I recently told a friend of mine that during my graduate internship at the Getty Center, I got to work on the exhibition Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV. As I ranted about woven metal and how exciting it was to see a tapestry designed by Raphael, I could see her attention fading. I wanted to show her that tapestries are amazing works of art and started thinking about why people who are not textile enthusiasts should brave the 405 to come see tapestries at the Getty. It’s not just because of Raphael. Tapestries really are awesome, and these particular tapestries are just plain spectacular.
You don’t have to fly to France to see the splendor of Versailles.
If you are a regular Getty visitor, you may know that 2015 was the 300th anniversary of Louis’ death and the Getty has been throwing him a series of celebratory exhibitions. Woven Gold is the jewel in the crown of this year of #LouisStyle. Visitors have the privilege of entering a royal collection that Louis XIV created through collecting, inheriting, and commissioning tapestries. Together, his works form an environment fit for a king.
The tapestries literally surround you when you enter Woven Gold. It is inspiring and humbling and after visiting the exhibition almost every day for three months, I am still not over it. You can’t bring Versailles’ frescos or the Hall of Mirrors to LA, but luckily, tapestries can make the trip. Since they were such an important part of his collection and the most expensive type of art in the seventeenth century, it is an exciting and historic opportunity to see so many of Louis XIV’s tapestries displayed together. For example, The Receptions of Envoys from Carthage from The Story of Scipio series left the French royal collection some time after the French Revolution and was bought (along with three others from the set) by William Randolph Hearst in 1920. This is the first time in over 200 years that one of these Scipio tapestries has been displayed in the context of the royal collection. It almost feels like a family reunion!
This may be your one and only chance to see them. Seriously.
Many of the tapestries on display are on loan from the Mobilier National in Paris and some have not been exhibited for over fifty years. Why not? Tapestries are very fragile—exposure to light fades their colors and hanging them allows gravity to pull on their threads. In a way, it is wonderful that they have been kept in the dark for so long because they now retain their vibrant colors and show us the splendor of ages past. Since this exhibition will contribute four months of light exposure to the life of these objects, the tapestries on loan from the Mobilier National in Paris will most likely be off display for several years in order to preserve their structure and color. Some may not be on view to the public for another decade or so.
Tapestries provide remarkable evidence of the skill of the human hand and eye.
It may not be evident at first glance, but you are witnessing tremendous human achievement when you walk through Woven Gold. Just look at the figures, the modelling, the gold! These are essentially paintings made of thread.
Weavers can’t blend colors like painters do, but somehow still achieve the same level of depth and perspective—and in a truly monumental size. I realize that it can be hard to appreciate the tapestry medium. Most objects betray some part of the process of making them. Paintings show the artist’s brushstrokes, bronze sculptures and ceramics sometimes preserve fingerprints, and marbles have chisel marks. These personal elements bring the viewer closer to the artist. Tapestries, in contrast, may seem mechanical because we live in an age where most textiles are mass produced by machines. However, this 21st-century understanding is deceiving when looking at historic tapestries and does not do the medium justice.
The tapestries in Louis XIV’s collection took years to produce and required the labor of a small army of artisans. The weavers left their personal marks in knots, but these are only visible on the back of the tapestry. Dyers, or more accurately chemists, pounded, measured, and combined natural elements from plants, minerals, and insects by hand to create vibrant colors in an array of shades. These pigments are faded but still visible four hundred years later. Metalsmiths flattened silver—sometimes gilding it with gold—to the fineness of a human hair. These strips of precious metal were wound tightly around silk threads to create the material that would eventually be “woven gold.” It was a team effort to design, prepare, and weave a tapestry and in the end, the splendor and precision of the work made the finished product the most expensive commodity on the seventeenth-century art market. (See the tapestry-making process for yourself.) The artists might not have left fingerprints, but they deserve our awe and respect nonetheless.
So, you aren’t into tapestries? You think they are faded and boring? Suspend your disbelief and come to see Woven Gold. I can guarantee that you will be wowed by the vibrant colors, the sparkling metal threads, and the unique feeling of being enveloped in woven splendor. It is truly unusual to see this many tapestries of such high quality and in such good condition—if you can imagine, most of Louis XIV’s tapestries were burned during the French Revolution in order to extract the metal from them and to destroy symbols of the monarchy. These survivors are rare, beautiful, and, honestly, not to be missed.