In a world driven by mass production and consumption, the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne is renowned internationally for it’s vibrantly coloured, beautifully hand-crafted, contemporary ‘slow woven’ artist tapestries. Drawing on centuries old tapestry weaving traditions of France and Flanders, the workshop profiles the work of Australian artists as well as its own skilled and highly trained team of weavers. These artists and weavers tend to collaborate and work together as equals during the preparation and production phase of making and during the workshop’s 30 years of existence, over 400 major works have been completed in a pioneering spirit of sharing and a rewarding philosophy of intimate collaboration.
52 of these skillfully crafted works can be seen in the From here to Eternity: contemporary tapestries from the Victorian Tapestry Workshop exhibition which has just begun it’s Australian tour. Similar tapestries hang in buildings around the world, including the Australian Embassy in Tokyo which recently received the first of a new series of Indigenous artist tapestries created by the Workshop.
Prominently featured in the exhibition are Martin Sharp’s remarkable Eternity tapestry of 1999, from which the exhibition takes its title, as well as numerous other show-stopping works – Angela Brennan’s It was not I that looked (2006), G W Bots’s Glyphs (2006), Roger Kemp’s, Release (1985) which is working model scale replica of a tapestry commissioned by the State Bank of Victoria, and Gareth Sanson’s Family Trust of 1989. David Larwill’s The Talk tapestry of 2002, with its outlined black figures on a striking red ground, contrasts dramatically with the constrained design and cool mauve and lime greens of Lin Utzon’s Green Papaya tapestry of 2004.
Each of these major tapestries is reproduced in the illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition – so if one finds it difficult to personally invest in an original tapestry, one can at least continue to enjoy viewing them in the catalogue.
All of the works, large and small, are drawn from the workshop’s own collection and are offered for sale. Prices range from $2,200 for small landscape tapestries (approx 12 x 20cm) by Aboriginal artist Bessie Liddle, upward towards $100,000 for the large master works, like Martin Sharp’s Eternity tapestry (200 x 390cm) of 1999. While this quintessentially Sydney tapestry currently holds pride of place in the exhibition, it previously held centre stage in the members lounge of the Powerhouse Museum sharing attention in the museum with another VTW tapestry ‘ the Ken Done Twenty-eight views of the Opera House (286 x 389cm) tapestry which still hangs on Level 1 of the museum.
Chris O’Doherty’s (aka Reg Mombassa) poetically moody landscapes can be found in three tapestries in the From here to Eternity exhibition. Two feature Ned Kelly seen – not from outside his suit of armour but rather cleverly from ‘within’ it – looking out! These recall other ‘twilight’ landscapes by O’Doherty which capture landscapes viewed through car windows as he travelled around the Australian countryside between Mental as Anything gigs. Not-surprisingly, the Ned Kelly tapestries conjure up O’Doherty’s power as a visual storyteller ‘ their atmosphere evoking an intimate, personalised, albeit eerie, loaded and broody, view of Australian history in the making.
As usual the National Trust’s historic SH Ervin Gallery building provides constraints for hanging and viewing groups of very large works when a large number of smaller works also need to be shown. A couple of larger tapestries in the exhibition find themselves in passageways where it’s difficult to step back to embrace their full power. However, by being ‘trapped in the detail’ so to speak, the intimacy ensures the viewer is encouraged to experience the depth and richness of the colours and textures found in each tapestry. Traditional tapestries used only up to twenty colours, but this exhibition demonstrates how things have changed. A phenomenal range of up to 370 colours from a set palette can be dyed to match the original artworks. The phenomenal depth of colour tonalities achieved on some of the tapestries has been achieved by combining and winding up to 13 different strands of colour onto the one bobbin before weaving the bobbin though the warp threads of the loom. Metallic and mercerized cotton threads have also been added in some instances for special effects.
Don’t miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in the vibrancy and rich colour of these remarkable artworks.The retrospective offers a unique opportunity to view a cornucopia of VTW tapestries representing work by some of Australia’s finest artists.
Exhibition runs from 29 June to 12 August
NSW National Trust S.H. Ervin Gallery
Watson Road, Observatory Hill, The Rocks, Sydney
9258 0173 Tues-Sun 11am-5pm
Adults: $6 Members and concession: $4
Tel: 02 9258 0173