Designing Modern France: Tapestry and French Republics since 1870

Detail of a tapestry from the First-class lounge in the ocean liner 'Le France' (1960-74) © French Lines, Le Havre.

Designing Modern France: Tapestry and French Republics since 1870

In the summer of 2017, the generous support of the Pasold Research Fund gave me the opportunity to access archival documentation and surviving tapestries in France which shed new light on the complex networks of cartoon-artists, weavers, private studios, state patronage and galleries within the revival of this medium during France’s three twentieth-century republics.

The exhibition dossiers held in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs Paris (1925-43) helped me to understand the public reception of contemporary tapestry through display, in particular an overlooked exhibition, Cinq siècles de tapisserie d’Aubusson (1935), as well as further insights into modern tapestry included in more celebrated exhibitions of 1925 and 1946. The Director’s correspondence and ministerial reports held at the Mobilier National revealed much more complex and generative institutional frameworks than Modernist narratives have recognised. This creative dialogue where artists, government ministries, commercial studios and unemployed weavers cooperated to reimagine and to revive tapestry, was vital in managing the dire economic and political climate of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as facilitating the post-war ‘renaissance’ of the medium as a revered diplomatic tool and commodity. These lines of enquiry led me to explore the artist files of the National Archives in Pierrefitte which document government commissions through correspondence, reports and archival photographs. The work of neglected cartoon artists such as Pauline Peugniez, came into the light once more, as well as fresh insights into the post-war works of more canonical figures such as Maurice Gromaire and Jean Lurçat.

The unique survival of a company archive known as the ‘Fonds Tabard’ in the Departmental Archives of the Creuse in Guéret provided a distinctive regional and commercial perspective on these creative partnerships both through the committee meeting papers of syndical organizations of tapestry firms and weavers in Aubusson and Felletin and the correspondence, speeches and writings of the subsequent heads of this family firm, Léon and François Tabard.

French Lines in Le Havre holds a number of tapestries which decorated one of the core case studies of the project, the ocean liner Le France (1960-74) which the conservators kindly took out of storage for me for material analysis. They also gave me access to the vast and meticulous documentation of the commissioning process for every aspect of the ship’s decoration: the tapestries, upholstery and carpeting in the private apartments for first-class passengers and staff as well as lavish ensembles for collective spaces for dining and leisure serving first or ‘tourist’ class. The decoration throughout Le France demonstrated a fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and new textile materials and aesthetic motifs. Woollen tapestry, aluminium and Formica decorative panels on the walls sit alongside the latest synthetic furnishing fabrics, carpets and faux leather, each medium engaging with both contemporaneity and tradition in their motifs and colour dynamics.

These multiple new trajectories of evidence and argument will provide the basis of a project examining the centrality of textiles as signifiers of the complex identities encompassed within the French Republic in the twentieth century. Plans to disseminate and to publish this research acknowledging the Pasold Fund for its support are in progress. An academic paper was accepted for presentation to the Design History Society Conference at the University of Oslo in September 2017 and a talk at the 2017 Open Day for Department for Continuing Education will explore this research encouraging new audiences into higher education and the study of textile history. All milestones on the voyage towards publications for which the Pasold Fund has also generously given support for illustrations. 

Claire O’Mahony 

August 2017

Weavings in honour of women’s rights

Artist Jacques Fadat, whose suite of 17 Aubusson tapestries celebrate progressive women, is interviewed by Dr Claire O'Mahony

Penelope's weaving and les années noires

Women entrepreneurs and the Aubusson tapestry rennaisance.