Visiting the National Gallery feels like visiting old friends. Not because I get to visit enough that I’ve become a regular (if only) but, because the pieces inside are so fixed as icons of art history that I feel like I have seen so many of these works before, and that I already have a semblance of understanding. From Holbein to Van Gogh, these are works I am familiar with from books, films, and even pop culture institutions like The Simpsons.
However to my pleasure, I recently walked into the gallery to see an exhibition of unfamiliar works. At this moment, the National Gallery are showing Weaving Magic, an exhibition by Chris Ofili, Turner Prize winner and all-round great Northerner. The exhibition describes the process of creating a large-scale, two-storey high tapestry based on a watercolour by Ofili. The tapestry was commissioned by the Clothworkers’ Company and made in collaboration with the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh.
The exhibition is deliberately sparse, with only three rooms. There is the booth containing an exhibition video; the hallway with Ofili’s sketches, ideas, and completed watercolour; and finally, the tapestry itself. Hanging against a grey backdrop, this is a piece designed to overwhelm you, both in terms of scale and excess of colour. Rather than entering a room to view a work, the work dominates the space and invites you in. The surrounding backdrop of the room comprises of impressive graphite grey drawings of bearded females who sway and dance around this gigantic space. Their lack of colour also highlights the vibrancy of the tapestry but creates an immersive viewing experience for the gallery visitor.
Ofili depicts a paradise beside the sea, with serene goddesses, figures playing musical instruments, and a godlike Mario Ballotelli, who surveys the scene from above and drips a cocktail-like substance into the chalice of the figure below. The choice of notoriously capricious footballer Ballotelli is particularly interesting to Ofili who wanted to give the piece a contemporary edge (in addition to referencing classical artworks) and he is the only named figure in the entire tapestry. The work is painted with a sense of complete calm and the figures are scattered across the work, aside from two intertwined figures in the centre framing the piece and pulling the gaze towards them. Storm clouds appear slightly off the shore giving the sense that this tranquillity is not destined to last and disruption may be on its way.
Ofili’s piece was inspired by Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), but also seems to give a particular nod to Titian’s work. When I read more about Ofili afterwards, I learnt that he had last collaborated with the National Gallery for an exhibition celebrating Titian’s most famous works: Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon and Diana and Callisto. Unlike Titian’s work, however, Ofili’s tapestry does not foreshadow or hint at violent outcomes.
The breadth of colour is stunning, encouraging you to step forward. As you initially walk in, you find turquoises, greens, yellows and shades of purple making up the scene, but as you move forward, the work dissipates into smaller sections. In that space, you feel like a microscope moving closer until you can see the individual strands of wool, themselves made up of multiple colours. The accompanying video describes how a colour such as green requires several different strands to create that pigment. As my eyes came within feet of the tapestry, I found myself looking at a Pointillist work, made up of tiny dots which danced together to create a sense of fluidity on the smallest level. To be abrupt, it is a piece that you need to look at from every part of the room.
The experience of viewing Ofili’s tapestry is enhanced by the exhibition film, which elucidates the design and making process that went into creating the piece. In the film, the curator talks about the difficult transition between Ofili’s design and the final product. The weavers at Dovecot Tapestry Studio converted Ofili’s design from watercolour into wool, and the painting had to be blown up and hand drawn onto the threads, a process which took a considerable amount of time for such a complex painting. Ofili himself said he had worked in watercolours in order to see whether the weavers could accomplish the same fluidity in fabric as he had in watercolour. Ofili’s choice of watercolour was particularly challenging as it runs across the page and creates intricate overlaps and there are points were the paint had run slightly and this was translated into the final tapestry.
Ofili’s tapestry is reminiscent of Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences: six tapestries that explore the British class system. Tapestry is a form that, for me, adds a veneer of luxury – how many of us have tapestries hanging around at home? But it is also a form that transcends the work into history. It is a piece already destined to be housed in the Clothworkers’ Hall for a long time afterwards but, after seeing the tapestry, I found it was a work that demanded a room of it’s own.
As we walked out of the exhibition and towards the gift shop, we noticed Ofili’s work minimised onto postcards and bags. The vibrancy, colours, and (frankly) overwhelming size did not translate well to objects so small by comparison. Ofili’s work is deliberately immersive, taking up a whole room and demanding your full gaze. In buying a condensed image of the work, it seemed like I was only gaining the status that we were once in that gift shop and that we now had “the image” to prove it. It was a muted ending for a work which made you want to stare at it for hours to take in each strand, each figure and each colour.
Weaving Magic is on display in the Sunley Room of the National Gallery until 28th August 2017. For more information see here.