The Masters of the Spirit
The Masters of the Spirit
One of the most unusual works of art in Vancouver
is in the Charles Woodward Memorial Room of the University of B.C.'s
Woodward Biomedical Library. But you can't see what's unusual
about it until you get up close.
It's a tapestrya big onenearly five metres long, more
than three metres high, titled The Masters of the Spirit.
It was commissioned by Antoine Behna, a post-war patron of tapestry
in France. (Behna's fortune came from his manufacture of most of
the cloth used in the manufacture of European umbrellas.) He wanted
a tapestry designed to honor men who had made contributions in music,
drama, philosophy, literature. The design was by Guillomet.
But the physical work on the tapestry itself was done by a craftsman
(called a tapissier) who, for reasons that will be appreciated later,
shall remain anonymous.
The man whose work we see, wrote Dr. William Gibson,
in a 1971 article for JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical
Association, was aged 68 at the time of the creation of this
colorful tapestry. The talented veteran who worked this spectacular
tapestry, proceeding from left to right in the manner of haute
lisse, most unfortunately suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. This
stroke incapacitated him only temporarily and he was eventually
back at his giant loom, completing the right half of the undertaking.
Thus we have before us the result of a cerebrovascular accident.
Visitors often sit in front of the massive tapestry, comparing
the two halves.
The change, Gibson says, begins just above the
head of Marcus Aurelius and the figure of William Shakespeare. The
honeycomb border, so perfect up to that point, suddenly becomes
irregular both in form and in color. Descartes' face is slightly
twisted, and the right forefinger of Spinoza, just below that, is
greatly enlarged . . . Homer's harp is warped, and the column on
which he is leaning is not as sturdy as that on the left half of
the tapestry. The trees behind Balzac are quite different from those
What makes this unusual object doubly interesting is that the tapissier
refused to believe his work had deteriorated.
In fact, says Gibson, he rebuked his wife severely
when she called this difference to his attention as it developed.
His first retort was that he had been 50 years in this work and
he needed no free advice. His second and more forcefully expressed
reply was that he was doing better work now than ever.
The memorial room of the library is dedicated to the pioneer physicians
of B.C. and was a gift from P.A. Woodward in honor of his father
Charles, who founded the department store.
In 1964, when the library opened, Bill
Gibson told an interviewer many years ago, I was one of the
trustees. I obtained the tapestry for Mr. Woodward in 1968 in France.
It had been made outside the Paris Gobelin factory, in the village
in which the tapissier lived, which is why the factory director
didn't realize it was going awry. It took a year-and-a-half to produce
and was completed in 1954. Behna thought the work was 'un desastre',
but in reality it's a textbook of neurology for UBC students and
other Woodward Library visitors. Behna let just four of his commissioned
tapestries leave France. One went to Pope John XXIII, one to Harry
Truman and we got the other two.
A larger image of the tapestry is visible here.
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