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Home Su anthological Ettore Sottsass Elda Danese Franco Fanelli



From Canvas to Loom



It is said that understatement is one of the principal characteristics of the Piedmontese who, with their innate suspicion of self-promotion and the limelight, are capable of minimizing even their greatest achievements. The story of the Scassa tapestry weaving mill seems to confirm this saying. "Very few are even aware of its existence, even though these looms have created works that gone right round the world". The person talking is Emiliano Serra, the organizer and curator of the exhibition which, over forty years after the tapestry weaving mill was oflìcially created, reveals a history of artists and craftsperson, tapestry-makers and painters of the twentieth century. "The review brings together about seventy works from various sources," explains Serra. "There are tapestries commissioned for the great Italian cruise liners, such as the Leonardo da Vinci, the Raffaello and the Michelangelo. We have also obtained works on loan from the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome and from the Vatican Museums, as well as tapestries commissioned by banking institutions and private collectors, such as the publisher Angelo Rizzoli. The idea arose from the fact that, in Asti, the relationship between painting and the art of textiles (although not specifically dedicated to tapestries) has been alive since the Palio was originally begun. Contemporary artists were commissioned to create the image portrayed on the banner. And I must say," concludes Serra, "that when I presented the idea of the exhibition to the public authorities, the reaction of the Councillor for Culture in the Province of Asti, Vittorio Massano, was enthusiastic."
The story of this tapestry weaving mill is also that of a man, the seventy-two-year-old Ugo Scassa, who originally had the idea back in the fifties, of combining avant-garde art and one of the most ancient of all the decorative arts. Scassa receives us for the interview at the workshop in Certosa di Valmanera, the Charterhouse founded in the eleventh century by the monks of Vallombrosa at the gates of Asti, and which now houses the museum where Scassa keeps his private collection of tapestries. It is a collection that documents relationships with such artists as
Corrado Cagli and Felice Casorati, Giorgio de Chirico and Renato Guttuso,  Umberto Mastroianni and Mirko Basaldella, Luigi Spazzapan and Emilio Vedova, but also with an architect, Renzo Piano, whose drawings have been translated into "high warp". And there are also the works that Scassa had made in homage to some of the best-loved artists such as Paul Klee, Vasilij Kandinskij, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico.

Mr Scassa, how did the idea of the tapestry weaving mill come into being?

It all started with my love of the figurative arts and the desire to transform this passion into a direct and personal involvement. I was well aware that I did not have the creative skills of the great contemporary masters whom, thanks to this interest of mine, I had been able to get to know and study. Rather than attempting to become another of those "weekend painters" who, unfortunately infest the market even during the rest of the week, I preferred to approach the world of modern art in a quieter manner. First, as a promoter, I set up the Il Prisma gallery in Turin with Filippo Scroppo, the painter, in the second half of the fifties. Later on, I became his interpreter. More than forty years on in this latter role, I can now say that I have had a reasonable degree of success and enormous satisfaction. You know what is possibly the greatest compliment I have ever received in this activity of mine? That of Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti himself who referred to me as a great art critic.

What did he mean?

He was saying that an understanding of a work through its transposition into a tapestry requires an extremely sophisticated analysis of the compositional, chromatic and material structure of the work. It is by means of this analysis that I am able to direct the work of my weavers. I believe the art of the tapestry maker to be comparable to that of an orchestral conductor. A conductor, with the cooperation of the orchestra he is directing, gives a personal interpretation of a musical score. The result he achieves depends on the beauty of the composition in question and on the sensitivity and depth of his interpretation. The tapestry maker too, with the assistance of his expert weavers, creates a tapestry by means of a careful and critical interpretation of a figurative work of art which, in this case, becomes his score.

Let's go back to the period of the gallery..

That experience was originally designed as an extension of the activities of a shop in Turin which exhibited and sold products made by Redan of Pinerolo, a manufacturer of handmade carpets based on cartoons by contemporary painters. At that time, one-artist shows were held with the works of Enrico Baj, Sandro Cherchi, Lucio Fontana, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Asger Jorn, Erich Keller and others, while I started getting practice in the work of hand stitching carpets and in dyeing the wool for the works. This part of the business had been transferred to Asti under the name of Italia Disegno. And it was while dyeing the wool for a carpet made to a design by Ettore Sottsass. that I decided to dye a larger amount so that I could also make a tapestry. This was my very first tapestry. It was judged by the artistic commission chaired by Giulio Carlo Argan and enabled me to win the competition announced by the Società di Navigazione Italia for the manufacture of sixteen tapestries which the architects Monaco and Luccichenti had planned as decoration for the first-class ballroom of the Leonardo liner.

How did you manage to complete the project?

It was an immense undertaking. I and my then very young co-workers, who were highly skilled in carpet making but with only a single experience in "high warp" tapestry work, found ourselves with the task of having to complete sixteen tapestries covering a total of sixty square metres in a bare six months. I remember, in that distant spring of t96o, even on Easter Monday I worked thirteen hours (I have kept the bimonthly pay book, where I wrote in the hours I worked, as a souvenir). Nevertheless we only just managed to deliver the last of the sixteen tapestries only a couple of days before the first sailing from Genoa to New York.

Who were the artists chosen for this undertaking?

The sixteen tapestries were divided as follows: six from drawings by Corrado Cagli, one by Giuseppe Capogrossi, three by Antonio Corpora, two by Santomaso, three by Turcato and one by Bernini. This job was the first in a long line with Corrado Cagli, which lasted uninterrupted until the maestro died in 1976. The fact that my tapestry weaving mill is now able to celebrate its fortieth anniversary is due in good part to him. After the work on the Leonardo, he was the only one who trusted my ability as a tapestry maker and who considered it worth continuing that tradition of co, operation, which I found so exciting, between artists and craftspersons. A tradition which has given such extraordinary results in centuries gone by. Moreover, at the beginning, he was able to get other friends and colleagues of his, including Avenali, Clerici, Guttuso, Mastroianni and Mirko, interested in my woven fabrics. Like Cagli, they too became my principals, relieving me from one of the greatest problems faced by a tapestry weaving mill, as yet virtually unknown and making its first steps, especially in a country like Italy: that of selling its artefacts.

In France the tradition of tapestry is very strong even in modern works, and the French are well known for the strenuous defence of their national products. How do you manage to face up to such competition?

The concepts behind my work are very different from those in France. As far as the quality of the cartoon is concerned, I tend to choose works of the finest and best known contemporary artists, rather than opting for those of the "peintres cartonniers", as their corporation would prefer. However, rather than oblige artists to make their cartoons specially for turning into tapestries, running the risk of imposing all the limitations on their pictorial language that the "cartonniers" impose upon themselves, I consider it better to choose from those works which seem best suited to the medium in which they will be recreated. In other words, those works which are most appropriate as cartoons for tapestries.
This approach enables me to consider the entire artistic output of each individual artist, rather than have to deal with a single cartoon which, as well as requiring special attention for its preparation, could once it is finished prove to be unsuited for the creation of a tapestry. Pictorial language, in contemporary figurative art, is expressed through the most diverse and unconventional stylistic innovations. It is therefore necessary to adopt a technique that remains faithful to the classic canons of tapestry weaving, while transferring all those elements which are suggested by the cartoon and which, taken together, make a work of art of the tapestry

Could you give an actual example?

Anyone who remembers the "carte" by Cagli, one of those paintings he made using crumpled paper on which light and colour create an infinite variety of effects, can understand how its transposition into a tapestry requires a special technique. The new work must preserve all the richness of the myriad plays of light which are the dominant artistic feature of the painting. To obtain this, we abandoned the easiest and most convenient type of weaving , the juxtaposition of uniform sections of fabric which at most can be made to blend one into the other using a hatching technique,  and adopted the more difficult and painstaking technique of ever-changing textiles.
This is achieved by mixing a number of different yarns with different colours and tones in the same skein. At this point, a number of skeins, each containing a blend of different colours, can be used to create a practically unlimited range of colour and tone.
This technique gives results which would be impossible to obtain in any other way and it enables the most diverse forms and expressions of de pictorial language of contemporary art to be transferred to the tapestry not only respecting the original but, in some cases even enhancing its effect. This procedure also gives back to the tapestry maker that broad freedom of interpretation which is considered by all scholars to have been the decisive factor behind the quality and artistic value of tapestries during their golden age. It is also judged to be one of the principal causes of their decline when it gradually fell into disuse. It offers a freedom of interpretation which is unimaginable for those who are used to working, for example, with the current technique in modern French tapestry weaving mills, and of which the first proponent was Jean Lurçat. They have simplified it to such an extent that the cartoon can even be drawn, with precise outlines and a letter or a number in each area of colour to indicate the shade to be used from a predetermined pattern book of coloured wool.
This method has made the work of the "cartonnier" as simple as it could possibly be for he does not even need to paint his work. It has also made the task of weaving that much more simple and rapid but, at the same time, it has also considerably limited the potential for personal expression of each artist and has reduced the contribution of the tapestry maker to no more than the mechanical act of weaving a flat, uniform fabric in which design and colour have been strictly established beforehand by others.

How have artists reacted to your interpretations? 

I have always been granted total freedom of interpretation by all the artists I have ever worked with. The cartoon is normally chosen together by the artist and me. We try to reconcile the painter's stylistic choices with the technical requirements of weaving. Once the work has been chosen, it is entrusted to me for the entire duration of the production process. It is my "gran patron” and there is no intermediate stage of enlarging the draft to the final size of the tapestry. At this point, work on dyeing the wool is carried out for each individual tapestry, depending on the range of colours in the cartoon. My workshop contains no pattern book of coloured wool.
When the dyeing process is complete, the yarns are sampled according to the technique of mélange colours I mentioned earlier. The warp is held vertically between the two rollers of the loom and indelible ink is used to mark the outlines of the drawing using a projector. This is another innovation and one that has enabled me to avoid having to enlarge the draft to a full‑size cartoon. It also means I can obtain greater faithfulness to the original when transposing the drawing to the tapestry. Another technical device that immediately proved extremely useful was that of enabling the weavers to work on the right side of the tapestry rather than on the reverse, as in former times (and as is still the case in other tapestry weaving mills today). This means the part being woven can be compared directly with the original instead of having to look at a reflection in a mirror placed behind the tapestry on the lower roller. When the drawing has been made on the threads of the warp, the weaving starts. The areas of colour are blended using the skeins of coloured wool which have been prepared and sampled.
At this point, the weavers, without the use of codes or samples, but simply their technical skill and ability to interpret, lace the weft yarn over and under the warp threads, gradually building up the design. They have a vast range of colours to choose from and, working under the direction of the tapestry maker, they create a work which has an artistic value in its own right. The artist's initial work remains, to return to the original metaphor, as the musical score.

What is the current price of a tapestry made in your workshop?

The cost of a tapestry is directly proportional to the time taken weaving it. We're talking about five hundred hours' work per square metre. `Apollo and Daphne", the tapestry by Cagli made in 1967 for the Angelo Rizzoli collection, required nine thousand hours' work, with five weavers working for nine months, Saturdays included.

How much are new technologies used?

When I set up my first tapestry on the loom, I was just following the call of my passion. I was urged on by the conviction that tapestry could be brought up to date and that it was worth restoring it as a medium, and by no means the least important, for the artistic expression of the modern world. The idea of successfully blending an age‑old technique with the most unconventional stylistic innovations in modern figurative art in a single poetic expression was truly exciting. But most exciting of all was that a technique, which had remained deliberately unchanged, could be given a new breath of life by new stylistic inventions that bear witness to an  aesthetic sensitivity very different to that of the past.