I'll try to avoid getting arrested.... like that time in Prague

The first time I went to Europe it was 1997. I was young and my partner at the time was busy at some herpetological conference all day for a week. So I explored Prague for a few days with the wife of another conference attendee. She was a friend of sorts back home but after what I’m about to tell you, wasn’t so keen about my company any more. I suppose I can’t blame her.

I knew nothing about travel in Europe. But once I figured out the subway, I thought I was pretty invincible. I convinced my friend to visit Prague Castle with me. After marveling at the guards and the size of the thing, we wandered down a small alley. I thought the stone walls and cobblestones were wonderful and definitely there would have been a gate or something if we were going the wrong way, right? There was the most adorable iron door in one of the walls, just taller than me with a round top to it. And it was standing ajar. I peeked through and there was a huge, somewhat overgrown garden on the other side. What the heck. I convinced my friend somehow to follow me through the gate though in her defense I still remember her protests twenty-two years later. We wandered uphill through the trees and overgrown paths and not one time did it occur to me that we shouldn’t be there.

Until we turned a corner and saw the huge double-wide gate across a cobblestone street capped by a huge stone archway. I realized I had seen that gate just a few hours before. From the other side. Standing on either side of it with their backs to us were uniformed guards and it didn’t take long before they spotted the two blond twenty-somethings on the wrong side of the iron. I remember some shouting and a kerfuffle and that I didn’t understand one single thing they were saying… which isn’t surprising considering my Czech vocabulary consisted of about 20 words, mostly nouns related to food. They unlocked the huge gates and motioned us through. We got an escort of eight armed guards through the center of the castle. I still remember them marching in step in a quadrant with myself and my very frightened friend walking in the middle.

We were brought to the guard house and motioned toward some chairs. Some time later a supervisor who spoke English approached us, asked for our passports which quickly disappeared, and asked what we were doing there. We told him the story of the gate and the garden and with a flurry of Czech, a young guard was dispatched to check our story. He returned ten minutes later nodding. We were warned that our passports had been noted, given them back, and dismissed. I must say that though I still love a bit of adventure, if I were faced with a suspiciously private-looking gate in the back part of a very large castle which is used for state business, I would walk on by.

I’m headed to France this weekend and the thought of exploring more castles in the name of tapestry reminds me of this story. I’m going on a tapestry tour led by Cresside Collette and we’ll see a lot of tapestries, both old and contemporary. I’m looking forward to seeing things like The Apocalypse of Angers, La Dame å la Licorne, and Lurçat’s Song of the World. We’ll also get to see some contemporary studios and workshops. I’ve taken a little time to do some study including reading the English translation of Lurçat’s book, Designing Tapestry, and a little poking through the stacks of old books in my office about European tapestry.

I am looking forward to seeing some of the huge tapestry cycles in person. I think the scale of these monumental tapestries can’t be appreciated from photographs. I’ve been thinking about Lurçat’s contention that tapestry is a monumental art and that it became this through its connection with architecture. And the architecture of the 14th through 17th centuries in Europe was certainly monumental. I’m also interested to see some of the very French techniques, especially hachure. My rudimentary understanding of this technique isn’t something I could ever really get past without concerted study in France, but I think looking for its uses in extant tapestries will be a start.

I expect to see a fair amount of tapestries like this early 16th century Flemish work I saw being restored at the Denver Art Museum. (I show more images of old tapestries being restored from the Denver Art Museum in THIS and THIS post.)

Tapestry being restored at the Denver Art Museum, 2015

I expect to see a lot of work like this in France. But I also expect to come away with more insight into the shift from reproductive monumental tapestry prominent in the middle ages to the shifts in the mid 20th century spearheaded by Jean Lurçat. Perhaps if I ask the right questions I’ll even get a clearer picture of where tapestry is today.

Birth of the Prince of Peace, detail, early 16th century Flemish tapestry being restored at the Denver Art Museum, 2015

Back in the day I was into scrapbooking. And I made a lengthy one about the trip to Prague, thus the photo below of Prague Castle, scene of my adventurous misstep.

Image of Prague Castle from my 1997 scrapbook. The garden gate is not in this image.

A literary aside…

In my combing of tapestry books over the last year, a fascinating passage in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Antiquary, came to my attention. The scene of finding the tapestries filling the chamber, the description of the figures, and the story of his dreams in which one of the characters approaches him, transforms, and attempts to communicate something from a book he is holding is wonderful. Sir Walter Scott was Scottish and lived from 1771 to 1832. If you love the language of a great writer, read on. If not, spend just a moment imagining the dark room, dying fire, and a bed hung all around with handwoven tapestry covered with figures. Note: Arras is another word for tapestry.

The guest, thus separated from the living world, took up the candle and surveyed the apartment. The fire blazed cheerfully. Mrs. Grizel’s attention had left some fresh wood, should he choose to continue it, and the apartment had a comfortable, though not a lively appearance. It was hung with tapestry, which the looms of Arras had produced in the sixteenth century, and which the learned typographer, so often mentioned, had brought with him as a sample of the arts of the Continent. The subject was a hunting-piece; and as the leafy boughs of the forest-trees, branching tapestry, formed the predominant colour, the apartment had thence acquired its name of the Green Chamber. Grim figures in the old Flemish dress, with slashed doublets covered with ribbands, short cloaks, and trunk-hose, were engaged in holding grey-hounds, or stag-hounds, in the leash, or cheering them upon the objects of their game. Others, with boar-spears, swords, and old-fashioned guns, were attacking stags or boars whom they had brought to bay. the branches of the woven forest were crowded with fowls of various kinds, each depicted with its proper plumage. . . .
”I have heard,” muttered Lovel, as he took a cursory view of the room and its furniture, “that ghosts often chose the best room in the mansion to which they attached themselves. . . .”
It is seldom that sleep, after such violet agitation, is either sound or refreshing. Lovel’s was disturbed by a thousand baseless and confused visions. . . .
He was, then, or imagined himself, broad awake in the Green Chamber, gazing upon the flickering and occasional flame which the unconsumed remnants of the faggots sent forth. . . . Insensibly the legend of Aldobrand Oldenbuck, and his mysterious visits to the inmates of the chamber, awoke in his mind, and with it, as we often feel in dreams, an anxious and fearful expectation, which seldom fails instantly to summon up before our mind’s eye the object of our fear. Brighter sparkles of light flashed from the chimney, with such intense brilliancy as to enlighten all the room. The tapestry waved wildly on the wall, till its dusky forms seemed to become animated. The hunters blew their horns—the stag seemed to fly, the boar to resist, and the hounds to assail the one and pursue the other; the cry of deer, mangled by throttling dogs—the shouts of men, and the clatter of horses hoofs, seemed at once to surround him—while every group pursued, with all the fury of the chase, the employment in which the artist had represented them as engaged. Lovel looked on this strange scene devoid of wonder (which seldom intrudes itself upon the sleeping fancy), but with an anxious sensation of awful fear. At length an individual figure among the tissued huntsmen, as he gazed up on them more fixedly, seemed to leave the arras and to approach the bed of the slumberer. As he drew near, his figure appeared to alter. . . . As the metamorphosis took place, the hubbub among the other personages in the arras disappeared from the imagination of the dreamer, which was now exclusively bent on the single figure before him...
— Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary, 1816

Castles. This post is about castles.

I’m off in search of the “tissued huntsman.”