The upcoming exhibition Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry (on view October 8, 2014–January 11, 2015) is the story, told through more than sixty astonishing objects, of a startlingly forward-thinking designer and entrepreneur—one who just happened to be born in 1502.
Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–1550) was arguably the greatest of northern Renaissance masters, and was certainly considered by his contemporaries to have reached the pinnacle of his profession. Despite his premature death at the age of forty-eight, Coecke (pronounced cook-uh) was phenomenally productive, even finding time to edit and translate—into both Dutch and French—books of contemporary architectural theory coming out of Italy. He was a virtuoso, as comfortable painting in oils on panel and distemper on paper as he was drawing designs for works across multiple media—from stained glass, to goldsmith's work and tapestries.
Coecke's tapestry designs reached the greatest collectors of the age and are undoubtedly regarded among his most important works. Forming the core of this exhibition, nineteen of these spectacular Renaissance tapestries made to Coecke's designs will be displayed alongside seven of his panel paintings—including the monumental Descent from the Cross triptych from Lisbon—and thirty-six drawings and prints. These massive hangings were the ultimate medium for Coecke's artistic expression, yet they were created entirely without experiencing the touch of his hand, executed instead by the great master-weavers of Brussels who superbly translated Coecke's vision into brilliant silks, wools, and precious metal-wrapped threads.
The splendid tapestries—many on loan for the first time from the major royal and national collections of Europe—reveal the monumental scale, stunning palette, and artistic daring of this important Renaissance master. In a period still reeling from the thrill of imported Italian designs for tapestries by Raphael, Perino del Vaga, and Giulio Romano, Coecke was one of the few local artists able to respond with respect and admiration to the lessons learned from Italy while still retaining his independent and recognizable personal style.
Coecke pushed the glamorous, monumental textile format to new heights, reacting to stylistic challenges from Italy with inventiveness, wit, and elegance. His spatial audacity is breathtaking, as is the gamut of emotions he could capture with an expression or pose, from maternal love, to pathos and physical exhaustion. The rhythm and control of his compositions as they unfurl across the picture plane have, in his earlier work, the spirited energy of a lavolta dance and, in his later designs, the control and poise of a stately pavane. Reuniting these tapestries with Coecke's preparatory sketches, highly finished petits patrons, and exquisite cartoon fragments, the exhibition not only celebrates Coecke's artistic importance, but also explores the process of tapestry design and production, acknowledging the artistic value of this most prized of media.
In 1534 Coecke was apparently already styling himself "painter to His Imperial Majesty, Charles V," and by 1543 he was one of a group of artists receiving a small but steady daily stipend from Mary of Hungary, governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The tapestries Coecke designed reached the greatest of Renaissance collectors: François 1er and Henry VIII, the Habsburgs and the Medici. Despite Coecke's glowing reputation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, his is no longer a household name—perhaps, in part, because he so rarely proclaimed authorship and signed his designs. Shifting tastes and the traditional primacy granted Italian painting in formative art-historical narratives means that posterity has been less than kind to Coecke. Grand Design will recapture Coecke's spirit and present works which reveal his role as trailblazer in southern Netherlandish design. After having experienced the drawings, paintings, prints, and tapestries on show in this exhibition, we are confident that our visitors will agree that Pieter Coecke van Aelst was one of the greatest Netherlandish artists of the sixteenth century, and a true embodiment of the Renaissance designer.
Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry
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