In 1982 Dame Elisabeth Murdoch endowed the National Gallery of Victoria, through The Art Foundation of Victoria, with a generous fund to commission tapestries to hang in the Great Hall of the Gallery. The tapestries are all to be woven by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, near neighbour of the Gallery, and a most successful tapestry-producing workshop. The Great Hall forms the ceremonial heart of the Gallery, and is used for major public occasions and large private functions. Its long unbroken west wall provides a fitting location for a series of monumental tapestries. The austere bluestone wall, of immense scale, divides into five large bays, separated by the columns which support the ceiling.
Tapestry has traditionally been used to decorate public and ceremonial spaces of this nature. Tapestries are as much objects possessed of corporeal presence as they are pictorial statements. The natural richness and warmth of this decorative medium make it appropriate within a formal architectural setting. Five tapestries are to hang on the west wall and two ‘banner’ tapestries will fill the long vertical bays on the east wall, flanking the windows. The scale required of these tapestries will make the total ensemble the finest group of contemporary Australian tapestries in any Australian public gallery. The scale also means that the complete group will take some years to complete.
The first tapestry in the series was commissioned from Roger Kemp, the distinguished Melbourne artist, and completed in 1984. Kemp stands in a sympathetic artistic relationship to Leonard French, author of the stained-glass ceiling in the Great Hall. Both artists deploy a symbolic pictorial language, using highly individual forms to represent the human figure, and moving easily between the figurative and the abstract; their habitual palettes are complementary.
Roger Kemp’s painting Evolving forms 1960–65 was selected as the cartoon; the tapestry artist preferring to use an existing work, which may be transformed during the weaving process, rather than drawing up a new cartoon. Evolving forms belongs to a particularly rich episode in Kemp’s career as he passed from a literal figurative imagery into dense abstract forms. Kemp exploits the power and ambiguity of the ‘hidden image’ so much favoured by the early pioneers of abstract art. The image of the human figure is discernible, though entangled in the surface. Roger Kemp’s vision of man shows him as aspiring and cruciform. The title is quite explicit. Kemp has a profound conviction that pictorial forms and images, literally and metaphorically parallel the rhythm and forces of existence, both human and natural. Just as nature is in a constant state of flux, so painting must reflect a sense of changing, evolving forms. In Kemp’s Evolving forms man emerges from brute matter and yet forms the structure. The ambiguity in Kemp’s images provides him with a rich pictorial language which, decoratively, is surprisingly successful, especially when enlarged in the form of tapestry.
The challenge of translating this pictorial conception at the heart of Kemp’s abstract symbolism into the enduring medium of tapestry was confronted by four weavers: Leonie Bessart, Sonja Hansen, Pam Joyce and Irja West. They worked directly from the painting and in close collaboration with the artist, who has commented that ‘Unexpected and exciting things happen when original work is being translated into another medium.’1Tapestry and the Australian Painter, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1978, n.p. Kemp further stated that:
For me the essential is in the communication between the artist and the weavers. The getting to the point of understanding what it’s about and why. Making sure the artists’ thoughts and emotions, that elusive quality that makes the work special, is truly there. Getting the best of things in tapestry demands that kind of co-operation.2Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Australia, Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Melbourne, , p. 37.
Just such a relationship existed between Kemp and the weavers at the Tapestry Workshop, carefully nurtured by several joint projects. Evolving forms, on which the weaving team of ‘Kemp specialists’ worked for nine months, from March to October 1984, was the third of four such tapestries. The first, Images, was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1979 with assistance from the Sir William Angliss Art Award; Order and direction was woven in 1982 for the Churchlands College of Advanced Education in Western Australia; and Release was completed in 1985 for the State Bank of Victoria. Each of these Kemp tapestries was woven for a radically different architectural location. The last two demanded a heightened use of colour: Kemp’s paint was interpreted with even greater richness and luminosity in wool. By contrast, the Great Hall presented other problems. The artist was concerned that Evolving forms should belong to the wall and not compete with the stained-glass ceiling. The weavers therefore optically mixed the threads, including strands of green amongst the reds, and orange with the purple. Nevertheless, the weavers’ main challenge in interpreting Kemp’s painting remained constant: to keep the whole in mind, and not to view the work in pieces or segments.
The process of translating Evolving forms into fibre involved various stages. First, the weaver in charge drew up a cartoon, defining the detailed underlying compositional structure. Then the palette was selected in wool, cotton and linen – with a range of eight shades for every colour – for discussion with the artist. Each weaver produced a preliminary woven sample which was analysed, and a starting point agreed upon. There were 2.5 threads to the centimetre, with eleven weft threads to the bobbin, mostly wool, but some cotton, and dyed for light fastness with Ciba Geigy dyes in the Tapestry Workshop’s own dyeshop. The high-warp method of weaving, in which the tapestry grew vertically, instead of being rolled across a horizontal surface as in low-warp weaving, enabled the work to be viewed and necessary adjustments made to the tonal balance and weaving quality, in consultation with Kemp. In addition, by adopting the change made by Archie Brennan, of the Dovecote Tapestry Studios in Edinburgh, whereby weaving was done from the front instead of the back, it was possible to consider the tapestry’s face as it grew.3Sue Walker, ‘The Victorian Tapestry Workshop’, Craft Australia, September 1978, p. 31.
The weavers reacted with particular enthusiasm to Evolving forms, perhaps because Kemp’s painterly style offered more freedom in colour mixing and in making shapes than did flat graphic works. As Roger Kemp has stated:
It’s necessary to translate, to interpret. There are so many things in paintings that cannot be reproduced in tapestry. It needs its own unique form. A violin cannot be a piano.
There is a time when the weaver must take the initiative. I am interested in the subtleties of colour, of tone, of gradation. Immediately you put that into weaving, you change the whole form. It needs to be very careful, very subtle. Getting the best of things in tapestry demands a weaver who understands the artist; and who also understands what is possible in tapestry.4Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Australia, p. 37.
Patrick McCaughey, Judith Ryan and Rowena Clark, National Gallery of Victoria contributed to this article (in 1986).
1 Tapestry and the Australian Painter, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1978, n.p.
2 Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Australia, Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Melbourne, , p. 37.
3 Sue Walker, ‘The Victorian Tapestry Workshop’, Craft Australia, September 1978, p. 31.
4 Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Australia, p. 37.