The Divine Art of Tapestries

The long-forgotten art form receives a long overdue renaissance in an exhibit featuring centuries-old woven tapestries

The Battle of Actium, c. 1680. (The Art Institute of Chicago)

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“We know so little about the weavers,” says Thurman. “Quality depends on training. As the centuries marched on, there was always pressure for faster manufacture and quicker techniques. After the 18th century, there was a vast decline.” The Chicago show cuts off before that watershed.

After January 4, everything goes back into storage. “Yes,” says Thurman, “that’s an unfortunate fact. Due to conservation restrictions, tapestries should not be up more than three months at a time.” For one thing, light degrades the silk that is often the support for the entire textile. But there are also logistical factors: in particular, size. Tapestries are typically very large. Until now, the Art Institute has had no wall space to hang them.

The good news is that come spring, the paintings collection will migrate from the museum’s historic building to the new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano, freeing up galleries of appropriate scale for the decorative arts. Tapestries will be integrated into the displays and hung in rotation. But to have 70 prime pieces on view at once? “No,” says Thurman, “that can’t be repeated immediately.”


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