In recent weeks, I have been reviewing other art critics’ reviews published in the most important newspapers in the US and the UK and it is increasingly apparent how uninformed and bold many of these people opinions are. A good example of this is Ken Johnson’s review of Charles Coypel’s (1694-1752) ‘Don Quixote Tapestries’ at the Frick Collection for The New York Times.
Ken Johnson’s disliking of The Frick’s show lies on Coypel’s depiction of Cervantes’ Don Quixote as ‘presenting an ambitious but not entirely successful case in point. An exceptionally interesting investigation of a less well-traveled art historical byway, the exhibition is devoted to a set of mural-scale tapestries depicting episodes from the novel that were woven at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. The show includes three of the Gobelins tapestries; five of the original 28 paintings, or cartoons, that the artist produced for weavers to copy; and 18 engravings by which Coypel’s terrifically popular images were disseminated throughout Europe and beyond.
Two enormous Flemish tapestries inspired by Coypel’s images round out the show so that all 28 of his original depictions are represented in one form or another’. Johnson’s belief that Coypel’s visual representation of the Spanish text is ‘unsuccesful’ is based on the fact that ‘the busily eventful images are amusing, but much is lost in translation from the novel. While repeatedly picturing Don Quixote and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, as clownish figures in complicatedly choreographed, multifigured tableaus, Coypel made less visible how things appear in Don Quixote’s own deluded mind. In the painting “Asleep, Don Quixote Fights the Wineskins” (1716), we see that old man in his nightshirt wielding a sword while two men try to contain him in the room of an inn, but we don’t see the giant he thinks he’s battling’.
First and foremost, these designs should be put in the context not only of their production but also of their original viewing which was Louis XV’s court. Produced at the Royal manufactory for ambassadors at the French court, the scenes are doubly framed. Firstly by the gilded edge of the square that contains both the scene and the garlands of flowers framing another hexagonal frame, the frame overlap and create a painting inside the painting where the frame becomes as important as the story being represented. Occupying more than half of the pictorial space, these tapestries are, obviously, as much about the frame as about the scene.
So let’s go back to Ken Johnson’s piece to see where he misses the point. In his own words: ‘The stars of the show, the three Gobelins tapestries, are impressive objects. Measuring about 12 feet by 13 feet, each has its central scene surrounded by a wide, grandiose, decorative border consisting of trompe-l’oeil gilded frames one within another, floral garlands and sheep, a dog and a peacock. Coypel’s central scenes seem to expand into the distance as if seen through windows’. But are they really windows or, more accordingly to the French court, mirrors? I am saying this because those hexagonal frames are crowned by a series of peacocks staring at the viewer so frontally that they seem to be indicating the viewer a way to approaching the images below. It should also born in mind that at the Bourbon court, courtiers used to called ‘peacocks’. In fact, Louis XV’s father decorated the Hall of the Ambassadors in Versailles with a series peacocks standing from painted balustrades which might be linked to this allegorical interplay.
From the point of view of their funcitonality, tapestries used be used to lavishly cover mirrored walls in winter time. Would it be too far fetched to suggest that those scenes are aimed at raising moral awareness of the role of both the courtier and the statesman through humour in a court where social standing was defined by wit. From this point of view, what Ken Johnson considers as ‘lost in translation from the novel’ might actually be a very deliberate attempt to transform Sancho Panza, ‘ a clownish figures in complicatedly choreographed, multifigured tableaux’ into a proxy of the viewer who would be self deprecatingly amused by the apparent banality of his own behaviour. That is why, when Ken Johnson says that in ‘Asleep, Don Quixote Fights the Wineskins (1716), we see that old man in his nightshirt wielding a sword while two men try to contain him in the room of an inn, but we don’t see the giant he thinks he’s battling’, he is really missing the point for that might be the morales that these stories convey.
This is why, when at the beginning of his review Ken Johnson refers to Coypel’s failure to convey the true complexity of Cervantes’ masterpiece by referring to ‘the paradoxical essence of a book in which fantasy and reality collide to farcical effect over and over.’ It could be answered that that was precisely what Coypel excells at doing and he is so subtle that the uninformed The New York Times’ critic would have been laughed at court for taking himself far too seriously. J A T