Weaving on the Edge

TAPESTRY weaving, like several other arts that enjoyed immense prestige in past centuries but had been deemed lost, is enjoying a worldwide revival. Demonstrating that traditional tapestry weaving was not lost but merely temporarily misplaced, the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. is presenting an exhibit of contemporary tapestries woven by artists from around the world.

The weavers, from 16 countries in North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia, show all manner of aesthetic points of view, linked by their adherence to the demanding tapestry technique.

While most participants seem to hold to more or less traditional materials like wool, cotton, linen, and silk, some add modern fibers like rayon and synthetics and even metal and plexiglass. Actually, when tapestry weaving was at its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries, gold and silver thread was lavishly used. In the bright, impressionistic fabric of "The Gymnasts," Catherine Hoffman, an Australian, outlines her tumbling figures in what is described as "gold organza fabric."

Russia's Marat Tajibaev presents a handsome, thought-provoking design, titled, "Reappraisal of Values." Given the title, one is eager to peer into the multiplaned space for specifics. But the details are enigmatic - a classical ionic column suspended horizontally by cords; birds flying upward in an ambiguous inside and outside plane; tongues of fire with a jet of flame mysteriously soaring upward to a break in dark clouds.

An American, Ann Baddeley Keister, is more whimsical. The first thing we notice in "Three Rooms, Ocean View" are the trompe l'oeil ribbons that give it a postmodern gaiety. Each of the three ocean views is framed by different geometric patterns that might be dizzying without the unifying ribbons. This is a shaped tapestry, meaning that the jaunty ends of the black-and-white-striped ribbons extend beyond the usual straight edge of the piece. Keister told me that was done by weaving a support under the ext ension and a hem.

This tapestry of rooms is complete with floors, staircases, and windows, all represented geometrically. Keister admitted that initially she had been "intrigued by the illusional dimension" of the tapestry technique. And she fully exploits it in her work, as does Tajibaev. Keister also feels that the "underlying grit" of loomed textiles suggests traditional geometric patterning, like that used by the Navajo. She begins with this basic vertical/horizontal understructure and weaves her images into it.

When the piece is removed from the loom, the warp threads are trimmed off and the edge made neat. Like many girls, she grew up familiar with yarns and threads for knitting, crocheting, embroidery, and the like. A weaving class was required for her arts degree at the University of Kansas and she found herself responding intensely to these materials. Later she attended a tapestry workshop by Jean Lurcat. He is credited with stimulating the renewed interest in tapestries that stress the qualities of weaving

rather than painting. An emphasis on the latter contributed to a decline in the quality and popularity of tapestries.

Keister prefers using a high warp loom that is upright and a low warp loom that is horizontal. She typically works her patterns from the reverse, or wrong side. Classically, the main outlines of the design would be drawn on the warp threads and the weaver would follow a painted cartoon to complete the work. Today, tapestry artists design and weave their own creations.

Keister's piece measures 73 by 69 inches, and Tajibaev's 68 by 43 inches - both average sizes of contemporary tapestries. Keister says that the largest piece she could weave would be 5 by 8 feet and called the largest in the show "huge" at 8 by 12 feet. When we consider that tapestries measuring 30 feet were produced in the 16th century in a more industrial environment, we see that modern tapestry weavers have quite a different market expectation.

TAPESTRY weaving is thought to have begun several centuries before the Christian era, probably in Egypt. Beautiful works remain that were woven during the period of Roman domination. They were also woven in another great textile center, Peru, before the Spanish invasion.

Tapestries also became a prominent luxury item in medieval Europe. The great stone castles and manor houses were cold and drafty, and tapestries added color and warmth. The elaborately woven scenes were also used to make a "statement" about the wealth and culture of their owners.

A favorite place to hang tapestries during the Middle Ages was on the wall behind the banqueting table reserved for the ruler of the castle, his family, and guests. This exposed the piece to the smoke of torches and candles, and cooking fumes.

During the Renaissance tapestries fared better, especially when decorating the great salons where monarchs held court. Today, those 30-foot, gold-and-silver court tapestries from, for example, the Hapsburg courts of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and his son, Philip II of Spain, are perfectly preserved. The most famous of those 15th- and 16th-century tapestries were woven in the Low Countries.

The products of the city of Arras (now in France) were so famous that the word "arras" became a synonym for tapestry. Although the city's tapestry production began a decline around 1450, the word was still being used in Shakespeare's England when Polonius hid behind the arras with fatal results (Act III, Scene III of "Hamlet").

Cosimo de Medici, who also admired Flemish tapestries, persuaded two famous weavers to establish a tapestry factory in Florence in 1545. There they wove tapestries of every size and purpose, even one to be used as a caparison for the duke's favorite pet leopard.

The popularity of tapestries contributed to their decline as much as changing social conditions.

Famous artists like Raphael were commissioned to paint designs that weavers would translate into tapestries. The painters did not think in textile terms and the results - although 10,000 shades of wool and silk became available - became insipid woven approximations of paintings.

With a past history like that, it will be interesting to watch the present revival as it spreads and flourishes. Today's weavers are interested in returning tapestry to its former place as an original art form, not an imitative one.

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