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My love is blue
Tracy Chevalierís The Lady and the Unicorn

Film critics seemed to have been surprised and even disappointed by Peter Webberís adaptation of Tracy Chevalierís bestselling Girl with the Pearl Earring, largely because it focuses as much on visuals as on plot. Readers, however, have long known that along with her very human dramas, Chevalierís skill lies in re-creating the processes of art, particularly processes that have been obscured by time. Small wonder, then, that this American-born author (who lives in London) has now taken on one of the most beloved creations of mediæval Europe, the 15th-century Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Little is known about how this series of woven allegories was made, but their beauty and their subject matter (both sensual and spiritual pursuits) make them appropriate subjects for the kind of historical fiction at which Chevalier excels.

Chevalier fetishizes color. As revealed in her first novel, The Virgin Blue (which was recently re-released), she has long been obsessed with the artistic and religious symbolism identified with particular hues, and she loves to build stories on them as if they were distinct characters. In that simpler work, a contemporary womanís dream of the title color leads her to unravel a family mystery. In her more recent books, the author has abandoned modern framing stories, and her use of color as symbol has grown more sophisticated. Itís a theme that continued through the light-fixated Pearl Earring, which reimagined Vermeerís studio, and if it was subjugated in 2001ís underrated Falling Angels, it could still be seen in that bookís lasting visual images: an illicitly obtained emerald necklace or a falling star, the final sight of a dying child.

In The Lady and the Unicorn, which again shifts among characters as narrators, color has taken on flesh. In the physical world Chevalier has imagined for the creators of the tapestries ó characters that she has created ó that flesh is carnal and often gross. Nicolas des Innocents, the artist who designs the tapestries, has fine hands but uses them more often for seducing young women than for painting. He sees beauty as a painter would: "hair the color of honey" and eyes like "dark currants." But his primary use for the tale of the unicorn is as a seduction tool. For the pious Geneviève de Nanterre, unloved wife of the artistís patron, the allegory is her only comfort in a rich, gold-filled world, the blue her only chance to be close to the Virgin Mary. For young Aliénor, daughter of the Brussels weaver who has the commission of turning the original paintings into tapestries, the beautiful blue comes only from the foul-smelling woad seller, Jacques, her unwanted suitor.

Itís not that the art has become secondary. Despite Nicolasís earthy motivations, he has a gift. His unicornís horn may be a phallic stand-in, but the mythical creatureís sacrifice also evokes the story of Christ with subtlety. Neither are all the seductions physical: Christine, the weaverís practical wife, is wooed in her own way by Nicolasís creation, thinking: "I couldnít take my eyes from the clothes. The lady playing the organ wears a lavish outer dress in a yellow and red pomegranate pattern. All around the edges are pearls and dark jewels to match those she wears around her neck." Her primary concern is her familyís welfare, which may mean marrying sensitive Aliénor to the stinking Jacques. But Christine cannot help comparing her practical lifestyle, in which profits are plowed back into the weaving shop, with the wealth displayed in the tapestries. That wealth, of course, is also the source of her familyís prosperity: Brussels weavers were much in demand for their intricate mille fleur backgrounds. Even Aliénorís garden exists in the service of both art and commerce, giving her father real lilies of the valley, forget-me-nots, and columbine as models, increasing the family workshopís value, and, sadly, their dependence on the foul Jacques. In a world that seems divided between the sacred and the profane, the beauty of pure inspiration and the demands of the market, everything is linked. Ultimately, everyone is subject to both.

If that sounds too theoretical, relax. Chevalier did not become a bestselling author by discoursing on art. Just as everyone in The Lady and the Unicorn has his or her desires, so too do those desires have consequences. It seems simple enough that a patron wants a fine piece of work. It may be obvious that a painter wants to get paid and laid, and that a weaverís daughter seeks at least as much control over her fate as she has over her garden. How these stories are woven together, however, makes one beautiful creation.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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