Seeing two Miró tapestries making the news for being restored in record time to make the opening of a focused exhibition in Venice after the Serenissima suffered one of its worst floods in years, reminded me of all the beautiful tapestries I have recently had the privilege to put my eyes on.
Perhaps we too often think of tapestries as an antiquated art form, hovering on the walls of darkened galleries, so I am hoping to change your view just a little, after I share a few of my recent art adventures in pictures.
But before we get to this beauty…
Let’s rewind back in time a little, with a quick visit to one of my favourite places in New York: The MET Cloisters.
If the word “tapestry” brings The Hunt of the Unicorn to mind, you’re doing well.
Truly an iconic medieval tapestry and part of an entire Series of seven large tapestries on permanent view at The Cloisters (where they were reunited in 1938), it is no small feat – yet no accident – that these beauties have been preserved and treasured since they were made in Flanders around 1495-1505.
Even though in our time we mostly hear about record prices achieved by paintings, back in Medieval and Renaissance times, tapestries were considered the superior art form and had major status symbol.
In Italian Renaissance, painters were members of Arte della Seta guild – seta meaning silk – showing that Renaissance textiles were more valued than paintings, deemed too minor a trade for a guild named after their own trade. Paintings (and painters by extension) seemed subservient and challenged by the art of embroiderers for whom they provided “elaborate designs for woven and embroidered fabric¹” to be sold for small fortunes.
If silk gowns were traded for the equivalent price of a palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, can you think of a price for a series of 12-feet tall by 14-feet wide tapestries like the ones treasured in The Cloisters?
Why were tapestries such prized art forms? Because they were portable.
Look at the profusion of plant species surrounding The Unicorn in Captivity in which the mythical creature is resurrected and kept within a circular enclosure, this brings to my mind characteristic motifs found in carpets from the Islamic world.
Vine tendrils, arabesques and vegetal scrolls adorned Islamic textile art. They traced their all-over motifs not only in visual infinity but also as symbolic representation of the Paradise Gardens evoked in the Qur’an. Much like medieval tapestries, Islamic carpets were prized portable forms of art, enabling patrons to carry their own personal garden and sense of home during extended travels, migrations or conquests.
Yet in the process, these luxury goods became vehicles to trade and exchange ideas as well as decorative motifs.
Do you have a small headache yet? Take a visual break. Does this more contemporary tapestry by Victor Vasarely help in any way? 🙂 Or is Op Art on Tapestry too mind-blowing?
So what happened to tapestries being the ultimate art form?
One big problem is that tapestries are a perishable form of art. And it is not just time and elements taking their toll on them. Woven with threads of gold and silver, too many tapestries and embroideries never made it to our times and eyes because they were a value repository cashed on when funds needed to be raised for wars.
To this crucial point, I find illuminating that Giorgio Vasari (the very first Art Historian) commented in his Lives of the Artists how embroidery and gold works risked being melted down when funds are required, implying that Painting’s perennity puts it as the better art for patrons to support, if predisposed to posterity.
So my question is the following: why has tapestry been a medium nevertheless explored by key artists of Modern and Contemporary Art?
Artists like Miró, Vasarely, Calder, Niki de Saint Phalle, all explored tapestries at some point, as my pictures attest.
Even Le Corbusier!
Given the size of most the undertakings pictured, it was not a small foray into a bygone technique.
Before you rub your eyes in disbelief thinking “oh wow, I did not know Miró did tapestries” and how cool this is, visualize the dimensions of this work of art: 7.5 meter tall by 5-meter wide (more than 24 x 16 feet)!
And this Vasarely tapestry room definitely looms large!
The fascination with tapestries is not gone: it is here to stay. I am hoping that this post will make you look and think of tapestries as an art form not to weave right by during your next museum visit.
Their history of material culture continues to inform the art practices and motifs of the past century and undoubtedly the art of now and tomorrow.
There are clear signs already with exhibitions dedicated to Anni Albers recently opened at Tate Modern. She was one of the most important textile and pattern artist of our time, although you may have heard of her husband Josef more readily through his Homage to the Square works.
And in Venice, go to Palazzo Zaguri where “From Kandinsky to Botero, All in One Thread” has just opened and will remain on view until May 1: tapestries by artists including Miró, Fernando Botero, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Henri Matisse, and Andy Warhol are sure to make for a great show.
Do you think you will pay a little bit more attention to tapestry from now on? Let me know in the Comment Box. Thank you for reading!
© 2018 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
Details and links on works I have referred to in this post:
Fundacio Miró in Barcelona
Fondation Vasarely in Aix en Provence
And for a great article on the Unicorn tapestries, click here.
¹ Campbell, S. quoting Molà, L. (2005), ‘Italy and Silk in the early Modern Period’ in Senechal, M. (2005), Silk Unraveled! Threads of Human History, Northampton, MA, p.39-57
A wonderful lesson in art history, Ingrid! I’ve been fascinated for a long time with how revered tapestries are in African art. Is it just me or the luxuriant vegetation in The Hunt of the Unicorn sends out Henri Rousseau vibes?
Thank you, dear Gabriela. Tapestries are truly revered in many realms of Art History and a fascinating subject I would not mind diving much more into. For now, Islamic art is providing me with a profusion of cross-cultural influences and motifs which I also see in The Unicorn tapestries. I think there would have been contacts between all the different geographies via trade passing through Venice. That’s why we also find Islamic carpets richly depicted in Renaissance artworks. Coming full circle, the style of these carpets came to be known as Holbein-style or Lotto-style…but to your point on the vegetation being represented, I would reverse and say Rousseau definitely put some Unicorn tapestry in his art😉
Thank you for reading as ever, dear!
How fascinating! I can’t wait to learn more about tapestries on your blog. I was thinking recently about how the contact with other cultures mattered so much in the advancement of key art movements – through appropriation, basically – and how we look down upon this process today, seeing it as politically incorrect. I feel like that about Halloween costumes too! Borrowing from other cultures expands our horizons and hopefully increases our empathy. It certainly did wonders for art and its aesthetics.
You are so right, it did! I think it’s all right as long as artists using other cultures’ arts do credit their influences and sources – a bit like writing and referencing…And you may very well be right that what we are frowning upon may just be the necessary step to get to the new -ism😉
Intéressant cet article sur les tapisseries…tiens je vais t’acheter un canevas ou une broderie pour Noel…hi hi!…La Licorne grandeur nature et Miro ….très joli…faut pas compter ses heures et faut avoir des yeux de lynx!
Merci! Je ne suis pas encore au point de croix 😂 Contente que cela te plaise! Très impressionnant en grandeur nature!
It is true that the tapestry … it’s not really what would make me push the door of an exhibition !! most certainly by ignorance ….
Reading your post I realize that this art, precision work has gone through centuries telling the epochs of civilizations.
Little girl I accompanied, without convicition, my parents to visit places such as Aubusson, Bayeux, Chateau d’Angers : we saw collections …. it seemed old and dusty !
Once again your post interrogates me !!!!
Why not imagine a “modern tapestry” … and suddenly the optical effects, geometry, colors … Vasalery applied his technique to enhance the tapestry !!!!
That is exactly right, Marie-Annick! I think tapestries get a bad reputation because of the way they appear from a bygone area, all dusty and old but they are so richly woven with stories and art history, I really think they are worth more than a second look. Through a child’s eye, I think we can all relate to your experience of the Bayeux Tapestry but we should all make a point to revisit these places as adults: I think that is why our parents took us in the first place, because they knew how enriching these tapestries could be.
[…] a spiritual connection with pure forms and colors, look no further than his monumental works and tapestries at the Fondation in […]
You made me put The Met Cloisters on my bucket list immediately, Also, what an amazing room with all the Vaserely tapestries, loved the video where you can actually feel the dimension. i am a huge modern and contemporary tapestry fan as I love the crossover between art,design and craft and how it can perfectly integrate into interiors.
Thank you, dear friend! You make my day telling me this article inspired you to visit the Cloisters. Truly a divine place.
And I agree with you about tapestry, such a sensual medium with all the visual appeal intact, if not amplified😍