A Modest Exhibition

1 March 2008

Frances Winfield learns that tapestries aren’t just for the middle ages… but finds this particular exhibition of tapestries a bit scant

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The Fitzwilliam Museum

French Tapestry and Illustration

12 February – 11 May

From the map of the Fitzwilliam Museum, it appeared that the organisers of the French Tapestry and Illumination exhibition were exceptionally modest, unassuming people. Either that, or they were deliberately trying to hide the exhibition, tucking it away round the back of the first floor. Nonetheless, as I wandered through what seemed like the entire museum to reach it, my expectations increased. There were galleries of beautiful medieval altar pieces, regal Renaissance portraits, and flamboyant baroque-style furniture, and so, as I entered the room of the exhibition, I admit I was expecting a corresponding grandeur. Instead, there were eight medium-sized tapestries on the walls of a very small room. This was a slightly disappointing start. They didn’t even look very old. I had expected them to be larger, more like Polonius behind the arras meets the Bayeux Tapestry.

The eight tapestries were all 20th-century creations by different artists, and were woven in the Aubusson workshop. Seven of them came from the Parisian gallery “La Demeure”. The first one to catch the attention is “Muscadet” by Jean Picart le Doux, combining the traditional design of a grape vine and perching doves on a bright red background. Le Doux has undermined these motifs though, by making the doves look a little ferocious; the vine leaves as though they might erupt into flames at any moment.

A similar sense of modernity is apparent in Mario Prassinos’s “Petit Hiver”, which shows his admiration of Picasso (even their signatures share a resemblance). At first glance, the tapestry seems to be a jumble of black lines with a couple of patches of red and yellow. Then, these lines take on the forms of birds in flight, seen from side-on upon a winter sunrise or sunset. The simplicity of the primary colours make all the more impact because of the light colour background, and the unadorned plainness of most of the tapestry.

Not all the tapestries are examples of abstract work. Jean Lurcat’s “Herbe Bleue” is dominated by the beautiful image of a giant butterfly, perfect in its dark-coloured symmetry. Its image is mirrored in miniature in the form of a half-visible smaller one, looking as though it’s just about to flutter out of the design. The intensity of the dark blue colouring with spots of brilliant colour shows traces of Lurcat’s North African influence. In his work, the butterfly becomes a symbol of rebirth or metamorphosis, portraying the change from a lower to a higher, more perfect form.

This exhibition certainly demonstrates that tapestry is not just a medieval art form. It’s a pity that there are only eight of them, however, and that they’re not displayed in a bigger room. There are also cases of cards, etchings, and other illustrations scattered around. These could be interesting in themselves, but because the tapestries claim the real attention, they seem like distractions. A less cluttered space would allow people to view the tapestries’ beauty more fully.