Friday, December 28, 2007

"Tapestry in the Baroque" at the Met

I found the first room more interesting than the later rooms. I like the playful wit of "Garden with Diana Fountain" from a five-piece set called "Garden Scenes with Mythological Fountains" (good title for a series of poems that plays against Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads in them"). Next to the fountain, with its lifelike hounds tearing into the stag, a real dog is defecating. In the foreground two man-servants shift a huge urn in line with all the other urns of flowers (every document of civilization. . . ). And pushed by the beautiful geometrical garden to the left, villagers busy themselves with unremitting rural chores, in sharp contrast with the stately mansion on the right of the tapestry.

In the next room, Rubens spoilt things by introducing Baroque painting into tapestry-making. Now the tapestries display the plump women and muscular men so familiar from the paintings of that period. Yes, the "Decius Mus" designed by Rubens dramatizes vividly the death of the Roman general, a self-sacrifice that enabled the victory of the Roman army over the Latins, seen falling back and escaping to the left of the tapestry. But don't we already have this kind of thing in painting, after painting? Why import it into tapestry? An inevitable follow-up: in place of the wild borders of old tapestries--flowers, fruits, mythological figures, grotesques--artists started designing borders like picture frames.

The Battle of Veseris and the Death of Decius Mus (detail)
Sixth panel of an eight-piece set of the Story of Decius Mus
Modello and cartoon by Peter Paul Rubens, 1616–17
Woven in the workshop of Jan Raes II in collaboration with Jacques Geubels II, Brussels, between 1620 and 1629
Silk, wool, and silver and gilt-metal wrapped thread; 13 ft. 1 1/2 in. x 19 ft. 3/8 in.

Then another break-through: Rubens conceived "The Triumph of the Eucharist" series as a trompe l'oeil: "two-level gallery of columns, from which hang depictions of tapestries containing the pictures of the series," says the curatorial note. In other words, the tapestries show paintings of tapestries showing the paintings. Clever, huh? So clever, that the idea spread like wildfire. Jacob Jordaens trompe l'oeiled his eight-piece set of "Scenes of a Country Life." We are now very far from the defecating dog and the hard-at-work rural laborers.

The later rooms charted the fickle fashions. The large figure histories and mythologies championed by Rubens and others fell out of favor in 1660s. A new style, pioneered by Le Brun at the Gobelins manufactory (near Paris), emphasized more elegantly drawn figures in richer landscape settings.

One tapestry from the last-to-one room saved the day for me. "The Striped Horse," from a ten-piece set called "Old Indies," exhibits the animals, plants and landscape from North-eastern Brazil, embellished with non-native creatures. In its center, a South American jaguar has just leapt on a horse with zebra stripes, and sunk its teeth on the terrified animal. Real toads in imaginary gardens, indeed.

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