What lies beneath the surface...

Last week I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see the exhibit "The Lady and the Unicorn."  

I wanted to see this exhibit because when I was ten years old, I loved the unicorn tapestries I saw  at the Cloisters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I particularly remember seeing the tapestry entitled 'The Unicorn in Captivity' on a school day trip. Unicorns and the tapestries' ornate designs and colours captivated me.

The current exhibition at AGNSW (Art Gallery of New South Wales) consists of six large scale tapestries from the Musee de Cluny in Paris.  While I read the descriptions, interpretations and stories of the tapestries, I was more interested in simply looking and seeing what I experienced.  It seems that every exhibition takes great pains to educate the viewer about the content, historical context and meaning of the art work and while this is valuable, the act of looking seems to be left out.  Visual art is meant to be seen and its most powerful impact is through our sense of sight, not through our mental understanding and analysis.  Upon sitting down to look at the work, I was immediately struck by my emotional response to it.  I remembered my awe as a child when I first saw unicorn tapestries.  I also recalled my mother who recognised and encouraged my enthusiasm. Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about the bond we shared. 

I sat down to look and enjoy the details and let the tapestries work on me.  Initially there was a feeling of peace in the Lady and her relationship with her surroundings.  I found myself smiling as I discovered the different animals scattered throughout the intricate foliage surrounding the Lady, unicorn and lion in the same way I enjoy looking at the pictures in a children's book.  

I started with the first tapestry to the left of the entrance and moved clockwise.  In the second tapestry I noticed one of the monkeys was chained and the second monkey had a harness of some sort around its waist.  These details were jarring and seemingly out of character.  As I moved to the next tapestry, I suddenly felt an underlying violence that surprised me.  It was subtle but undeniable. As I examined the imagery, the order, tightly controlled composition, repeating elements and stationary position of the animals all contributed to the covert tension.  The control of the image which contributed to its finesse, delicacy and apparent tranquility was simultaneously creating a feeling quite the opposite.  The tapestries became complex and  mysterious as I contemplated how excessive control in life often has an edge of violence behind it.

Art that surprises me and makes me see life with new understanding is a treat.  'Lady and the Unicorn' is an exhibition worth seeing.  It runs until 24 June 2018 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.   

Is there something you have seen recently that has surprised you and given you a new insight?