Monday, September 21, 2009

The Queen’s Birthday Tapestries

Imagine getting a set of monumental tapestries for your birthday!

These were commissioned on Queen Margrethe II of Denmark’s 50th birthday and delivered in 2000 for her 60th. What anticipation! What excitement! What a price! $13,000,000 Danish Kroner (about $2,600,000).

You’d think they would be gorgeous, but then you might be a bit disappointed. Of course, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, or as my mother used to say “Everyone’s a bit strange except for me and thee and frankly, sometimes I wonder a bit about thee.” Anyway, I do hope the Queen loves them.

They are hanging in the Knight’s Hall at Christiansborg Palace, all 17 of them. The 11 large tapestries fit perfectly into the frames set into the marble paneling. The other 6 are smaller “entrefenetres,” which go between the windows. They were designed by the Danish sculptor Bjørn Nørgaard, and woven at the Gobelins and Beauvais studios in France. Here’s a link to some photos.

I was very impressed with the technical perfection of the weaving, but I don’t like the colors, style or compositions. The colors are garish, but perhaps I could learn to see them as luminous, or jewel-like, if the compositions didn’t seem completely disorganized. I know there is a tradition of medieval tapestries with very busy, even frenetic, compositions, but the really great ones are carefully worked out, balanced, fluid, graceful, and dynamic.

viking age

Some of the Queen’s tapestries, like “The Viking Age,” have an clearly defined structure, and I find that I’m beginning to like this one more and more.

Others, like “The Reformation,” come across as random and uninspired, with figures lined up in rows, as you can see below.



I object to the cartoony style of expression, particularly given the seriousness of the subject: the History of Denmark from the Viking Age to the Future. One of the tapestries, “Present,” depicts Queen Margrethe and her husband Prince Henrik, and their hands are about 3 times normal size. It makes them look awkward and unattractive, and it struck me as disrespectful.

Bjørn Nørgaard intended for these tapestries to be a lesson in Danish History, for recent generations who have not learned about it in school. He spent many hours devising a systematic plan for including innumerable narrative elements in each tapestry, and yet keeping a consistent formal structure over the entire project. He even chose to make full sized painted cartoons. He devoted 12 years to this project, so I feel bad about my (possibly uninformed) criticisms. Perhaps it’s a case of the intellectual concept over-riding purely visual or visceral concerns, or perhaps it’s just my taste. viking age detail

I’m delighted that someone still wants to commission large original tapestries. These tapestries do fill up the large space in the Knight’s Hall, and the bright colors get your attention. Visitors seemed to enjoy puzzling over the diagrams provided, that explain all the people and objects and symbols in the tapestries. 

I bought the book, “Tapestries for the Queen of Denmark,” (Peter Michael Hornung, ed.) and it’s very informative. I was pleased to see that it includes details about each tapestry, such as the name of the head weaver, number of shades of wool, time spent in preparation and weaving, number of weavers, dates, and size. It’s available used from


Nørgaard seems quite respectful of the weavers, and knowledgeable about the process. I like this quotation from his interview in the book “….each and every square millimeter of these pictures is touched by human hand, and these people have invested their time in the tapestry. I believe quite naively that this is something you can read from the works. In a digital era with digital pictures, I think it is vital that we preserve pictures in which a great deal of time is invested.”

It’s sad that they spent such a huge amount of money, and so many years of artistic design and skilled weaving, to make something that is not beautiful. Given the number of brilliant tapestry weavers in Denmark, they could have had tapestries with the power to take your breath away; objects of exquisite beauty and grace.

I’d recommend visiting anyway, if you’re in the area, and I’d be curious to know how other tapestry weavers react. So far I have not spoken to anyone who disagreed with my position, but perhaps I’ll hear some dissenting opinions soon!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Danish Tapestry

When I realized that my husband would be busy for 1 ½ of our 2 ½ days in Copenhagen, I decided to email Birgitta Hallberg, who I met last year at Convergence. I asked if I could visit her studio and she said she would meet me at my hotel at 10 am. When she arrived, I discovered she had invited Kari Guddal, another Danish tapestry weaver, to join us. Hallberg Studio Loom

Kari has a car, so she kindly chauffeured us around for the day, and I got to visit not one, but two tapestry studios.

Birgitta’s studio is upstairs in her small house.

The room is dominated by a large floor loom, which she uses to weave her tapestries.

There is also a nice big table, with a frame loom clamped to it (I’ve got to try that), a wooden swift, and some small tapestries waiting for frames. Hallberg Frame Loom

Birgitta weaves with thick weft bundles, in richly blended colors, and although she uses a cartoon, she makes up the colors as she goes along, interpreting the cartoon very loosely.

The result is a rich surface with very colorful, free and energetic marks.

Most of her tapestries are fairly large, but lately she has been enjoying working in small format as well.Hallberg small tapestries3

As we were leaving the studio, I noticed some lace bobbins, and discovered that Birgitta makes, and teaches, bobbin lace.

The linen threads she is using for this piece are so thin you can barely see them.

Hallberg Lace Detail

Birgitta also has quite a green thumb, so it was lovely eating lunch in her garden among the flowers, grape vines, tomatoes, peach tree and fig tree.

Hallberg Lace Detail 3

We ate fresh home-grown grapes and tomatoes, both red and yellow, along with cheese and home-baked bread and home-made Elderflower Cordial.

Kari’s studio is in a building with other artist studios, and she shares a space with another artist who works in various media. Kari has a very old, very large vertical loom that is on loan to her from a Royal Castle in Denmark. The top and bottom rollers are gigantic. Click on the photo to see a larger image.

Guddal Loom

Behind the loom, you can see various sticks and things hanging neatly on the wall; definitely an improvement over my messy basket that keeps toppling over! She is weaving 2 smallish tapestries (about 20 inches wide) side by side, at the moment, but normally she works very large. One of her tapestries is 301 x 202 cm! Guddal Yarns

Kari uses only one type of wool, Norwegian Spelsau, and she dyes it all herself. In a 1998 catalog, she said she had dyed more than 300 different tones.Guddal Butterflies

Her abstract tapestries have simple but intriguing compositions, with subtle, muted, earthy colors suggestive of landscape.

There is a feeling of ethereal light contrasting with deep warm darkness.

Kari gave me two catalogs of Danish tapestry. I could not resist accepting them, although to avoid paying for overweight luggage, Kim had ALL our books in his carry-on backpack, which now weighed about 50 pounds!

I’m enjoying the catalogs, and I’m amazed that there are so many accomplished tapestry weavers in such a small country. I’m also grateful to Birgitta and Kari for welcoming me into their studios.

Oops, Forgot to Finish the Story

Thanks, Edith, for pointing out that I never mentioned whether I finished my tapestry before leaving home. Yes, of course, in typical fashion I finished it about 2 days before we left, and managed to get a good photo or two.

I am not going to post a photo of it on the blog, because I am planning to enter it in ATB8. I'd be delighted if it could make it's debut there, but if not, then you'll be the first to see it, at least as a photo. I don't know why, it just makes me nervous to show it online before it's been entered in a juried show.

We've been traveling for almost 3 weeks now, and so far it has been fabulous. I have taken so many photos, and I'm spending a lot of time editing them. I'm behind on my blogging, but hope to catch up soon!

Right now I'm sitting in my B&B in Stirling, Scotland, having visited the castle and the tapesty studio (with unicorns in progress) today. I can't describe how moving it was to see the tapestry being woven. It is incredibly beautiful, as are the completed tapestries, but it's more than that; it feels like the closest I can come to seeing the original tapestries the way they were 500 years ago.
Tomorrow is the British Tapestry Group conference, which I will attend and report on later.

I'm also working on some other tapestry stories, so check in again soon.