Penelope's weaving and les années noires

Photo credit: Tapestry by Bernard Ronfaut, 2012

Penelope's weaving and les années noires: Women entrepreneurs and the Aubusson tapestry rennaisance

Tapestry and the women at the heart of its revival in France of the 1930s and 40s is a subject as yet under-scrutinized amidst the burgeoning attention to this medium in recent exhibitions, French language scholarship and institutional policy. In 2010, UNESCO honoured the weaving centre of Aubusson with the status of a site of immaterial culture world heritage. Led by Claire O'Mahony, this TORCH Women in the Humanities funded project investigates the role of women entrepreneurs in creating this tapestry heritage.

Nestled in the valley of the Creuse, the artists and weavers of Aubusson remained inventive and
resilient amidst the economic and moral crises of the 1930s and 40s. Artists; textile entrepreneurs; educators worked together to create the taste and markets for a modern tapestry renaissance in France. This generation who endured the hardships of the World Wars and the decimation of the weaving industry in the 1930s turned to tapestry as a medium uniquely able to speak to and to transcend this harsh experience. The centrality of women entrepreneurs in the revival remains largely unexamined. If discussed at all in English-language scholarship, modern French tapestry is briefly accounted for as the achievement of two heroes of the French Resistance, the artist Jean Lurçat and Jean Cassou, first Director of the Musée de l’Art Moderne. However, the energy and economic success of the tapestry revival also relied deeply upon the early efforts of three adventuresome women collectors and gallerists of the 1930s: Mme Marie Cuttoli (1879-1973) of Myrbor fashion house, Jeanne Bucher (1872-1946) of her eponymous gallery and later Denise Majorel (1908-2014) who would found the gallery La Demeure, the post-war centre of networks of consumption and critical acclaim at the heart of the modern tapestry revival. A fourth entrepreneur Suzanne Goubelys (1907-97), head of her own Aubusson tapestry firm, combined these vital tasks of fostering taste and ensuing new markets for tapestry with her own production. In 1946, Cassou chose tapestry not ‘fine’ art for the Musée de l’Art Moderne’s opening exhibition after the war which toured Europe then America, positioning the medium as the focal point of the cultural redefinition the French nation to itself and the world after the shame of defeat, occupation and deportation. Denise Majorel’s important contribution in the 1940s co-ordinating the founding of a professional body underpinning this revival, the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie, and disseminating its achievements through the exhibition programme of her Galerie La Demeure has only been documented in one slim 2007 exhibition catalogue unknown outside Aubusson itself.