Tradition and Innovation in Modern Tapestries

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Tradition and Innovation in Modern Tapestries

Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities

A current exhibition touring the country presents major works--even colossal in scale--by some of the best known and most talented masters of 20th-century art. But rather than featuring paintings or sculptures or prints, this exhibition focuses on handmade tapestries.

Tapestries: The Great Twentieth Century Modernists features artworks by Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Kandinsky, and many of their contemporaries, who were inspired to transform their own compositions into monumental wall hangings. The 20 tapestries brought together by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions from both European and American collections offer a fresh perspective on 20th-century Cubism and its intriguing relationship to the time-honored tradition of weaving. The exhibition also presents an innovative approach to the centuries-old medium of textile art.

"Tapestry" refers to a weaving technique characterized by handwoven textiles traditionally used for hangings, curtains and upholstery. In French, the phrase, "tapisser les murs," literally means to cover the walls with textiles. Interestingly, tapestries are simultaneously among the most ancient and most modern of art forms.

Most people are familiar with traditional European tapestries from the Middle Ages that adorned the massive stone walls of castles and palaces. That tradition continued into the 19th century as patrons commissioned such wall hangings for both decoration and insulation purposes. The modern variants of wall hangings are less functional and primarily concerned with aesthetics.

Unlike painting, creating art on a loom requires a very different conceptual approach and an extraordinary amount of teamwork. It's a labor-intensive process that could take a skilled weaver a month or more to create a square yard of finished fabric using special wools and dyes.

The interplay between the artists and weavers, and the interplay among the Cubist masters, offer us unique insights into the tradition of tapestry and its surprising impact on 20th-century Cubism. Artists, such as those presented in this display, were well aware of contemporary artistic trends, styles and techniques, and often responded to such influences in their own works. The same type of interchange also exists in the medium of tapestries.

The exhibition curator, Dirk Holger, a weaver as well as a tapestry expert, once worked with Jean Lurcat (1892-1966), a French painter and an important tapestry designer, who is credited with reviving the art of tapestry in modern France. Because of Lurcat's revival, many 20th-century painters, sculptors and, at least one architect, were inspired to turn to tapestry.

In the 1950s, Pablo Picasso asked Jean Lurcat why he wove his pictures in wool. Lurcat, the leading revivalist of tapestry among his contemporaries, replied easily, "One fiber of my wool is a thousand times more precious than a piece of your paper." That playful challenge inspired Picasso to transform some of his own compositions into monumental wall hangings, and he was not alone in that exploration.

Pablo Picasso was an extraordinarily inventive and experimental artist, so it was almost expected that he would investigate the possibilities of tapestries for his compositions. After all, he tried just about every other imaginable medium and technique, and he even invented some of his own.

His tapestry, Les Arlequins (The Harlequins,) was based on a gouache originally created in 1920 and woven into a tapestry in 1954. The Cubist style and the harlequin subject are reminiscent of some of Picasso's early groundbreaking artworks that transformed his own career and significantly impacted the history of Modern Art.

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