From the Exotic to the Mystical

On May 4th From the Exotic to the Mystical Textile Treasures from the Permanent Collection opened at the de Young Museum, San Francisco. The exhibition is drawn exclusively from the Fine Arts Museums’ extensive holdings of textile arts to illustrate the continuing human interest in exploring foreign realms, whether geographic or metaphysical. Celebrating the splendor of European textile traditions, this truly delightful selection of more than 40 textiles that includes finely detailed English embroideries, playful Spanish laces, elaborate French ecclesiastical vestments, German damasks, rich Italian silk weavings, and fanciful French and Belgium tapestries as well as their antecedents found in Coptic fragments and Central Asian complex weaves. A common thread of allegorical imagery runs through the exhibition, which is organized into four thematic sections: exoticism, mythology, Christian symbolism, and the fantasized animal world. Representing fifteen centuries of textile arts, the works on view range from ceremonial articles to domestic finery, reflecting how deeply their complex ideas penetrated daily life. The symbolism of the imagery on display can be seen as part of a shared culture passed from artists and designers, often through literature, to makers who may not have always fully understood it.

This exhibition not only highlights the history of European textile arts but also the Museums’ own history.  Over fifty percent of the objects will be on view for the very first time and several have been in the collection for a half-century. Consequently, the objects on view can be seen as a reflection of the collecting tastes of the museums’ founding patrons.

I will take a moment here to share some of the treasures from the exhibition.

The Audience of the Emperor (or The Chinese Prince’s Audience), 1722–1723, from the series The Story of the Emperor of ChinaDesigned by J.B. Blin de Fontenay, G. L. Vernansal, Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, Phillipe Behagle Atelier, French, 1684–1711, , France, Beauvais, Wool and silk; slit- and interlocked-tapestry weave, FAMSF, Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Collection, 59.49.1

This work belongs to a series of ten French Chinoiserie tapestries depicting a Chinese monarch (probably K’angxi [r. 1654–1722]) engaged in peaceful, scholarly pursuits. Instead of traveling to the East, the artists relied on Jesuit missionary and traveler accounts such as Johan Nieuhof’s 1665 illustrated treaty. True reverence is shown for the emperor, who sits like an idol surrounded by guards, European courtiers, and exotic animals such as the elephant, griffon, sphinx, and peacock. So popular was this series that the design template, or cartoon, was worn out by 1732.

Carpet fragment, 16–17th century, India, Wool and cotton; knotted pile (asymmetrical knot, open to the left), FAMSF, Gift of Arthur Sachs, 1952.33

This fragment comes from a Mughal carpet so coveted that it was cut up in the early nineteenth century and sold in pieces around the world. Scholars have identified it as a court carpet from the early reign of Akbar (1542–1605), who took the throne at age thirteen. The designer appears to have been an elite artist with knowledge of Mughal court painting, European botanicals, and traditional palmetto carpets—and with the wit to appease a young emperor captivated by mythological heroes, demons, beasts, and battles.

Chasuble, ca. 1700–1710, France, probably Paris, Silk and metallic thread; cut velvet and embroidery (laid work, couching, padded couching, and or nué), FAMSF, Museum purchase, Dorothy Spreckels Munn Bequest Fund, 2004.9.1.1

Made of rich velvet and lavishly embroidered in gold and polychrome silk, this is the dalmatic from a full liturgical set acquired by the museum in 2004.  According to family legend, the set was created for the royal chapel at Versailles (completed 1710) and removed at the command of Marie-Antoinette by her lady-inwaiting the marquise de Rochelambert as the Parisian mobs descended on the grounds in October 1789. The set comprises nine pieces: a chasuble, worn by the celebrant; identical dalmatics with matching maniples, worn by the deacons; three stoles, worn over the arm; and the burse, used to carry the corporal (the cloth used in the celebration of the Eucharist). The sacrificial lamb—a symbol of Christ—and the Book with Seven Seals illuminate the chasuble’s back, evoking the Resurrection; the clusters of grapes and wheat signify the bread and wine of the Eucharist. While the garments bear no royal insignia or inventory stamp that would support their purported provenance, their artistry ranks them among the most brilliant achievements of French needlework from the glittering age of the Sun King.

The exhibition runs until August 4th.  I hope to see fellow TSA members in the galleries.

Author:  Jill D’Alessandro,Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco