Does size really matter?

Jean_Lurçat_par_Roger_Pic
Jean Lurcat via Wiki Commons

I’m still sofa bound thanks to my trip down the stairs last weekend, and there has been little I can do weaving-wise. But it has given me time to try to mould this post which I’ve had in mind for a goodly while.

Whilst I was working on Maides Coign I got my mitts on a copy of Designing Tapestry written by the French artist Jean Lurcat (above) who is credited with reviving tapestry as a contemporary art form. It was first published in 1947 and again in English in 1950.

Lurcat argued that the hundreds of colours used by French tapestry workshops at the beginning of the twentieth century were wasteful and only served to perpetuate the unhappy role of tapestries as a poor imitation of paintings which had been their fate since the cartoons produced by Raphael during the Renaissance.

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A tapestry design by Raphael – tapestry starts to imitate paintings via Wiki Commons

At Angers Lurcat studied a then little known series of tapestries, known as the Apocalypse Tapestry which were woven in the late fourteenth century and thus predate tapestry’s demise into imitation paintings. These tapestries are a powerful example of tapestry in its purest, unadulterated form and Lurcat noted what could be achieved with a limited palette of twenty or so colours. He went on to advocate a restricted palette for modern weavers, a “scale of prearranged colours” put in place before designing a tapestry even begins and which includes no more that 6-7 colours with five shades each. Ironically, considering my earlier post on the relationship between tapestry and embroidery, this conclusion was also something he came to through experimenting with needlepoint as he convalesced from an injury during WW1.

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The Beast from the Apocalypse tapestries via Wiki Commons

To further break away from painterly tapestries Lurcat also increased his bead size or warps per inch. The Apocalypse tapestry was woven with about 12 ends per inch; this pretty much doubled in subsequent centuries. Influenced by pre-renaissance, pre-painterly tapestries, to Lurcat tapestries should be primitive and bold and sturdy; they should come to life through juxtaposition and contrast of colours. It was not a delicate or subtle medium. They should be on a grand scale like frescos, to him small-scale tapestries simply disintegrated and lost their power.

Lurcat was also adamant that when designing tapestry one should always have in mind a “feeling for the wall”. Unlike easel paintings which could be hung anywhere, tapestries were often designed with a specific place in mind, they were intimately connected with their setting, thus giving tapestry an architectural significance. To him tapestry was not an “art of slender proportions but an art of monumental order”.

As I wove Maides Coign, I was quite taken aback at how much sympathy I had for Lurcat’s arguments. Maides Coign was woven with a very restricted palette, it was also a bold design which certainly would not have worked had she been woven any smaller and of course the setting in which she was woven and eventually hung was a huge influence. She was also a large-scale tapestry; considering the origins of tapestry as a wall covering, this was important to me long before I read Lurcat. I am at heart a traditionalist, it is inevitable with my background as an archaeologist and it is to the early, pre-renaissance tapestries and to Lurcat’s contemporaries that I find myself drawn.

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The Fourth Horseman from the Apocalypse tapesteries via Wiki Commons

But this also has its downside. Inevitably since Lurcat wrote Designing Tapestry, as an art form tapestry has developed further and that sense of scale has been largely lost. The British Tapestry Group for example are planning an exhibition of tapestries later this year to celebrate the form in all its variety of styles, shapes and sizes, yet placed a restriction on the size of entries. Also, and I think I am right in this, I wasn’t privy to the details, but there was a bit of a fuss/backlash when Dirk Holger, once a student of Lurcat’s, recently suggested something had been lost in the preference for small format tapestries in the US. It is easy to see why small-format tapestries are becoming the norm. They don’t require the massive commitment of time that large-scale tapestries command, nor do they require the sacrifice of space given over to large looms, and they are easier to exhibit. But personally I do struggle to fully appreciate small-format tapestries or fully understand their point, (apart that is, from the work of Aino Kajaniemi – I am in total awe of how she creates something so delicate and fragile using of tapestry).

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Jean Lurcat’s La Nuit et les Insectes – with huge thanks to 1stdibs.com for permission to use image

I know I am old-fashioned and stubborn and going against the grain, but I still cannot quite draw myself away from the large-scale, it seems inherent and in some ways respectful to the medium, it is how it is supposed to work, as Lurcat says, tapestry is a “sturdy, plump, virile and chubby art”. Perhaps this means I won’t often get the opportunity to exhibit alongside other weavers here in the UK but then perhaps that it is not a bad thing, pushing me to explore other possibilities and who knows where that might lead.

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5 thoughts on “Does size really matter?

  1. Funnily enough, as someone who stitches her pieces, I tend to agree with you about size and weaving. Your medium allows large scale, it rejoices in form and texture on a grand level. It is something I hugely appreciate. I too see a lot of small woven pieces – some, especially those that work with textures, I admire, but nevertheless I’m not entirely convinced of the point. There is surely room for everyone who chooses to explore the transformation of fibres into art, regardless of size, but if big size is an option, then yes, do it!

  2. What can I add other than another quote by LURCAT (whose last student I was in 1964-65): “Tapestry is either MURAL or one should not
    speak of tapestry!” Mural = architecture-related and by this: large!
    And he called mini-textiles woven in tapestry-weave “bibelots” or ‘trinkets’
    as an expression of “home-sweet-home-needle-work of young (not old)
    ladies…” and we were laughing while working on a cartoon of some 90
    square meters then……But he also produced some ‘trinket’s for fun in these miniature sizes of 30 x 50 cm and (I have one) of 60 x 90 cm, as
    gifts, not to be taken too seriously and not as ‘tapestries’! Haha….. DH

  3. Since when does “Size not matter?” Again and again Lurcat taught me
    that “tapestry is a monumental art” and I stick to it. If weavers with tiny
    looms like to produce mini formats, they should not label them ‘tapestry’.
    The COPTS used ‘tapestry-woven” ornamenting of their tunics, but they would not call these superb, super-finely woven pieces ‘tapestry.'(By the
    way: LURCAT did not increase but decrease the amount of colors used
    in his cartoons, meant to be woven as tapestries and he refused to have
    paintings serve as tapestry designs….). I have to state this again: “With
    Raphael began the decline of tapestry as an autonomous art form” and
    I repeat this in my new book “To weave or not to weave..”, due by end of
    this year….finally! Dirk Holger Atelier Jean Lurcat

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