Having just opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in the beginning of November, The Divine Art: Four Centuries of European Tapestries is a sprawling show that occupies room after room of prime real estate in the second floor space set aside for special exhibitions. Featuring seventy tapestries that represent over four hundred years of the medium’s heyday, the exhibition was precipitated by the completion of a conservation project that lasted over thirteen years. A team of Netherlandish conservators set about duplicating the natural dying processes of the tapestries creators, employing color boiled, crushed and squeezed from indigo plants, Brazilwood, and the dried bodies of the female Dactylopius Coccus beetle. Once obtained, the color is reapplied to the tapestries to restore them to their original snappiness. Because of this, and despite the often Medieval dates many of the tapestries originate from, the refreshed colors clang with super-saturated hues against the somber maroon of the exhibition’s walls. Their overall excellent condition is highlighted by the gold and silver threads woven through many of them which, caught at the right angle, glint and tingle under the focused gallery lights.
The Divine Art also represents one of the first times the Department of Textiles has been given the space to really show their stuff, and a quick pass through the show offers up the predictable pictorial content of allegorical, mythical, biblical and royal scenes and scenesters. Because of the glut of work on view, and it’s larger-than-life scale, these tapestries are quick to overwhelm, and the temptation to make a quick pass of the remaining works may strike the unwary visitor, but stand-out oddities resonate even louder within the mix as a result.
The Fall of Phaeton. After 1776.
The recurring decorative borders that frame most works abut the figurative compositions of the tapestries with decorative floral, architectural or geometric patterning. In the case of the standout Medici Armorial from 1643-44, the wonky, anachronistic elements, like the psychedelic orbs adorning the central coat of arms, and the curves and clasps of the roundly geometric, heavy chiaroscuro border jump out at even casual viewers.
The painter Lorenzo Lippi made the cartoon, or preparatory sketch, for the Medici Armorial tapestry. Continuing the practice over a hundred years later in 1778, a liltingly rococo cartoon was produced by François Boucher. Frequently, cartoons for tapestries would be made in oil on canvas or watercolor on paper, and with both on view, the tension between cartoon and tapestry is palpable, both within the tapestries on view and in the texts published on the exhibition. Either destroyed in the weaving process, or entirely too ephemeral to have survived as well and as long as the tapestries themselves, most of the cartoons for the tapestries are lost. Whether the tapestries are considered art objects in their own right, or copies of cartoons-cum-paintings, destined to be viewed as interior decoration, reflects collectors tastes as much as scholars.
Woodland with a Pond from 1660-70, is tucked away in the corner of an oblong room pretty much dead center of the exhibition. It is a remarkable piece, primarily because of its lack of a central subject. Odd man out from every other piece in the exhibition, borderless and therefore more akin to a photography studio or theater backdrop, it depicts a sylvan woods glossed with sunlight. It’s fair to speculate that this may be a stand-in bucolic view for the window-less walls of a large castle, since often times tapestries were hung on such walls as insulation against the drafts and cold that could escape indoors through chinks in the masonry. But the life-sized scale and absence of contextualizing border envelopes the viewer, successfully shifting the imagery of the tapestry from background wall hanging to color corrected surroundings.
--Thea Liberty Nichols