournai by cartoon painters such as Louis Deltour, Edmond Dubrunfaut, and Roger Somville, who became the foremost designers in the Belgian tapestry industry. Then in 1947 a Tournai collective tapestry workshop known as the Centre de Renovation de la Tapisserie, appeared and flourished until 1951. Small workshops continued in operation across Belgium, particularly in the cities of Brussels, Tournai, and Malines.
This renaissance in European tapestry may be associated with the austerity of modern architecture. Not unlike medieval castles, the often vast expanses of bare wall surface in contemporary buildings provides highly suitable settings for large-scale wall hangings. The modernist Swiss-born architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), known as Le Corbusier, often described tapestries as “nomadic murals”, highlighting their importance as movable decorations.
In 1962, the first international tapestry exhibition was staged at Lausanne in Switzerland, which after 1965 became a major biennial event. This showcase of contemporary textile art is clear evidence of the enormous worldwide interest in the medium generated in the middle 20th century as well as the immense variety of associated designs, materials, and techniques.
Computerised Jacquard Looms
Since the 1990s, tapestry has confirmed its status as a form of fine art, following the computerisation of the Jacquard process by artists such as the innovative portraitist Chuck Close.
Tapestry is different from all other forms of patterned weaving in that no weft threads are taken the full width of the fabric web. Each unit of the pattern is woven with a weft, or thread, of the required colour, that is carried back and forth only over the section where that particular colour appears in the design or cartoon. Like in the weaving of ordinary cloth, the weft threads pass over and under the warp threads alternately, and on the return go under where before it was over and vice versa. Each passage is called a pick, and when finished the wefts are pushed tightly together by a variety of methods or devices (all, read, batten, comb, serated finger nails).
The thickness of the warp determines the thickness of the tapestry fabric. In Medieval Europe, the thickness of the wool tapestry fabric in works like the 14th century ‘Angers Apocalypse’ tapestry was roughly 10 to 12 threads to the inch (5 to the cm). By the 16th century the tapestry grain had become finer as tapestry began to imitate painting. In the 17th century, the Royal Gobelins Tapestry factory in Paris used 15 to 18 threads per inch and 18 to 20 in the 18th century. The other royal tapestry workshop at Beauvais had as many as 25 or even 40 threads per inch in the 19th century. These exceptionally fine grains make the fabric very flat, like the surface of a painting. In comparison, the grain of 20th century tapestry approximates to that used in 14th and 15th century tapestry. The Gobelins factory for instance now uses 12 or 15 threads per inch. The grain of silk, of course, is much finer than those made of wool. Some Chinese silk tapestries have as many as 60 warp threads per inch.
European tapestry is woven on either a vertical loom (high-warp, or haute-lisse) or a horizontal loom (low-warp, or basse-lisse). Of the two methods, low warp is more commonly used. Among the great European tapestry factories, only the Gobelins has traditionally used high warp looms. Several weavers can weave simultaneously on either kind of loom. According to the complexity of the design and the grain or thickness of the tapestry, a weaver at the Gobelins can produce 32 to 75 square feet of woven textile a year.
Tapestry Designs & Cartoons
In European tapestry-making the Medieval cartoon, or prepartory drawing, was usually traced and coloured by a painter on a canvas roughly the size of the tapestry to be woven. By 1500, the weaver usually wove directly from a model, such as a painting, and therefore copied not a diagramatic pattern but the original finished work of the painter. By the start of the 17th century there was a clear distinction between the model and the cartoon: the model was the original reference on which the cartoon was based. Cartoons were freely used and often copied.
More than one tapestry can be woven from a cartoon. At the Parisian Gobelins factory, for example, the famous 17th century ‘Indies Tapestry’ set was woven 8 times, re-made, and slightly changed by the baroque painter Francois Desportes (1661-1743).
The border of a cartoon was frequently redesigned each time it was commissioned, as each customer would have a different personal preference for ornamental motifs. Often, borders were designed by a different artist from the one who designed the cartoon. As an element of design, however, borders or frames were important only from the 16th to the 19th century. Tapestries from the Middle Ages and the 20th century rarely used a border, as the latter merely serves to make the tapestry resemble a painting.
Because a fully painted cartoon is very time-consuming, 20th century designers have adopted a range of alternative methods. The cartoon is sometimes a photographic enlargement of a fully painted model, or merely a numbered drawing. The latter type, conceived by the famous French tapestry designer Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) during the Second World War, is a numbered system where each number corresponds to a precise colour and each cartoonist has his own range of colours. The weaver refers to a small colour model provided by the painter, and then makes a selection of wool samples.
Where a high warp is used, the weaver has the full size cartoon hanging beside or behind him. While the low warp weaver places the cartoon under the warps, so he can follow it from above. In both cases, the main outlines of the design are laid out with ink on the warps after they have been attached, to the loom.
Wool is the most widely used material for making the warp, or the parallel series of threads that run length-wise in the fabric of the tapestry. The width-running weft, or filling threads, are also most commonly made of wool. The advantages of wool are wide-ranging. It is more available, more workable and more durable than other materials, and in addition can be easily dyed. Wool has often been used in combination with linen, silk or cotton threads for the weft. This mixture of material is ideal for detail weaving and for the creation of delicate effects. Light coloured silks were often employed to create pictorial effects of tonal gradation and spacial recession. The glow of silk thread was often useful for highlights or to create a luminous effect when contrasted to the duller woollen threads. Silk was increasingly used during the 18th century, especially at the Beavais factory in France, in order to achieve subtle tonal effects. The majority of Chinese and Japanese tapestries have both warp and weft threads of silk. Pure silk tapestries were also made during medieval times at Byzantium (Constantinople) and in parts of the Middle East. Pure linen tapestries were woven in ancient Egypt, while Egyptian Christians and Medieval Europeans sometimes used linen for the warp. Both cotton and wool were used in Pre-Columbian art to make Peruvian tapestries as well as some Islamic tapestries during the Middle Ages. Since the 14th century, along with wool and silk, European weavers have also used gold and silver weft threads to produce a sumptuous effect.
Dyes commonly used in Europe included: (1) Woad, a plant similar to indigo, which yields a good range of blues. (2) Madder, a root from which reds, oranges and pinks could be obtained. (3) Weld, an English plant whose leaves produce yellow. (4) A mixture of weld (yellow) and indigo (blue) was used to concoct green. For more about colour, see: Colour Pigments.