From Canvas to Loom
INTERVIEW WITH UGO SCASSA, BY FRANCO FANELLI
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."
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?
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.
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.
How have artists reacted to your interpretations?
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.
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.