“George, Gigi, and a Lady walk into a bar …”

“Young, slim, long, blonde and pretty.”

You may as well say “Gigi Hadid”, but in her 1844 novel, Jeanne, these were the words chosen by George Sand to describe the lady of the tapestries currently on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. A force for women’s autonomy and agency, Sand was described as “the most womanly woman” by one of her many lovers, Alfred de Musset. Despite shocking the French of the belle époque by literally ‘wearing the trousers’ in her relationships, she clearly knew a thing or two about the fairer sex.

The six tapestries have never left France in their 500-year history and contain a wealth of imagery and allegory. They are notorious for their ambiguity — despite, or perhaps because of, the sheer density of their symbolism. One of the most popular interpretations is that they are an allegory for the senses (touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing), with a sixth tapestry representing the ‘soul’, ‘heart’ or ‘moral feeling’. However, there is a strong tide of gender discourse pulling beneath this more obvious interpretation, as Sand perhaps recognised.

I entered The Lady and the Unicorn under a canopy of millefleur faux-tapestries, carefully draped to make even the most sérieuse girl feel the romance. The tapestries, woven in the 1500s, are one of the best examples we have of depictions of courtly love. The concept was birthed and raised in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, famous for her promotion of troubadours. These performers so eloquently sang of fair maidens awaiting the return of their knights in shining armour from the Crusades. (Because who doesn’t want some random white guy who goes invading the Middle East to be their lover?)

Passing under these awnings, I arrived at a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which read: “There are six tapestries; come, let us pass slowly in front of them.” The words of Rilke guided me through the show, with a corridor of short excerpts furnishing me with his interpretation before I entered the hexagonal room containing the pieces themselves.

Reaching the end of this corridor, my eyes were drawn to the soft darkness of the central room. Low lighting and walls doused in black paint drew on the warm crimson tones of the tapestries, blanketing the room in a dusky, medieval aura.

Each of the tapestries shows the lady in the centre, with a lion to the left, and a unicorn to the right. These tapestries are the first examples of female, rather than male, figures being used to represent the senses. But there is an irony to this: medieval tapestry guilds forbade women from weaving. Here, women are at once brought into the fold, but denied any authority over their depiction.

In each scene, the lady is enclosed in a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), a motif associated with the Garden of Eden and morality. Consider this setting in light of the quintessentially French concept of le jardin sécret: the ‘secret garden’, or the sublime, womanly art of keeping a personal experience, place or activity to yourself, to fulfil a need for privacy. Some say it’s the secret to French feminine je ne sais quoi — I think it’s the secret to sanity. But if our lady is enclosed in a world of socially prescribed morality (formed predominantly by the patriarchal church), what then is the secret she holds inside?

The tapestries appear to be a study both of female virginity and sexuality. The legend of the unicorn was that it could only be tamed by a virgin, who would be able to convince it to lay its head in her lap. In the narrative cycle of these tapestries, so clearly linked with the process of aging (illustrated in the growth of the animals, and passage of the lady into womanhood), virginity is considered a milestone as well as a measure of worth, as symbols of fertility — pomegranates, rabbits — abound. The Church saw virginity (outside of marriage) as a path to salvation. For a husband, his wife’s virginity prior to marriage was an assurance that any children she bore were his. For the more mathematically minded: woman’s worth = virginity + fertility.

Sand herself would have had a keen sense of affront at such opinions. As Baudelaire once said of her, “the fact that there are men who could become enamoured of this slut is indeed a proof of the abasement of the men of this generation.” And yet, Sand was also described as a “thinking bosom and one who overpowered her young lovers” by VS Pritchett. The classic Madonna/whore complex is at play here: we see the lady as both sexual and alluring; virginal and demure. For Baudelaire, the sexual emancipation of women like Sand was a threat to men’s morality and dignity. The dual nature of maternity and sexuality sat ill with such men, who found the contrast between the woman as the Virgin Mary, and as Mary Magdalene, disturbing. But men like Pritchett acknowledged the capacity for women to be agents in the dance between these two interpretations of ‘woman’. Indeed, the lady is depicted alongside carnations, which symbolised both sacred and profane (read ‘sexual’) love. The viewers themselves cannot decide which is the true depiction. The obvious, and yet neglected, answer is both: the lady represents the duality within all women, and rather than being trapped in the garden of social expectation, holds within herself a varied and rich inner life.

In the tapestry representing touch, a monkey is chained up, representative of the need for women to constrain their baser desires. This insistence on the necessity of virginity is at odds with many modern theses of virginity as a social construct. To boil these varied arguments down to their core, many life milestones do not have associated nouns: we learn to walk, we get our licence, we go to Moose for the first time. The fact that virginity as a state is a noun pays heed to the false logic that having (or not having) lost your virginity somehow affects your value as a person.

Whether or not our lady is able to free herself from her ‘keepers’ is a question for the viewer’s interpretation. She is an ideal model from a period when physical beauty was considered a sign of inner virtue. And yet the tapestries pay heed to her inner life: Mon seul désir, which may be considered the centrepiece of the exhibition, examines the ‘sixth sense’, believed to be either moral salvation or the soul and heart. Any true sandiste (Noun (f): Lover and admirer of the ever-fabulous George Sand) will be familiar with her belief that “there is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved”. The sixth sense was the root of moral sensibility, lust and — most importantly — free will. This seems to indicate that our lady’s choices regarding sex, love, life and unicorns were all her own. Note that regardless of whether it was her virginity that allowed her to tame the unicorn, she is eventually shown holding its horn (phallic, I know) — she, like Sand and love, conquers all.

The exhibition ends on a confused note, with a cabinet of animalistic objets d’art. Although Jeff Koons’ White Terrier (1991) is endearing, it seems to be an attempt to recreate his 2008/2009 show at Versailles, which controversially compared the opulence and vivacity of his work with the tastes of Louis XIV.  If the various dog statuettes were meant to be a comment on bitchiness by a ‘woke’ misogynist curator, they didn’t quite pull it off. More mish-mash than menagerie, this strange conclusion detracts somewhat from the nobility of the exhibition.

Overall, I think the core message to come from the ambiguity and mystique of these works is this: Sand described the pieces as “curious, enigmatic tapestries”, and there has perhaps never been a better description of what it means to be a woman. We are each a tapestry formed by our lived experience, with an irresistible mystique which has the power to make the entire world curious. Taken as a complete piece, each of us is the embodiment of our intentions and journey in pursuit of nos seuls désirs (whether they be unicorn kink-related or not). If the lady of the tapestries could speak, I think she would need to say but one word: ‘slay’.

The Lady and the Unicorn is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until June 24 (just in time to wipe your post-exam tears of relief away on these priceless works).