The Lady and the Unicorn and The Natural Way of Things
A speech at Art After Hours, Art Gallery of NSW, Wednesday May 9 2018
Good evening everyone. It’s an extraordinary and very unexpected honour to be invited here to speak about The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Specifically I'm going to speak about what they have meant to me as an artist, and the psychic connection between them and my novel The Natural Way of Things.
You will no doubt have at least some knowledge about the tapestries already. They were created around 1500 in France, commissioned by someone in the Le Viste family. Not much is known about their early years, until they were rediscovered in the 19th century in the Château de Boussac, a small castle in Creuse in central France. They were in quite serious disrepair, damaged by rats and other vandals, but they were acquired and restored by the Musee de Cluny in Paris in 1882, where they have remained ever since. We are astoundingly lucky to have them here in Sydney with us now – it is only the third time in their history that the tapestries have ever left France.
If you have seen them already you will know that there are six large tapestries, each featuring a woman at the centre of the image, surrounded by flowers, trees, many tiny animals, and in each one, she is flanked by one lion and one unicorn. In some, but not all, she is accompanied by a seemingly younger woman, presumably a maidservant. Each of the first five hangings depict one of the five senses: Touch, Taste, Smell, Hearing and Sight. And then there is a sixth, on which some words appear – Mon Seul Desir or My Sole Desire. And this is the tapestry about which there is most speculation and mystery.
I first saw the tapestries on a visit to the the Musee de Cluny in 2014. Of course I had seen scraps of pictures before, as we all surely have on a greeting card or a tea towel, for they are such iconic images it’s hard to escape them. But having really no interest in either unicorns or ‘ladies’, I’d never actually given them a second glance.
So when I entered the small dark room in the Cluny where the tapestries hung, I was utterly unprepared for what happened to me.
The first shock was the quite radical contrast of this room to every other room we’d seen in the museum. This could well be my selective memory, but it seemed that until we reached the tapestries at the top of the gallery, everything else I’d seen was either military or religious in theme. There were many very beautiful objects, but they all belonged to the world to which we’re so accustomed in historical displays that we don’t even notice it – it is a world that’s supremely male, in which women are either entirely absent, or, if present, only occupying the most peripheral, functional, one-dimensional roles.
Imagine my surprise then, on entering this dark room to find an illuminated, brilliantly coloured space entirely dominated by a woman’s presence: her body, her desires, her central place in relationship to the world around her. I was at once mesmerised and oddly unnerved.
I stayed in that room for a long time, as other people came and went. As the tapestries seemed to hover in the darkness – as indeed the occupants of each tapestry seem to hover on their small dark islands within the borders of each one - I felt thatIwas somehow suspended inside someone else’s dream.
But what was it that spoke to me so powerfully from these pictures? As I've suggested, the visual language of princesses and flowing dresses and fluffy bunnies and unicorns, is a language that throughout my life I’ve most deliberately and forcefully rejected. Pretty has never been my domain. And yet I remained transfixed, because the more I looked the more I found, and it quickly became clear that adorable unicorns and princess hair were not what was interesting about these pictures. I didn’t know that day how much they would come to mean to me, but obeying some cloudy instinct, I jotted a few lines about them into my notebook.
I obeyed this instinct despite my confusion because I’m actually no stranger to this feeling of discomfort and compulsion together, for it’s a potent mix that often ends up generating the raw material for fiction. So I guess I was not surprised when later, a momentary reference to the tapestries turned up in my novel, a book that’s most often described as a feminist dystopia, about a bunch of young women held prisoner in the Australian bush.
I’m going to read you the brief scene where the tapestries appear. I should explain that the girls in my novel don’t know why they’re in this place, except that they’ve each been sexually involved with a powerful man, and the resulting scandals have seen them abducted and dumped in this brutal place locked in by a powerful electric fence. After many months, the girls start turning wild and begin traipsing the paddocks - Yolanda to trap rabbits for food and then Verla, searching for mushrooms with which to poison her captors.
One morning Verla thinks back to a trip to Paris with her politician lover. Even after all this time, she’s convinced he still loves her, and that he’ll soon arrive to take her home. During their affair he gave her a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (just as Bill Clinton did for Monica Lewinsky) and she finds herself recalling it as she roams the landscape. This reading starts with a line from Whitman and I hope you’ll be able to follow those glimpses of his words as I read mine.
'The song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun. In the soft dewy morning Verla wanders, whispering Whitman. It surprises her, how much she remembers of the book - the lines rustling from her lips as she walks, searching out mushrooms. She knows by heart, of course, those early words he had murmured, nuzzling, when she thought she would burst like fruit from the heaviness of all that fermenting desire.
'But now, with the wet grass brushing her calves, soaking the hem of her tunic, it is not plunging tongues and barestript chests (but oh, the sweet open planes of his chest; she could cry for them, and did) but other, surprising fragments that come to her, like mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.
'She sees, in the little well between tussocks, a swell of fresh white humps, moves to it. Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt.
'She grasps the root end of the largest mushroom and lifts it to her face. It smells of earth and dankness, almost human. She runs her fingertips over the soft frills beneath its hood. It’s not the one she wants, probably. But still. She drops it with the other, smaller ones into the gloom of the tea-towel sack.
'The white of the mushroom cap is the same chalky white of the horse she had seen in the night. And of the unicorn, in Paris.
'In the Cluny they had stood before the tapestries, his thumb stroking hard, desirous, over the bones at the base of her neck. She leaned back into that rhythmic stroking, feasting her own mind and senses on the wondrousness of the tapestry. Shocked at the effect of these hangings on her when all the other old dead things he showed her only bored her. But here, the reds and bronzes, the small playful rabbits and the monkey burying its little face in flowers. The virgin holding fast to that unicorn shaft, Verla knew what that felt like in her hand (she was never a virgin with him, but he liked pretending) and back at the hotel they turned over and under one another in the streaming sunlight, and the woven threads of the tapestries all merged inside her: the poetry, the tastes, the smells and sounds and visions, the flowers and harp and My Only Desire and the Body Electric, and Verla knew her life had truly begun.
'That was long ago now.'
In this passage, the remembered tapestries speak to Verla’s fantasies of a cultured, feminine empowerment, and nourish her delusion that her superior worldliness will somehow save her. The memory is an escape from the hardship and isolation into the high glamour of a Parisian dream. In short, the tapestries represent the starkest possible contrast to her present reality. Only much later does Verla understand how deeply she has deceived herself about love and power.
The very fleeting appearance of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in my book illustrates a process that often takes place in the making of a novel. There is the writer’s almost completely unconscious selection of a seemingly random image that seems to fit, without any detailed awareness of how that image might hold inside it a great deal of compressed meaning. But the invitation to speak here tonight has given me a very unusual opportunity; the chance to go back to the tapestries, many times, and to open up just what my subconscious mind may have been doing when it instinctively placed them in my book.
I’m painfully aware of how many art historians and other fine minds have skilfully interpreted these works ever since their creation. By contrast, my own imaginative leaps into and out from the tapestries may be naive, or else plain mad. But at the same time, I believe that the exchanges and renewals made possible by great works of art are endless, and endlessly private and peculiar to each person who sees them. I hope that in accompanying me through the unlikely connections between my world and the Lady’s, youmight be moved to begin your own odysseys into these astonishing works.
In tribute to the six tapestries, I’m going to talk tonight about six elements of the work that have particularly spoken to me.
The first element is the centrality of the body– specifically, the female body. Many people who’ve read The Natural Way of Things have remarked on what they call its visceral nature. Some women told me they recognised the experiences of the girls in my story not with their minds, in the way they usually come to books, but that in some way they read it with their body. This didn’t surprise me, because in a strange way I feel that I wrote that book with my body.
As I’ve said, my first big shock at seeing the tapestries in Paris was their entirely sensual and secular nature. In all of them, even the mysterious sixth which seems to reach for something beyond the physical world, the female body is central. I understand that the sense of Touch was in first in the medieval hierarchy of the five senses. And it does seem the strongest sense at work here – the weavings are astonishingly convincing, for example, in rendering texture: we know, just by looking, whether the women’s dresses are made of velvet or of brocade, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my very powerful urge to reach out and touch the fabric to verify what my eye has told me me.
But as well, of course, physical sensation is at the heart of every one of these images. On my first viewing, I thought how unusually liberated this was, the depiction of a woman delighting in the pleasures of her own senses, without a man or a god in sight. But on a second look, I see I was wrong, for the expression of the Lady’s senses seems almost always in service to someone or something other than herself. In the Taste tapestry, for example, I first saw her reaching for a little sweet to eat – but now it seems she’s to feed it to the parrot in her other hand. In Hearing, she’s not simply listening to music but playing it, offering it for someone else to enjoy. In Sight she doesn’t look at herself in the mirror, but shows the unicorn his image. In Smell, she may be threading scented flowers for a circlet – but is this for herself, or someone else? In the Touch tapestry, she steadies the flagpole in one hand, and her other circles the unicorn’s horn. It is very difficult, I would say, for a modern viewer to ignore the sexual symbolism here, and as you heard, in my novel Verla makes that explicit. So in the end I was left to wonder: whose pleasure is important here, in the Lady’s sensory adventures? Perhaps, despite her luxurious surroundings, it is still too transgressive for a woman to freely enjoy the delights of her own body.
The second element I’d like to talk about is the natural world in which the scenes take place – specifically, the garden.
The sense of feminine serenity and tranquillity that greets one on first sight of the tapestries is I think largely created by the profusion of these superbly delicate floral images – the millefleur or thousand flowers – that crowd the background of all the scenes. At first glance to me the flowers appeared almost like stars, there are so many and so thickly scattered, as if the lady and her animal companions are floating in a shimmering galaxy of flowers. It lends the scenes an otherworldly quality, even while they are anchored in our familiar world by the large and recognisable pine, holly, oak and orange trees.
In the catalogue for the exhibition there is a wonderful list at the end, of the image and name of every plant in the tapestries. There’s blue colombine, yellow foxglove, white swallow-wort and daffodil; there’s wild leopard’s-bane and birthwort, hyacinth and dog’s tooth. I hope you might be able notice, in my recitation here, an echo of the Whitman lines in my earlier reading. For me that echo has allowed me to see that the repetition of the floral emblems, produces a kind visual hypnosis that mirrors the aural hypnosis of the Whitman poetry as it worked upon me when I read it.
In the Natural Way of Things, my women are cast into a barren landscape because of their sins of the body, and here, too, I find it impossible to think of a woman in a garden without turning to the myth of the first woman in the first garden, Eve in Eden. And once we do that, we must allow the possibility that in all this lush beauty, there is also an ancient threat: the woman will be tempted, but she must resist. She knows that if she succumbs to all this pleasure, her fate is sealed.
This brings me to the other half of the natural realm and the third element, the world of animals. Surely this is the most delightful, and also the most chaotic aspect of the tapestries, where all our human attitudes toward animals collide. We have the infant sweetness of rabbits and lambs and puppies, the antic playfulness of the small monkey. The lion, usually such a majestic creature, especially in medieval imagery, here often seems almost like a goofy, distractible younger brother, with his array of theatrical facial expressions, sometimes appealing directly to the viewer, as if to say, Get a load of this!
The unicorn I think is more inscrutable, playing directly to our culture’s fairytales and fantasies about girls and horses, and our fetishization of the virgin state for women. In The Natural Way of Things, Verla is constantly glimpsing a white horse moving through the distant trees, and becomes fixated on the promise of rescue in this vision. I have to confess to a rather blind stupidity in this choice, for despite the obviousness of the imagery, the white horse arrived in my novel directly from the real world. When I was working on the book at a friend’s farm, the family’s elderly white horse, Gidgee, was forever nudging around the edges of my sight, and I could hear her ripping tussocks from the ground and chewing them outside my bedroom at night. Nevertheless, my instinctive use of Gidgee, but none of the other horses I saw on the farm, shows how powerfully the image of the white horse has embedded itself in the female unconscious, with its connection to womanly passivity and the notion that rescue from any captivity can only come from outside us, never from within.
But as with everything in these tapestries, the animal representations are full of contrasts and contradictions. Alongside the soft fur and tiny paws and soulful eyes of the domesticated beasts, there is wildness. The lion occasionally shows his sharp teeth and makes visible his claws; the unicorn’s horn is a sharpened spike. The cunning fox lurks, or perhaps it’s a wolf, ready to attack. Above it all fly the birds with their sharp beaks and talons. The cheetahs and leopards may be hiding among flowers, but they’re still predatory, and the gaze of the infant unicorn in the Taste tapestry towards a nearby rabbit looks like pure malice, pure threat.
Perhaps the very appeal of these creatures lies in the constant possibility of danger, lending a strength and tension to the tapestries which would not be present if all we saw in them were fluffy bunnies and baby lambs.
This sense of menace intensifies in the fourth element I’ve chosen tonight, and that is the sense of captivity that on close inspection I found to pervade the whole series. Once more, I think I must have unconsciously detected this sense of restriction or restraint, to link the tapestries to what was going on in my novel.
The first, most obvious sign of this is the sharp visual jolt of the heavily chained monkey in the Touch tapestry. Elsewhere, the monkey is a mischievous, playful creature with agency and freedom – snatching up a rose to sniff, nibbling on berries or other morsels as it lounges among the flowers – but in this image the monkey is tethered by the neck to a heavy stone, gaunt-faced in stillness and misery.
Once you notice the chained monkey, you begin to see other signs of bondage: many of the animals, especially the wild ones, are collared or have remnants of chains attached. The falcon may fly, but its legs are ringed with cuffs and cords, implying capture at any time. The collars on the dogs and cheetahs may be jewelled, but we all know their real function is not adornment. These ornamented trappings of animal captivity led me, then, to look again at the women’s adornments. The gorgeous golden necklaces start to look heavy, and I’m reminded that jewels are also stones; the roped belts take on the look of leashes, the wide bracelets turn to manacles before my eyes. Even the women’s hair is tied and roped, and in the sixth tapestry we are left to wonder, is the Lady freeing herself from her jewelled shackles, or putting them on by choice?
The idea of female complicity in our own oppression is something I was keen to explore in my novel, but only now am I reminded of just how much the decorative iconography of womanhood has always involved this mimicry, where the chains and ropes of adornment can so easily evoke a jailer’s equipment for keeping us captive.
The fifth angle I’m taking on these tapestries tonight is sisterhood, or the relationship between women, and its complications. In four of the six tapestries, the Lady is accompanied, or attended, by another young woman. Most often seen as a maidservant or lady in waiting, the second woman is smaller in stature, presumably younger, and fairly obviously less powerful than the Lady. I’m intrigued by the two women’s facial expressions in these images. In contemporary depictions of relationships between women there’s an epidemic of ecstatic smiling – indeed, women are now constantly exhorted to smile more by colleagues, friends or simply by random strangers in the street. It’s true that in several of the tapestries there seems to be the possibility of a smile emerging on the face of the Lady, but it often looks more to me like distraction than pleasure, and the servant girl most usually appears either downcast or bored out of her skull.
I suppose I’m focusing on this aspect of the tapestries just to gently note that even in scenes of supposedly tranquil luxury and ease, relationships between people – and between women – are rarely unaffected by power. One of the things that bothered many readers of my novel is that my captive young women frequently don’t like each other, nor do they pragmatically band together for mutual benefit. It seemed to me self-evident that a shared crisis doesn’t necessarily result in positive relationships between individuals – even if it would be in everyone’s best interests - so this level of unease among readers surprised me.
It also reminded me of how prevalent is our desire to cast women as saintly or noble or sweet, when the truth is that a woman can be just as competitive and protective of her power as any man. The Lady at the centre of the tapestries may look benevolent, but her status in relation to the only other human figure in these scenes is clear. She holds power over the younger woman, and she won’t be relinquishing it any time soon.
Now I come to the last aspect of the tapestries that I want to talk about, and that’s the often-discussed element of mystery that surrounds them. There are the unknown details of their origins, of course, but more interesting to me is the sense of the uncanny that arises from the images themselves.
As I wrote The Natural Way of Things, I was very conscious of something told to me by the novelist Amanda Lohrey, who said she was only interested in novels if they contained what she called ‘a message from another realm’ – the sense of a presence, or a perception of meaning that came from beyond the known, literal world around us. When she said this I realised that this was something I’d had in my own first novel, but had largely abandoned, and that the strange and difficult story I was trying to tell now could perhaps only work if I opened myself up to the spectral, the menacing, the dream.
I think now that it’s this hallucinatory, otherworldly feeling that really compelled me to sit for so long in the Cluny that day. And the more I look at the tapestries now, the more they overflow with strangeness and disorienting contradiction.
This arises at least partly from their spatial composition. Dogs and monkeys and rabbits often float in the air above the Lady along with the birds – or are they rather behind her, in an endlessly deep visual field of flowers? Most of the flowers themselves do not grow from any earth, but blossom effortlessly in air. There are other striking contradictions; a breeze flutters one banner but not its twin, the animals’ faces are immensely expressive while the women’s remain impassive, and the scale of the creatures seems to shrink and swell at random: a monkey is here tinier than a rabbit, then there, larger than a cow. The most exotic creatures can appear to be tame while domesticated beasts run wild.
The centre of the mystery, though, is surely the unicorn itself, that mythical creature of bible and legend, shifting and transforming between childhood innocence and adult carnality, bringing with it always the ephemeral yearnings of fantasy and dream.
As I mentioned earlier, a state of not knowing, a feeling of intense confusion, is often what sends me to the page to wrestle with it in the form of fiction. But this uncertainty can be very frightening when you are midway through the long process of resolving a work of art. To free myself from the sometimes paralysing fear of uncertainty, I’ve learned a few mental tricks. One of these is to conceive of my story in progress as a kind of performance that I am only there to watch take place, rather than to control. And in my mind’s eye, the unfolding performance of my novel has always taken place in the hushed dark of a richly textured circus tent – one that looks very like the tent of the sixth tapestry, which might enclose the Lady once the lion and the unicorn let fall its drapes.
Of course this tiny coincidence is meaningless to anyone else; but to me, the blue and gold tent feels like an encouraging omen left behind, an accidental gift passed through the centuries from one unknown artist to another.
As I said near the beginning of this talk, I believe the greatest works of art do speak to us in this very private way, and that the quiet space between maker and viewer – and between writer and reader - is where the most profound transformations of art can take place. It’s in this space that each of us, if we are entranced, can claim the work for ourselves and make it new.
Thank you so much for having me.
© Charlotte Wood 2018
Photo © RMN-GP / M Urtado.
‘The lady and the unicorn’ exhibition from the collection of the Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. On display 10 February 2018 – 24 Jun 2018, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.