Vienna is a museum lover’s paradise. There you will find palaces filled with the vast treasures of the Hapsburg dynasty as well as Vienna’s modern masters, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. But the highlight of my recent trip to Vienna was a small, quirky little museum called the Museum Hundertwasser. There, I learned about a fascinating chapter in tapestry history.
Friedensriech Hundertwasser (1928-2000) was a multidisciplinary Austrian artist who painted brightly colored abstracted images featuring wavy lines, spirals and biomorphic shapes. He wanted people to live in harmony with nature and considered the straight line to be “something cowardly drawn with a ruler, without thought or feeling.” His distinct style was well suited to printmaking so in addition to wood block and silkscreen prints he also designed posters, postage stamps, and book covers. Later in his career he also focused on architecture, designing colorful structures with undulating floors and trees growing from the roof and balconies, including the building that houses the Museum Hundertwasser today.
Hundertwasser became interested in tapestry early in his career as a result of his friendship with Austrian artist/weaver Fritz Riedl (1923-2012). Riedl and Hundertwasser both studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna during the post-war years. Riedl committed to tapestry weaving by 1949 and thereafter enjoyed a long career weaving his own abstract expressionist designs.* Reidl’s Vienna studio was a cultural hub where artists gathered to socialize. Hundertwasser argued with Reidl about the value and necessity of using full size cartoons. He made a bet with Riedl that he could weave a tapestry freestyle, without using a cartoon as a guide. Riedl loaned him a loom, provided support, and Hundertwasser set off weaving a tapestry. The finished result was titled Pissing Boy with Skyscaper (1952).
Hundertwasser won the bet, but disliked the slow pace of tapestry weaving. Pissing Boy is the one and only tapestry he wove himself.
“I was amazed to see how endless it got; it grew a few millimeter per day only. I always hand to push the wool back into the warp with the comb-hammer and thus 5 cms became one or two millimeters. I slowly worked my tapestry upwards and it took me six months during which I worked from eight in the morning till eight at night with hand and feet – never in my life have I laboured so intensively and for so long a time. I began with the toes, they became a trouser leg and to the right of it appeared a house. As I wove I kept thinking what could fill the background and what I could conceive for higher-up. As I had started on with a trouser-leg, a body had to follow, arms, and a head; there were to be windows in the background, and if one makes windows, there must be a roof to top them off, and this is how I finished the tapestry and won my bet. It is interesting to weave like that, all alone, for months on end in the same room. To start on in winter, and winter turns to spring and to summer and the work progresses by millimeters only. I worked with all four extremities, with the right foot and the left, with the right and the left hand. I have photos from that period where I look like a monkey, working with all four hands.” (from: Cat. Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1983, pp. 344 f.)
Nonetheless, his association with Riedl provided connections to professional weavers who could realize his desire for tapestries. Between 1964 and 1992, sixty-nine Hundertwasser tapestries were woven. In line with his artistic philosophy, he gave the weavers complete freedom over the process and discouraged “soulless reproduction” from a cartoon.**
“It was of exceptional significance to Hundertwasser that the weavers applied their personal artistic ideas, thereby creating their own interpretation of the model, while at the same time taking into account the special dynamics of the materials and the weaving technique. It was Hundertwasser’s opinion that the work could only be imbued with life through this procedure, that a genuine artistic work - instead of a soulless copy of the model - could only be created in this way. For this reason, all Hundertwasser tapestries are unique. No editions of tapestries were ever produced.” - from the Museum Hundertwasser website
The Hundertwasser tapestries were produced by only a few weavers, and primarily in one of two ways. Many of the tapestries were woven in Vienna by a local artist/weaver named Hilde Absalon (1935-2017). Between 1966 and 1990, she wove 24 Hundertwasser tapestries. Gobelinos Riedl, a studio founded by Fritz Reidl in Mexico in 1968, wove the remainder of the tapestries in the collection.*** Six tapestries were on display when I visited the Museum – three from each of these sources as it turned out. Even before doing any research, it was obvious right away that different hands, dye methods, and approaches went into the making of these tapestries.
I was especially smitten by the tapestries woven by Hilde Absalon. I devote Part 1 of this story to her amazing work. She studied tapestry at the National School for Textile Industry in Vienna, and later was on the faculty at the Academy of Applied Art. Prior to 1980, she wove at least one, and often two, Hundertwasser tapestries per year, each taking 5-6 months to complete.
Hilde Absalon’s works were woven using a fine sett of 5 or 6 epc (approximately 12-14 epi). Enlarged to tapestry size, Hundertwasser’s strident lines become complex micro-gradations, almost watercolor-like, as she varied fine weft threads dyed in close values. Her technique subdues the Hundertwasser style somewhat, adding dimensionality to the lines. The “bead” is hardly noticeable as they are so fine and technically perfect. The museum’s images of her work are extremely bold, but in reality, under the dim light of the gallery, they are considerably softer in tone.
The gallery light is partially to blame for washing out the colors, but I also believe the dyes she used were not uniformly lightfast – especially the greens. Her obituary says she dyed her own threads “in hundreds of nuances.” I tried to look at the back to see how much of the difference was due to fading, but I could only see that the works were lined. Although less saturated, the color still has a depth to it that is unlike the flat, applied color of Hundertwasser’s paintings. They are warm, immersive, and full of rewarding technical flourishes. This is tapestry’s gift, and something I’m sure Hundertwasser appreciated.
What luck! One of the tapestries was displayed with the back facing the viewer! This work was the finest and smallest of the six tapestries on display (6 epc). You can see she used just two fine threads per bundle. The front side of the tapestry is lined on this one, presumably for conservation reasons. There is definitely fading, but the softness has its own appeal.
The most recently woven and the most striking of all the tapestries in the Museum was The Impotent KRKA Waterfalls, woven by Absalon in 1990.
Here Absalon has woven multiple, separate pieces and joined them into one work. The red-orange striated “land” was woven vertically, and the blue and yellow striped “waterfalls” are shaped, woven horizontally, and sewn very carefully over top the main tapestry. It is an ingenious way to solve a technical problem, but it also creates an exciting dimensionality.
“I like to experiment with different materials, I strive for details and subtleties that you might not even notice at first glance. But isn’t that what makes a tapestry so appealing, because it forces you to take a closer look? Just as working on a tapestry requires calm, concentration and a lot of thought, it also takes time and calm to look at it.” - Hilde Absalon, Published in: Cat. of the exhibition Hundertwasser Gobelins, Galerie Brockstedt, Hamburg, 1977.
As an aside, Hilde Absalon also wove tapestries from her own designs, but not until the 1980s. (My theory? Empty nest!) She was known for photorealistic imagery in her own work. One particular tapestry (perhaps her most well-known piece?), was described at length in her obituary. It is a self-portrait of Absalon posing as a contemporary Penelope, shown weaving an image of herself that is in turn weaving an image of herself at the loom, like a cascade of images in a mirror. It is hard to describe this tapestry in words, but thankfully you can see it in this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzPMoFeVhEU. I do wish she had seen wider acclaim for her talent during her lifetime.
In Part 2 of this article, I will talk about the tapestries woven in Mexico by Gobelinos Riedl.
- *This article is full of interesting “stories within the story.” Fritz Reidl’s life and work is one of them. Check out Google Images to see his work. There is a catalogue available of his 2003 retrospective exhibition available on Amazon.com.
- ** Hundertwasser was reminded of the importance of this approach in 1976 when he had one tapestry woven by Atelier Pinton in Aubusson, France. He disliked the French workshop’s product, claiming that it was a “slavish copy” that lacked the liveliness of the other tapestries.
- ***There were a couple of exceptions. The first two tapestries that were produced, in 1964-65, were woven by two graduates of the National School for Textile Industry in Vienna who were classmates of Hilde Absalon. Those women, Ingrid Weiner and Valie Export, went on to have interesting lives as radical feminists and avant-garde artists. Other than the first two, the tapestry woven by Pinton mentioned above, and a theatre curtain woven in Japan in 1992, all the tapestries were woven by Hilde Absalon in Vienna or Gobelinos Riedl in Mexico.