Sunday, 13 November 2016

Weaving our stories

The Lady and the Unicorn - A mon Seul Désir
For me, a visit to Paris would not be complete without calling in at the Musée National de Moyen Age – or as it was formerly known, the Musée Cluny – to view one of my favourite works of art, ‘La dame et la licorne’ (The Lady and the Unicorn) tapestries.

Detail from 'sight'.
I have always loved textiles and as a result of a mid-life decision to study tapestry weaving, I am also a tapestry weaver.

Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textiles, dating way back to shreds of Coptic weaving found among the wrappings of mummies within the pyramids in Egypt.

It is a very slow and meditative form of art, where you sit at a loom and weave with bobbins or threads wrapped together, known as ‘butterflies’.

Like other tapestry weavers, we often find our work is confused with canvas embroidery which is done with needles on a prepared canvas.

For me, tapestry weaving reached its zenith in the Middle Ages, when this stunning series of six tapestries, finely woven in silk and wool, were designed for Jean Le Viste, in the 15th century.

Detail from 'taste'.

Each of the six panels that make up the work represents one of the senses –sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell – with the final one, ‘A Mon Seul Désir’ (To my one desire), representíng love.

At the museum, located in the Sorbonne district of Paris, the works are displayed in a circular room, low-lit to preserve the colours. I love to sit quietly in front of each one in turn to take in the glowing colours, and absorb the detailed images and intricate weaving .

The tapestries are elegant and truly beautiful and every time I see them, I find there is something more to discover.

The patterning of the background – known as Milles Fleurs (thousand flowers) – has been inspired by flowers, herbs, leaves and trees commonly found in France.

But as well as the flowers, the background also contains small animals which include exotic representations of monkeys, lions, panthers, leopards, parrots as well as familiar ones like rabbits, foxes, dogs, goats and sheep.
The Lady, now believed to be the daughter of Jean Le Viste, is dressed differently in each panel. In ‘sight’ she holds a mirror that partly reflects the Unicorn; in ‘hearing’ she plays a small organ; in ‘taste’ she takes a small sweet from a dish; in ‘smell’ she is making a circlet of carnations; in ‘touch’ she is touching the Unicorn’s horn; and in ‘A mon seul Désir’ she is replacing her necklace (from an admirer?) in a casket.
Inside the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne.
One of the reasons I am writing about this tapestry now, is that the curator of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, Dr Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, of the Musée Cluny, will be in Melbourne later this month as part of the 40th anniversary of the former Victorian – now Australian Tapestry Workshop – to present a lecture on these works.

My own interpretation of a medieval design.
It will be a wonderful opportunity for anyone interested in France, the medieval period and in tapestries themselves, to learn more about them. To find out more about her lecture, contact the Australian Tapestry Workshop.
The workshop is also an excellent place to visit to see how the art of tapestry weaving is evolving in contemporary times and watch artist-weavers at work.

While I have not yet discovered any tapestries in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, just 70km west of the town, in Aix-en-Provence, you can find two magnificent Unicorn tapestries in the Cathédrale Saint-Saveur.

One of my figure studies.
They include ‘Assaut contre la licorne’ featuring a hunt for the Unicorn with hunters attacking the beast with spears; and the other ‘Résistance de la licorne’ is of the Unicorn fighting back, kicking out with its hind legs and spearing a dog with its horn. 

The final reason for writing about tapestries this week, is that I have six of my own small tapestries on show in in a joint exhibition of the Soldiers Hill Artist Collective in Ballarat.

These tapestries, which are simple figure studies, were influenced by an exhibition I saw in Musée Fabre at Montpellier two years ago. It was a retrospective of works created over the past 50 years by artist Claude Viallat. Some very early works showed abstract figures he had painted on pieces of wood.

The exhibition is at the Fairbanks Eye Gallery in Sturt St, Ballarat.
To discover more tapestries and artworks in France, why not enjoy a stay in Maison Les Arcs, in Les Arcs-sur-Argens in Provence in 2017.
  • French tapestry pictures from The Lady and the Unicorn by Alain Erlande-Brandenburg 1989.


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