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Review
Exhibition: ‘Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop!’
by Delilah Walter, 6/04/21

In conversation with curator Kate Greyner.

With the revival of Edinburgh’s cultural scene on April 26th, Dovecot Studios are anticipating the opening of their postponed exhibition ‘Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop!’. I have interviewed Kate Greyner who, in collaboration with Lisa Mason from the National Museums of Scotland, has been curating this exhibition for over four years. 

The exhibition is about the work of the internationally renowned Scottish tapestry artist Archie Brennan. He grew up in Edinburgh, became an apprentice at Dovecot Studios at 16 and later became its director in 1963. I asked Kate what it has meant to create an exhibition on a figure so important to the studio’s history. She said that it meant “an awful lot”, and after receiving a research grant in 2017, she was able to travel to New York and actually meet Brennan. ‘He and his partner Susan Martin Maffei, who is also a tapestry weaver, were very kind to let us into their home, see his studio and look through his personal collections and archives to select works from. It was absolutely fascinating research’.

Brennan was quite old then, and passed away in 2019, but Kate describes how ‘he still had that spark of personality and charisma, which I think was a big part of his ability to give tapestry a voice’. One of the largest concerns surrounding tapestry is its fight for recognition as an art form. Kate explained how ‘it is often overlooked and ignored as a medium compared to the big ones like painting, sculpture and installation’, but for Brennan, ‘it was the medium with which he connected’. 

I asked Kate how Brennan tried to bring tapestry into the limelight and she explained how he made people see tapestry from new angles. She told me about a commission by Midlothian Country Council in 1969: ‘What the council thought they wanted was their crest, and Archie said, “That’s quite boring!” so, he managed to persuade them to do this amazing, psychedelic-looking map design that almost pulsates’. Kat commented that ‘Archie was very good at challenging the commissioner to be inventive and creative’. 

He also taught at the art college here and ‘when he worked with artists like Eduardo Paolozzi or Harold Cohen, he always introduced them to his students and made sure they were brought into the conversation’. But above all else, he was inspiring; ‘it was just his way of being, he was passionate about his medium’. 

In the late 70s he began travelling and I asked Kate whether he had any particular motivations. ‘He was invited to Australia to help found a new tapestry workshop in Melbourne. It’s now called the Australian Tapestry Workshop and it’s like a sister studio to us – it works by the same ethos as we do’. He was then asked to teach in Papua New Guinea at a new art school but ‘being a tropical island nation they didn’t really have much wool – not much sheep rearing!’, so for five years Brennan stopped making tapestries and instead learnt new skills from local teachers. He also worked and lived in Hawaii, New Zealand, San Diego and Canada before settling in New York. 

Kate described how he brought a lot of recognition to tapestry by incorporating into his work weaving methods from all over the world. ‘He influenced both Dovecot and the Australian Workshop to realise that the artist who is a weaver is still an artist. A lot of the European workshops like those in Spain and France adopt the idea that your job as a weaver is to be a technician. To be a very skilled technician, but to slavishly copy the image presented to you and to not bring any of yourself into it’. Brennan advocated the idea that weavers should bring their own vision to their work, and he wanted to unite artists in this ancient tradition by embracing ‘traditional non-Western styles of weaving’. 

Archie Brennan weaving in Nunavut 1992. Image courtesy of Archie Brennan Estate.

I find it fascinating how Brennan’s work is recognised as Pop art, and the irony that tapestry as a medium is the very antithesis of what we understand Pop art to be. Pop art was defined by its fast-paced, mass-produced nature and by contrast, weaving is a very slow, labour-intensive process. Kate says that Brennan ‘loved the contradiction of his medium and he knew how ridiculous it was, trying to weave a fashion image from a magazine into a tapestry design’. ‘He always said it was “as ridiculous as trying to make a full-size model of St. Paul’s Cathedral out of matchsticks”’. 

Tapestry had no place as ‘fine art’ in the modern world, but ‘Archie would look back at medieval tapestries and think “these were the pop art of their day”, the people in them and those who wove them were everyday people. This was the everyday imagery of its time’. Brennan was doing the same – ‘back in the 80s when everything was about the TV, he really engaged with the idea of images on TV being both ephemeral and omnipresent’. He was giving tapestry a place in modern life. 

Kate said that she loves how he did this with A Full Meeting of the Members of the Board (1989), a favourite piece of hers. It is inspired by seventeenth-century Norwegian weaving traditions but depicts an ‘80s boardroom with lots of grey-suited men in it’. She loves how ‘it brought Norwegian folk weaving into the modern world’.

I asked Kate what message she is highlighting in the exhibition; ‘what I am very keen to do with this show is to bring Archie to the forefront of people’s minds’. She says they’ve themed the show to express how varied his work was. There are sections on traditional methods, his use of trompe l’oeil, his studio collaborations, his smaller pieces made while travelling, and a whole section on pop art. 

‘So, whether you’re a weaver, interested in his technique or art history generally, each section will give you a different angle on what he did’. We talk about how some of his work resonates with the changes in our lives over the past year. It’s as though we’ve slowed to the pace of a tapestry weaving, and in looking at Brennan’s fascination with TV, I’m reminded of its resurgence in daily life since lockdown. Kate laughs and says ‘Yeah, I bet he would have done a tapestry of a zoom meeting if he was still around!’.

The exhibition will be on display at Dovecot Studios from the 26th April to the 30th August and tickets can be booked on Dovecot Studio website

Image: Archie Brennan, ‘Muhammad Ali’ 1973
Image courtesy of Dovecot Studios