The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are almost as difficult to spot in the wild as the horned creature itself. Just installed in Sydney, this is only the third time the detailed, surprisingly playful medieval tapestries have travelled from their home at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.
AGNSW curator Jackie Dunn describes the tapestries as feeling like a garden that, like any beautiful landscape, invite viewers to take a long, slow look and reflect on what they see. And she’s not the only one to find such depth and inspiration in the tapestries – Rainer Maria Rilke and Tracey Chevalier have written about them extensively, and art-loving video game designers and movie set dressers have been compelled to slip them into their own worlds for years (you might have caught sight of them in the Gryffindor common rooms).
“I think one of the reasons that they’re considered to be so special is that we actually don’t know that much about them,” Dunn says.
“We know that they were made at about 1500 on the dot, at the turn of the century. We know they were made by a wealthy lawyer-class family in France. But we don’t know exactly who made them and we don’t know why they were made.
“And they’ve got this particular beauty. People seem very moved by the figure of the woman and the figure of the unicorn and the relationship that they appear to have in the tapestries.”
The Lady and the Unicorn consists of six tapestries; the widest is four and a half metres long and the tallest stretches three metres high. On a vibrant red background, which has faded only a little in 500 years, a meeting between a young woman and a unicorn unfolds. The first five tapestries represent the five senses, and the final one seems to stand for what Dunn calls “the sense that makes sense of all the other senses” – a governing internal sense that you might call heart or even reason.
But the tapestries do more than summon the senses. They’re also one of the first examples of irreverent, lighthearted art, or secular art – tapestries that weren’t made to tell moral or religious stories.
“People at the time would have recognised the layout of the senses, but they would have also recognised an allegory of courtly love; the unicorn was a figure a bit like a chivalrous knight, and there’s a level of the lady and the unicorn’s relationship that reads like a courtship, or like it’s a bit erotic.”
“You know, you can read it like you would at a dinner party when you’re a bit drunk and you’re chatting about it, with symbols like rabbits that might be speaking about fertility, cheeky monkeys that might be speaking about baser instincts, and the erotic twist of the unicorn being held by the horn by the lady.”
While our cultural take on unicorns has changed in the past 500 years – Dunn thinks the latest unicorn craze suggests that we think of unicorns as some kind of optimal inner self, rather than as a stand-in for the optimal lover – this tapestry series is one of the first works of art that portrayed unicorns the way we see them now (they used to look more like rhinoceroses). And to be offered medieval work with a subject that coincides with 2018 fashion, accessories, and meme culture all at once has been mind-boggling for the gallery.
“At first we were just thinking, ‘my goodness, we’ve been offered this medieval masterpiece, and we don’t get a lot of medieval art coming to Australia, that is just extraordinary’. But then suddenly we started to pay attention to the fact that there were unicorns everywhere and we thought ‘my goodness, we’re going to drop right into the middle of it’.
“We’re hoping that the people who love these unicorn memes might come out and see the original one.”
The Lady and the Unicorn is at the Art Gallery of NSW until June 24.
See our hit-list for the best art in Sydney this month.