Charles Petzold

More Tapestries at the Met

November 25, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Five years ago the Metropolitan Museum mounted an extraordinary exhibit of Renaissance tapestries, and they've followed up with a new exhibit entitled Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor (described online here). Deirdre and I saw the exhibit this morning.

The exhibit covers the period from 1590 to 1720 with about 40 tapestries — some of them over 20 feet wide that sprawl across the walls of the museum in breathtaking detailed panoramas. Tapestry is mostly associated with the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), but wars and other events caused the technique and artists to bounce from country to country. Whole rooms in the exhibits are devoted to tapestries of France, Germany, Italy, and even England (James I was a fan). Most of the tapestries feature biblical or mythological scenes and were designed for large courts or palaces, but the exhibit also includes more tranquil scenes on a papal cope, a table carpet, and a bedcover.

Here's an early 17th-century tapestry from Brussels that I particularly liked called Night (about 13 feet in height):

Many of the tapestries here were originally parts of larger sets. Night is the final tapestry of an 18-piece series called Months, Seasons, and Times of Day. The woman represents Dreams, although I suspect she's more of a Nightmare figure as you can surmise from the flames sprouting from her fingers and head:

Tapestry is a kind of "pixel art." The warp threads provide the structure while the weft threads provide the color, generally from dyed wool and silk but often also silver and gold-plated threads. This is a labor-intensive craft, and generally whole groups of weavers worked together. The weavers worked from a "cartoon," which is a full-size design of the tapestry. Depending on the desired detail, each weaver could create between 1/2 to 1 square yard per month.

What's most surprising is the extent of detail and activity in each tapestry. If these were modest-sized paintings, you'd complain that they were "too busy." Yet, spread out over an entire wall they become more like a movie, where you spend time examining the different parts, stepping far back to get a full view, and then getting inches from the cloth to examine the weaves. Most of the tapestries are adorned with borders, many of them decorative, but others providing little "back stories" to the action going on inside.

The color range is generally more limited than in painting because it relies on dyes. Some of the tapestries in this exhibit are faded, but others are extremely colorful. I particularly like the startling vivid blues in these tapestries. Of course the photographs I've linked to from the Met's web site (accessible also through the link provided above) can't begin to suggest the full impact of these large works.

The real surprises in this show are the tapestries designed by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). (Perhaps you didn't know that Rubens designed tapestries; I certainly didn't.) The Battle of Veseris and the Death of Decius Mus (just short of 20 feet in width) was woven in Brussels. It's a terrifying melange of twisted human bodies and horses.

That battle scene is from an eight-piece Story of Decius Mus. Here's a detail:

Apparently the weavers didn't particularly like working from Rubens designs because the painterly effects were too difficult to achieve. A six-piece Story of Constantine woven in Paris featured this crazed Battle of the Milvian Bridge, also designed by Rubens:

Another detail:

France had very strong tapestry production under the patronage of Louis XIV. I loved the color in this next one. It's called Water from a series The Four Elements designed by Charles Le Brun, about 16 by 22 feet in size. Neptune is riding a chariot out of the sea while the lower foreground is littered with particularly frightening creatures of the sea.

Also designed by Charles Le Brun is this Battle of the Granicus from a five-piece set of the Story of Alexander, nearly 28 feet wide:

Here's a detail:

I suspect that among the images hardest to achieve in tapestry include water, flowing fabrics, and human and animal bodies, but these are precisely the images that the tapestries exploit in greatest abundance. It's as if the difficulty of simply making tapestries became a challenge to fill them with impossible objects in impossible detail.

Just down the hall from the tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum is an exhibit of calotypes, a form of photography created by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1830 involving treating fine writing paper with photo-sensitive chemicals. The paper treated in this way is used both to make a negative in a camera, and then to create a positive as a contact sheet. The technique was popular mostly in Scotland and England from 1840 to 1860, when it was replaced by glass negatives.

This exhibit (called Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860, online description here) consists of about 120 photographs ranging in size from a few inches square to 15" by 20". Although the negative is paper, these photographs are sharper than you might think. The early ones are suffused by a dreamy haziness:

Later on they get sharper but still retain a rather coarse texture. The exhibit is roughly chronological, and begins in Scotland, expands to England, and then around the world as English photographs toured the Continent and documented India.

What's most amazing in this exhibit of colotypes is a very strong sense of composition evident in even the earliest examples of this photography:

This is a direct result of the difficulty of the process. The photographers needed some time to prepare each negative; the camera had to be mounted on a tripod and the negative exposed for several minutes, and then the negative had to be fixed and dried before a positive could be made from it. Obviously given this labor the photographer is going to take considerable care to plan the image before the camera. Compare that with the incessant mindless click-click-clicking of digital cameras to learn another little lesson in convenience vs. art.