With the best will in the world, you couldn’t really call tapestry sexy. You tend to think of it, or maybe it’s just me, alongside crochet, knitting and macramé done by little old ladies or little old hippies. You think of the Bayeux Tapestry, wall-hangings in churches or hunting scenes in English stately homes, neither of which are very sexy – at least not the ones I’ve been to.
Having said that, it was a tapestry that was one of the first pieces of modern art that registered with me. I saw the magnificent Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph by Graham Sutherland in Coventry Cathedral on a school trip when I was about fifteen and I never forgot – that and Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World which I was forced to contemplate, standing in a corner, as a punishment in infant school. But I digress. The twenty-three metre high 1962 Coventry piece is said to be the largest in the world, proving that, as far as tapestries are concerned, size really does matter.
Size is also a factor in the current exhibition at the Kunsthal, hence its title Extra Large. The show has been in mothballs, maybe literally, since the beginning of March when its opening coincided with the start of the lockdown for you-know-what and, despite my aforementioned preconceptions, turned out to be a real eye-opener. So, you could now put me down as a tapestry convert.
Although no “old master” historic pieces are included in the exhibition, there are tapestries from more or less the past one hundred years, many of them from two factories – Gobelins in Paris and the Manufacture de Beauvais in Antwerp.
The early pieces, from the 1920s through to the 1940s, are what you might call “classic tapestries” with all the textures, subtle colours and narrative subjects you would associate with the medium. Edmond Yarz’s epic Les Pyrénées from the Série Provinces et Villes de France is a good example, as is Werner Peiner’s Le Globe Terrestre from the early 40s. But possibly the most spectacular of the early works is Paul Charlemagne’s huge To the Glory of Maréchal Pétain with its hard lines and bright colours.
There is quite an abrupt change of tack in the 1950s and 60s when tapestries become “art”, reproducing the work of many of the big names of the period like Miro, André Masson, Léger, Delaunay, Vasarely, Calder and, of course, Picasso. With the possible exception of Picasso, I can’t really imagine any of those artists waking up one morning and saying, “I think I’ll do a tapestry today” so the pieces have been taken from existing work or, more often than not, commissioned for the purpose. In fact the only non-tapestry piece in the show is a beautiful maquette by Sonia Delaunay hanging next to the finished tapestry.
The exhibition brings us right up to date, establishing that the art of tapestry is alive and well. Of the later pieces I particularly liked the one by French photographer Patrick Tosani. He photographs simple, everyday objects like spoons and shoes, presenting them in a way that imbues upon them previously undiscovered dimensions. The tapestry of Vendredi from his Clothes series in this show is just a pile of different fabrics, elegant in their simplicity.
The exhibition is beautifully presented. Dimly lit dark rooms create an intimate atmosphere and rather incongruous tree trunks punctuate the spaces. There is a video running, showing how modern tapestries are made and you can actually see the back of one of the modern pieces which is a work of art in its own right.
This exhibition comes from the Kunsthalle in Munich and there was a similar show in Paris a couple of years ago, proving that the art of tapestry is thriving and may well easily be the next big thing.
So, if you, like me thought that tapestries weren’t sexy, go and see Extra Large and be prepared to have you mind changed and blown. Highly recommended. Michael Hasted 4th July 2020
Because of the Corona crisis the dates of this exhibition have been changed. It now runs until 3rd January 2021