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Medieval Tapestry's Modern Influence

TAPESTRY By Barty Phillips; Phaidon Press/Chronicle Books 240 pp., $49.99

THINK of tapestry, and it is inevitable, somehow: The imagination immediately travels to the Cluny Museum in Paris and into the circular gallery in which are displayed those six late 15th-century hangings known as ``La Dame a la Licorne'' (``The Lady and the Unicorn'').

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Or, perhaps, you head for the Cloisters in New York, that outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the (different) ``Unicorn Tapestries'' of virtually the same date can be found in all their equally engaging Gothic splendor and detail.

Either way, the word ``tapestry'' seems to instantly summon up a rich medievalism that falls between fact and fantasy, full of color and incident, figures in courtly dress, dukes and duchesses, ladies and unicorns, all pursuing a solemn ``sport'' (or ritual). The settings or backgrounds are replete with flowers, rabbits, birds, small dogs - an enchanting variety of wildlife, partly stylized, partly observed with knowing humor.

A new volume, simply enough called ``Tapestry,'' shows the Cluny unicorn tapestries in its opening pages (though it never even mentions the ones in New York), reinforcing, once more, their fame and representing their consummate craftsmanship as a kind of benchmark against which the book's following history of tapestry-weaving can be measured.

Illustrations in the book range from Coptic tapestries of the 5th or 6th century AD to work by artist-weavers in the 1990s: It is an unusually comprehensive survey of the subject.

Medieval tapestry has exerted its influence over subsequent centuries. William Morris, as this book shows, in the late 19th century enthusiastically espoused the medieval examples as direct models for his revival of tapestry-weaving as a craft. He reinvented their imagery in his own terms.

Today, we are still in love with Gothic tapestries, though we choose not so much to imitate them as to reproduce them mechanically for a mass market. Mention is made, in a later chapter, of the machine-woven fabrics that have in recent years helped to make the imagery of the Cluny tapestries crop up in small shops everywhere. In this way they have become common currency, details from them used to cover endless cushions and sofas in ordinary homes - making them almost as popular as Van Gogh or the Mona Lisa.

This popularity is extraordinary when one considers that tapestry was in the past often considered a sign of high status and immense wealth. The Burgundian dukes even offered tapestries to their enemies as ransom to obtain their freedom after defeat in battle.

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``Tapestry'' is a well illustrated book, and Barty Phillips's text is always informative and generally clear. A real attempt is made to inform the reader about different techniques, and there is a helpful glossary of terms.

The reader is, however, left with the feeling that he has two books in his hands rather than one. It is as if the illustrations lead their own life, pretty much independently of the text.

The text is more or less chronological. The illustrations, presumably to make the book look nice, sometimes leap around without any regard for date or apparent connection with the nearby text.

Conversely, Phillips sometimes writes keenly about some specific tapestry, giving you a sense of its great significance, and then you hunt in vain for it among the plates. This happens, for example, in the case of that doyen of 20th-century tapestry, the French artist Jean Lurcat. Phillips writes: ``Lurcat's own most formidable work, in size and concept, is Le Chant du Monde, which consists of 10 enormous panels woven with a complex imagery ....''

But the Lurcat work illustrated is quite different and not even mentioned. Did the picture researcher, the designer, and the author not talk to each other?

And although most plates are captioned, the information they impart is minimal. There is plenty of white space for more detailed captioning - an opportunity to expand on the limits of the text that has been unfortunately missed.

Phillips admits that when she comes to recent tapestry in all its burgeoning multiplicity (the chapter called ``Contemporary Masters''), all she can present is a selection that does ``not pretend to be representative of all the work being done today.''

More successful in giving some hint of the various ways in which tapestry has been explored in our century is the preceding chapter extending from Lurcat to Stella and Hockney.

It touches on such diverse skills as reproducing photographs in tapestry, on making trompe l'oeil tapestries, and on tapestries that reproduce drawings and paintings in new ways.

Best of all are some extremely inventive tapestries in which art and craft seem in exceptional balance, such as Masakazu Kobayashi's 1973 ``Blow in the Wind'' or Lia Cook's 1975 ``Hand-Woven Hanging.'' In these works the imagery is an imaginative extension of the processes and materials of weaving, picturing its dovetailing and interlocking, and the fine intricacy of its weblike textures.

But there seems to be nothing to illustrate Phillips's observation that during ``the 1970s and 1980s weavers in Japan and other Far Eastern countries introduced revolutionary changes, using paper and other fibres to construct flat and three-dimensional objects in what is now called `fibre art.' ''

One thing the text does make clear is how significant Raphael's 1515 designs for tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, ``The Acts of the Apostles,'' were in breaking the mold of convention.

These Raphael designs have a bold simplicity and a spaciousness that was at complete odds with the apparent horror-of-a-vacuum that made the Gothic tapestries such ``all-over'' affairs.

From Raphael on, tapestry began to be seen as a way of reproducing painting in textile form. This meant both losses and gains. Much of the vernacular charm of the details that the weavers were free to incorporate in tapestries had to give way to respect for an artist's demands.

On the other hand, for an artist as consummate as Raphael to design for tapestry (and even, according to the chronicler Vasari, to actually paint the full-sized cartoons himself) inevitably meant a new aesthetic seriousness for the craft.

In our time a number of artists have been happy to design specifically for tapestry - Picasso, Matisse, and Miro among them. In the late 18th century (although this is oddly overlooked by this book) the young Goya made paintings for tapestries.

ALTHOUGH it has ridden off in all directions at once, 20th- century tapestry has made some deliberate attempts to honor equally its craft and its seriousness as an art form. It was part of the aesthetic of the Bauhaus, and on this occasion both the text and illustrations in the book work together to show how original and exhilarating Bauhaus textiles could be.

One more cavil: Hardly any of the captions to the plates in the book say in which public collections specific works can be seen. There is only a general list of tapestry collections in the back of the book.

Given these criticisms, the book (which also looks at tribal and ethnic tapestry weaving) still more than survives its own omissions as an attractive and informative presentation of tapestry weaving as it has spanned cultures and centuries.

It remains a versatile, if immensely painstaking, medium for constructing out of the subtlest of colors and textures imagery both vast and small, public and private, popular and exclusive.

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