Review: The Lady and the Unicorn

In an exclusive The Art Gallery of New South Wales is showcasing the set of six tapestries from France, made around the year 1500 known as the Lady and the Unicorn. It is the third time they have travelled, so I thought I should too, and made the trip to see them before they return home on June 24.

Mon seul desir 

We all should know few things turn out to be in real life exactly as they are imagined, or presented online or in books. Thus, I tried to keep my expectations in check.  Expectation is odd though, because if things did always turn out as expected, the concept wouldn’t be so intriguing. But to make it clear, with these works, I was not disappointed. In the dim room, darkened to protect them from further fading, these works of art were quietly revelatory. The tapestries ringed us in this room, with their quiet Mona Lisa-like knowing, while we onlookers sat or stood in the middle and supposed. They drew murmured speculation from almost everyone in the circular space, and the space, like the speculation has no beginning nor end, reflecting the unknown order of the hangings.

Madder red

For bounded works, hemmed in with fading material, featuring characters located nowhere but grounded within a circular garden, they tease us of the infinite.  The same red background of each tapestry, brighter and then faded in places, matches no red I have seen before. Then there is the chemical processes by which the greens of the trees and lawn and dresses have been rendered a new blue, which lends unreality to the pieces that might not have been foreseen at their making.

Regarding the tapestry known as My Sole Desire, (my favourite) Rainer Maria Rilke described the shapes on the tent as flames, but I thought they looked like bottom heavy, upward pointing, twisted, golden Auger Shells. What would Rilke know, right?

Sea shells or see flames?

Making Senses

I am supplying plenty of images here, but they don’t convey the experience of seeing them, their physicality and height in the space. Up close I could see how they have been subjected to the vicissitudes of time and wear, and thus have faded in patches and been damaged by water and rats, especially along the bottom edges. For a while now, they have been interpreted as analogies to the five senses, but you can read into them almost whatever you like. Being before them, confronted by their scale and age, provided me an understanding of their relationships to each other, and a feeling for their physical existence, more than merely giving you facts and figures here can.

Rabbit doing a rabbit thing.

Being with these works gives minute, up close details, while essays and comments, even by the likes of Rilke, provides intellectual appreciation. But as allegorical works, they are full of import and symbolism. This symbolism mainly features many fetching and life-like rabbits doing rabbit things, like cleaning their faces and communing with other animals.

Dog regards rabbit.

My biggest divergence with common opinion on the Lady and the Unicorn series is I don’t think it’s the same lady in each tapestry. Sure these women are tall, willowy and blonde, but it doesn’t make them the same person. For one, some seem to have blue eyes, and others not so much. And, their foreheads change shape. I understand it took about three years to create each piece and thus, whoever modelled for the original cartoon designs for the tapestries aged as well. So yes, I think the ages of the Lady changes, but I also think she is not the same Lady.

Take the image above, large rounded forehead, blue eyes. And now the image below. Less rounded forehead, straighter nose, and the eyes are not blue. My conclusion: two different ladies.

And is this lady, below, the same as the others, or a younger version of the blue-eyed lady? No one can say.

As is the way of good art (by my measure) I have seen, and marvelled, and thus been left with more questions than answers, and more thinking and reading to do. This is why I see art, even tapestries in another state. Thanks to the Lady (Ladies) and the Unicorn.

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