One of France’s great treasures, the five-hundred-year-old, six-panel tapestry series called The Lady and the Unicorn, is in Australia for four months, courtesy of some fortuitous inter-museum contacts, and deft work by the Art Gallery of New South. A loan of such significance usually takes years to negotiate. This one was finalised and mounted at warp speed (one might say). Don’t miss it; it is rare for textile works of such renown and fragility to travel. France has only lent its Lady and the Unicorn twice before – to New York’s Metropolitan Museum and to Japan’s national art centres in Tokyo and Osaka.
The tapestries themselves are beautiful, enigmatic, elevated. Luminous in their dark room, they float above the reflective pool of a glassy black floor (the AGNSW installation is a triumph), otherworldly, and as disconcerting as the mythical unicorn itself. You might walk slowly past and simply marvel at their textured intricacy and splendour, but you are unlikely to do only that. There is such play, such a blending of the naturalistic with the allegorical in these great panels, that any child would stop to peer and wonder at their detail, be transported into their world of myth, of story, of women, beasts, and nature, freighted with mystery. And anyone who has ever sat with needle and thread over an embroidery sampler, or who has knotted warp thread onto sticks and passed wool under and over, will have some inkling of the technical finesse of these works. They are, simply, masterpieces – of imagination and execution.