The Lady and the Uni­corn

Art Gallery of New South Wales, un­til June 24, 2018

The Monthly (Australia) - - ARTS & LETTERS — FILM - noted by Julie Ewing­ton

Your eyes ad­just to the low light, and the six ta­pes­tries of The Lady and the Uni­corn be­gin to glow. This is a mag­i­cal se­questered world in­hab­ited by a no­ble lady and her hand­maiden, flanked by a no­ble lion and the fa­bled uni­corn, with an­i­mals frol­ick­ing about, flow­ers un­der­foot, and heraldic pen­nants above. All is still, con­cen­trated. In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who fell un­der the spell of the ta­pes­tries in 1902, “Ex­pec­ta­tion has no role in this scene. Ev­ery­thing is there. Ev­ery­thing for­ever.” Rilke was writ­ing about the most cel­e­brated tapestry, now un­der­stood as an al­le­gory of sight: the uni­corn lays its paws on the lady’s knees and looks into her eyes; its face is re­flected in her hand mir­ror. Ac­cord­ing to the myth, only a vir­gin can catch a uni­corn, so the ta­pes­tries were, al­most cer­tainly, a for­mi­da­bly ex­pen­sive com­pli­ment to a bride at her wed­ding. Made around 1500, the ta­pes­tries were de­signed in Paris by the artist known as the Master of Anne of Brit­tany and were prob­a­bly wo­ven in the Low Coun­tries. Un­til the late 19th cen­tury they lived in a chateau in cen­tral France – the var­i­ous sizes re­veal some­thing of the two rooms for which they were orig­i­nally made. Five of them ex­plore a sense: touch, taste, smell, hear­ing, sight. Each ex­quis­ite im­age is re­plete with sig­nif­i­cance; a wo­ven world cap­tures mean­ing in ev­ery thread. “You can look and look and look,” mur­murs the woman be­side me. That’s the point: one never tires. The uni­corn seems know­ing, the lion mildly baf­fled, the lit­tle dogs com­pletely spoilt. All else aside, the ta­pes­tries are a com­pen­dium of me­dieval de­sign: a lovely ta­ble-cov­er­ing un­der a por­ta­ble or­gan; gor­geous dresses and jew­ellery; a hardy wo­ven bas­ket hold­ing flow­ers in the tapestry de­voted to the sense of smell; the dis­tinc­tive let­ter­ing on the tent canopy spell­ing out Mon seul de­sir (My only de­sire), the pu­ta­tive sixth sense ruled by the heart. Uni­corns have fans of all ages. On the day I visit, a throng of kids are mak­ing horned head­dresses, and adults try weav­ing at mini frames in the tapestry re­source space. “Gives you an ap­pre­ci­a­tion,” says a griz­zled fel­low wrestling with coloured wool. The show is ac­com­pa­nied by a sprightly lit­tle bes­tiary – ev­ery­thing from Jeff Koons’ White Ter­rier to a nar­whal tusk on loan from the Aus­tralian Mu­seum – but this room is de­serted. Af­ter all, who can com­pete with the uni­corn? The Lady and the Uni­corn is a coup for the AGNSW. Un­less you’re go­ing to Paris, and the en­chant­ing Musée de Cluny, sit­ting atop its sub­ter­ranean Ro­man baths, just be­hind bustling Boule­vard Saint-Ger­main, this is a rare chance to see the ta­pes­tries.

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