*Featured photo: “A mon seul désir”
The tapestries of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ on show in Toulouse: the challenge of a new dialogue between medieval and contemporary art
The tapestry series “The Lady and the Unicorn” – a masterpiece of Flemish medieval art kept at the National Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris (The Cluny Museum) – arrives at “Les Abattoirs”, Toulouse Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, in an exceptional exhibition from 30 October 2021 to 16 January 2022.
In the exhibition, the decorated cloths interact with works by contemporary artists, creating a link between past and present.
A unique and rare event: the series of tapestries has only been lent out on three occasions in recent history!
Taking advantage of the temporary closure of the Cluny Museum for restoration works, the six tapestries are exhibited for the first time in a place dedicated to modern art: ‘Les Abattoirs’. Although both are conceived as containers for artistic artefacts (albeit from different periods), the two institutions have unified their approaches to collecting, preserving, studying and sharing with the public the universal values of ancient and current art.
“Les Abattoirs”, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Toulouse, France. By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The magnificent tapestries of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ were woven in Flanders in the 15th century at the request of Jean Le Viste, president of the Cour des Aides and member of a wealthy Lyon family. The six pieces, made of wool and silk yarns, are stylistically defined as “millefleur” (thousand flowers), by virtue of the abundant nature that adorns the peaceful bestiary, animals and allegorical figures taken from the medieval iconography of the five senses (taste, hearing, sight, smell, touch) and the soul. The scenes depicted stand out against a red background, from which the lady with the unicorn and the lion stand out in the center, true constants of the entire woven series.
The tapestry “A mon seul désir” represents the real enigma of the series and has inspired many hypotheses. Commented on by the inscription “A mon seul désir”, a reference to courtly love and free will cannot be ruled out.
In this heavenly nature that invites contemplation, the unicorn is the protagonist and at the same time a simple spectator; accompanied by a lion, it bears in each scene the coat of arms of the Le Viste family.
The exhibition at “Les Abattoirs” offers the viewer food for thought on the definitions of art and time, raising several questions concerning the society of each era.
What messages does a historical work of art communicate to today’s viewer?
If the characteristic of a masterpiece is to remain current whatever the era, how is this wall decoration understood today?
How does the contemporary viewer interpret the value and depiction of an ancient work of art?
What technical, stylistic and iconographic references does the contemporary artist take from the series of tapestries of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’?
The exhibition of the tapestries ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ in ‘Les Abattoirs’ allows the public to discover the peculiarities of an elite art form and to appreciate the powerful uniqueness of a medieval work that carries a disruptive modernity.