Tapestries were once one of the most highly prized mediums, with Raphael being paid five times more for the tapestries he designed to adorn the walls of the Sistine Chapel than Michelangelo received for his contribution to the ceiling. Masterful artists wove silk, wool, gold, and silver threads glorifying military triumphs, tales, and worldly domains. They decorated the walls of castles and palaces, symbols of wealth and prestige, and reminded travelers of their past, present, and future. With the passage of time however, the admiration and fascination with tapestries have faltered. Today though, thanks to the help of technology in the form of a jacquard loom and the accessibility of traditional weavers, artists are once again embracing the medium and exploring the intricate balance between art and cloth.
Not since the early 20thCentury has the medium of tapestries been so embraced by artists. In the early 1930’s French weaving workshops, or ateliers, produced thousands of modern art images. Many of the century’s greatest artists—Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, Victor Vasarely and Marc Chagall—allowed French weavers to translate existing works of theirs or create cartoons that are highly valued in the art market today for the sheer intricate skill with which the tapestry was created. Collectors such as Marie Cuttoli influenced the medium as well by commissioning those similar artists to produce original designs conceived specifically for conversion into cloth by Aubusson weavers, and then having them sign the backs of the works, adding to their value.
Often thought of as too costly and time consuming to embark on today, artists such as Chuck Close, Craigie Horsfield, Kiki Smith, William Kentridge, and Grayson Perry are experimenting with the medium and realizing the accessibility and affordability of the weavers and material. With the jacquard loom, a computerized weaving machine, the artist is able to churn out a tapestry in just days after experimenting with their design, color palette, and desired weave tightness. Meanwhile other artists are seeking out skilled weavers in foreign countries such as India, Afghanistan, and South Africa to create their masterpieces in a collaborative effort allowing for the process to be an artistic journey and art form all its own.
Craigie Horsfield says, “The tapestry allows scale. It allows physicality. It’s not just to create a spectacular effect…It allows the sense of things being woven and how we imagine the world through the stories we tell each other…I like the idea that the tapestry takes on a meaning by the juxtaposition of individual threads, individual colors, which when read together become whole, rather in the same way that in our society we are individuals, but when we work together we take on new meaning.” In understanding the motivations and history behind such an art form, tapestries deserve more than the fleeting, offhand mentions that they have received to date. From Raphael to Picasso to Close tapestries have captured the world’s attention as artist and weaver effortlessly come together in an organic display not available in any painting.
Information obtained from ArtNews article “Looms with a View” by Hilarie M. Sheets in the September 2012 edition.