I have been meaning to write this blog post since Tuesday. Needless to say, I am only now finding the time to actually sit down and write my thoughts. The Lady and the Unicorn is currently on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The exhibition consists of six large tapestries created by an unknown artist. It is estimated that they were weaved during the 1500s in France. What is pretty incredible is that these tapestries have only been displayed three times outside of France in over a 500 year period! According to the gallery’s website, the tapestries are “considered to be some of the greatest surviving masterpieces of medieval European art”.
This review is going to be really tricky to write. Rather than just lump everything together, I’m going to start with the pros and finish with the cons. But first, here is some context.
These tapestries are all allegorical representations of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight). In the Middle Ages, these could be represented through different animals or objects. It wasn’t until later that female figures were also used in representations.
The sixth tapestry is a bit of a mystery. According to scholars in the 1400s, there was a sixth sense (not the ability to see dead people). It is difficult to determine what this may be, but, it is believed to be a sense of the heart or the key to moral salvation.
It is unknown who exactly made these tapestries. However, at the end of the exhibition there was a panel explaining how a tapestry during this time period was likely to be made. To summarise, it took a lot of planning and a lot of weaving.
There was one really major pro – the actual tapestries. They were absolutely stunning. I have never seen such vibrant colours in a historic tapestry. There were also so many small details weaved into each tapestry you really had to spend some time looking a the whole work in order to see everything.
Next to the tapestries was a panel explaining how each of the senses had been represented. I read this panel before viewing the tapestries and thought it was really useful and a great addition. Under each sense was an explanation of the relevant tapestry. Side note – there was probably a more effective way for this information to have been communicated, but, I wasn’t too bothered. It was great to have the opportunity to delve deeper into the tapestries and learn more about the symbolism.
I visited this exhibition at 10 am on Tuesday. It wasn’t overly busy, probably about twenty to thirty people entered the exhibition around the same time. This wasn’t an issue until we stepped into where the tapestries were on display.
Inside the large gallery was a smaller circular-shaped gallery created with six walls displaying the tapestries. I guess the idea was to make visitors feel as though they were surrounded by the works. In theory, this was a great idea. In practice, this actually created a really claustrophobic environment. To make matters more difficult, in the centre of this small room was a huge irregular shaped bench with a lot of wasted space in the middle. It was great to have somewhere to sit, but, this bench took up a lot of space and could have been easily replaced by more practical seating.
The result was overcrowding. Even with just twenty other people in the space, it was difficult to move around and really appreciate the tapestries. Sitting down made matters worse as people were constantly running into the bench and into other people.
After viewing the tapestries, I followed the ‘more exhibition this way’ sign. I was really surprised to see the fascinating information about how the tapestries might have been made tucked around the corner. Virtually everyone walked past the panels.
Balancing the pros and the cons, I am really glad I saw the exhibition and was able to experience these tapestries. Displaying them slightly differently could have possibly enhanced my overall experience.