When I left Angers I was crestfallen. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful towns I have known. The old medieval world blends perfectly with the modern, vibrant centre. Narrow winding cobbled alleys open into spacious plazas, filled with folk making most of the early-season sunshine. The centre is entirely pedestrianised apart from rainbow covered trams, making it a place one wants to be, no one was stuffed onto overcrowded pavements to make way for cars. Yes, I did check out the house prices.
This week has been the least frenzied, yet perhaps also the most productive and revelatory, perhaps in part due to there being more time and space to breathe and process, to think about how I can best use all this when I get home.
Angers houses two famous tapestries, The late 14th century Apocalypse of Angers and Jean Lurcat’s 20th century Le Chant du Monde. The Apocalypse is one of the oldest, and certainly the largest tapestry in Europe, originally around 850 square metres. It was commissioned in the 1370s by Louis I, and woven in Paris within a decade and depicts the Book of Revelations from the New Testament. It has suffered during its lifetime, cut up as floor mats, walls stuffing, rubbing down horses, but is now hanging in a gallery specially built for it at the Chateaux D’Angers (above) curated by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (something akin to the UK’s English Heritage).
I got there early and headed straight for the tapestry, I wanted it to myself for a few minutes before the crowds. Nothing can prepare you for pushing open the door and being faced with the first panel emerging out of the darkness and then turning into the room and seeing it down the length of it, then another corner, and more tapestry again. I don’t believe in any god, but it took me minutes to remember that what I was seeing was created on a loom, by the fingertips of people, that it hadn’t been handed down from above by some mystical force as divine and terrifying and those portrayed in the tapestry.
The tapestry is made of six sections, each headed by a principle figure followed by two levels of scenes with red and blue backgrounds, initially plain and later decorated.The room in which it was housed, is understandably very dark and visitors are kept at quite a distance, all essential for the proper curation of something so precious. But it was impossible to see the detail I needed as a weaver, but to experience the whole was something that was just as memorable. I had little idea, how close I would eventually get!
I returned a few days later, to meet with several folk from the Monuments Nationaux looking after the tapestry. They were so welcoming and friendly and knowledgeable, I had hoped for a bit of inside information about what was known about how it was woven, especially in the light of some recent work conducted on some of the tapestries. Instead I was invited into the storeroom, where some partial panels were taken out of storage for me to see. To have had this access was an astonishing privilege, and it is fantastic that as well as curating this tapestry so well, they also make it available to researchers, I can’t tell you how grateful I was to the WCMT that afternoon – it is something I will never forget.
The tapestries close up were, quite frankly, the most sophisticated weaving I have ever seen. And to imagine this was sustained across the rest of the tapestry was overwhelming, and a coronary episode may well have ensued had the whole tapestry have been available like this. In those fragments and partial panels, I saw every possible weaving technique I knew. And yet, no technique dominated, everything was done so subtly, so purely that the whole was in complete balance. This tapestry is the absolute pinnacle of the weaver’s art.
Jean Lurcat first saw this tapestry in the 1930s, and it was fundamental to his thinking, its limited palette, its monumentality, all elements he saw as essential to the successful design and execution of tapestry. This thinking manifested itself in his own response to the Apocalypse tapestries, Le Chant Du Monde, a massive series of tapestries depicting the journey of man, our own destruction and survival.
I must confess that whilst I am interested in some of Lurcat’s ideas, I have not always been so drawn to his work, but that has all changed. Le Chant du Monde, sadly unfinished, is now housed in a medieval hospital, a phenomenal structure in its own right.
In the size, the limited colours, the metres of dense symbolism, the influence of the Angers Apocalypse is clear, especially in the penultimate panel (above) which reflects the format of the originals. It is also in these latter tapestries that there is more variety in the weaving techniques used.
Le Chant du Monde is part of the Musee Jean Lurcat et de la Tapisserie Contemporaine and it was this latter part that was the most revelatory for me. I had expected very contemporary work (which was certainly there), but what I had not expected was the collection of mid 20th century tapestries on display and those of Lurcat’s contemporaries.
It is these that have always been the biggest influence on me, and to turn a corner and see the actual works I had admired from books was overwhelming. All the tapestries I saw shared an absolute respect and formality for the techniques of tapestry. I could spend hours looking at them and always saw something new, and I saw them in my work too, no surprise considering the influence they had on me. As someone who is so self critical, they have taught me to embrace what I do, to push it further, rather than find alternative directions which may well have been an unstated goal of this trip. I ended up returning repeatedly and I am exceptionally grateful to the incredibly helpful, generous and knowledgeable frontline staff. The whole complex is an astounding jewel in Angers’ crown. (Below are tapestries by Gromaire and Touliere, apologies for not labelling the images properly, I am still doing this on my iPad which is in severe danger of being thrown across the room).
I also had the great pleasure of meeting several weavers from Liciers Angevins who kindly allowed me to visit their workshop. It has done little to curb my crush on the basse lisse! But the visit was also interesting for seeing the challenges of keeping tapestry relevant as a living art from, and not just a tradition to be revered. I am eternally thankful to the very lovely tapestry artist Christine Pradel-Lien for introducing me and for helping make my stay in Angers such a pleasure. I hope to be back very soon!
It had been my intention at the start of the project to head off to Aubusson after Angers. The tapestries produced there post-date my period of interest, but the town has a long association with Jean Lurcat and as well as numerous current workshops, a major new centre, the Cite internationale de la Tapisserie, opened last year. Alas my emails went unanswered so when some cuts had to be made to squeeze the project into the budget available for this leg, I took the very difficult decision to cut it for now. For the same reasons I haven’t managed to get everywhere on my list, but I sincerely hope I have done enough to have justified this amazing privilege. On one hand it seems to have been a blur and yet also seems to have been an age! I am half way through, with a few weeks break before the next leg, I am pretty whacked, so I am glad I broke it up after all. I have decided to stay in fellowship mode, I want to experiment with what I have seen, as well as make a start on my report, and yet still get ready for some upcoming events so there will be some balancing to do, but I will keep reporting back on how things develop. Thank you so much to everyone for following this blog and for your comments here and on my Facebook page. It has meant a lot that I am not on this trip alone.