The Exciting Story of Tapestry Art and its Contemporary Masters
Tapestry art is one of the oldest forms of woven textile crafts, traditionally created on a vertical loom. It’s characterized by a weaving technique in which all the warp threads are hidden in the completed work, unlike the case with cloth weaving where both the warp and the threads may stay visible after the completion of the piece. As an art form, tapestry bears a close relation to painting – it is a pictorial art and often done on a large scale.
Furthermore, some of the best tapestries were designed by artists who were renowned painters, so it would appear that there’s not much sense in denying tapestry’s artistic aspects.
Yet, tapestry art was often overlooked as many saw it either as mere copies of paintings or nothing more than interior furnishings. As a result, one of the most expensive and exhausting crafts was neglected by art historians for a very, very long time.
A Hanging Matter – A Brief History of Tapestry Art
Tapestries have been used for millenniums with some reports about tapestry art going all the way back to Hellenistic times.
However, its true artistic potential was not released until early 14th century AD when the first wave of creative production occurred in Germany and Switzerland. Over time, the craft slowly expanded to France and the Netherlands and, interestingly, the basic tools of tapestry-making remained much the same throughout the years, even to this day.
A major setback for the development of tapestry art occurred during the French Revolution when countless tapestries were burnt to recover the gold thread that was often woven into them. In the 19th century, William Morris, who is now treated as one of the pivotal pattern artists, resurrected the art of tapestry-making as Morris & Co. made great series for home and ecclesiastical uses, with figures based almost solely on cartoons made by Edward Burne-Jones.
In the first half of the twentieth century, new tapestry art forms were developed by modern French artists mostly led by Jean Lurçat.
The Art of Making Tapestry
Contemporary Masters of Wall Tapestries
What distinguishes the contemporary field of tapestry art from its pre-World War ll variant is the predominance of the artist as a weaver. This trend has its initial roots in France during the 1950s where the aforementioned Jean Lurçat, a cartoonist for the Aubusson Tapestry studios, spearheaded a revival of the medium by making a tapestry series fro a Biennial held in Lausanne.
With each Biennale since then, the popularity of tapestry works grew, as artists were focusing on exploring innovative constructions from a wide variety of fiber. Such a fashion eventually led us to today’s practitioners that are, unlike a lot of their predecessors, held in an extremely high regard by their contemporaries.
They are refereed to as the most prominent of weaving artists, alongside masters of textile art and those in command of fiber techniques. Keeping that in mind, we will now take a look at some of the most notable and intriguing contemporary representatives of tapestry art.
Tapestries of Gavin Turk
Turk’s oeuvre deals with matters of authenticity and identity, issues he engages with modernist and avant-garde debates. Just by reading that, it quickly becomes evident that his tapestry is not your usual tapestry fodder.
Although he was not initially interested in creating tapestries, Turk became inspired by Alighiero Boetti, an Italian artist who created an embroidery of the world map with each country made from its own flag. Influenced by this piece, Gavin Turk created his Mappa del Mundo from street rubbish like crisp packets, drinks cans and cigarette packets, rendering them into a two-dimensional world that could be hung on a wall.
Peter Blake and His Tapestry Wall Art
Peter Blake, also known as the Godfather of British Pop Art, is widely known for co-creating the sleeve design for the Beatles’ iconic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Tapestry art may not be his primary method of art-making, but the artist still displayed his mastery over this traditional technique – his tapestries are essentially the same as his other pieces as far as their conceptual basis go. They are a result of his fascination with American advertisements and pop culture.
However, while his paintings tend to be rich with details and brimming with characters, Blake’s tapestries are surprisingly simple in terms of shapes. They also manage to make the most out of the charming visuals characteristic to Pop artworks.
Grayson Perry is an Englishman recognized for his ceramic vases and tapestries with unique stylistic characteristics. Perry’s pieces are often decorated with classical forms and are adorned in bright colors – yet, his works are often disturbing as far as their content goes.
His most popular tapestry series to date, titled The Vanity of Small Differences, has a lot to say about politics and how class defines the way we dress and decorate our houses.
Kara Walker is an African American painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist and film-maker whose pieces are considered to be some of the most daring works of art the contemporary scene has in its arsenal.
A master of collage, she is known for her black-and-white silhouette works that invoke themes of African American racial identity, often focusing on scenes of slavery, conflict or violence.
Her tapestries are essentially the same as her paintings in terms of themes and, despite the fact tapestry art may not be this artist’s go-to technique, Kara Walker still manages to chillingly explore race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity this way.
Beatriz Milhazes is a Brazilian artist and one of her nation’s most renowned contemporary authors. She is primarily known for her colorful abstract work which masterfully juxtaposes Brazilian cultural imagery and references to western modernist painting techniques.
Although tapestry art is far from her main creative outlet, Milhazes has been known to create tapestries from time to time, especially in recent years. As is the case with her paintings, colorful floral imagery pervades the tapestry compositions and many of them feature circular mandala-like patterns that became a trademark of Beatriz Milhazes over time.
Tapestry Wall Art Master Erin M. Riley
Erin M. Riley is a Brooklyn-based tapestry artist whose work essentially focuses on women and female issues by getting the absolute most out of hand-woven dyed wool tapestries.
She is the only artist on this short list that dedicates the entirety of her efforts to tapestry art.
Although she relies on a fairly traditional technique, Riley’s themes are very contemporary – and often very grim, as well. She depicts heroin kits, car crashes and similar imagery, but the main output of Erin M. Riley are erotic depictions of modern women.
The artist loves exploring the honesty within the context of sexuality, as well as how the concepts of courtships, pornography and sex are all evolving as a result of the mass depiction of these intimate moments online.
Editors’ Tip: From Tapestry to Fiber Art: The Lausanne Biennals 1962-1995 The historical and artistic development of the Lausanne Biennials illustrated with more than a hundred works and views of rooms, most of them unpublished. At the end of World War II, the art of tapestry experienced a new boom and throughout Europe national workshops and factories lived a renewal. By organizing the International Tapestry Biennials in 1962, the city of Lausanne (Switzerland) became the international showcase of contemporary textile creation.
Editors’ Tip: Tapestry Weaving: Design and Technique Despite an illustrious history, tapestry weaving is a simple technique that requires little equipment or expenditure and can be done anywhere, and this lavishly illustrated book gently leads beginners through the whole process with detailed diagrams and exciting work by contemporary weavers. It offers a step-by-step guide to setting up a small frame loom and starting to weave; basic and advanced techniques and how to create shapes and textures; advice on taking work into the third dimension, whether bas relief or fully sculptural; information on the qualities of different materials; design ideas for tapestries; and instructions on how to follow supplied designs. This guide will be useful to the absolute beginner, but experienced weavers will also find new ideas and techniques to tempt and inspire them.
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- Anonymous, Contemporary Tapestry, Zimmer Stewart Gallery [Sep 28, 2017]
- Anonymous, 2008, Magic carpets: the modern art of tapestry, Independent [Sep 28, 2017]
- Iqbal, N., 2008, Tapestries by contemporary artists, The Guardian [Sep 28, 2017]
Featured images: Grayson Perry – Lamentation, 2012, via artfund.org; Erin M Riley – Pure Hell, 2011, via publicdelivery.org; Grayson Perry – Expulsion From Number 8 Eden Close, 2012, via artfund.org; Erin M Riley – Alone Alone, 2014, via publicdelivery.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.