From the Exotic to the Mystical


Trying to capture the beauty and detail of the de Young Museum‘s current textile exhibit, From the Exotic to the Mystical: Woven Treasures from the Permanent Collection in a review is a daunting task. My recollection of the exhibit is as small and intimate, and yet when reviewing my notes, I realize that there are more than 40 objects within the exhibit, and that those objects span fifteen centuries. With a collection of over 13,000 pieces to draw from, curator Jill D’Alessandro and her team have put together a fantastic exhibit that explores the exoticism and mysticism of textile history, and one that has me considering my sofa cushions in a new light.

To take so much material and display it in a way that is not overwhelming, but indeed creates a feeling of intimacy between the visitor and the objects is no small task. The lighting is dim, as is to be expected when viewing Coptic textiles and seventeenth-century tapestries, but considering the exhibit’s themes, the dim lighting creates a hallowed space in which to admire the objects. Despite competition from two major exhibits, and pieces from the Vatican’s ethnographic collection, Exotic to the Mystical was never empty, but always quiet.

The exhibit examines four themes in textiles: exoticism, mythology, religious symbolism, and the fantasized animal world. My initial attraction to the exhibit was the phrase “treasures from the permanent collection”, combined with a blurb about the exhibit featuring pieces never before displayed. Once in the exhibit, and receiving a tour from Jill herself, I was doubly glad I came due to my own fascination with cultural exchange and exoticism in dress and textiles. Setting the theme for the exotic are four massive tapestries and quilts each with their own orientalist flavour. Outside the exhibit is an amazing tapestry by a San Francisco artist, Mark Adams (1925 – 2006), of a lotus. Adams created the piece after a stay in South East Asia, and the piece utilizes the Buddhist symbol of light and enlightenment to convey a message of beauty from darkness.

Inside, the first piece is a bed cover, decorated with appliqués of a fabric featuring Zarafa, a famous giraffe given to Charles X, king of France in 1827. Zarafa was very popular, with hundreds of thousands of people appearing in Marseille and then Paris to greet the exotic animal’s arrival. Her popularity set off a craze for all things African and Egyptian (one and the same to consumers of 1827). This makes the piece, which is from the southeastern United States, a fantastic representation of the breadth of popularity exotic themes in textiles have.

Next to the Zarafa bed cover is another, quilted cover of white on white with an embroidered biblical scene in the middle. Yet the attire of the characters is oddly orientalist in nature — a wonderful counter balance to the boteh design of the quilting — with at least one of the men wearing a colourful turban and billowing trousers. The piece that takes over the space however, is the renowned tapestry, An Audience with the Emperor, from France circa 1722 – 1723 (seen above). The piece is enormous, and yet it compliments the others, rather than distracts from them. The details illustrate the exhibit’s theme of the exotic and mysterious in textiles quite well with its depictions of a Chinese court based on heresay and imagination. The colours are amazingly vibrant considering its age and size.

By far one of my favourite pieces combines the exotic with the mythological theme: a silk damask (seen below), depicting the gods of ancient Greece circling Apollo — the sun god and no doubt an analogy for Louis XIV, considering its date of c. 1750 — in the centre, along with the four cardinal points, and the four regions of the globe. Jill believes the unique depictions of the global regions are possibly based on those found on Dutch maps of the time, especially considering that the man embodying the Asian continents is depicted as being Indian rather than Chinese, as is usually found in French representations. My favourite part about this piece: it’s a napkin. Used for serving coffee (there is even a stain on Apollo’s leg). The influence of print culture can be seen in many of the animal tapestries as well, which mimic natural history books and prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Napkin, ca. 1750
Germany, Saxony
Linen, silk; satin damask weave, embroidery
110 x 90 cm (43 5/16 x 35 7/16 in.)
Gift of  Mrs. Henry Potter Russell

This is by no means the only object of amazing beauty, but also daily practicality. The exhibit shows a pair of pillow covers from seventeenth-century Germany that are astounding in their condition, and in their entirety: they both retain their original damask lining, tassels, and the complete scene of Samson and the lion, merging the themes of mythology, religious symbolism, and fantasized animal world into their motifs. An example of what usually happens to such covers can be found in the exhibit: cut down to only its main design (again Samson and the lion). This contrast manages to illustrate better than any text panel could just how valuable these textiles were. Sofa cushions are taken for granted today, and the more durable the better, whereas four hundred years ago they were cared for and recycled.

There are beautiful lace valances depicting the epic of Orlando Furioso, and examples of Belgian lace motifs that had been adapted over the years from a clear homage to the French royal family to a nebulous symbolism that might be royal, or mythological, as well as both Italian and English bizarre silks from the eighteenth century.

Textile panel , ca. 1700–1710
Italy, or France
Silk, metallic threads; damask, supplementary-weft patterning in twill weave
150.5 x 106.7 cm (59 1/4 x 42 in.)
Museum purchase, Textile Arts Council Endowment Fund in honor of Diane B. Mott
© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The pieces exploring the fantasized animal world are largely beautiful tapestries with very similar imagery, but each one unique. A jungle or forest dominates the foreground, populated as often by actual animals as by mythological beasts. In the distance (along the top of the tapestries) is a neat, orderly mediaeval city. It is never certain whether the depiction is a warning similar to fairy tales and folklore about the dangers of venturing into the wild, or a longing for that uncivilized place by people whose lives are perhaps a little too comfortable for their own liking. And looking at them, you’re hypnotized, too.

While the pieces are largely European and early modern in date, there are many older pieces from across the globe mixed in as well. Separating the damasked napkin from the bizarre silk above is a poncho made in Spanish Colonial Peru, which is an amazing blend of indigenous imagery in the style of the colonizers. The lions and jaguars on the poncho are remarkably similar to the lions of Judah on a “torah bag” found among the religious symbolism pieces, despite several thousand miles and at least a hundred year separation. My favourite of these pieces (tied with the napkin above for my favourite pieces in the entire exhibit), is a tiny fragment from ninth or tenth-century central Asia, out of silk in a weft-faced compound twill weave. Depicting exotic beasts in bright red on a white ground and flanked by fantastic shrubbery, it is a perfect example of a sentiment Jill quoted to me: Give me a fragment of a masterpiece over an entire mediocre piece any day.

The inclusion of these ancient pieces from other cultures creates a consistency of theme, and firmly establishes the sense of wonder as a uniquely human trait. Wonder not only with other cultures, but with the metaphysical and unknowable, and the animal world. A wonder so strong it inspired the creators and consumers of these textiles to surround themselves with the unknown, the exotic, and the mystical in their daily lives.

It was wonderful visiting the exhibit with Jill and learning about her research, conversations with other professionals, and her speculations about some of the more mysterious pieces. Many of the pieces are donations from over the years which have virtually no provenance other than their make and year, no history of how they arrived at the de Young, or how those donating them acquired them. What does become clear, though, through an examination of the pieces, and my conversations with Jill is that this is a wonderful testament and memorial to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s founding curator for textile arts, Anna Gray Bennett. 

The star pieces of the show are undoubtedly a group for which there is a back story, and an amazing one at that. It is a recent acquisition by the museum of a complete set of ecclesiastical vestments originally from the chapel at Versailles. The story told by the family that owned the pieces until their sale to the de Young is that their ancestor was a lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette and, having a friend who was a nun at Saint-Cyr, where these pieces were embroidered between 1700 and 1710, this ancestor rescued the pieces during the raid on Versailles by revolutionaries. The vestments were kept as family heirlooms for use at weddings, Easter services, and other special events. The miracle of the pieces’ survival, in perfect condition, through the Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and two world wars to the present day is beyond words.

Chasuble, ca. 1700–1710
Silk, metallic threads; cut velvet, embroidery (laid work, couching, padded couching, or nué)
Museum purchase, Dorothy Spreckels Munn Bequest Fund
© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The exhibit left me with an even deeper respect for textile history and tradition, and a greater feeling of interconnectedness across cultures that shared and influenced each other in the textile arts.

The exhibit is on display until August 4, and I for one will be visiting it again.

de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco.

Opening image:The Audience of the Emperor, 1722–1723
France, Beauvais
Wool, silk; tapestry weave
317.5 x 502.9 cm (125 x 198 in.)
Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Collection
© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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