In the Temple of the Unicorn

By Vita Forest

On Saturday, after Ghost netting at The Australian Museum, I took my last visit using my unlimited season ticket to The Lady and the Unicorn exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  Sunday being the last day before those great tapestries were rolled up again and sent back again across the seas to their home in France.

You pass under red banners decked in garlands and into a darkened chamber with spot-lit quotes by Rilke in framed gothic window silhouettes on the wall.  You walk into the dimly-lit inner hexagonal room and are immersed in the mysterious, peaceful world within it.  Each wall bearing a different tapestry.  The tapestries hang side by side, across from each other, conversing among themselves, reflecting details and differences, harmonious even as the components alter as you look harder and closer.  Visitors’ heads swivel and get lost in the world of animals  and plants and women floating on their blue islands on fields of red.

In the centre of the room is a split hexagonal bench, each side facing a different tapestry.  You can sit on both inside and outside the hexagon and look forward and also back across to the tapestries behind.

It is unknown what the real purpose of these medieval images are, allegories to the senses seems most likely, as in each tapestry you can note the Lady showing the unicorn his reflection (sight), or playing music (hearing), or feeding a bird (taste), or holding the horn of a unicorn (touch) or inhaling the scent of a flower (smell).

I sit on the bench looking inwards and across.  From here I can see three tapestries easily.  Can search the upper reaches of each one for the heron and the eagle.  I overhear a lady wearing a unicorn brooch tell her friend that she has an eagle in her life too.  An eagle she has watched plummet and dive to catch and kill another more fragile bird.  She talks about the satisfaction of finally getting here, to this room, to this place, after all this time, on the day before the exhibition closes.  She talks about ordering the catalogue weeks ago, how it arrived in the mail, how she will go home and read it through and through.

And I remember Fleur who made a special pilgrimage to this gallery to the see this exhibition as a way of celebrating her birthday.  How lovely to sit there amongst the blossoms and the frolicking animals and breathe in the peace on her special day.

I look up at the rabbits, at the foxes, at the dogs, at the goats, at the monkeys that remind me of Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials (even though they are not yellow).  I wonder if the unicorn is the Lady’s daemon?  If he has to stay near her, attached by an invisible pull so strong that to break it would make them both ill.  (As I sit and write this,  I have my own little white daemon cat sitting beside me lounging against my thigh and nuzzling my hand).

I listen to a very interesting conversation behind me between an elderly couple and a not so elderly woman.  The oldest woman remarks that the unicorn has cloven hoofs like a goat, and a beard like that animal too, is it closer to a goat than the horse it is often compared to?  She tells the story of how her horse once broke a mirror when it saw its reflection for the first time.  It saw her with another horse and wasn’t happy about it.  She points out that the unicorn seems to know it is looking at itself in the mirror.  Seems to know what it sees.  I think that mirror is safe from hoofs, cloven or otherwise.

I watch two children with their pencils and worksheets squatting down in front of a tapestry, pointing up at the weaving and tallying up the numbers of different animals they see, recording their results in neat handwriting on the page.  I watch families stand in front of their favourite image and turn away from it to grin into the lens of a camera, their bodies enveloped in the soft red landscape behind them.

I think that these scenes somehow remind me of Totoro, that neighbour of Satsuki and Mei from that movie, the scenes of forest spirits and children, perfectly comfortable in each other’s presence, Mei falling asleep lying on the belly of the biggest Totoro as butterflies dance and plants sway in the shaded hollow under the tree where they rest.  Perhaps it is the peace, perhaps it is the magic, perhaps it is the sense of everything being just how it should be.

And I wonder if the Pre-Raphaelites saw these same tapestries, and remember that room in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where I used to sit, all those years ago, that quiet hushed room with the similar dim light and peaceful atmosphere, where full-lipped maidens walked barefoot among equally detailed, recognisable trees, under trellises of roses, pomegranates and oranges.

And I think about the biggest tapestry – To My One Desire, and wonder what that was?  To simply be, in this place, with these animals and plants and women, where everything is safe and calm and timeless and as it should be.

 

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This week

By Vita Forest

The Japanese Gardens at Auburn

The Japanese Gardens at Auburn

This week I have been

  • READING
    • The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta.  Again.  (It makes me ache, how I love this book…)
    • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling at school (up to the first Quidditch match…)
  • WRITING
  • MAKING collages of Totoro at school.
  • VISITING the Japanese Gardens at Auburn with my class (very lovely).
  • WATCHING the new season of Homeland on TV.
  • MEETING two gorgeous friends from high school and confiding in each other about our latest ups and downs.  A shout out to two very inspiring women!
  • LISTENING to Piazzola on the radio while
  • STOPPING to watch the sunset.
  • THINKING about all those effected by the terrible recent events in Paris.

 

This week

By Vita Forest

Jacaranda progress

Jacaranda progress

This week I have been

READING The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (and savouring every word).

WRITING

MAKING a drawing of Totoro and drawing lines across his big circular belly.  I then photocopied the drawing and my class used it to write up their descriptions of the forest spirit.  (Tia “he has a silky white tummy.”  Marvin “the littlest Totoro looks like a tooth.”)

VISITING backstage at the Sydney Opera House to supervise our students for their big upcoming combined schools performance.

FIXING costumes for the event above with needle, thread, safety pins and cut up pieces of a glittery bowler hat.

WATCHING  the new Australian film The Dressmaker.

STRETCHING at yoga on the Statgazer lawn at Barangaroo Reserve.

Flame tree - imagine one of these next to a Jacaranda.

Flame tree – imagine one of these next to a Jacaranda.

Hey let’s go!

By Vita Forest

Can you catch a soot sprite?

Can you catch a soot sprite?

School is back and Year 1 has just begun to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s film My Neighbour Totoro. It hits a number of important buttons for this term – Japan, Narrative, Comprehension Strategies, Visual Literacy and Fun.

If you don’t know it, My Neighbour Totoro is a classic Studio Ghibli animated film made in 1988, which you really should check out.  It tells the story of two small girls who move to rural Japan with their father while their mother recovers from an illness in hospital.  They become aware that their new home is haunted…

If you think this sounds scary, you would be wrong.  In fact, one of the wonderful things about the story is the way the characters deal with the idea of ghosts and spirits.  There is no tiptoeing about.  The two young girls are delighted to discover that their new home may be infested with soot sprites and set about trying to catch one, laughing and shouting all the way.  When they report to their father that they think the new house might be haunted, he replies with relish, “Really?  I’ve always wanted to live in a haunted house!”  And when they hear strange noises at bath time, the trio respond by laughing as raucously as they can and having a huge water fight in their bath tub.  These characters might be frightened, but they shriek their way through it and out the other side.

Before we started watching the film, we looked at a few stills from the film and came up with some questions.  One of them was “What is that bunny thing?”  Some of my children thought it might be a panda, a bear or maybe a cat.  Whatever it was, it looked friendly they decided, particularly as a small child was lying on it’s belly.  I showed them the title of the film and they thought the bunny thing might be called Totoro.  If it was their neighbour, it meant it lived near them, maybe even next door.

We watched half an hour of the film and the children laughed in glee as the characters raced about their new home and tried to scare out soot sprites.  They particularly liked the two girls Satsuki and Mei and how they ran everywhere and shouted so much.  We noticed how the Japanese house was different to the ones in Australia, how the farms were growing rice and how they took their shoes off before going inside.  But they also noticed how the sisters teased each other, laughed and pulled faces, just like they do here.  The excerpt finished with Mei chasing two small Totoros about the yard, like a couple of chickens, and coming to a slapstick stop as she crashed into the bushes into which they disappeared…

We continue the film next week.