Kristina Elyse Butke
"The Last Unicorn" and the Unicorn Tapestries
When I was a child, one of my favorite animated films was (and still is!) The Last Unicorn, adapted from Peter S. Beagle's novel, starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, Alan Arkin, Tammy Grimes, Angela Lansbury, and more. It features a soundtrack by Jimmy Webb and performances by the band America, and I'm pretty sure I have every song memorized.
In particular, the opening theme "The Last Unicorn" haunted me. Not just for how the song played out, but for the animated sequence. Take a look:
The artwork is clearly inspired by tapestries, and I learned that there were unicorn tapestries in New York City at The Cloisters, and then the other unicorn tapestries were in Paris at the Musée de Cluny. And my goal in life was to see them in person.
The easiest set for me to see, "The Hunt of the Unicorn," was at the Cloisters. I was born in Flushing, Queens, and still had family there, so it was very possible for me to visit the museum. In fact, I remember when my Dad first took us there when we were kids. It is easily one of my favorite museums in the world, and of course, my heart leapt in my chest when I finally got to see the unicorn tapestries in person.
This one in particular is where you can see how The Last Unicorn was influenced by the tapestries, from the lions and stag to the fountain the unicorn is purifying.
I always thought the tapestries were beautiful but very, very sad, given how graphically they depict the unicorn's body after being hunted.
At the end of the tapestry series, however, the unicorn is depicted as alive, but in captivity. I never felt like that tapestry fit in with series, in terms of how different the unicorn looks compared to depictions in the earlier tapestries. But it's considered to be part of the official sequence of events. I was just relieved to see it alive again, although it is still wounded from the hunt.
I have been to the Cloisters more than once to see the tapestries, but never really brought a digital camera with me to take pictures. Someday I'd like to go back and take photos of it on my own, if they are allowed.
Fast forward from childhood to age 20. I lived in Wales then, studying abroad, and I had a friend who wanted to go to Paris but not alone, so I asked if I could go with her. I knew some French from studying in school, although not enough once we got there! She was a really flexible traveler and asked me what things I wanted to see, and I told her about the Musée de Cluny and my desire to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. I was so close to achieving my goal and was so delighted she was cool with us taking a detour there. I didn't have a digital camera or a cell phone at the time, so I didn't take any pictures of the tapestries, unfortunately. But I remember them, and how huge they were.
Out of all six tapestries, this one is my favorite:
You can see that even though the color schemes are different, the unicorn in this picture very much looks like the same beast depicted in the "Hunt of the Unicorn" tapestries. Even the faces of the lions are similar. But they are very different works of art.
It may sound silly to say that my dream was to see tapestries, but I am overjoyed that this is something I got to see in person. I'd love to go back to both NYC and Paris and view them closely again, this time taking my own pictures of each work at my own pace and in great detail. I don't know if Paris is possible but NYC is within that realm, and I hope it's a dream I can revisit. It's been one every since I was a little girl watching The Last Unicorn, and if I've seen them once, maybe I can see them again!