Tapestry is not a word you’d associate with modernity. It connotes older days before electric heat, faded fabrics depicting mythic scenes, museum walls lined with relics of the past. But the Manufacture des Gobelins in the 13th arrondissement of Paris proves otherwise.
Although this striking manufacturing house does indeed hold significant historic ties, dating all the way back to Louis XIV and supplying French monarchs with insulated walls since the 17th century, they now produce tapestries that arguably constitute the title of modern or contemporary art. Vibrant colors, abstract designs, and innovative arrangements grace their fabrics, and a current exhibition at the gallery just next door showcases the house’s most recent designs, plus information on the process of putting together these masterful works of art.
Thanks to a press tour by the exhibit’s knowledgeable curator, Marie-Hélène Bersani-Dali, I was exposed to the workings of the world of modern tapestry making, a topic I had been completely unaware existed before the visit.
The exhibit is named for the special event that occurs when a tapestry is finished – which, depending on its intricacy, can happen years after it was commissioned. Tombée de métier – literally, the fall from the loom – is the instant when the strings attaching the tapestry to the loom are cut, and the tapestry quite literally falls from where it was woven. This event is a celebration of collaboration, where every member that went into the production of the tapestry – the artist, the weavers, and everyone in between – participates in the official completion of the project.
Similarly, the exhibit includes an examination of every aspect of the tapestry making process, providing brief descriptions of different weaving styles, showcasing vibrantly colored thread and preparatory models, and even hanging some tapestries so that their backs show, exposing viewers to the mass of hanging threads that cohere to create clear images on the other side of the fabric.
The gaping room of the exhibit is divided into three rooms, the tapestries whose backs show acting as the walls between each section. The fronts of these tapestries, which were designed by Jacques Vieille, face each other, portraying highly stylized fireplaces against surrealist, graphic design backgrounds. (One of the backgrounds is a dense forest of ribbon spools, for which the factory employed silk thread to emphasize the roundness of the spools.) Their backs, which face the first and last room of the exhibit, are seas of yarn through which one can vaguely make out the patterns that appear on the other side.
As Ms. Bersani-Dali walked us through the exhibit, she took us through the process of a tapestry’s development, starting with the artist’s visual model, and then elaborating how the lissier (who is in charge of translating the model into tapestry form) chooses to interpret the artist’s design. Ms. Bersani-Dali compared this process to a choreographer adapting music according to his or her own personal tastes, clarifying that the lissier – not the artist – deliberates on all the logistics that go into the transition between paper and tapestry.
From the small model created by the artist, the manufacturer first creates a photo enlargement that mimics the eventual size of the tapestry. Next, they draw out a map of the same size that indicates where each color of thread will go. Next to a large floor piece by Claire Pichaud appears the initial cartographie of the piece. Imagine an enormous, very complicated color-by-numbers page, and you will have a pretty accurate image of what a cartographie looks like.Next comes the decision of whether the tapestry will be hung on the wall or displayed on the floor. (Or, as in the case of a lace tapestry by Ghislaine Portalis in the middle room, displayed face-up on a table.) “There is more of a sense of reading in the case of the wall tapestries,” expresses Ms. Bersani-Dali. “There’s an entrance and an exit there, whereas with the floor tapestry you can step on it, stand on it, or walk around wherever you want.”
The factory’s 7 studios, 120 technicians, and 14,000 color variations allow for a wide breadth of work, ranging from pastels to deep jewel tones to intense neon hues. Two of the more vibrant tapestries stood out in the second room – one, a work by Stephen Craig, depicts interlacing bands of color with miniscule carnival stands scattered throughout. The other, a work by Pierre Mabille, mimics the effect of a veil being passed over its vibrant pattern, due to subtle, almost imperceptible color changes.
“On peint avec la laine [We paint with wool],” posited Ms. Bersani-Dali as she stood next to a tapestry by Sheila Hicks that I could have sworn was a Monet. But it’s not just painting that the tapestries are capable of mimicking – one piece is a highly photographic depiction of clouds with graphic text printed over them, as if created by a Photoshop program. A hanging wall piece in the first room by Klaus Rinke simulates charcoal and pencil drawing. While each piece maintains the grandeur and tactile quality of a tapestry, the thread is readily adaptable to various materials, configurations, and themes that allow each piece to take on the characteristics of other mediums of art.In the last room, an immense floor tapestry called “Foam” (Frederic Ruyant) portrays an intricate, chaotic pattern of abstracted ocean scenes – coral, seaweed, waves, swirling pools, and many-tentacled white creatures seethe in front of a multi-hued aquatic background. In fact, the tapestry is based on a photograph the artist took of a detail of a 17th century tapestry, Le Colosse de Rhodes, perfectly encapsulating the great arc of history through which the tapestry tradition extends.
Danielle Cohen, Wesleyan University 2018, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Autumn 2016