In 2016, I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition presenting some of the most striking works of art I had ever seen: monumental pieces, several square metres each, all bursting with incredibly vivid colours. What surprised me the most was that these masterpieces were by an artist I had only vaguely heard of before, his talent apparently eclipsed by that of his more famous contemporaries. Perhaps this was due to the nature of most of his works: they were not paintings, but tapestries.
Tapestry in France was at its highest point in the late medieval period, with famous examples such as La Dame à la licorne and the Tenture de l’Apocalypse but was more or less a forgotten art by the beginning of the 20th century. A great admirer of this medieval tradition, Jean Lurçat, the artist whose works I was admiring, sought to revive it by borrowing many of its themes for his tapestries. The “mille-fleurs” for example, a style that consists in weaving hundreds of flowers, all different, around the main subject of a work, features heavily in his art. Fantastic creatures were a recurring theme in medieval tapestry and Lurçat created an entire bestiary in his main works. But he also enriched this medieval tradition by the addition of a surrealist twist, many of his tapestries presenting a disconcerting, oneiric, highly symbolical landscape.
Clockwise from top left: La petite peur, Le vin and Le pêcheur.
Lurçat’s works seemed to revolve around timeless themes such as the seasons, hunting or wine, but were in fact directly influenced by his political convictions and the events of his time. The artist survived two world wars and it is no accident if the animal he preferred depicting was the cock, symbol of France. Like many of his surrealist friends (whose works form a great part of our Liberation collection), he was part of the Résistance and, during the Occupation he used his art to convey messages of protest, weaving verses by Paul Éluard or Robert Desnos into his works. As a communist, he was also interested in the collaborative aspect of mural tapestry, which unlike most art forms, doesn’t rely exclusively on the work of a solitary genius : the artist creates the cartoon, the pattern to follow, but the weavers do the rest. This gave him the opportunity of reviving the manufacture of Aubusson by giving employment to its workers.
Clockwise from the left: Liberté, featuring verses of a poem by Paul Éluard, Avec la France dans les bras and La naissance du lansquenet, a strong criticism of war.
The catalogue of the exhibition mentioned earlier stands at S950.a.4730 and can be ordered in the West Room; the UL and other libraries across Cambridge also hold copies of books about and by the artist. While researching for this blog post, I was surprised to discover that one of Lurçat’s tapestries has actually made its way into Cambridge; it was offered by de Gaulle to Churchill and can now be admired in the library of Churchill college.