J.S. sends me a 1980s Polish handwoven and artist designed wool tapestry titled “Na Stoku” — meaning “On Slope.” It measures 54 by 50 inches.
She wonders about the mid-century modern craft piece and how it fits into the history of textile art.
Polish weavers were discovered in 1962 at the First Lausanne International Tapestry Biennial, where they made a huge splash because the designers of the works actually wove their pieces. Previously, an artist designed the
work — and had the piece woven at a workshop. Why did this fusion happen in Poland?
World War II, which left Poland in ruins, is the reason for this fortuitous happening in the textile craft world. The nature of artists is that they are problem solvers, and the problem was: “How can I create without the materials (medium) I need?”
Thus necessity was indeed the mother of invention, and it inspired a new world for textile artists, as anyone who had a piece of macrame in 1970 will attest.
Polish artists created with what they had.
The Polish regime was not art-friendly in the 1950 and ’60s. Therefore, art
materials were expensive and not available, so Polish artists found ways of
finding materials with which to create.
In the case of weavers, they used simple yarns or, sometimes sisal, and they created a new style of abstraction because they could not do fine work in thick rustic handmade wool.
They created a type of tapestry that was more akin to sculpture
because it had dimension on a two-dimensional plane.
Weaving, as is traditional in Poland along with many other hand-crafted
folk art forms, was taught in school.
The materials had to be re-invented, which led to a new look, called New
Tapestry, so sought after by mid-century modern collectors today. The images were in some cases pictorial, as in J.S.’s piece, but often went out on an “abstraction limb.” Those abstract or semi-abstract works are
The crafts movement was getting under way in the mid-20th century, when small villages were creating beautiful Swedish furniture, and small centers in Poland were designing and creating wonderful textiles.
Few people then appreciated that handmade quality, but collectors who had “the eye” did.
And today, of course, we have a respect for that originality we call the
“proximity to the artist’s hand.” The concept of the studio-designer-craftsman came out of this era, and America followed suit.
Thus “out-of-the-way” artist’s colonies began to be hotbeds of this new
tapestry, such as remote villages on the East Coast, Scottish workshops, and Australian Guilds, centers in Northern California and small towns in the Rockies.
1978 saw the exhibit “22 Polish Textile Artists” in Fort Collins, Colo.,
featuring works with blocks of color, sculptural techniques of piling on
yarn, or cutting yarn for texture, as in J.S.’s piece, and on a large, large
Meanwhile, if you remember the 1970s, the American Southwest was newly rediscovered, and weavers traveled from San Francisco to New Mexico to study and weave with Native American weavers, setting up a small center in remote Oregon for weaving New Textiles.
At the foundation, all textile manufacturing was performed by the French monolith Gobelins, tapestry weavers for the Louis king line since the beginning of the 16th century.
Polish artists termed the style of their work “Gobelins” as is stated on
the verso label of J.S.’ work.
Some Polish labels of the midcentury bear the image of a rooster, standing
for Cepelia, the famous Polish Arts and Handcrafts Foundation, set up just
after World War II in 1949 to support Polish traditional hand work and to support crafts artists who had no outlet and little income.
As Polish hand work was essential to the Polish ethnographic character, the Foundation distributed the work. Some of the artists they supported today are recognized as textile masters.
Amongst those people who love mid-century modern tapestries,
Piotr Grabowski’s work is valued, and it is collected for $5,000 or more.
These weavers of repute sell in auction houses in Europe for high figures as such handicraft has become recognized as fine art.
However, J.S.’s piece bears a name I could not find, and it is representational, and not abstracted, in the flattened picture plane so valued today.
I would put the value at $500.
A resurgence of interest in the form is indicated by a 2019-2020 show “19th
and 20th Century Tapestries” at none other than the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.