Josep Grau-Garriga / Cada Día, 1992, Tapestry, 300 x 180cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.
An odd fact at the heart of painting is that it retains such a widely unquestioned status above so many other forms of visual art despite its debt to, and sometimes yearning for, certain qualities of those other media. In commentary, the infinite contortions of the painted surface are routinely spoken about in the borrowed vocabulary of other media. A painting’s presence as object might become so determinant to the way it is interpreted that it is spoken of as being sculptural. And in describing the interaction of motifs on a painting’s surface, such as Piet Mondrian’s experiments with lattices of coloured adhesive tape in his late New York paintings, we might understandably think of tapestry and opt for the word weave. Of course, the term painterly is equally applied across other media when describing a certain trace of fluidity in motif, surface texture, or colour. I would argue however, that what is painterly in painting is that which is evocative to us of the physicality of many other media.
Josep Grau-Garriga / Textures Fan Mar, 1977, Tapestry, 220 x 225cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.
Tapestry, by virtue of its relative flatness and the range of pictorial possibility available to it, is perhaps more prone than many other art forms to direct comparison with painting. Whilst there is nothing odd today about tapestry occupying the gallery wall, as a stand-alone art form in Europe it has not always been viewed as a medium independent of and equal to painting. The Catalan artist Josep Grau-Garriga (1929, Catalonia – 2011, Angers) speculated that the very practicality of tapestry, in that it is relatively light and easy to roll for transportation, inspired the shift in painting studios around the 14th century from painting on wooden panels to painting directly onto prepared fabric. Whether or not this transition in painting was as straightforward in origin as the artist describes, painting did go on to experience many other transformations across the centuries, whilst the art of tapestry largely remained the remit of artisans until as late as the early 20th century – a factor which served to insulate it from harsh, transformative creative forces.
Josep Grau-Garriga / Personatge Blau, 1992, Tapestry, 200 x 80cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.
Whilst artists such as Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies – also Catalan incidentally – used fabric and rope with great inventiveness, they did not go down the same route as Grau-Garriga of allowing the material to speak for the entire piece. In their work, fabric typically remained either a support for paint or simply another component within a sort of assemblage involving the two as distinct elements. Grau-Garriga made the transition from painting to tapestry during the late 1950s, during which period he met the artist Jean Lurçat – a key figure in the resurgence of interest in the art form in Europe amongst artists. By the time of their meeting in 1957 Grau-Garriga had already started an involvement with the Casa Aymat – a former carpet manufacturer in Catalonia and now a creative space. In France, the artist would consolidate his skills and make artistic connections.
Josep Grau-Garriga / De L’Afrique També, 1998, Tapestry, 200 x 113 x 35cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.
Artists who come to a new medium with an established practice in another tend to see that second medium as a means towards expanding on the possibilities of the first. Grau-Garriga’s stated aim however, was to address the tradition of tapestry as a craft in the service of painting – a medium to be manipulated to order by an artisan rather than being worked on directly by the artist. To really address this, and to begin to push the medium in new directions, there could be no half measures. In approaching the art of tapestry from the premise of equal status to painting in its articulation of texture, motif, colour and meaning, Josep Grau-Garriga contributed towards an important and continuing realignment of many art forms traditionally thought of as craft within the shadow of painting.