Thursday, 21 April 2011

Tapestry & Materiality in Art History (a rather heavy blog!)

As part of my ongoing research, I recently read an article by Malcolm Baker, 'Some Object Histories and the Materiality of the Sculptural Object', published in The Lure of the Object (2004). The publication was the result of a conference held at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Massachusetts, exploring the different nature of the term 'object' in relation to a variety of artistic mediums.

Baker's article focused on 'a disjunction between, on the one hand, the way many spectators view art objects... and, on the other, the way art historians write about these objects.' Baker's argument examined the lack of discussion of the process of making within art historical literature, noting that, if the making process is addressed, it is separate from the writings which discuss the more traditional themes such as the artist's ideas and the object's relation to the culture and society in which it was produced. He proposes that these different elements of an object's nature be discussed together.

This paper brought up many issues which I have been considering throughout my research, and even before when I was working at Dovecot. Although technical art history is a rapidly emerging field, art historical literature on the whole still gives little attention to the materials of artworks and how these effect a viewer's response to them. Someone writing on Rembrandt's paintings might note the looseness of his brushstrokes, but will probably not make a direct connection between this and the painter's long lasting appeal and reputation.

Having spent some time observing people encountering tapestry at Dovecot, there are usually two things which appeal and catch their attention: the design and the material. Often the 'lure' of the tapestry and its weaving process over-ride the usual art historical questions we might ask of an object: 'who made it?', 'what does it depict?', 'how does it relate to other artists' work?'. I'm not saying that tapestries' audiences do not consider such questions, but do believe that for many these come secondary.
Jonathan Cleaver weaving at Dovecot. Photo: Chris Scott
For many, I think this stems from the exoticism of tapestry - it is not something which most of the popular encounter on a regular basis and most do not know how it is achieved. Before working at Dovecot, I had no understanding of how a tapestry was woven.

So, how does this all relate to what I am trying to achieve with my own research? For me, producing a full and rich thesis on tapestry needs to involve a combination of traditional art historical research with a knowledge and understanding of how the objects were made and how the were received. Many of Dovecot's tapestries have been woven for specific buildings so to ignore the people who have lived with them would be denying their life after leaving the studio. I also hope to integrate the making process with the 'ideas' process. The weavers at Dovecot, and elsewhere, are not copying an image piece by piece; they are interpreting it and constantly evaluating what they are doing, what colours are being used, and how to continue.

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