Weaving New Tales; A Tapestry for a Modern Hero
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
The Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. Photos from Designboom.com
Adding to the Greco-Roman temples and Egyptian obelisk in Washington D.C. dedicated to former presidents is a memorial with a distinctly medieval twist. The Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial makes use of an enormous tapestry made of steel wires. The 450-foot-long stainless steel tapestry depicts the coast of Normandy, which was the site of the American invasion of Europe in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, led the Allied campaign, including the invasion of Europe that is the focus of the memorial.
I have long been interested in the mythology of the American Republic and the public pieces of art we use to continue to tell its story, particularly when they reach into the remote past for inspiration. The first post I wrote for this blog was on the Lincoln Memorial, embroiled in political protests earlier in the summer. With the Eisenhower Memorial, I am particularly interested in the ancient technology the memorial pays homage to. It is nothing unusual for marble columns, pediments, domes to feature in American memorials, but a reference to a tapestry, I've never seen.
Weavers and weaving play a significant role in the stories of various mythologies. Penelope used her weaving of Odysseus's death shroud as a device to hold off her unwelcome suitors. Arachne boasted that she could weave better than Athena and was turned into a spider for it. The Scandinavian Valkyrie are grisly weavers, using the entrails of men. German folk tales are full of references to spinners. Not only can tapestries tell stories, but the very creation of textiles has become synonymous with tale telling. The English word text is borrowed from the Old French word, texo, for "I weave" and we see it in the word textile. When we tell stories, we "spin yarns;" we weave words and spells. However ubiquitous tapestries are in history though, using one to memorialize an American hero of the 20th Century is unique.
An Architect Known for Unusual Structures
Frank Gehry's buildings are recognizable for their unusual structures. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an art museum in Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA, were both designed by Gehry. Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.
Frank Gehry, 91, is an architect known for some famous buildings and his style is typified by the unusual motif of undulating walls and structures. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an art museum in Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA are considered famous examples of Gehry's work. Gehry's challenge was to bring this ancient technology into a modern design, to make it long lasting in an in an existing public space surrounded by office buildings. The tapestry had to be semi transparent, so as not to block the windows of an entire office building. In an interview with WBUR’s Here and Now, Gehry said: “The tapestry did that. Most tapestries are solid. They’re woven with materials and they’re solid. You can’t see through them. Here we needed to devise a way to make a tapestry that was semi-transparent, that did not block the light, that was like a veil.” The Washington Post’s architecture critic Philip Kennicott described the effect of the tapestry catching the light at night to be “magical.” The memorial also includes bronze statues and engraved walls. The overall effect feels theatrical, with scenes of statues and the Pointe du Hoc tapestry as a backdrop.
Gehry's Pointe du Hoc Line Drawing
Frank Gehry's line drawing on the tapestry, of the headland of Pointe du Hoc on the coast of Normandy, perhaps from the perspective of the shorebound soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which would scale the cliff with ladders and grappling hooks.
The scene from Normandy depicted on the tapestry is actually the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, a headland between Utah and Omaha beaches, which army rangers scaled using the medieval technology of ladders and grappling hooks. Of course, the most famous tapestry celebrating a military victory that I know of is the Bayeux Tapestry, a 240-foot long tapestry depicting the invasion of England by Normans in 1066, which ended the reign of Anglo-Saxon kings and meant that our language would have quite a bit more French in it. I found a comparison to the Bayeux Tapestry mentioned in Fred A. Bernstein's coverage of the memorial in Architect Magazine, but Bernstein said that he was not aware of Gehry speaking on the topic. Again, I don't know of a more famous tapestry celebrating a military invasion so it seems unlikely to me that this wasn't at least a partially intentional allusion. Eisenhower's family had strong feelings about the memorial and forced Gehry to make a number of changes to his design, specifically to bring the focus to his achievements. Reading about their objections makes me think that they would not have appreciated a reference to the Bayeux Tapestry. Perhaps Gehry remained mum for that reason. I have reached out to Gehry's company, Gehry Partners, for comment but haven't heard from him. I will update the post if I learn more.
The Bayeux Tapestry, woven in England in 1070, depicts the events leading up to another invasion, that of the Normans to England.
I am no expert on the Bayeux Tapestry, the historical events it recounts, or of the history of the landings at Normandy, but after seeing images of the U.S. Army Rangers' ladders and reading of their use of grappling hooks at Pointe du Hoc, which sits in the center of Gehry's tapestry, I had to check the Bayeux Tapestry for examples of medieval siege technology. I found a few examples, including a fellow on a rope and a number of soldiers beneath a tower with what appear to be torches. My research of the scenes tells me that the images depict a battle between Dukes William and Conan, that preceded William's invasion of England. I don't know what the fellow with the rope is scaling, perhaps a siege tower? However, the main story seems to be Conan's retreat and eventual surrender to William from atop the Castle Dinan.
Sieging Castle Dinan: Details from Bayeux Tapestry
The Latin text above these sections of the Bayeux Tapestry refer to a battle that preceded the invasion of England, of the retreat of Duke Conan to the Castle Dinan and of his surrender to William.
The 2nd Ranger Battalion Scaling the Sheer Cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.
I will be honest and say that one of the lesser known episodes depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry seems a tenuous connection to the invasion of Normandy. My theory is beginning to feel threadbare and about to unravel! Perhaps the Pointe du Hoc provided Gehry with a better image than a line drawn landscape of the better known beach landings.
But what do you think? Is Gehry's tapestry an appropriate element in a memorial for a modern U.S. president? Is it appropriate for this particular president? Am I following the right thread in my thinking that the Bayeux Tapestry was in Gehry's mind when he designed his tapestry? Let me know in the comments below!
General Eisenhower Memorial Statue, Bayeux, France
Whether or not Gehry was thinking of Bayeux in designing his Eisenhower Memorial, the people of Bayeux, France certainly remember Dwight D. Eisenhower, as there is a memorial to the president there with a statue and more traditionally French arch.