Helena Hernmarck’s “Glimpse” and the art of tapestry weaving—then and now

If you walk into gallery 340 on the third floor, you might notice that one of the things there is not like the others. In a space dominated by tapestries, sculpture, and armor from the 15th to 17th centuries, Helena Hernmarck’s 1974 tapestry, Glimpse, was recently included as one of the MIA’s ReMix installations, a program juxtaposing art from disparate times and places to reveal their sometimes unexpected similarities.


Helena Hernmarck’s “Glimpse,” from 1974.

Finding common ground here might come easy for visitors interested in textiles: the time-honored tapestry technique of manipulating colored weft threads to “paint” a picture carries over with relatively subtle alteration from the Falconers (c. 1435) at one end of the gallery to Hernmarck’s modern artwork. But where are we meant to locate the differences in this ReMix? Is it in the awkward sense of perspective of the early tapestries and how it clashes with Glimpse’s photorealistic picture of a small town viewed through parting clouds from an airplane?

Or is it because, as the label copy tells us, the piece was commissioned by Diamond Shamrock, the Cleveland industrial chemical giant? If Glimpse’s technique is steeped in tradition, its visual content and social context seem to suggest industrialization and corporatization, the hallmarks of modernity. These elements seem strikingly at odds with the world where the medieval weaver worked quietly by candlelight, fingers stained with vegetable dyes, supported by the patronage of courtiers.

To contrast these objects in terms of premodern and modern, or courtly versus corporate, would not necessarily be wrong. But it would obscure the fact that Helena’s working methods—not those of her medieval predecessors—would be more appropriately characterized as typical of an artist-craftsman. Until the late 18th century, tapestries were big business and workshops often strictly divided tasks between designers who developed visual content, cartoonists who translated the designers’ rendering into a larger cloth or paper plan, and the various weavers who built the tapestry—one weaver might handle only border regions while specialists would tackle more challenging bits likes hands and faces. Making tapestries back then was a corporate effort. Helena alone, however, sourced the aerial photograph for Glimpse (later she did her own photography), cropped it to perfect her design, and developed her cartoon. She also spent months, with just one assistant, weaving the tapestry in her own home, then a 16th-century English manor house.

glimpse installation

A view of gallery 340, where “Glimpse” hangs opposite the “Allegorical ‘Millefleurs’ Tapestry with Animals,” circa 1530-45.

Listening to Helena recount Glimpse’s journey from a Cleveland headquarters to an MIA gallery —as I did recently when she gave a lecture here last November—it becomes clear that her “corporate art” is with us today precisely because it was produced by an individual artist who continues to feel responsible for her own creations. When Diamond Shamrock folded in the 1990s, Helena worked to find a new, public home for her tapestry. She contacted Lotus Stack, former textiles curator at the MIA, who then successfully accessioned the artwork into the collection. Helena has similarly come to the aid of many of her other tapestries in the United States and Europe when their corporate owners went bankrupt or remodeled offices, often collaborating with curators to secure more permanent housing in museums.


The artist and weaver Helena Hernmarck.

She jokes that in hindsight she should have sewn her phone number on the back of each textile so that she could be brought into the loop more quickly when one of them was at risk of homelessness. She can still recount the biographical trajectories of the pieces she has rescued over the course of her long, 50-year career, easily drawing forth names, addresses, even the architectural details of the buildings where her tapestries were initially displayed. When I marveled at the ease with which she navigates the vast archive of her work she has etched in her mind, she responded: “Well, after spending so many hours and months weaving these pieces, they become part of my life. Even though I know some of the tapestries can have a life of their own, it is still hard to let them go.”