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Exploring the Fine Art of Belgian Tapestries

January 18, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

BRUSSELS — The windows of souvenir shops around beautiful Grand Place display small and large tapestries, colorful copies of medieval originals. Signs reading " fait a main " (handmade) claim their authenticity.

At prices of $100 and up for a work of three square feet, they seem to be reasonable buys--until you see the originals, or new works that are manufactured with medieval techniques. By comparison, the inexpensive copies seem crudely fashioned, garish. Before buying, ask about the method . Your efforts will yield insight into the wonderful and highly celebrated art of Belgian tapestries.

From the 15th to 17th centuries tapestry making was a primary industry in Belgium, then known as Flanders, between the Netherlands and France. Then, as now, a strong rivalry flourished between Flemish (or Dutch) and French-speaking areas. That rivalry was woven into the tapestry industry, as cities competed to find new techniques and dyes that allowed for greater detail and subtlety of shading.

Natural vegetable dyes produced a lovely but limited selection of colors. Additional dyes became available through trade and the palette expanded. Tapestries were vibrantly colored, although most samples that have survived the ages are faded significantly.

The small population of aristocrats who survived the plague found themselves in possession of great wealth. They spent huge sums on architecture and interior decoration. Tapestries were a favorite accessory. Interior castle walls were covered with scenes depicting court life, historical events and royal exploits, landscapes, legends and religious subjects.

Tapestry Thrived

By 1600, one-third of Brussels' population of 60,000 people was employed in the tapestry industry. The town of Arras (then in Flanders, now in France) was so famous for its tapestries that Shakespeare referred to the tapestry through which Hamlet stabbed Polonius as "arras."

The town of Tournai has its own secret cross-thread, bobbin-to-bobbin technique and style with small animals and a profusion of flowers around the borders. Flanders sent tapestry-makers around the world. They established workshops from Portugal to Moscow, and even colonized Paris, where M. de Comans and F. Van Der Plancken established the still famous Gobelins atelier.

Keeping the Flemish tapestry tradition alive in Belgium is a subject of concern for the government. Ancient tapestries are carefully maintained in museum collections, such as the one belonging to the Royal Museum of Art and History, in Brussels. There is also an excellent display about the history of tapestries and demonstrations of how they're made--slowly, painstakingly, with work concentrated on a small section at a time, within a large and complex pattern. The tapestry-maker follows a sketch, or cartoon, in which color is indicated by number.

In 1981 the government-sponsored Fondation de la Tapisserie was founded in Tournai. This research center and workshop (82 Blvd. des Combattants) gives young, accomplished tapestry-makers subsidy and a place to work. Seven tapestry-makers are in residence, including Margaretta de Keukeleer, Bernard Ossowsky and Misha Loof. They work on horizontal or vertical looms up to 12 feet wide, to work out their own creations or cartoons by other artists, most of which have been commissioned by corporations, the government or individuals, through the foundation or other agencies.

Realistic or Abstractions

The designs may be realistic or abstractions. The work is exacting and slow. About one square meter is finished per month. It is fascinating to watch the patterns evolve, as the artists skillfully shuttle their threads back and forth according to complex calculations. The workshops may be visited by appointment, and some classes are offered for novices.

One of the most successful and respected private tapestry works is De Wit in an old abbey in the pretty town of Mechelen (known in French as Malines) in the Province of Antwerp. The firm was founded during the last century, but expanded after World War I under the guidance of Gaspard de Wit, who, until his death in 1971, was considered one of the world's foremost tapestry-makers.

De Wit began working with the cartoons of contemporary artists, including Delvaux and Julien Lismonde, and applied numbers to the colors in a cartoon, so that the artists' designs could be realized more exactly. He also invented the technique of using different lengths of stitches in one tapestry. His own designs are vividly colored, dynamic abstractions, many of which have mystical or naturalistic themes, such as astrology or the changing seasons.

The firm, now managed by De Wit's grandson, Yvan Maes, employs about 10 weavers full-time, and runs a training and apprenticeship program. Part of De Wit's activity is restoration of ancient tapestries for museums and collectors worldwide. The atelier also produces new works, many commissioned by large corporations.

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