Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Tapestry and Reproduction: a useful research structure?

I am finally taking time to digest the papers of the 'Tapestry and Reproduction' CAA conference session. First I'll give a round up of the papers, then reflect on the value of 'tapestry and reproduction' as a means of inquiry for 20th and 21st Century tapestry practice.

Lorraine Karafel from Parsons the New School for Design spoke about 'reproduction and change in Raphael's designs for tapestries'. Lorraine explored the changes and alterations made to the borders of subsequent weavings of Raphael's Acts of the Apostles tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel. These new borders were often designed by an artist contemporary to the new weaving and could be personalised with the iconography of the patron. Jonathan Kline, of Temple University, also discussed the Acts of the Apostles but focusing on three sets of tapestries all of which deviate significantly from Raphael's original cartoons. Jonathan questioned whether these sets would have been valued for their connection to celebrity artist Raphael, or for their own material, style and subject matter.

Susan Wagner of Columbia University moved the session forward in time with her paper on Boucher's 18th Century tapestry designs. Susan reinforced the fact that at least two of Boucher's oil paintings were made specifically for reproduction in tapestry. She asked: 'In what ways can we consider these works as being at once paintings and tapestries?'

Virginia Gardner Troy's paper examined the critical reception of the tapestries commissioned by Marie Cuttoli in the 1930s to 1960s. This subject provided the perfect paper with which to precede my talk as Dovecot would never have made tapestries designed by famous contemporary artists had it not been for Cuttoli's work in France.

As is often the case in conference sessions, the most exciting element was question time. I felt that the questions at the end of this panel were particularly astute and brought up many more issues than had been answered by the papers. Particularly, was the notion of 'tapestry as a means for reproducing painting' a valuable method of research and investigation? My response would be that it is limited. Though it is of great use for the Renaissance period up to the nineteenth century, There are many more centuries for which I do not consider it relevant. It is unlikely that Coptic tapestries were woven from paintings. It implies a hierarchy in which a painting holds the higher ground - but was this the case in the Medieval period? For example, were the painted cartoons of the Lady and the Unicorn held in higher esteem than the paintings? I suspect not. It is also problematic as we enter the twentieth century. Dovecot's collaborative activities with artists as designers has in many ways sustained a connection between painting and tapestry as many of these artists are indeed painters. However the relationship between each painting and tapestry is far more complex and nuanced than a simple reproduction. In the case of independent artist-weavers, I suspect for many the idea of reproducing a painting of tapestry does not play any part in their practice. There are of course some for whom painting and tapestry go hand in hand, but there are also others who do not paint at all. This is not a criticism of the CAA panel. The purpose of the session was to explore this very issue and the papers selected were all really well written and covered a rich and varied selection of topics.

My conclusion therefore is that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' method for studying tapestry. Each researcher has their own subjective views, and each weaver their own way of working. If I were to put forward what I think is most important, it would be to approach the topic with an open mind and begin, always, with the tapestry itself.

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