Leading contemporary artists get inspired by Pieter Coecke van Aelst: soon at the Met the golden age of tapestry will give you some tips
Detail of Pomona from Story of Vertumnus and Pomona: Vertumnus appears to Pomona in the guise of a Herdsman. Design attributed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, 1502–1550), ca. 1544. Tapestry woven under the direction of Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, sometime between ca. 1548 and 1575. Wool, silk, gold and silver metal-wrapped threads; 164 1/2 x 211 in. (418 x 536 cm). Royal Palace, Madrid.
Saint Paul Seized at the Temple of Jerusalem (detail), from a tapestry set of the Life of Saint Paul. Designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, 1502–1550), ca. 1529–30. Probably woven under the direction of Jan van der Vyst, Brussels, probably before 1546. Wool and silk; 13 ft. 10 1/8 in. x 26 ft. 6 1/8 in. (422 x 808 cm). KBC Bank Collection, Leuven.
Saint Paul Preaching to the Women of Philippi (detail), from a tapestry set of the Life of Saint Paul. Designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, 1502–1550), ca. 1529–30. Probably woven under the direction of Paulus van Oppenem, Brussels, ca. 1535. Wool, silk, and silver- and silver-gilt-metal-wrapped threads; 13 ft. 9 3/4 in. x 12 ft. 9 1/2 in. (421 x 390 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The upcoming exhibition titled Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, recently announced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is the occasion for us to take into consideration a medium, tapestry, that for almost three hundred years has been the most prized one but that, over the last two centuries, has been progressively abandoned. Yet, there are many things tapestries have in common with the contemporary art practice.
Similarly to industrial design, cinema, music or photography in the era of the technological reproducibility of the artworks, tapestries could also be considered a primitive kind of reproduction-based-art, for which two different levels of authorship were requested: the artist, who draws the cartoon, and the tapestry maker, who transforms it into the actual artwork. Among the artists who have created cartoons for tapestries between the XV and the XVI century (the golden age of this medium ends around 1540) there were masters such as Andrea del Castagno, Raffaello, Perin del Vaga, Giulio Romano, Pontormo, Bronzino. But their talent in the image production was not enough. To render the idea of the artist into a tapestry you needed a team of very expert weavers, managed by figures like Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who was one of the few personalities able to deal with these extraordinary expensive commissions: only monarchs such as Charles V, François I, or Henry VIII could afford such unique products, that generally were sold in series of twelve, and for a large amount of money. An evidence of that can be pinpointed in the role played by bankers such as the Fugger in the history of tapestries. A renown Italian specialist, Nello Forti Grazzini, calls tapestries “the movable frescoes”. They could be very big (5×40 meters) and they were used to represent the court’s wealth during its travels and different residencies; and that is also the reason why today they are the most rare and desirable prey for fine arts collectors.
Of course the art system has changed a lot since the time of the Habsbourgs and the great European aristocracies, but also today there are artworks which can be afforded only by the major riches – which not always refer to a single person. So the question is, have Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Wade Guyton succeed in the making of anything so exclusive and elitist like van Aelst’s extraordinary Paños de Oro or Acts by the Apostles? Is dimension the only element that can make the real difference? In a world in which wealth is tending to polarisation who will be the first one to re-enact this tradition?Get inspired by a visit at the upcoming show at the Met.
September 22, 2014