Medieval Tapestry's Modern Influence

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TAPESTRY By Barty Phillips; Phaidon Press/Chronicle Books 240 pp., $49.99

THINK of tapestry, and it is inevitable, somehow: The imagination immediately travels to the Cluny Museum in Paris and into the circular gallery in which are displayed those six late 15th-century hangings known as "La Dame a la Licorne" ("The Lady and the Unicorn").

Or, perhaps, you head for the Cloisters in New York, that outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the (different) "Unicorn Tapestries" of virtually the same date can be found in all their equally engaging Gothic splendor and detail.

Either way, the word "tapestry" seems to instantly summon up a rich medievalism that falls between fact and fantasy, full of color and incident, figures in courtly dress, dukes and duchesses, ladies and unicorns, all pursuing a solemn "sport" (or ritual). The settings or backgrounds are replete with flowers, rabbits, birds, small dogs - an enchanting variety of wildlife, partly stylized, partly observed with knowing humor.

A new volume, simply enough called "Tapestry," shows the Cluny unicorn tapestries in its opening pages (though it never even mentions the ones in New York), reinforcing, once more, their fame and representing their consummate craftsmanship as a kind of benchmark against which the book's following history of tapestry-weaving can be measured.

Illustrations in the book range from Coptic tapestries of the 5th or 6th century AD to work by artist-weavers in the 1990s: It is an unusually comprehensive survey of the subject.

Medieval tapestry has exerted its influence over subsequent centuries. William Morris, as this book shows, in the late 19th century enthusiastically espoused the medieval examples as direct models for his revival of tapestry-weaving as a craft. He reinvented their imagery in his own terms.

Today, we are still in love with Gothic tapestries, though we choose not so much to imitate them as to reproduce them mechanically for a mass market. Mention is made, in a later chapter, of the machine-woven fabrics that have in recent years helped to make the imagery of the Cluny tapestries crop up in small shops everywhere. In this way they have become common currency, details from them used to cover endless cushions and sofas in ordinary homes - making them almost as popular as Van Gogh or the Mona Lisa.

This popularity is extraordinary when one considers that tapestry was in the past often considered a sign of high status and immense wealth. The Burgundian dukes even offered tapestries to their enemies as ransom to obtain their freedom after defeat in battle.

"Tapestry" is a well illustrated book, and Barty Phillips's text is always informative and generally clear. A real attempt is made to inform the reader about different techniques, and there is a helpful glossary of terms.

The reader is, however, left with the feeling that he has two books in his hands rather than one. It is as if the illustrations lead their own life, pretty much independently of the text.

The text is more or less chronological. The illustrations, presumably to make the book look nice, sometimes leap around without any regard for date or apparent connection with the nearby text.

Conversely, Phillips sometimes writes keenly about some specific tapestry, giving you a sense of its great significance, and then you hunt in vain for it among the plates. This happens, for example, in the case of that doyen of 20th-century tapestry, the French artist Jean Lurcat. Phillips writes: "Lurcat's own most formidable work, in size and concept, is Le Chant du Monde, which consists of 10 enormous panels woven with a complex imagery ...."

But the Lurcat work illustrated is quite different and not even mentioned. Did the picture researcher, the designer, and the author not talk to each other? …

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