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Tradition and innovation in modern tapestries.

A current exhibition touring the country presents major works--even colossal in scale--by some of the best known and most talented masters of 20th-century art. But rather than featuring paintings or sculptures or prints, this exhibition focuses on handmade tapestries.

Tapestries: The Great Twentieth Century Modernists features artworks by Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Kandinsky, and many of their contemporaries, who were inspired to transform their own compositions into monumental wall hangings. The 20 tapestries brought together by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions from both European and American collections offer a fresh perspective on 20th-century Cubism and its intriguing relationship to the time-honored tradition of weaving. The exhibition also presents an innovative approach to the centuries-old medium of textile art.

"Tapestry" refers to a weaving technique characterized by handwoven textiles traditionally used for hangings, curtains and upholstery. In French, the phrase, "tapisser les murs," literally means to cover the walls with textiles. Interestingly, tapestries are simultaneously among the most ancient and most modern of art forms.

Most people are familiar with traditional European tapestries from the Middle Ages that adorned the massive stone walls of castles and palaces. That tradition continued into the 19th century as patrons commissioned such wall hangings for both decoration and insulation purposes. The modern variants of wall hangings are less functional and primarily concerned with aesthetics.

Unlike painting, creating art on a loom requires a very different conceptual approach and an extraordinary amount of teamwork. It's a labor-intensive process that could take a skilled weaver a month or more to create a square yard of finished fabric using special wools and dyes.

The interplay between the artists and weavers, and the interplay among the Cubist masters, offer us unique insights into the tradition of tapestry and its surprising impact on 20th-century Cubism. Artists, such as those presented in this display, were well aware of contemporary artistic trends, styles and techniques, and often responded to such influences in their own works. The same type of interchange also exists in the medium of tapestries.

The exhibition curator, Dirk Holger, a weaver as well as a tapestry expert, once worked with Jean Lurcat (1892-1966), a French painter and an important tapestry designer, who is credited with reviving the art of tapestry in modern France. Because of Lurcat's revival, many 20th-century painters, sculptors and, at least one architect, were inspired to turn to tapestry.

In the 1950s, Pablo Picasso asked Jean Lurcat why he wove his pictures in wool. Lurcat, the leading revivalist of tapestry among his contemporaries, replied easily, "One fiber of my wool is a thousand times more precious than a piece of your paper." That playful challenge inspired Picasso to transform some of his own compositions into monumental wall hangings, and he was not alone in that exploration.

Pablo Picasso was an extraordinarily inventive and experimental artist, so it was almost expected that he would investigate the possibilities of tapestries for his compositions. After all, he tried just about every other imaginable medium and technique, and he even invented some of his own.

His tapestry, Les Arlequins (The Harlequins,) was based on a gouache originally created in 1920 and woven into a tapestry in 1954. The Cubist style and the harlequin subject are reminiscent of some of Picasso's early groundbreaking artworks that transformed his own career and significantly impacted the history of Modern Art. In this case, the flat abstracted forms that seemingly overlap into a fractured pattern further suggest Picasso's collage compositions, another technique he introduced that developed into a significant art form thereafter.

Henri Matisse also is regarded as a dominant force in the development of Modern Art. As a painter, sculptor, printmaker and stage designer, perhaps only Picasso rivals his vast accomplishments. Birds of the Air was based on a 1970 cartoon and is a classic Matisse design.

Matisse's two-dimensional works are characterized by an overall simplification or abstraction of form, flat patterns while still maintaining a sense of space, and bold use of pure colors separated by strong contours or contrast between figure and ground. Similar to the art form itself, his works are both traditional and novel.

Sao Paolo, a colorful and joyous work by Fernand Leger, was also based on an earlier painting from the 1940s. Like Picasso, Leger is considered a major master of the Cubist movement, although his particular style evolved in the direction of a curvilinear Cubism based on geometric forms and influenced by the dynamic shapes and textures of machinery. He equated human movements with mechanical rhythms and appropriately designed stage sets for ballet.

The style of Alexander Calder is ideally adaptable to a wide variety of interpretations including that of textile art. America in the Universe, derived from a cartoon, is one example from a set of six 1976 Bicentennial tapestries. Calder's art is composed largely of abstract forms and the changing relations of forms in space.

Well known for his paintings and graphic works, Calder is probably best recognized for his abstract public sculptures and for his innovative "mobiles," which move by mechanical or natural (wind-driven) forces. His work is characterized by simple shapes, bold colors and dynamic but carefully balanced compositions.

Thanks largely to Jean Lurcat's vision and unflagging commitment to the art of weaving, a surprising number of modern painters and sculptors were inspired to transfer a selection of their enduring masterpieces to tapestry. This unusual exhibition brings together the vibrant and joyful colors of Calder and Arp, the bold figural architectonics of Leger and Le Corbusier, the cutouts of Matisse and the Cubism of Picasso. Woven works by Kandinsky, Vasarely, Braque and Chagall also add a diversity and verve to this exhibition that should delight and inspire visitors.

The Trust for Museum Exhibitions is a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit service organization committed to providing the finest in exhibition and technical support to museums and cultural centers throughout the United States and abroad.


Museum of Art

Brigham Young University

Provo, Utah

Through July 22

Bass Museum of Art

Miami, Florida

Aug. 26-Oct. 8, 2006

The Appleton Museum of Art

Central Florida Community College

Ocala, Florida

Oct. 28, 2006-Jan. 7, 2007

Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

Montgomery, Alabama

Jan. 27-April 8, 2007

Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art

Midland Center for the Arts

Midland, Michigan

April 26-July 8, 2007

Mark M. Johnson is Director of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Mongtomery, Ala., and a Contributing Editor for Arts & Activities.
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Author:Johnson, Mark M.
Publication:Arts & Activities
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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