Honouring the Masters

Posted by Daniel on Mar 31, 2009









Chuck Davis on an unusual work of art:

One of the most unusual works of art in Vancouver is in the Charles Woodward Memorial Room of the University of B.C.'s Woodward Biomedical Library. But you can't see what's unusual about it until you get up close.

It's a tapestry—a big one—nearly five metres long, more than three metres high, titled "The Masters of the Spirit". It was commissioned to honor men who had made contributions in music, drama, philosophy and literature. The design was by Guillomet. But the physical work on the tapestry itself was done by a craftsman (called a tapissier) who, for reasons that will be appreciated, shall remain anonymous.

"The man whose work we see," wrote Dr. William Gibson, in a 1971 article, "was aged 68 at the time. The talented veteran who worked this spectacular tapestry, proceeding from left to right . . . most unfortunately suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. This stroke incapacitated him only temporarily and he was eventually back at his giant loom, completing the right half of the undertaking. Thus we have before us the result of a cerebrovascular accident.

"The change," Gibson continues, "begins just above the head of Marcus Aurelius and the figure of William Shakespeare. The honeycomb border, so perfect up to that point, suddenly becomes irregular both in form and in color. Descartes' face is slightly twisted, and the right forefinger of Spinoza, just below that, is greatly enlarged . . . Homer's harp is warped, and the column on which he is leaning is not as sturdy as that on the left half of the tapestry. The trees behind Balzac are quite different from those behind Nietzsche."

The tapissier refused to believe his work had deteriorated. "In fact," says Gibson, "he rebuked his wife severely when she called this difference to his attention as it developed. His first retort was that he had been 50 years in this work and he needed no free advice. His second and more forcefully expressed reply was that he was doing better work now than ever."

The tapestry had been made outside the Paris Gobelin factory, in the village in which the tapissier lived, which is why the director didn't realize it was going awry. You can read more—and see a larger image of the tapestry, including the fascinating story of how it got here—at www.library.ubc.ca/woodward/memoroom/exhibits/masterspirit/

Labels: ARTS