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