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Moments in ArtMategot the Magnificent
by Lawrence Jeppson
A week ago Saturday, activists for architectural preservation in Salt Lake City organized a tour of old homes and churches in what is called the Marmalade District of Capitol Hill.
One of the places on tour was the old 24th Ward church, which was built over 100 years ago. Secularized, about 18 months ago it became the headquarters and rehearsal spaces for the Salt Lake Choral Artists, an umbrella group of about eight different choirs under one management.
Through the generosity of the singers and benefactors Bryson and Jan Garbett, I was given space to show my art collections. I like to quip, “The singers got the floors; I got the walls.”
For the first time ever I was able to display my collection of contemporary, handwoven French tapestries. This probably is the largest private collection in the United States and is far superior to anything shown in any American museum. Eventually I would like to give the collection to a museum.
A view of the tapestry collection was touted as a tour attraction. About 900 tour tickets were sold, and although only a fraction of the purchasers would make it to the old church, there was a steady stream all day.
From time to time I’d say, “If you’d like, I’ll give you my five-minute seance.” My audiences would vary from three or four to maybe a dozen, and I’d speak longer than five minutes if they seemed interested enough or asked questions. There were lots of homes to see, and people couldn’t linger too long if they wanted to see many of them.
I own more than 20 tapestries by Mathieu Matégot, who was the greatest innovator and genius among the tapestry artists and a very close friend. In the quiet moments when there were no visitors I’d reflect back on my long friendship with Matégot and the adventures we shared.
My interest in modern French tapestries goes back to 1949, when I saw them for the first time in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. In 1958, I met Matégot at a group exhibition of tapestries in the Museum of Decorative Arts, which occupies part of the vast Louvre Palace. The artists belonged to the Association de Peintres-cartonniers de Tapisserie.
When I expressed my enthusiasm for the exhibition, I was invited to meet more of the artists at La Demeure, the art gallery that represented them. This encounter led to a long association with La Demeure and the cream of the great French tapestry artists, whom I would thereafter represent in the United States and Canada.
Our first exhibition was at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, 1949. Probably at his own expense, Matégot came to New York as the association’s representative at this, the first showing of modern French tapestries in the United States.
The prime benefactor of the museum and a redoubtable supporter of American crafts was Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb. Matégot and I were invited to her luxurious apartment, where I saw walls hung with Gauguin, Van Gogh, and other notables.
The director of the Crafts Museum was Thomas Tibbs. He hung the collection sent by La Demeure. The largest tapestry was from Jean Lurçat’s La Chant du Monde/Song of the World series. Tibbs thought it was “atrocious” and refused to hang it. When he finally relented he hung it on the low wall and floor of the mezzanine.
At the opening Matégot and I were introduced to a lot of people. The most famous that I can remember was Salvadore Dali. Many were society flockers who spent their lives traipsing back and forth across the Atlantic. I was pleased by the turnout, but when I met Tibbs a day or two after the opening, he scowled and referred to a lot of the guests as “Euro-trash.”
Tom subsequently became director of the art museum in Des Moines and ultimately the one in La Jolla.
The Crafts Museum collection moved to an exhibition space in the headquarters of the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C. It was seen by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), who took it over and circulated it to other museums.
The collection was so popular that SITES asked me to supply a second circulating collection, which I did.
Matégot and I met often after that. I was approached by Charles Snitow, an entrepreneur who owned the United States World Trade Fair in New York (as well as other trade shows), and he gave me a huge space for a tapestry exhibition in the New York Coliseum. Matégot came for that. The next year, I was given the same space for a huge one-man Matégot tapestry exhibition. Of course Mathieu came.
We were invited to the Snitows’ Scarsdale home for dinner. Afterwards the men adjourned to another room and Charlie passed out cigars. I declined the cigar. It was my first encounter with that old English custom of post-dinner gender separation.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson paid a visit to the Trade Fair, and when he came to our space he met Matégot. A photographer took pictures — of Johnson, Matégot, and me. Unfortunately, I could not trace the photographer, and Matégot never got his coveted picture with the vice president.
On other occasions I introduced Matégot to Bill Gay, Los Angeles, who ran the reclusive Howard Hughes empire; Glendon Johnson, head of American National Insurance headquartered in Galveston; Sam Barshop, San Antonio, the founder of La Quinta motels. Gay and Johnson were stalwart Latter-day Saints.
Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997), a Chicago native, studied under Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus in Berlin. He became celebrated when he designed the ground-breaking Marina City on the banks of the Chicago River. Marina City comprises two 65-story round towers, five-story elevators, a mid-rise hotel, and a marina on the river. It was the first building in the United States to be constructed using tower cranes.
Before building Marina City, Goldberg began designing the Astor Tower Hotel, which he called the “structural prototype” for the former. Both buildings employed a poured concrete core containing utilities and elevators. The hotel core is exposed up to the fifth floor. The Astor Tower would be a suites hotel, only four suites per floor. In the basement Goldberg built a replica of one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, Maxim’s.
Maxim’s was in keeping with Goldberg’s decision to make the fifth and sixth floors a permanent French Cultural Center. The opening show was a very large one-man exhibition of Matégot tapestries. Of course, Matégot and I came for the festivities. (It was the first time I ever rented a tuxedo.) We were each given a suite on a higher floor.
We met with the French Commercial Attaches, the owners of Chicago’s foremost galleries, and a collector who was proud of his group of Picassos. Mathieu lectured to the Alliance Française. (He was not a very animated speaker. I later translated his words into English.)
I interpreted when he was interviewed by the art critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. This resulted in a full-page review of Matégot’s work. Needless to say, the critic and I remained friends for many years.
One evening I took Mathieu to a typical Chicago steakhouse. When he was served, he went a little bug-eyed. He exclaimed, “This is not a steak but half a cow.” (That’s kind of a free translation.) His favorite food was Idaho baked potato.
In San Antonio we strolled the wonderful Paseo del Rio (River Walk) through the heart of town. In one of its restaurants we ordered the best Mexican dinner I have ever eaten.
On several occasions in France Matégot took me to Aubusson to meet with François Tabard, owner of the atelier that wove most of Matégot’s work. On another occasion he drove me to Rouen to see his commissioned tapestry Rouen, which is the largest modern tapestry ever woven in one piece. It covers 100 square yards of wall!
After the American moon landing, the National Air and Space Museum displayed the moon rocks the astronauts brought back. Inspired by them, Matégot went home and created the cartoon for a huge tapestry, Man’s First Step on the Moon, 13' high x 10' wide. Matégot wanted to give the tapestry to the museum, and the gift was arranged by Henry Luce, Jr., the son of the founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines.
The full-scale cartoon was hung in the museum, and a ceremony was arranged for Michael Collins, who had been in the Command Space Craft while Armstrong and Alddrin walked the surface, Luce, and other Smithsonian officials.
I accompanied Mategot and was part of the group, but the Smithsonian photographer had no idea who I was or why I was there, and he moved us all around for the picture so that when he snapped, the only part of Jeppson showing was a couple of shoes. I was too dumb to realize what he was doing, and I lost out being a recorded part of this historical moment.
Man’s First Step on the Moon was a large tapestry, more 14 square yards of it. Mategot paid the prodigious weaving cost out of his own pocket and gave the completed tapestry to the American people as a gift. He loved America. His two older sisters were living in Manhattan and Princeton, and his mother was buried here.
For many years the tapestry hung opposite the lunar model on the main floor of the museum. Exhibits change, and I don’t know if it is currently being shown. It should be, permanently, either in the museum on the Mall or at the larger Air and Space annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles airport.
On another occasion Mathieu and I went together, with his son Patrice, to Limoges, France. The Aubusson weaving house of Tabard Brothers and Sisters had been handed down in the family since 1637. François Tabard had been Mathieu’s close friend and the most celebrated of all the weavers in the renaissance of French tapestry.
The atelier had been run by two brothers and two sisters. All had died without children. In 1985, the estate went up for auction in Limoges. This included work by many of the artists I had represented.
I added to my modest resources all the money I could borrow and went off to France. As Mathieu and Patrice watched, I bought every Matégot tapestry I could afford. I gave up trying to acquire a large one called Mindanao. I discovered later I was bidding against one of the national museums of France.
The auction took two days. After the first day, over a typically delicious French dinner, I interrogated Mathieu about many things, particularly his experiences as a prisoner of war during WW2. He was imprisoned for four years. He escaped twice, lived awhile with a woman who sheltered him, was recaptured each time.
He was tired, and when he went off to bed he had a bad headache. I gave him some Nuprin, which was a relatively new American over-the-counter pain killer. He came back to me the next morning all smiles and said the pills were “spectacular.” He had never taken anything that worked so well. I gave him the rest of my bottle.
When the auction ended, the Matégots went back to the hotel, and I remained to settle up with the auctioneers. I had to pay not only the hammer prices for what I had bought but buyer’s premiums on each piece. These premiums were on a sliding percentage scale, each segment of the price carrying its own premium.
Because I had bought so much and because — they said — I was always smiling, I was the last buyer to have his charges figured and added. I spent what seemed a couple of hours signing thousands of dollars of $100 travelers’ checks.
In July, 1990, the contemporary tapestry museum in Angers, France, staged Matégot’s last retrospective. (There are only two dedicated tapestry museums in France, the other being in Aubusson.) The show included the huge Rouen tapestry; Man’s First Step on the Moon, borrowed from the National Air and Space Museum; and the gold medal winner from the 12th Milan Triennial, Piège de Lumière/Shaft of Light, which I now own.
I went off to France for the opening. (No tux needed this time.) Mathieu and I took the superfast train to Angers, where Patrice was then living. Mathieu and I were guests of the Mayor of Angers. He put us up in rooms in the finest old hotel in downtown Angers. (I found the bed was so Frenchman short that I had a miserable night.)
Angers is the home to The Apocalypse of Saint John, a suite of famous medieval tapestries, and the city is determined to keep the art and craft alive by subsidizing a weaving atelier of significant importance.
At the peak of his financial success, Matégot designed and built an ultra-modern home in the middle of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Built on several levels to accommodate the terrain, it used a huge amount of glass.
Frances and I visited Mathieu, his wife, and his pet rooster and were impressed by the home and its architecture. (Electricity is very expensive in France, and all the glass walls made maintenance extremely costly. Eventually, Mathieu had to sell his dream house and move back to Paris.)
I commissioned Matégot to create 30 maquettes for production as limited-edition silkscreen prints and, eventually, enlarged, as tapestries. These were his last commissions, as he was beginning to have problems with glaucoma. In Maryland I took him to see my eye doctor.
He made two trips back to Washington, where he and I and Lou Stoval, a master printer, turned five of these maquettes into stunning silkscreen prints. After Matégot turned the print of Gordium Station into a tapestry cartoon, I had Micheline Henry, Patrice’s wife and owner of a weaving atelier in Aubusson, produce the tapestry. It was to be Mathieu’s last.
I had not been able to get to Paris for a couple of years. So Mathieu, accompanied by Patrice, came to see me. Mathieu, in a gentle scold, said, “If Mahomet won’t come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mahomet.”
I arranged for a small reception at the home of Kay and Mitzi Daines, whom he already knew, as were the other guests. Photos were taken of each guest with the seated artist.
The next day in his Gaithersburg hotel Matégot said to me, “If I weren’t so old, I’d join your church. Your friends are all such good people.”
I thought this might be our last encounter. But the next year Frances and I went to Denmark for a meeting of the Mormon Historical Association commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Church sending mission to non-English Europe. We made it a point of coming home via Paris.
We found Mathieu in a small, but new studio apartment provided him through his friendship with French President Jacques Chirac. Matégot, 90 and nearly blind, brought out a small, flat box, the kind that might have been used as a gift box for a cravat. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he opened the box.
Inside was a ribbon and a large gold medal. Matégot had been made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s highest honor.
Usually such an honor is conferred with pomp and circumstance, and some high official would present the medal and tie its ribbon around the recipient’s neck.
Matégot said, “I have not allowed anyone to present this to me. I have been waiting for my friend Lawrence to do that.”
With tears running down all our cheeks, I tied the ribbon with its medal around Mathieu’s neck.
It was the last time we would see each other.
(The title "Matégot the Magnificent" was given to the artist by André Parinaud, the editor of an important French art periodical and author of articles about the artist. Later, Parinaud and his wife and I shared a delightful visit to the Hirshhorn Museum in WDC.)
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