Imagine getting a set of monumental tapestries for your birthday!
These were commissioned on Queen Margrethe II of Denmark’s 50th birthday and delivered in 2000 for her 60th. What anticipation! What excitement! What a price! $13,000,000 Danish Kroner (about $2,600,000).
You’d think they would be gorgeous, but then you might be a bit disappointed. Of course, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, or as my mother used to say “Everyone’s a bit strange except for me and thee and frankly, sometimes I wonder a bit about thee.” Anyway, I do hope the Queen loves them.
They are hanging in the Knight’s Hall at Christiansborg Palace, all 17 of them. The 11 large tapestries fit perfectly into the frames set into the marble paneling. The other 6 are smaller “entrefenetres,” which go between the windows. They were designed by the Danish sculptor Bjørn Nørgaard, and woven at the Gobelins and Beauvais studios in France. Here’s a link to some photos.
I was very impressed with the technical perfection of the weaving, but I don’t like the colors, style or compositions. The colors are garish, but perhaps I could learn to see them as luminous, or jewel-like, if the compositions didn’t seem completely disorganized. I know there is a tradition of medieval tapestries with very busy, even frenetic, compositions, but the really great ones are carefully worked out, balanced, fluid, graceful, and dynamic.
Some of the Queen’s tapestries, like “The Viking Age,” have an clearly defined structure, and I find that I’m beginning to like this one more and more.
Others, like “The Reformation,” come across as random and uninspired, with figures lined up in rows, as you can see below.
I object to the cartoony style of expression, particularly given the seriousness of the subject: the History of Denmark from the Viking Age to the Future. One of the tapestries, “Present,” depicts Queen Margrethe and her husband Prince Henrik, and their hands are about 3 times normal size. It makes them look awkward and unattractive, and it struck me as disrespectful.
Bjørn Nørgaard intended for these tapestries to be a lesson in Danish History, for recent generations who have not learned about it in school. He spent many hours devising a systematic plan for including innumerable narrative elements in each tapestry, and yet keeping a consistent formal structure over the entire project. He even chose to make full sized painted cartoons. He devoted 12 years to this project, so I feel bad about my (possibly uninformed) criticisms. Perhaps it’s a case of the intellectual concept over-riding purely visual or visceral concerns, or perhaps it’s just my taste.
I’m delighted that someone still wants to commission large original tapestries. These tapestries do fill up the large space in the Knight’s Hall, and the bright colors get your attention. Visitors seemed to enjoy puzzling over the diagrams provided, that explain all the people and objects and symbols in the tapestries.
I bought the book, “Tapestries for the Queen of Denmark,” (Peter Michael Hornung, ed.) and it’s very informative. I was pleased to see that it includes details about each tapestry, such as the name of the head weaver, number of shades of wool, time spent in preparation and weaving, number of weavers, dates, and size. It’s available used from Amazon.com.
Nørgaard seems quite respectful of the weavers, and knowledgeable about the process. I like this quotation from his interview in the book “….each and every square millimeter of these pictures is touched by human hand, and these people have invested their time in the tapestry. I believe quite naively that this is something you can read from the works. In a digital era with digital pictures, I think it is vital that we preserve pictures in which a great deal of time is invested.”
It’s sad that they spent such a huge amount of money, and so many years of artistic design and skilled weaving, to make something that is not beautiful. Given the number of brilliant tapestry weavers in Denmark, they could have had tapestries with the power to take your breath away; objects of exquisite beauty and grace.
I’d recommend visiting anyway, if you’re in the area, and I’d be curious to know how other tapestry weavers react. So far I have not spoken to anyone who disagreed with my position, but perhaps I’ll hear some dissenting opinions soon!