By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Until April 2010 you can see Guernica in London, at the newly expanded Whitechapel Gallery. But if you’ve visited the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and seen Picasso’s anguished portrayal of the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, you might notice something a bit odd. At 10 by 22 feet, the Guernica in London is slightly smaller than the one in Spain and considerably heavier (the gallery needed six men to hang it). The palette is beige and brown instead of black and white. Stand less than three feet away from it, and the surface pattern becomes visible; this Guernica is a tapestry, a woven rendition of Picasso’s original mural-size canvas.
Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor and arts patron, commissioned it in 1955, partly because he loved tapestries (he was raised in a Manhattan home decorated with 15th-century weavings that today grace The Cloisters, the Met’s medieval showcase) and partly because he grasped the practical value of the medium. “He wanted to bring appreciation of modern art to everyone, and tapestries are more portable and less fragile than the originals,” says Cynthia Altman, curator at Kykuit, the Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., estate that displays 12 of Rockefeller’s woven Picassos.
Picasso agreed to the creation of the Guernica tapestry and authenticated it by signing and inscribing the back of a photograph of the finished work. It became the first of 18 Picasso tapestries that Rockefeller commissioned from the atelier of Madame J. de la Baume Dürrbach in Cavalaire, France, which apparently came to the attention of Picasso and Rockefeller after its weavers produced a Guernica on their own initiative that both men saw and liked.
The Whitechapel show reinforces Rockefeller’s point about the practical value of tapestries. The gallery, which featured the painted Guernica in 1939, requested it for its current show on the impact of the antiwar image, but the Spanish museum declined on the grounds that it was too delicate to travel. The loan of the tapestry, which has hung in the United Nations since 1985, solved two problems: It gave Whitechapel the centerpiece for its exhibition, and it gave the woven Guernica a public home while the U.N. undergoes renovations.
The Rockefeller Guernica is probably the most famous modern art tapestry due to its place at the U.N., but French weaving workshops, or ateliers, produced thousands of modern art images during the 20th century. Many of the century’s greatest artists—Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, Victor Vasarely and Marc Chagall—allowed French weavers to translate existing works of theirs or create cartoons, original designs conceived specifically for conversion into cloth. These tapestries deserve more than the fleeting, offhand mentions that they have received to date.
Modern art tapestries offer advantages not only to curators but to collectors, as they are both rare and hard to counterfeit. Tapestry is a particularly labor-intensive art form. France’s weaving workshops, which trace their profession to medieval times, placed each thread by hand, taking months and even years to complete a piece. Such a time-consuming approach ensured that every tapestry belonged to a limited edition. Some are even rarer than they seem because the ateliers did not necessarily produce every copy that their contracts permitted. It was common to embark on a second weaving only after the first one was sold, and some editions never reached their maximums.
Tapestries are analogous to prints, another medium used for art reproduction, in that the artists have to rely on technical experts to translate their images. But unlike prints, tapestries are impressively fake-resistant. “In order to do a weaving that would pass and look like what it was, it would take a very, very skilled person. And presumably, they have better things to do,” says Charles Mathes, director of the Jane Kahan Gallery in Manhattan, which has handled modern art tapestries since the 1970s.
Also, such tapestries can satisfy collectors who seek something from a larger-than-life name at a larger-than-life size. “If you’re interested in 20th-century modern masters like Picasso and Léger, and you want a painting that’s 6 by 8 feet, just try to find one, and try to find one of quality. It’s very difficult,” Mathes says, adding that these tapestries are ideal for decorating homes as well. “‘Decorative’ shouldn’t be a bad word. If you’re looking for something that you could put in your study and could live with, tapestry will give you intellectual stimulation and will give you joy.”
Frenchwoman Marie Cuttoli generated the initial wave of modern art tapestries. Founder of Myrbor, a Parisian clothing and interior furnishings firm that produced limited-edition carpets by Léger, Miró and Picasso in the 1920s, she turned to tapestry in the 1930s. She commissioned renditions of more than 20 images by leading modern artists, including Miró’s Personnages avec étoile, Raoul Dufy’sPanorama of Paris, Picasso’s Inspiration and Georges Braque’s Still Life With a Guitar, and exhibited them in New York in April 1936. The show inspired wonder, as well as mild criticism from reviewers, who agreed that certain tapestries fared better than others. “This work amply proves that even the most unusual and subtle color orchestrations are quite possible in tapestry work,” wrote Edward Alden Jewell of The New York Times. “On the other hand the artists themselves have not been uniformly successful in furnishing designs such as appear peculiarly right or inevitable when translated into the weaver’s medium.” The tapestries also had an invisible handicap that the papers of the day did not mention: According to Jane Kahan, they were much more expensive than the paintings, because of the vast amount of labor involved in making them.
World War II halted the progress of Cuttoli’s endeavors, but her contribution to tapestry proved crucial. She kept French workshops busy during the lean years of the 1930s, and according to research by Virginia Gardner Troy, an art historian at Berry College in Georgia, Cuttoli’s woven collaborations with the French painter Jean Lurçat accelerated his embrace of the medium. Not long after working with her, Lurçat became tapestry’s greatest champion and chief evangelist, designing more than 1,000 images for the loom. Indeed, the reviewers of the 1936 New York show consistently singled out Lurçat for praise. He insisted that tapestries were an art form in their own right and should not be reduced to woven replicas of paintings. “He taught the big names that you have to keep the weaver in mind,” says Dirk Holger, a German-born tapestry expert in Maryland who curated Tapestries: The Great 20th-Century Modernists, which traveled across America in 2006 and 2007.
Lurçat revolutionized the art of tapestry-making by looking to his medieval forebears, who relied on a more restricted palette than the seemingly infinite gradations employed by the 18th-century weavers of works by François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. “He reduced the color scale to 45, nine different colors broken down into five shades,” says Holger, who studied tapestry-making with Lurçat in the 1960s. “Even now, if you send a cartoon to France, the Lurçat color code lets them read the cartoon in the way a musician hears the melody by reading notes.” Lurçat’s retro-innovation, which was adopted by the ateliers in the French town of Aubusson in 1939, helped revive the medium. “Tapestries could be done faster, and much less expensively, because they could easily calculate the cost,” Holger says. “Under the Lurçat code it took three to five weeks to produce 1 square yard of tapestry. They could never do that with a Boucher.” Many desirable modern art tapestries woven in France’s ateliers were produced under Lurçat’s code.
A notable exception was Yvette Cauquil-Prince, a French weaver who translated works by Picasso, Max Ernst and Chagall, with whom she had a close relationship. Chagall called her his “spiritual daughter” and told her, “When I’m here no longer, you must continue the work,” which she did until she died in 2005, having turned more than 40 Chagalls into tapestries. Kahan recalls hearing Cauquil-Prince speaking of her first meeting with Chagall in the 1960s, when she agreed to make a tapestry after one of his lithographs. “Then he said to her, ‘If this tapestry doesn’t work and I don’t approve of it, I have the right to destroy it.’ She was a very modest person, not presumptuous, but had lots of self-respect, and said, ‘Of course, but if I don’t think it’s up to my level, I will also have the right to destroy it.’ Not only did he like it, he then gave her carte blanche to do whatever tapestry she wished.” La vie, a unique Chagall tapestry by Cauquil-Prince, sold for $385,000 at Sotheby’s New York in November 2007.
Art dealers such as Denise René of Paris helped sustain the mid-century revival. In the years following World War II, she joined forces with the Tabard atelier in Aubusson to produce and show tapestries based on contemporary art images. In 1974 she mounted an exhibition in New York showcasing weavings based on works by Vasarely, Jean Arp, Wassily Kandinsky and Le Corbusier. “I thought this was a medium capable of transcribing abstract works, which was a novelty in this realm,” René says.
American tapestry designer Gloria Ross introduced the medium to another generation of artists in the 1970s and ’80s, weaving pieces by Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell and Lucas Samaras, and relying on French workshops for some commissions. But demand for tapestries diminished. Many ateliers, Tabard included, began closing their doors in the ’80s, and the Ecole Nationale d’Art Décoratif in Aubusson, France’s sole tapestry-making school, closed in 2007 and has been converted to an atelier that restores and conserves tapestries. However, the Pinton atelier in Felletin, a town near Aubusson, is still active. About 20 percent of its output consists of tapestries, and four of its 25 employees, trained on site, are devoted to the work. Lucas Pinton succeeded his father, François, as manager of the family’s 142-year-old atelier in 2002. Pinton described how Sonia Delaunay, Léger, Calder and others would travel to Felletin to select colors and discuss how the tapestries would be woven.
“Calder, with whom we worked together a lot, was very confident in the master weavers,” says Pinton. “We always submitted the first woven edition; he never refused them.” Some limited-edition Calder weavings from Pinton are still available. The atelier holds the rights to produce 200 sets of six tapestries that Calder designed to mark the American bicentennial; the 38th sextet can be commissioned for €75,000 (roughly $107,000) and finished in a month.
But the fact that the ateliers wove modern art tapestries at all is a testament to the efforts of its boosters and the allure of the form. Tapestries reached their peak at a time when noble homes were built from stone and illuminated by fire. In the 20th century, with its climate control technology and architectural styles that found novel ways to admit direct sunlight, tapestry’s mortal enemy, the medium was bound to face hard times. It might seem counterintuitive, then, that of all the artists who experimented with it, Le Corbusier’s tapestries rank among the finest. He produced more than 25 cartoons and lauded tapestries as “nomadic murals” that a city dweller could pack and carry from one apartment to the next. “He really understood the artistry of tapestry because of his architectural renderings,” says Simona Blau of Vojtech Blau, a Manhattan tapestry gallery. “He knew how to fit a tapestry into its surroundings, and that’s so important.” Eddy Keshishian, a London-based dealer of antique carpets who also carries modern art tapestries, agrees. Le Corbusier, he says, “was the only artist who saw tapestry as part of art.”
Appreciation of modern art tapestries seems to take two forms. The first insists that successful tapestries must resemble something that came off a loom rather than an easel, and the second doesn’t necessarily object to a close imitation of a source painting, and might even prize it. Members of the first camp find fault with the 1930s-era Cuttolis, many of which now reside in museums. Holger deliberately didn’t include Cuttoli commissions among the tapestries of Picasso’s Les Arlequins, Matisse’s Birds of the Air and Léger’s Sao Paulo in his exhibition. “She didn’t acknowledge the difference between tapestries and paintings. The Braque, she did it with a frame around it,” he says, referring to Still Life With a Guitar, the woven version of which included a woven frame. “It didn’t make sense.” The works that Holger borrowed reflected his Lurçat-influenced outlook. “I chose tapestries that were very graphic in design,” he says. “The more painterly they are, the harder they are to make into tapestry.” He adds that tapestries should tempt viewers to run their fingers across their surfaces. “Too many colors, and the texture becomes painterly, and you don’t want to touch it anymore,” he says.
Another aspect that one might think would matter to connoisseurs, such as how closely and how well the artist worked with the atelier, is subordinate to the question of how capably the weavers used their medium. Ann Lane Hedlund, director of the Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies in Tucson, Ariz., cited the role of what she calls the éditeur, the person who chooses and brings together the artist and the atelier, and likens the éditeur’s function to that of a movie producer. “In a sense the producer of a film does a lot of aesthetic decision-making at the front end, does some financial backing, and does some hiring of key personnel. The artist would be like the scriptwriter and the design people, and the actors would be like the weavers,” she says, noting that people such as Ross, Cauquil-Prince and Cuttoli would fit the description of the éditeur. Just as a movie needs both talented actors and a compelling script to succeed, a tapestry needs both a skilled atelier and a strong source work.
The cartonnier, the artisan who translates a source work into the medium of tapestry, is an equally important figure in the tapestry-making process. To extend the movie metaphor, the cartonnier adapts the screenplay and often directs the film as well. The services of a cartonnier are required even when an artist creates an original cartoon, because an experienced weaver must still recast the image in a technical format that the rest of the weavers can understand and follow. (Lurçat’s code provides one tool for doing this.) This same artisan often supervises the weavers to ensure that the aesthetic vision is carried out. Sometimes, the roles of éditeur andcartonnier are filled by a single person; Cauquil-Prince was a master cartonnier, but Ross was not and it is unclear whether Cuttoli would have qualified. Because so much depends on the weavers, it’s nice, but not strictly necessary, for artists to deeply involve themselves in the process.
Les constructeurs, a Léger tapestry that sold for $250,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2006, shows that fine weavings can be created without the original artist: The angular high-rise construction scene was woven decades after Léger’s death. Starting in the 1980s his estate encouraged French ateliers to produce posthumous tapestries, andLes constructeurs was one result. Mathes, in a book he wrote on modern art tapestries for the Jane Kahan Gallery, explained that the later weavings were made to a higher technical standard than those done in the 1930s, when Léger was active. In addition, the aforementioned La vie Chagall by Cauquil-Prince, which also commanded a six-figure sum, was woven five years after Chagall died.
The auction record for modern art tapestries was likely influenced by the rarity and name recognition of the work in question. Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a Picasso homage to Manet woven at the Baume-Dürrbach atelier during the mid-1960s, fetched $420,000 at Christie’s New York in 2007. The weaving is unique and was intended for Rockefeller, who declined to accept the 10.5- by 14.8-foot tapestry.
Dealers of modern art tapestries spend much of their time educating clients about the field. In general, demand is driven by those who want name artists and those who want something for a home interior. “Decorators look for a piece to fit the environment, while a lot of private collectors want a specific artist,” Blau says. Fairly or not, less prominent artists live in the shadows of their high-profile contemporaries, even if their tapestries are stunning. “Collectors really do want to own something from an artist whose name is known,” says Mathes. “It’s not like we don’t appreciate other artists, but the market is limited.” Ironically, this means that tapestries by Lurçat lag behind those of his peers. Blau currently has a Calder, Le Lezard et le Tetard, an abstract of thick, wavy lines of red, blue and black on a white background woven by the Pinton atelier in the 1970s, and Keshishian has a Vasarely OND, a geometric abstract cleverly woven by Tabard to give the illusion of rows of lavender and green circles bulging from its surface, for $85,000 and $90,000, respectively. The auction record for a Lurçat, by comparison, is just under $36,000, and several of his paintings have fetched more.
The performance of Lurçat tapestries reflects the lower profile that modern art tapestries have. When the public encounters them at all, they most often see reproductive works such as the Guernica in London, and some will dismiss that tapestry out of hand on the notion that only the original Picasso painting will do. But Elizabeth Flanagan, communications officer at Whitechapel, has lived with the tapestry for months now, and feels it has something that other reproductive works might lack. “There’s a kind of weight about it, literally,” she says. “It feels quite imposing, maybe in a way that works on paper wouldn’t have. If the tapestry hadn’t been available, the artist would have found another way to represent Guernica, but maybe it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”
Denise René, Paris, 33.1.4222.7757 deniserene.com
Galerie Lucie Weill & Seligman, Paris, 33.1.4354.7195 galerie-lws.com
Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies, Tucson, Ariz. 520.626.8364tapestrycenter.org
Jane Kahan Gallery, New York, 212.744.1490 janekahan.com
Keshishian, London and New York, 44.20.7730.8810; 212.956.1586keshishiancarpets.com
Kykuit, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., 914.631.3992 hudsonvalley.org
Kykuit is a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is maintained and administered by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Fund operates the site as a center for its philanthropic programs. Historic Hudson Valley manages the public visitation program.
Vojtech Blau, New York, 212.249.4525 vojtechblau.com
Whitechapel Gallery, London, 44.20.7522.7888 whitechapelgallery.org