Personal Experiences at Les Gobelins
September 20, 2003
Micala Sidore began her talk to the Guild with a brief history of La Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins. It began in 1667 due to efforts of Colbert, Finance Minister of Louis XIV, on order to increase the prestige of the king. It was put on the site where as early as the 1400's two brothers named Gobelins had established dye works. It has been there under a number of different names with only a brief hiatus since. It is a large compound with several buildings which initially housed producers of many decorative arts as well as a surgery, pharmacy, chapel and some land set aside for growing fruits and vegetables for the workers. Now it is almost completely dedicated to the production of tapestry.
Three types of work were done here: Savonnerie which is carpets, Beauvais tapestry (a center further north in France along trade routes to the low countries) and les Gobelins which did all kinds of furnishings for the king.
These days working there is a Civil Service job. It requires passing a competitive exam with general culture questions reaching beyond tapestry, just to be hired. There follows two years of schooling followed by another exam. Passing that allows a person to continue for a two-year apprenticeship. This is capped by another exam which, if passed, pretty much guarantees work for the rest of ones life in the workshops there.
Micala spent an internship there in the 1980's as well as the first three months of 2002. The internship was different in that it was meant to expose non-French applicants to Gobelins techniques and methods. The interns were expected to take what they learned away as this was not training for work at La Manufacture.
Micala then showed the members five images asking us to think about which of them would be the most difficult to execute as tapestry. How would we approach it? How hard would it be to do? What colors would we select? These were to be revisited at the end of the talk.
She then explained that at Les Gobelins tapestry weavers are considered like members of the orchestra. If they execute a tapestry well, the acclaimed genius is the composer rather than those that play the instruments.
Some early work at La Manufacture took as subject the story of the king. Since he was sponsoring the project this seem logical. Other topics were architecture in the beginning this often took form in the king's residences. During the 18th century Directory Oudry felt that tapestry should copy painting. She showed a work from "the Imperial Manufacture" under Napoleon that was very life like, almost photographic, showing real people in real settings with increased perspective. All of this changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with designers like William Morris and Jean Lurçat.
Micala then related her personal experiences at the Manufacture and showed work in progress on some tapestries. She showed looms dressed and undressed with shots of the tensioning mechanisms for the looms which may often stretch fourteen feet wide. She talked about how the choice of a work to be done is done by the Ministry of Culture and not by the weavers. Warps are usually, but not always, wool and average fourteen ends per inch. A cartoon is made of the original work of art and expanded to the actual size of the finished tapestry. It is transferred to the warp using if possible Waterman indelible violet ink. The tapestry is worked from the back using a broche (a kind of pointed bobbin). The accuracy of the weaving is verified by looking through the warp to a mirror placed so that the weaver can see progress as they work. She explained some techniques used such as hachure, battage and demi-duite. These are used in creating illusions of color shading. She said that while they set the maximum number of times a work of art can be woven at eight they usually only weave it three times: Once for traveling exhibitions, once for the destined site and once for storage.
She then showed us the same five images she showed us in the beginning and asked us which again would be the most difficult to weave. Her teacher said that the order in which she showed them to us would be the ranking from easiest to hardest. She showed the same images to seventeen other weavers at La Manufacture and got seventeen different combinations.
Micala then generously answered questions from the members. It was truly a superb program that few who saw it will soon forget. It made us all want to jump on the next flight to Paris and see the Manufacture for ourselves.
-- Terry Henley