Tapestry Exposed Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 14-June 19, 2002 Thomas P. Campbell et al. Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence, exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 604 pp., 250 color ills., 150 b/w. $75.00
Edle Wirkung: Burgunder Tapisserien in Neuem Licht Historisches Museum, Bern, November 1, 2001-April 21, 2002 Anna Rapp Buri and Monica StuckySchurer. Burgundische Tapisserien im Historischen Museum Bern, exh. cat. Munich: Hirmer, 2001. 247 pp., 155 color ills., 24 b/w. 62 Swiss Francs; and Burgundische Tapisserien. Munich: Hirmer, 2001. 488 pp., 297 color ills., 44 b/w. 86 Euros
Neither of the organizers of the two major tapestry exhibitions held this past year had anticipated their phenomenal success. Clearly, these exhibitions offered something new to viewers, who flocked to the shows running simultaneously at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Historical Museum in Bern. Although an exhibition's popularity is surely not a criterion for determining its art historical significance, the reasons for this enthusiasm regarding tapestry are of particular interest. The way viewers responded to the exhibitions sheds light on questions central to our discipline: the attribution of value, on the one hand, and modes of viewing, on the other.
The material opulence and luxury of the tapestries in New York and Bern inspired awe. In this reaction, we hear an echo of the numerous accounts from the period, in which the citizens of Paris, led in 1461 through the Hotel d'Artois, stared in amazement at Philip the Good's tapestries, stacked one above the other. Just as the 15th-century Parisians were struck by the duke of Burgundy's wealth, part of the mystique of the tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum no doubt derived from their association with an idea of the nobility, whose ostentation and leisure might have a greater romantic appeal in a time of economic recession. Yet this response also derives from a value system in which the sheer size, material cost, and technical achievement of an object are worthy of praise. The exhibilion thereby prompted a historically accurate appreciation of the medium, which was one of the most expensive forms of artistic production in the 15th and 16th centuries and whose creation involved the most esteemed artists.
Equally impressive was the way in which the tapestries inundated their viewers with an overflow of visvial information. In this digital age of rapidly moving video games and electronic images that stimulate the senses, these dynamic woven pictures seemed particularly enticing. Moreover, the exhibitions provided an interactive experience to viewers used to engaging with images in video games or on the Web. They could test their visual dexterity by identifying figures hidden amid complex patterns and deciphering the events transpiring simultaneously within a single panel. Throughout the day, groups huddled in front of the Nobilitas from the Los Honores series in New York, or the Legend of Julius Caesar in Bern, anxious to understand the stories they told (Figs. 1,2). The video installation in the Bern exhibition actually proposed a parallel between the way immense tapestry cycles are perceived in fragments and the mode of looking associated with digital media.1 As their similarity to electronic images suggests, tapestries offer an alternative to the perspectival spatial construction associated with Renaissance art, in which the illusion of wholeness takes precedence over an image that is perceived as a configuration of discrete parts. In turn, they provide spectators with a multitude of potential viewing positions, the adoption of which they control. Tapestries thereby constitute an important historical reference and model for many of the most basic strategies of postmodern artistic practices.
The enormous enthusiasm for tapestries generated by the two exhibitions contrasts with the marginalization of the medium in art historical discourse. …