Friday, February 15, 2008
An Afternoon at Les Gobelins
As part of my guidebook-updating duties, I found myself at the Manufacture des Gobelins yesterday, the place where fabulous tapestries have been made since the days of Louis XIV. I had booked myself on a tour of the workshops, which was conducted by a very affable man who attempted to explain the incredibly complex process involved in weaving a tapestry. Well, maybe not so much complicated, as very detailed and very long. He pointed to a huge modern tapestry hanging on the wall and told us that it took the weaver three years to complete. Today’s tapestries are not filled with flowers and ladies and jumping stags—they are resolutely contemporary, complete with bright slashes of colors and puzzling motifs. In fact, each tapestry is a recreation of the work of an artist, who has provided the Manufacture with a massive painting as a guide. What’s more, none of these tapestries are for sale: this is a state-owned enterprise and the works are created to be hung in state-owned places like ministries and embassies. It’s a closed ecosystem. Louis’ original intent was a state-owned workshop to make tapestries for royal castles—today, in a nod to democracy, they make tapestries for castles and mansions owned by the people, sort of.
However one feels about the logic behind the enterprise, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by what goes on in the ateliers. We went into the first workshop and saw a row of about five or six giant vertical looms, each being worked by a solitary weaver. This courageous individual, with the patience of a saint, was carefully fitting a shuttle full of woolen yarn through a forest of hundreds of threads, half of which fall under the heading "warp" and the other "weft." By literally pulling strings, she would weave the one into the other. During this operation, she was carefully choosing her colors and trajectory according to the design that she had earlier inked on each individual thread, according to the model provided by the artist. This elaborate ballet is further complicated by the fact that she works on the back of the tapestry and can only see what she is actually creating by looking at a mirror placed in front of the loom. Once the shuttle goes through, she has to delicately tamp down every inch of yarn with her fingers or a comb. Then she’s got to verify that she didn’t mess up by comparing the design in front of her with that on transparent plastic guides.
In short, it’s completely insane. It goes against everything we’ve ever learned about getting things done in the modern world. It’s a desperately slow process that shows hardly any results in the short term. And yet the weavers do not look in the least bit stressed. On the contrary, they have an other-worldly serenity that would make me think of monks working on illuminated manuscripts if it weren’t for the iPods dangling from their ears. These hardy souls have survived four years of intense training for a job that they can pretty much only do here. In other words, they have signed on for life. They have made a kind of commitment that went out of style in the Middle Ages. They are a link back to the days of artisans guilds and apprenticeships, the days when your identity was literally defined by your craft—as in Mr. Miller, Mr. Smith, or Mr. Taylor. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” said a kindly looking weaver with a smile when a man from our group posed the question. “C’est un beau métier,” the man commented—literally, a beautiful profession. “You have to love what you do,” she responded, wisely.