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T is for Tapestry: The Twentieth Century

Published on , by Marielle Brie

In the artistic effervescence of the last century, tapestry was not forgotten. In Aubusson in particular, workshops multiplied thanks to the new consideration from artists for the weavers’ know-how.

Aubusson Tapestry Factory, according to Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Abstract Composition,... T is for Tapestry: The Twentieth Century

Aubusson Tapestry Factory, according to Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Abstract Composition, tapestry in six-color wool using a model of the artist for a 1953 mural, woven on a low-warp loom in the workshop of Tabard Frères et Sœurs in 1962, 195.5 x 394 cm (77 x 155 in).
Paris, Hôtel Drouot, February 23, 2021. Ader. © Ader
Result: €128,000

At the turn of the 20th century, the meticulous experiments of the Arts & Crafts movement and the Nabis soon became emulators. Throughout Europe, private workshops emerged that no longer considered tapestry as a wall ornament, but rather as a mobile fresco on which the idea of depth can be explored without the linear perspective. The visual treatment of modern art is remarkably suited to the moving flexibility of a fabric that fits, almost better than the canvas, the ideal of artists regularly invited to supply cartoons to tapestry factories. In an effort to join modernity, the French national workshops went in a new direction thanks to the iconic efforts of Antoine-Marius Martin, director of the École nationale des arts décoratifs in Aubusson from 1917 to 1930. Torn between the legacy of a medieval practice reimagined in the nineteenth century and the pragmatic questions of economy, the collaboration between artist and craftsman and the transposition from one medium to another, he took measures that he thought could accommodate it all. The drastic restriction in the range of colors, combined with the new use of “counted colors” cartoons—(outlining the colored surfaces) on a “coarse” weave (ten threads down to four threads per centimeter), seemed appropriate for combining the expression of modern art with the much-hoped-for renaissance of woven art. The initiative appealed to Post-Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists, who turned this “painter’s tapestry” into a new mode of expression.

Aubusson and Beauvais set themselves apart by attracting a private clientèle and interior designers like Jacques Adnet. In this context, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries) of 1925 shined a light on the discipline, which showcased Art Deco and a fascination with works from Central and Eastern Europe. Their remarkable appropriation of the codes of abstraction and color, modern ideals and the expression of a national art seduced the public during the double exhibition devoted to them in 1927 (“Le tapis:  Europe septentrionale et orientale” (“The Carpet: Northern and Eastern Europe”), Musée des Arts décoratifs de Paris): the influence of these countries on tapestry in the second half of the century is evident.

The excitement around woven creations emboldened Guillaume Janneau, at the head of national tapestry factories in the 1930s. Under his direction, weavers were encouraged to free themselves from painters, to no longer be only implementing, but interpreting a work, involving a close collaboration with Paul Vera, Othon Friesz and Augustin Hanicotte, whose cartoons then went on the looms at Les Gobelins. For her part, the patron Marie Cuttoli supported this vision by ordering complex woven works, promoting their artisanal know-how. Her conviction attracted Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Georges Rouault and Georges Braque to the private looms in La Creuse. This boom culminated, in 1946, in the exhibition run by Janneau at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris—“La tapisserie française du Moyen Âge à nos jours” (“French Tapestry from the Middle Ages to the Present Day”) (June 8 to July 31), considered the essential link between the use of woven heritage and the development of its contemporary expression. Within a few years, the tapestry factories attracted everything that France had to offer in artists and architects/interior designers. This group included cartoon painters such as Jean Lurçat, creator of “The Song of the World” tapestry. In 1937, Lurçat moved to Aubusson. Supported by the École des arts décoratifs and the Tabard workshop, he gave the tapestry factory his best years. Thanks to him, public and private productions continued and evolved artistically by responding with originality, thanks to a course of action summarized as the fight “against the excess of finesse”. To achieve the desired result, the painter and ceramist developed a cartoon numbered according to the colors of the final wools, and no longer the palette colors. Though the destruction of the interpretive power of the weavers irritated Guillaume Janneau, these innovations as well as the constant search for links between past and present gave rise to masterpieces, from the Muralnomad created by Le Corbusier—reviving the medieval tradition of movable walls—to the rewriting of Aubusson greenery by the Benedictine artist Dom Robert. Lurçat also involved his network of dealers, including Denise Majorel (Galerie La Demeure) and Denise René. Starting in 1951, he published abstract art pieces with the Tabard workshop, including many cartoons signed by Victor Vasarely. Geometric abstraction and the new Paris school—also woven by the Plasse Le Caisne workshop in Houx (Eure-et-Loire)—found their audience in France and the United States thanks to these experienced gallery owners, who mixed exhibition, sales and painting networks.

Between 1959 and 1969, more than 10,000 tapestries came off the Aubusson looms, attracting in the 1970s new artists—Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell and Jean Dubuffet—to the Pinton and Picaud workshops. While the 1980s and 1990s were a dry spell—many private workshops closed and the support of Mobilier National was insufficient—the turn of the 21st century brought a fresh start: all resources of the weavers intimately involved in creation were explored. From its imposing murality, prized by Pierre Alechinsky and Jean-Michel Othoniel, to its narrative tradition with the weaving of tapestries born of Hayao Miyazaki's imagination, going through three dimensions from the Ymer & Malta studio, the tapestry now sees its future hanging on by many threads.

Worth seeing
The tapestries of the Musée national Fernand-Léger in Biot (06).

“The Song of the World” tapestry, by Jean Lurçat, at Musée Jean-Lurçat et de la tapisserie contemporaine in Angers (49).

The Hunt by André Derain and Les Invalides and Palais Bourbon by Raoul Dufy, at Centre Pompidou in Paris.
The Offering by Ossip Zadkine, at Musée Zadkine in Paris.

Read our other articles dedicated to the topic: Tapestry: Volume 1, Tapestry: the 16th and 17th Centuries, Volume 2, Tapestry: the 19th century, Volume 3
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