R.B. Kitaj and Edinburgh Tapestry Company (now Dovecot Studios)
If Not, Not, 1996-7
Wool and cotton
700 × 700 cm
Woven by John Brennan, David Cochrane, Douglas Grierson, Naomi Robertson, Alice Shaw, Harry Wright, Johnny Wright
In 1995, Edinburgh Tapestry Company (now Dovecot Studios) built a new loom, the largest in the studios history. This loom, still in use in the studio, is over 7 meters long and requires special equipment to move it even a centimetre. It was built for a specific undertaking – to weave If Not, Not by R.B. Kitaj for the British Library in London, where it still hangs today. The vibrant tapestry took seven weavers 7,000 hours to weave over two years, ultimately weighing in at 113kg and measuring 7 x 7m.
Based on a painting (1975-76) of the same name by R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007), If Not, Not brings together tragedy, beauty, literature and art onto one single tapestry. Kitaj, a Jewish American artist, who spent much of his life in England, painted a number of his artistic influences into the work including Matisse and Giorgione. The tapestry features both cultural and historical figures and references, and the small figure of the man in bed, along the left edge, holding a baby, is a self-portrait of the artist.
The palm trees in the top right corner is reference to Heart of Darkness, a novel by Joseph Conrad, which is widely regarded as a critique of Western colonialism. The tapestry vividly depicts the influence of T S Eliot's poem The Waste Land on Kitaj, a poem that echoed the horrors of the First World War. T S Eliot himself lies in the bottom left, surrounded by scenes of destruction from his poem.
The red building at the top left corner is a depiction of the gatehouse to Auschwitz. If Not, Not is often seen as the most significant of Kitaj’s oeuvre, and marks the beginning of his series of works about the Holocaust, a major theme throughout his later years.
The original painting measures 152 x 152 cm and is part of the National Galleries Scotland collection. In 1996 the painting was on tour abroad, so weavers Harry Wright and Douglas Grierson travelled to Luxembourg to view the painting up close, armed with shade cards to select colours. When they returned to the studio 136kg of wool was ordered. Once the painting was back in Scotland the weavers still had limited access to it. National Galleries staff would courier the painting to the studio for one day every few months for the weavers to examine closely. Outside of these days the weavers had to travel to the Galleries with shade cards.
Kitaj saw the finished tapestry for the first time when it was being installed at the British Library. When asked by Douglas Grierson why he hadn't visited the studio, Kitaj replied that he didn't want to influence the weaving, but that he was delighted by the end result.
The tapestry hangs in the British Library in London.