What is contemporary tapestry? Well, it is . . . a coarse, vigorous organic fabric . . . It is heavy with matter and heavy with meaning. But it is more, it is heavy with intentions. It is this which secures its magnificence to man and therefore to the building.¹
So said French painter, Jean Lurçat, credited not only with championing tapestry as a significant architectural element but also with the renaissance of the French tapestry tradition. Soon after the end of World War II, Lurçat gathered a group of French artists at the Aubusson Tapestry Workshop to pursue a new approach to the age-old textile, arguing that tapestries were the ideal wall decoration to replace frescos.2
The history of the art of Western tapestry, and of the famous European workshops associated with it, is integral to the history of painting and architecture. Tapestry has played a time-honoured role in architecture, humanising spaces in buildings both public and private through its natural charm and its softening effect, both texturally and acoustically. The revival of tapestry in the twentieth century claims inspiration from medieval times when workshops — which had been trying to imitate paintings and compete with each other for fidelity of reproduction — returned to the principles of weaving based on traditional methods, and artists began entrusting their designs to the skill and judgement of workshop weavers.
Since its inception in 1976, the Melbourne-based Australian Tapestry Workshop’s (ATW) philosophy has been to employ weavers that are trained artists to work closely with the artists who design the tapestries — to create unique works of art, rather than just reproduce a design in woven form. As founding director Sue Walker said, ‘each [tapestry] is an original work of art created through the dynamic interaction of the artist, the weaver . . . and the collector or client commissioning the work’.3 Over the last three and a half decades many notable Australian and international artists and architects have collaborated with the ATW’s artist-weavers.
A notable example was when Romaldo Giurgola, architect for Parliament House, Canberra, welcomed the collaboration that resulted in Arthur Boyd’s Great Hall Tapestry (1984−88), one of the largest tapestries in the world. ‘What is important to me’, he said, ‘is the Workshop’s potential for collaborative work, work which transcends the usual barriers between client and architect or between architect and artist or between built forms and works of art.4
The process of interpreting an artwork and creating a tapestry is a complex and fascinating one. The Workshop first selects a colour palette based on the artwork from the ATW’s range of dyes — over 370 colours on wool and more than 200 colours on cotton, all hand-dyed — and then weaves interpretative samples. The upright loom is prepared for weaving by wrapping cotton warps (yarns placed lengthwise in the loom) around the bottom roller and then threading them through the reed (a series of parallel wires that separate the threads of the warp). The loom is now ready for the cartoon — traditionally a sketch based on the art work but, for the ATW, is usually a black and white photographic enlargement or a line drawing — which becomes the design for the tapestry. The weaving can now begin and collaboration between artist and weaver continues throughout. On completion the tapestry is rolled up on the top roller so that the image can be viewed before it is cut off.
Over the last 35 years the ATW’s skilled weavers have produced an extraordinary collection of tapestries for a wide range of purposes. Monumental tapestries have been commissioned as part of the design of iconic buildings and notable suites of tapestries and significant examples of public art have been created. Commissions within Australia and internationally have resulted in an array of tapestries for private, public and corporate art collections.
Two of the nine artists in this exhibition are John Coburn and John Olsen, both of whom were among the first to collaborate with the ATW. More than any other Australian artist, Coburn displayed a true affinity with the tapestry medium, designing almost 100 tapestries over the four decades of his life. Coburn’s love of tapestry was triggered by seeing the 1956 exhibition of contemporary French tapestries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which inspired him to live and work in France for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He produced a number of tapestries with the Aubusson Tapestry Workshop including the acclaimed Sydney Opera House curtains, but, the establishment of the ATW in 1976, allowed him to shift production from France to collaboration at home.
John Coburn, Garden of Life, 2000. © The artist/Australian Tapestry Workshop
Coburn’s bold graphic forms and vibrant colours were an ideal match for tapestry translation. His deceptively simple curvilinear forms were a challenge for weaving, with competence in producing a ‘Coburn curve’ the benchmark of a highly skilled weaver.5 In this exhibition his Garden of Life (2000), which provided great scope for the weavers to develop rich textures, is no exception.
John Olsen was the first Australian artist to design for tapestry, working with workshops in France and Portugal in the 1960s before commencing collaboration with the ATW in 1981. One major tapestry, Rising suns over Australia Felix (1997), was commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its monumental scale conjures the vastness of the Australian continent. In Olsen’s vibrant tapestry Lily Pond (in this exhibition) — commissioned for the collection of Eva and Marc Besen in 1984 — the weavers have effectively translated the lyrical lines that are a hallmark of Olsen’s painting.
The other seven works in Artwork to Tapestry represent the versatility of the medium and its ability to interpret a range of original artworks — from paintings of various styles to two large-scale prints to a lively gouache to a modest-sized photograph. In this exhibition are three diverse painters: Gareth Sansom, Angela Brennan and Song Ling.
Gareth Sansom, Family trust, 1990. © The artist/Australian Tapestry Workshop
Sansom’s expressionistic paintings combine iconoclastic and sexually explicit imagery with rebellious humour. His Family trust (1990) brims with contorted faces with disembodied eyes, all writhing in a patch-worked pattern. Unlike most other artists commissioned by the Workshop, Sansom did not desire active collaboration during the development of his tapestry. However, he confessed that his curiosity had so piqued that, while the work was in progress, he prowled around the Workshop at night, trying to catch a glimpse of it on the loom.6
The enigmatic title of Angela Brennan’s tapestry, It was not I that looked (2006), is taken from twentieth-century modernist painter Paul Klee who wrote in a journal, ‘It was not I who looked at the trees, the trees were looking at me’. Brennan, intrigued by the translation of the painting into tapestry, visited the Workshop several times to see the preliminary drawings and colour samples. For her, the developing tapestry took on a new life. ‘I was fascinated’ she notes, ‘to see the work . . . emerging independently from its original source’.7
Song Ling, Kong fu – our dream, 2009. © The artist/Australian Tapestry Workshop
Song Ling’s art work for the tapestry, Kong fu – our dream 1 (2009) — inspired by Japanese animation and manga comics — has a bold, graphic style. But, he said: ‘The colours I use are often found in Chinese folk art and embroidery. Old technique versus new technique, traditional versus modern; colour versus colour.’8 Ling was also curious to see how his painting would translate to a tapestry, and a visit to the Workshop enabled him to discuss the weavers’ interpretation and the nuances of colour.
The original artworks for the four remaining tapestries were two prints (GW Bot and Geoffrey Ricardo), a gouache (John Wolseley) and a photograph (Yvonne Todd). GW Bot’s tapestry, Glyphs, was conceived as a large-scale relief print on tapa cloth in 2005. The cloth, made from bark and sourced from Tonga, is used as both swaddling for new-born infants and as funerary shrouds. According to the artist, the glyphs are ‘a form of shorthand calligraphy dealing with the Australian landscape . . . symbolically and metaphorically’.9 The colours, translated in woven form, are in rusty reds and browns, broken up by black jagged forms echoing natural objects such as fallen branches, burnt tree trunks or termite mounds.
Geoffrey Ricardo’s art often employs a figurative-based narrative tinged with humour and, sometimes, a sense of the absurd. Since 1993 Ricardo has closely collaborated with the ATW on four tapestries, large-scale and smaller, including the one in this exhibition. Emblem (1999), based on an aquatint and dry-point print of an ambiguous human−kangaroo figure, was the result of a particularly intense working partnership with an ATW weaver, resulting in this strange and compelling tapestry.
John Wolseley, Fire and water moths, swamps and lava flows of the Hamilton region, 2010. © The artist/Australian Tapestry Workshop
For his tapestry, Fire and water-moths, swamps and lava flows of the Hamilton region (2010), John Wolseley was commissioned to create an original design, consequently spending a week in the wilds of the Hamilton region in Victoria, painting and recording. The enchanting gouache study on paper is full of observations — the moths, lava flows and volcanic sinkholes that characterise the area — scribbled on the page margins. Wolseley then enlarged the study on a colour photocopier, reassembled it, and painted back onto the copy, creating a new art work. In realising their interpretation in wool and cotton, the weavers have used both the original and revised versions.
In 2006, with sponsorship from Tim and Gina Fairfax, the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) commissioned an ATW tapestry for its collection, Alice Bayke (2008), working closely with photographer Yvonne Todd. ‘It was the involvement with the . . . Workshop . . . that was exciting and rewarding’, said the Fairfaxes.10 As QAG Curator Maud Page finds, Alice Bayke conveys a palpable sense of psychological unease: ‘The key to Todd’s portraits is the deadpan expressions on her protagonists, carefully constructed through conflicting facial elements: mournful eyes, slightly wet lips. The Alice Bayke tapestry does all of that and more’.11
With its rich colours, strong images, hand-made tactile surfaces, and range of scale from palm-size to monumental, tapestry today enjoys a renewed vigour as part of the contemporary art world. The richness of woven colour, derived from the mixing of multiple strands of vibrant, specially-dyed yarns, is a technique that is one of the hallmarks of the Australian Tapestry Workshop. As this exhibition vividly demonstrates, tapestry — ideally suited to large spaces — complements the varied surfaces and materials of modern architecture creating an atmosphere of warmth and colour.