The Holburne Museum in Bath is exploring the wilder shores of tapestry as Tapestry Here and Now arrives for the summer
The art of tapestry may have its origins in Ancient Greece – with the western European tradition blooming in the medieval period, but since the mid-twentieth century this most traditional of crafts has been steadily evolving into an art form that places the artist at its core.
At the Holburne Museum in Bath they own one of the key early pieces from this artistic flowering, Edward McKnight Kauffer’s The ‘Arts’ Tapestry; an elegant example from the 1930s siting amidst this ambitious survey of contemporary tapestry showcasing the most innovative approaches to tapestry today.
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Tapestry: Here & Now celebrates the breadth of international talent in contemporary weaving practice via a diverse mix of UK practitioners shown alongside artists from Finland, Latvia, Norway, Japan, USA, Canada and Australia, emphasising the contemporary relevance of tapestry both nationally and internationally.
The works have been chosen by Professor Lesley Millar in partnership with the National Centre for Craft and Design (NCCD) to demonstrate the ways in which the narrative heritage of tapestry is used by artists to engage with political, aesthetic and personal issues of contemporary relevance.
“They remind us that tapestry is anything but traditional,” says the Holburne’s Curator of Decorative Arts , Catrin Jones, “it is creative and colourful, and can tell extraordinary stories about how we see the world around us. Lesley Millar’s selection of works reveals the personal, the political and the truly unexpected.”
Wide-ranging themes are duly explored, from our responses to the natural and man-made world around us to the politics of landmines – and of course, sex.
Barbara Heller takes the medieval tradition of weaving parables and classical allusions and replaces them with modern motifs for her Ozymandias, in which she explores landmines as a potent symbol of the innocent suffering from the effects of war.
Kristin Sæterdal’s fascinating work seems to take inspiration from comic books and sci-fi dystopias: her large-scale tapestry, New Territory, weaves a wild landscape of deserts and volcanoes, viewed through a futuristic “control room” window to question how technology can both save and cause environmental catastrophe.
Erin M. Riley uses the medium to explore issues around female sexuality, violence, pornography and death in the age of the sexual selfie, and here we see one of her many voyeuristic depictions of her own tattooed body – as if posted on social media.
Elsewhere there are painterly abstract landscapes – like Hallaig 2 from the loom of the Scottish weaver Joan Baxter, who takes inspiration from the heritage and landscapes of the far north of Scotland where she lives. Colourful abstract landscapes can also be enjoyed in the art of Japanese weaver Misao Watanabe who seems happy to channel everyone from Rothko to Monet – to stunning effect.
At the centre of these contemporary responses sits McKnight Kauffer’s The ‘Arts’ Tapestry (1934-5), an evocative representation of the importance of the arts in the 1930s.
McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) was an American-born designer who lived much of his life in the UK and is best known for his many poster designs for London Transport. This tapestry was made on a loom in Old Church Street, Chelsea, while the designer was working in London.
With its seated muse holding an open book beside a globe and a fluted Ionic column, today its seems like a brilliant example of the influence of Modernism on English-based artists – and presumably also the skills and ideas of his wife, the textile designer Marion Dorn (1896–1964).
It was purchased for the museum in 1972 from the Handley-Read collection at a time when the Holburne housed the Craft Study Centre, a unique collection and archive of twentieth-century British crafts including pottery, woven and printed textiles, calligraphy and furniture.
Weaving has evidently evolved since the 1930s and The Crafts Study Centre has also since moved to a purpose-built home at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, but as this exhibition (which attracted over 275,000 visitors while at the MAC Birmingham) reveals, crafts practice and its contemporary responses remain very much at the heart of the Holburne’s programme.
Tapestry: Here & Now is at The Holburne Museum, Bath until October 1 2017
This jewel in Bath's crown was once the Georgian Sydney Hotel, whose glittering society Jane Austen watched from her house opposite. It displays the treasures collected by Sir William Holburne: superb English and continental silver, porcelain, maiolica, glass and Renaissance bronzes. The Picture Gallery contains works by Turner, Guardi, Stubbs…