Discussion about the visibility, or otherwise, of contemporary woven tapestry as a distinct medium in the visual arts has arisen recently on social media. Rather than rehearse arguments that have been repeated multiple times over the decades since the 1960’s, I am posting one of the pieces of writing I have produced on the subject, a catalogue essay from 2008.
More writing on this subject can be found on the “Critical Writing” page of this website.
British Tapestry Group
Catalogue essay: Anne Jackson
SLOW ART: Contemporary Woven Tapestry in the Twenty-First Century
Woven tapestry is produced by intertwining threads on a vertical warp to form a strong, dense, textile structure. In its traditional manifestation it is associated with long walls and grand buildings, monumental and luxurious in its enrichment of space. Over the centuries, art that is flexible, durable, expressive and rich has been produced by highly-skilled tapestry designers and artisans. In the twentieth century, individual weavers began to emerge. These were artists working to their own designs, individually expressing ideas and feelings within the paradigm of the painter, sculptor or installation artist, rather than making work to fulfil "the principle role tapestry has played…as an expensive and slow, though skilful, (mode of) fine art reproduction."(1) Since the mid-twentieth century, tapestry artists have sought the recognition of their medium as 'fine art' within the Western canon. This has proved to be problematic, largely due to the identification of textile art forms with the domestic, 'feminine' sphere, rather than with the wider public arena. In spite of tapestry having developed through similar channels to painting and sculpture, and after great efforts in the twentieth century, it is still largely associated with the decorative arts in the eyes of the critical establishment.
The historic roots of woven tapestry run deep. Ancient fragments of Nazca textiles from Peru, and Coptic weaving from Egypt, are preserved in museums worldwide. Sumptuous hangings have survived which originally decorated and warmed the walls of European princes, emphasising their wealth and status.(2) Historic records show that tapestry workshops in medieval and early modern times were often thriving businesses, employing highly-skilled artisans who worked with sumptuous materials. The idea of the individual artist-weaver began to emerge through the Arts & Crafts movement in late nineteenth century England. It grew through the teaching philosophy of the Bauhaus in Germany, and the work of Jean Lurçat, a painter who revitalised tapestry in France after World War II, collaborating with the weavers at Aubusson and launching the Lausanne Biennales. This series of international exhibitions was extremely influential in developing the reputation of tapestry as an art form.(3)
In the UK, the foundation of academic courses and departments, such as at Leeds and Edinburgh Universities, grounded tapestry in the field of Art and Design education. At Edinburgh, Archie Brennan, an apprenticeship-trained weaver and Director of the Dovecot Studios, encouraged the combination of technical skill with the expression of ideas, and the cross-fertilisation between the professional studio and the art college was very fruitful. In Sussex, the tapestry studio at West Dean provided another vibrant centre of learning and training. These studios "worked with internationally known artists, (which)
helped to promote the medium. They encouraged and inspired students to explore their own ideas and to develop new approaches to the techniques."(4)
Around the world, especially in the 1960's and 70's, the teaching of tapestry, the characterisation of the 'Art Fabric' movement through books and publications (often associated with a new acknowledgement of women artists), and the commissioning of large-scale textiles for new public buildings, widened the audience and the market for tapestry.
In recent times, however, progress has slowed. Historical and cultural developments have not favoured the advancement of this ancient 'noble art'. Across Europe, the impact of the downfall of the Soviet Union has been felt deeply by weavers, especially in countries where the state formerly provided degrees of support and sponsorship for tapestry artists, often in the form of commissions and exhibitions. The Lausanne Biennales ended in 1995 amid political and financial pressures, and conflicting visions of tapestry as textile art. Under the influence of contemporary critical thinking, academic institutions are inclined to devolve tapestry into more general departments, or close it down altogether. Students, accustomed to screen- or lens-based approaches to creative expression, are finding less appeal in such a labour-intensive medium. Around the world, there is the relentless rise of consumer culture, with its emphasis on cheap and immediate gratification and globally-produced goods which are appealing, exotic and inexpensive.
In response to these circumstances, and looking further ahead in the twenty-first century, several new initiatives have been launched. In Europe, these include the foundation of the British Tapestry Group and European Tapestry Forum, which aim to provide opportunities for exhibition and professional development, and to raise the status of tapestry as an art form. These organisations are encouraged by the clear evidence of public support for tapestry exhibitions. In the UK, attendance numbers are always high. In Denmark, Germany and France, when the European Tapestry Forum exhibition ARTAPESTRY was shown in 2005-7, visitors routinely came to see the exhibition from neighbouring countries.
Although popular with the public, tapestry does not fit easily into the dominant artistic discourse of our time, which privileges high technology, new media, the instant and seemingly effortless. The proponents of Modernism, the dominant cultural discourse of the twentieth century, discounted anything that showed evidence of effort or 'skill of the hand' in making. At the present time, "we are still left assessing work within established (Modernist/Post-modernist) cultural conventions…it could be considered that in recent years it has been taboo to 'make' anything that might be process-led, to practice an art that relies upon its making for its form and content or transformation of materials through process, and have it seriously critiqued."(5)
For artist-weavers, the day-to-day discipline and rhythm of the work, the desire to express ideas and feelings through this particular medium, continue. The exploration of surface, colour and texture, choosing and handling materials and creating unity from previously disparate elements, is still satisfying. The "underlying progressive nature, the sequential growth inherent in the structure"(6) produces visible evidence of a good day's work, fixed as solidified time on the warp. "The structure enhances the
image …Single fibres are like letters of an alphabet or numbers; with them one can form words to create poetry or a formula to develop a new rule."(7) By its nature, the woven image is integral to the tapestry rather than being applied to a surface. As the structure is built up, the image is created. The twist of each particular thread in the weft, coarse or fine, intensifies its vibrant quality, as the fibres absorb and reflect light. Practitioners also explore new materials, such as recycled plastics and reflective or fluorescent yarns, in order to create "the surface you get from weaving (which) you don't get anywhere else. It's rich, it's tactile, it's got depth. It's not a thin layer, it's dense. Materials are crucial - it's to do with what can happen by placing yarns. There's enough happening if you get it right to make the piece sing."(8)
Tapestry is a medium of rhythms. When artist-weavers speak or write about their work, the sense of rhythm is a repeating motif. There are the physical movements involved in doing the work, likened by Magdalena Abakanowicz to "the natural rhythm of my body, to my breath."(9) Kay Lawrence speaks of "the connection between the processes of weaving and the rhythms of the body…a contemplative quality in the practice of weaving".(10) There is a strong sense of physical connection to the work, of embodiment.
For all weavers there is also the everyday rhythm of going into the studio and getting on with weaving. The labour-intensiveness of the medium requires an almost monastic discipline, without which the final tapestry will never appear.
Finally, there are the visual rhythms within the object itself. The warp, running through or underneath the image, like the beat in music, is sometimes barely perceptible, but its unbroken linear quality is always there. It contributes to "tapestry's undeniable ability to bring together disparate images on one picture plane."(11)
In expressing their ideas, some weavers immediately engage with the warp, working without a cartoon - the paper image or drawing created to serve as a guide in the making of the tapestry. Some use the cartoon as a reference, departing from it at times to "improvise on the warp."(12) Others work directly over a drawing, collage or painting, in dialogue with the image, using the interaction as a way of interrogating the original idea. Tapestry is always "a decision-making experience".(13) Every pick or knot involves choices, of colour, thickness, tension, and faithfulness to the underlying idea or cartoon. This intensity of labour and thought gives tapestry a presence, a monumentality, even when the work is miniature in scale. The viewer registers, however subconsciously, that a great deal has gone into the making of this object. Often gestures or marks are made quickly and spontaneously at the cartoon stage, then slowed to glacial speed while being made part of the tapestry surface. This characteristic communicates to the mind and eye a density, a gravitas. The viewer knows, even without consciously recognising, that seriousness of intention and commitment went into this series of transformations. Whether medieval or contemporary, the sense of gesture caught, distilled in time, and slowly built up on the warp is a key characteristic of tapestry.
Contemporary artist-weavers approach the medium in a wide variety of ways. Some use the surface as a site for the depiction of landscape, or dream, or memory. Others convey challenging messages or information, while keeping the viewer engaged with rich surface qualities and imagery. Some artists see the association of 'textiles' with the domestic and decorative as a way of subverting ideas about femininity, and saying uncomfortable things. Others work with painterly abstraction, or sculpturally, exploring space and form. Many artist-weavers incorporate other media and materials into their tapestries, or create installations. Some move into other media entirely, or include tapestry as one part of their overall artistic practice.
In the early twenty-first century, in a digital, multi-media society, we can only try to articulate why such this ancient art form is relevant to our evolving world and culture. The desire to make these concrete, expressive artefacts is, apparently, tenacious in the face of an unsympathetic art world. Perhaps the present-day tapestry artist, raising his or her eyes to the enormous, vibrant, fifteenth-century Apocalypse Tapestries in Angers, France, feels part of a continuum, a maker of something with the potential to last beyond the present context. Judging by public response at tapestry exhibitions, the medium's ability to communicate and elicit responses is clear, as if it answers an essential need to acknowledge the human handprint in a technology-dominated world. As the challenges and limitations of contemporary culture are exposed, and questions arise about sustainability and unending technological progress, it is possible that there is still a place for such 'slow art'; rhythmic, of the body and corporeal; strong, vibrant, and rich in imagery and presence.
Notes and References
1. Pat Taylor, 'The West Dean Tapestry Workshop', ITNET Journal
Vol. 5, No. 3 (1994) p.18
2. In 1466 the Duke of Burgundy commissioned a suite of eight tapestries, paying "a sum with which almost as many stone-built town houses of several stories could have been built in the city of Bern at the time."
Elke Jezier-Hübner, 'A Noble Art: Burgundian Tapestries in the Historisches Museum', International Tapestry Journal Vol. 5 No. 1 (2002), p.4
3. Tapestry as an art form has developed in many parts of the world, including Australia, North America, Latin America and the Far East. For the purposes of this essay, I have focussed largely on the European context.
4. Fiona Mathison, correspondence with author
5. Janet Bezzant, Manchester Metropolitan University
'Reflexive Textile - Investigating the Subject/Object'
Conference Proceedings: 'Textiles: What is Critical?' a conference organised by the North West Textile Forum, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 29-30th September, 2000
6. Archie Brennan, interviewed by Sally Brokensha, International Tapestry Journal, vol. 4 No. 1 (2001), p.18
7. Jilly Edwards, 'Art Textiles of the World: Great Britain Volume 3', p.100 (Telos Art Publishing, 2006)
8. Sara Brennan, 'Art Textiles of the World: Great Britain', p.26 (Telos Art Publishing, 1996)
9. Magdalena Abakanowicz, quoted in Diana Wood Conroy, 'Janet Brereton: Knotted Against Fate', International Tapestry Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1 (1998), p. 3
10. Kay Lawrence, 'Voyage: Home is Where We Start From', K. Lawrence & L. Obermeyer, 'Reinventing Textiles Vol. 2: Gender and Identity', ed. Janis Jefferies, p.64 (Telos Art Publishing, 2001)
11. K.T.Doyle, Review of 'Kate Derum, Afternoon Gestures-Tapestry Anecdotes', International Tapestry Journal Vol. 3, No. 1 (2000) p.24
12. Christine Sawyer, conversation with author
13. Shelly Goldsmith, 'Art Textiles of the World: Great Britain Volume 2, ed. Jennifer Harris, p.51 (Telos Art Publishing, 1999)