Artist's Jewels: From Modernisme to the Avant-Garde
review by Anastasia Kruglyashova
A sultry smile of ruby-clad lips baring a mosaic of shiny-white pearls attracts crowds driven by desire to contemplate one of the 20th century’s most iconic jewelry designs; just as the lonely glance of an almond-shaped eye-clock dressed in diamonds – a ruby-made tear gracefully dropping down its corner – staring at the world in all its solitary, eccentric glory… For those familiar, both jewelry pieces – part of the vast exhibition on display at the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) in Barcelona, Spain – reveal their creator in an instance, radiating his symbolic, surreal Raison d'être – Salvador Dali. Striking imagination of jewelry experts and dilettantes alike, the pieces designed by Dali, Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, Max Ernst, Georges Braque and quite a few other prominent artists of the 20th century expose another original dimension of their creators to the viewers of “Artist's Jewels: From Modernismto the Avant-Garde” – the show that launches a splendid dialogue, presenting an in-depth examination of the interplay between various artistic idioms such as painting, photography and sculpture and a lesser known creative facet as jewelry. More than three hundred uniquely designed glaring exhibits – each in a separate glass case illuminated from the sides – are intentionally juxtaposed by the striking contrast of the dark walls at the exhibition and a barely there lighting to intensify the dramatic, expressive mood of the show. After all, nothing like dark color makes jewelry pieces stand out! According to the exhibition’s curator Mariàngels Fondevila, much of the jewelry was quite hard to obtain due to the fact that many pieces belong to private collectors, and now they are being widely exhibited for the first time. Many other jeweled masterpieces arrived from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and a few museums in Spain including the Dali Museum in Figueres.
And then a question comes up: why Barcelona to hold the exhibition? After the Revolution of 1868, the city underwent immense industrial evolution and evolved as the most politically and culturally forward metropolis in Spain. Barcelona also became one of the key cities for modernist art and architecture in Europe, holding a number of prominent exhibitions in the first part of the 20th century, such as the International Exhibition held in 1929 that also included modern jewelry apart from other artistic disciplines.
Designed and often executed by artists themselves in the end of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century – the times of great visual experimentations and novelties – the themes of the jewelry pieces, their patterns and often the usage of unconventional materials to create them projected the progress happening in more traditional visual artistic forms. Jewelry makers became jewelry artists, experimenting with new techniques and bringing the pieces they were designing into the realm of fine art. The notional leitmotif of their creations often was the incarnation of nature in the human form, particularly feminine physique, as is manifested in the jewelry pieces on display at the exhibition by the French jeweler and glass artist René Lalique. One of the most ingenious and mysterious jewelry makers of the 20th century whose designs were purchased by major European museums and famous collectors, as well as represented by noted jewelry houses as Cartier and Boucheron, Lalique created sinuous pieces that strike with symbolic connotations characteristic of the Art Nouveau movement – a trend that proved transient in jewelry reigning circa 1885 to 1910. Lalique’s enameled masks and various interpretations of nature associated with feminine beauty are dramatized by his use of uncommon materials as semi-precious stones, antler, horn and glass, calling forth incessant vivid imagery that is both sensuous and nearly transcendental.
And just as carnal has been the affair between the human body (feminine body in particular) and the jewels adorning it. Similarly to the way the artists drew inspiration from the trends in painting and sculpture to create their jewelry pieces did jewelry itself influence the vision of artists, sculptors and largely photographers in the first part of the 20th century. In alliance with the body, many blazingly evocative and somewhat provocative photo images were created at the time, highlighting feminine beauty in style. Presented at the exhibition, the black and white photographs by non-fashion masters as Man Ray, Horst P. Horst and Edward Steichen portray eroticized imagery of women in close proximity to jewelry: while Man Ray’s images famously border on the avant-garde – one of the shots depicting, for instance, head and hand of a female mannequin as if existing independently – the hand beautified with a dazzling bracelet and the head adorned with a jeweled head diadem – the rest of the photographs are purely voluptuous and exude sex appeal in a more conventional understanding: effective women wearing luminous jewels strike poetic, sensual poses. Finding their way into high fashion publications such as Vogue, these images symbolized the rise of a new era of haute couture as depicted by photographers.
But then the aesthetic magnetism of jewelry in relation to the feminine form had its due effect on the vision of the artists as well – jewelry appears as a subject-matter in the paintings and compositions by Salvador Dali, Maud Bonneaud, Georges Braque and other painters of the time. In Dali’s work “The Sense of Speed” (1931) displayed at the exhibition a large white pearl in the foreground instantly draws attention in, symbolizing the transience of beauty against the constant of time. Another Dali’s painting at the exposition – Portrait d'une Femme Passionate (1945) – depicts sensuous, brightly manicured hands of a woman, adorned with bracelets and entwined with thin golden chains. The hands seem to suggest an expressive gesture as if leading a dialogue, or contemplating on the essence of beauty, or self… Both paintings are situated on the wall at the exposition opposite the earlier mentioned iconic jewelry pieces by Dali “The Eye of Time” (1949) and the artist’s legendary Mae West inspired “Ruby Lips” brooch (1949), contributing to the great multidisciplinary artistic dialogue where modernist jewelry, feminine beauty and painting become mutually receptive.
The jewelry designs by the famous American sculptor and artist Alexander Calder are largely inspired by his own mobile figurines and Native American motives. One of the most legendary jewelry pieces by Calder “The Jealous Husband” (1940) is on view at the exhibition, and as Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan writes in her article, “the piece is not so much a neck adornment as it is a form of forbidding body armor, complete with long spikes shooting straight up from the shoulders. Think of it as a whimsical brass chastity breast-plate comprising a feminine tangle of swirls that's decorative and graceful – and yet also conveys ‘Hands off’.” Smart, if slightly opportunist.
A number of other inventive jewelry exhibits by Calder – brass- and silver-made brooches and belts with ornamented buckles – reveal the avant-garde aesthetics of the time, yet Calder’s individualstic spirit is unmistakably present.
For more information please visit: Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya