CULTURE

Mythology in a swirl of cloth

In the early 16th century, Pope Leo X commissioned the painter Raphael to design a set of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, offering him a fee five times greater than that paid to Michelangelo to paint the chapel’s ceiling. This is one of several instances that indicate the high value accorded to tapestries, both as symbols of courtly prestige and power and as a favorite decorative scheme, which, in the 16th century, involved for the first time the depiction of intricate, historical narratives. The functionality of tapestries was an extra benefit, in that they could be transported from one castle to the next and provided insulation for the large rooms in which they were hung. The demand for tapestries during the late Renaissance was largely met by Flemish manufacturers in cities like Brussels, Audenard, Tournai, Bruges and Anvers. Raphael’s design, the «Act of the Apostles,» for instance, was executed by Flemish weavers. After the second half of the 17th century, however, the production of the finest tapestries shifted to France and Aubusson, Beauvais. Most importantly, the Gobelins industries, directed by court painter Charles Le Brun, became the most prestigious practitioners of the craft. Some of those industries’ specimens, depicting Greek myths and spanning the 17th to 18th centuries, are the subject of «Weaving Greek Myths,» currently on at the Museum of Cycladic Art. The tapestries come from the collection of the Petit Palais, Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, whose collection of fine and decorative arts comprises roughly 100 French and Flemish tapestries, mainly dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Intricate narratives The series on the story of Alexander the Great by Charles Le Brun is one of the most important, because it reflects the official, grand-manner style so typical of Louis XIV’s taste as practiced by one of its pioneering artists. Charles Le Brun actually developed an entire system of orthodoxy in art and as director of the Academie Francaise (set up in 1635), turned it into the basis of academicism. The classicism of Poussin, under whom Le Brun had studied while in Rome, and a preference for history painting and grand narratives, were two of the most fundamental principles of academic art. Both are manifest in the tapestries on the story of Alexander. The tapestries were based on the five large-scale paintings on the subject that Le Brun had painted from 1661-1673. The series’ success was such as to result in multiple reproductions, both in engravings and tapestries (many were based on the engravings), which lasted until the 18th century. Gobelins produced 10 series on the subject from 1664-1686. The three scenes on view here include Darius’s mother supplicating Alexander the Great for mercy on her family, the heroic triumph of Alexander and the more unusual scene of the wounded Poros carried by Alexander’s soldiers for him to determine his fate. Besides the density of composition, another striking aspect of those tapestries is the variety and emotional range of the figures’ facial expressions. Le Brun developed an entire theory on the relationship of facial expressions to human emotions and was very particular that the weavers captured those subtleties of expression that he had striven for in his paintings. Flemish tapestries If Poussin’s classicism and emphasis on line provided a model for Le Brun, Rubens’ baroque style and flamboyant colors served as a paradigm for Jean Van Orley and his collaborator Augustin Coppens, two of the most prominent designers of tapestries in Flanders during the early 18th century. Compared with the tapestries based on Le Brun’s painting, the compositions of the two northern artists are airier, marked by a sense of movement and filled with strong chromatic contrasts. Although like Le Brun’s work, the subject matter of Van Orley’s tapestries was gleaned from Greek mythology, his series from Homer’s «Odyssey» and «Iliad,» on view at the exhibition, appears less epic and celebratory than Le Brun’s tapestries. The scene of Thetis tending her son Achilles, of Odysseus taking Chrysis back to her father and the less appealing scene of Helen’s abduction, have something of a anti-heroic, tender quality about them. The splendor that one detects in the paintings of the French master is barely evident in the tapestries of Van Orley. Neither is the classicizing style; in both the «Abduction of Helen» scene and in another tapestry showing the goddess Psyche, the clothing is an unusual blend of ancient with 18th-century attire. As the 18th century progressed, compositions became lighter to suit the rococo style. An example is Francois Boucher’s «Neptune and Amymone» (the story of how Poseidon rescues Amymone, a daughter of King Danaus, from the attack of a satyr), a painting which was reproduced in a tapestry by the Beauvais manufacturers. Floating cherubs and satyrs caught in the swirl of sea waves bestow on the composition a sense of flowing movement unmatched by the exhibition’s other tapestries. Fitting in with the overall sense of airiness, colors also seem more pastel, an impression largely attributable to the expansive area of light-colored background. The chromatic effect may also be related to the availability of new dyes, which were eight times as numerous as in the time of Le Brun. Despite the advances in technique, tapestries in the 18th century were not as splendid as their earlier specimens, probably because interior architecture itself changed, requiring a different, more intimate decoration. It is therefore appropriate that the exhibition ends in the 18th century. Although it does not cover a particularly long time span, the exhibition nonetheless allows for comparisons to be made in the development of a craft as exercised by some of the most celebrated artists in the field. A video also provides information on the development of the technique and the restoration of the tapestries. The exhibit runs to August 31. It is therefore appropriate that the exhibition ends in the 18th century. Although it does not cover a particularly long time span, the exhibition nonetheless allows for comparisons to be made in the development of a craft as exercised by some of the most celebrated artists in the field. A video also provides information on the development of the technique and the restoration of the tapestries.