Day One in NYC: Grand Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

IMG_8835I spent Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so happy that I arrived in New York before the close of “Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry.”  Well, perhaps I wasn’t quite so happy when I waited in line for the 10am opening in below-zero wind chill!  It was worth it.


The final weekend of the show included a symposium related to the exhibit, and I attended the morning session.  The first two speakers focused on Coecke van Aelst as an artist; his influences, his paintings, and evidence of how his travels informed the images in his paintings and tapestry series. The third speaker, Professor Koenraad Brosens from the University of Leuven, didn’t talk about tapestry directly, but his research appealed to my library and archive background. Historically, how do you explain the flourishing manufacture and trade in tapestry in Belgium during the era of Pieter Coecke van Aelst and after?  Many scholars have described a tightly regulated, dog-eat-dog, commercial situation. Others have written anecdotal and descriptive studies.  Professor Brosens has chosen an ambitious alternative method of research, inspired by the work of Alfred Marshall, who combined economic theory and empricism to explain why a particular city or cities might have an “industrial atmosphere in the air.”  Data is key to research, and data is found in a myriad of public records that document the relationships of people and businesses. Information from the documents is the raw material for further historical study of tapestry production.  Professor Leuven has created a database; he and his graduate assistants are entering information from public records, including births, marriages, contracts.

For the rest of the day I abandoned the academic papers (as I really didn’t care about Coecke van Aelst’s influence on stained glass, for example) and launched into study of the real tapestries in the exhibit.  They were amazing in scale and detail.  Exaggerated foreshortening and twisted figures made the compositions bold and full of action.  You could rest your eyes anywhere in the central portions or the borders and find fabulous detail, like an owl composed of intricate patterning.  You could spend the afternoon just looking at the feet and shoe wear of the figures. Marvelous details from the tapestries are found on Metropolitan Museum of Art blogs here and here; more on the exhibit here.

I include the links to the Metropolitan site because, sadly, no photos were allowed in the exhibit.  I was crushed, as I wanted to document the woven details.  My imaginary conversation with a guard, or the director of the Met, might go something like this…


Seriously, no photography? Don’t you understand I need take photos of the marvelous dogs lurking in the foliage, or the endless sumptuous fabrics depicted in the clothing, and the remarkable way the weavers depict curly hair on the figures? You see, I might want to weave my own dragon, and I want to remember that dragon framed in the border. And this postcard is completely worthless in depicting the brilliant patterns on this snake, the serpent tempting Adam. You mean my only choice is to buy the book for $65? Since this is day one of my money- hemorrhaging New York trip, I’ll have to pass.
Sated with fabulous tapestry images, I set off for coffee, winding my way through the Decorative Arts galleries, which included many additional tapestries.  Most seemed insipid in comparison to the monumental, detailed Pieter Coecke van Aelst masterpieces, with too many Rococo-era decorative figures, like this man.  The woven dog in the composition was more interesting.




At the end of the day I was too tired to seek out a favorite piece of mine at the Met, by El-Anatsui. But it was meant to be, as I passed by it on my way to find my coat and set off for the subway.  His work, made of bottle caps and metal refuse, has the drape and allure of a textile.



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