Merel van Tilburg: “From ‘Aesthetic Colonialism’ to a Syncretic Aesthetic: Negotiating Universalism, Francité and Negritude in Senegalese and French Modernist Tapestries”
Merel van Tilburg (The Courtauld Institute of Art, London) held this lecture “From ‘Aesthetic Colonialism’ to a Syncretic Aesthetic: Negotiating Universalism, Francité and Negritude in Senegalese and French Modernist Tapestries” during the Annual Conference “Global Modernisms: Contiguities, Infrastructures and Aesthetics”, 5 – 7 November 2015, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. The Conference was organized by the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung in cooperation with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and convened by Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices.
In his preface to the catalogue of the Beaux-Arts section of the 1931 Exposition coloniale internationale in Paris, French diplomat Henry Bérenger followed a type of reasoning that was current among European colonial officials and even artists (e.g. Henry van de Velde) since the late nineteenth century: he equated the colonial endeavor with the artistic quest for originality, novelty and discovery. Bérenger used the term “aesthetic colonialism” to refer to the process through which the “rich and splendid substance of sensations, feelings and ideas” from the colonial Empire was “incorporated” into the French aesthetic (today, this is called appropriation). With their traditional connotations of grandeur and gravitas, several Gobelin tapestries presented at international Exhibitions in Paris between 1900 and 1940 figure particularly strong allegories of colonialism.
Merel van Tilburg’s paper investigates two instances of the reappropriation of large-scale tapestry for modernist art directly after World War Two. In both cases, the expression of national identity vies with the universalist ideology behind the modernist – abstract – style. Championed by the painter-cartoonist Jean Lurçat, the so-called French Tapestry Renaissance was proclaimed by museum curator Jean Cassou in 1947. Inspired by the subversive poetic techniques of resistance poets, the lyrical iconography of these tapestries focused on the expression of a “universal”, a-historical humanist interiority. Their distinctly French symbols and motifs, however, combined with a critical discourse stressing the revival of a traditional “French”, Gothic art form (tapestry), rather convey a wish to rebuild a crushed national identity. The paper focuses especially on what might be called the “Senegalese Tapestry Renaissance” from 1965, when artist Papa Ibra Tall became the director of the Manufacture sénégalaise des arts décoratifs and of the Manufacture nationale des tapisseries in Thiès (1966). The painter-cartoonists of Thiès were sent to France to study weaving processes at the Gobelin workshop. Supported by the Senegalese state and often presided over directly by president Leopold Senghor, a substantial output of monumental tapestries from the Thiès Manufacture was instrumental in forging a new national art informed by the body of thought of Negritude. The combination of “pan-African” lyrical symbolism and the search for universal expression within an “original” modernist formal language brings to mind the discourse surrounding the slightly earlier French Tapestry Renaissance. This research aims to shed light on the intimate exchanges between Senegal and France in the post-war revival and modernization of tapestry.
Merel van Tilburg is a postdoctoral guest researcher at the The Sackler Research Forum at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Her research project “Modernism and the ‘Carpet Paradigm’: a historiography and iconology of modern textile works of art” is currently funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Previous postdoc research stays at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, at the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte in Paris and at the Kunsthistorisches Institut Max Planck in Florence. Merel van Tilburg holds a PhD from the University of Geneva, Switzerland (2013), and has worked as a researcher and lecturer at the Universities of Geneva and Amsterdam. Research topics include symbolism, history of ideas, intermediality, and the relationships between modern art and the decorative arts.
The following interviews and contributions have emerged from the conference:
- Arjun Appadurai: “Indian Popular Cinema in the Making of a Decolonized Modernity”
- Saleem Al-Bahloly in conversation with Nada Shabout: “Freedom in the non-structure”
- Atreyee Gupta in conversation with Ming Tiampo: “It is difficult to change the DNA of a museum”
- Helene Bongers Tagungsbericht “Global Modernisms: Infrastructures, Contiguities and Aesthetic Practices”
- Hannah Baader and Atreyee Gupta: Welcome and Introduction to “Global Modernism”
- Saima Akhtar: Conference Review “Global Modernisms: Contiguities, Infrastructures and Aesthetic Practices”
- Harsha Ram: “The Scale of Global Modernisms: Imperial, Regional, National, Local”