Saturday, 10 February 2018

Renaissance tapestries draw crowds to AG NSW

When I heard about ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ on ABC TV  last night it was touted as a piece of medieval culture but this turns out to be misleading. The work is a series of tapestries manufactured around 1500 that are designed to hang from walls, and they were purchased by the French state in the late 19th century. Prior to that, they had been prey to deterioration in a house in the French countryside. Once they were saved from certain destruction – rats eat tapestries, and damp impacts on their fabric – they caught the attention of the elites in Europe, including proto-feminist writer George Sand.

The exhibition makes much of the impressions that Rainer Maria Rilke, a German writer of the first half of the 20th century, drew from the tapestries when he saw them. The wall hangings are large and intricate but to call them medieval mistakes the truth, as they clearly originate in the Renaissance. Printing with moveable type was invented in Germany in around 1439 and the religious Reformation started around 1517 in the same country. In fact origins for the Renaissance can be traced back even further if you want to go looking for them in medieval Italy.

What the tapestries offer gallery visitors is temporary access to the physical opulence that was daily available to wealthy French families, a tiny minority of the population, during the period. These are gorgeous objects that have an objective aesthetic value apart from any allegory that they may have been designed to communicate. The catalogue goes into a lot of detail about the possible meanings of each of the tapestries but any such semantic signification seems to me to be of less overall importance than the pure luxury that the tapestries represent. And the lions that feature in all of them have the best facial expressions of all the animals depicted!

This is a great exhibition for the Australian middle classes, who can number themselves among the true inheritors of the Renaissance and all that it entailed in terms of material progress. The exhibition is being held in the small gallery to the side of the ground floor of the Art Gallery of NSW, right above its Asian gallery space. It gets a bit crowded because the space for the hang is quite small, and has seats scattered around for people to sit on if they want to spend more time getting acquainted with the tapestries.

The workmanship in the tapestries is exceptional but the catalogue for the exhibition is however a bit unpolished, and needed to be proofed better before publication.

No comments: