Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Picasso to Koons: Artist as jeweler

Salvador Dali’s brooch. Courtesy of the Museum of Art & Design.

The pantheon of 20th century artists is currently housed at the second floor of the Museum of Art and Design, where guest curator Diane Venet organized an exhibit that features over 180 pieces of jewelry. Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois are just a few of the artists whose jewelry is temporarily on view at the museum (September 20, 2011- January 8, 2012). Some more developed than others, these pieces of jewelry grab the viewer’s attention mainly because of their resemblance to well-known art pieces: Max Ernst’s figures have turned into body adornments and so has Roy Lichtenstein’s or Salvador Dali’s imagery. A brooch here, a ring there, a necklace, cufflinks, earrings… all types of jewelry are in abundance and available to the visitor. But are they intellectually accessible? I think not.

The wall text that ushers the visitor into the exhibit explains that these pieces were created mainly as tokens of affection that were given to the artists’ family members or loved ones and that they have come down to us through private collections. That is to say that the artists never intended these to enter the market as part of their artistic production. Clearly preoccupied with specific themes during certain periods, most of these artists experimented with metalwork and occasionally with precious and semi-precious stones to reproduce forms that they already knew well, notwithstanding on a different scale. This is why Warhol’s signage becomes a little round brooch; Dali’s overly sexualized imagery takes form in rubies and pearls; Louise Bourgeois’s silverwork reminds us of a (miniature) chastity belt. But are we supposed to know all this? Are we called to see these items as yet another manifestation (albeit mostly private and certainly luxurious) of the artist’s stylistic vocabulary? If yes, how much does the visitor need to know?

To turn this around, one may assume that we are not supposed to know art history and judge these items within the lineage of artistic production but rather appreciate them as pieces of jewelry, items intended for personal adornment. If this is the case, are we relegating items of smaller scale to what has been known as “minor arts?” Isn’t that a serious predicament for an institution such as the Museum of Art & Design? What piqued my interest as an exciting step in the right direction was the very attempt to replicate well-mastered vocabulary in other media, with different techniques, and different processes, often in different scale as well. After all, the tradition of the accomplished visual artist as master jeweler begins in the Renaissance. Think of Cellini or Hans Holbein who were skillful metal smiths and stonecutters. What I found extremely problematic was the lack of a clear narrative in the display of these interesting pieces. What were the ideas the curator wanted to share with the audience? What informed the groupings of the various pieces?  Was it chronology? Formal affinities? Conceptual similarities?

Admittedly, the display of jewelry proves problematic mainly because of its scale. The relatively (although not always) small size of the pieces allows for the tendency to crowd the exhibit with as many examples of an idea as possible. By choosing that route, the curator has to forgo any attempt to bring in contextual information that would allow for a more informed interpretation of the artwork. Had it been completely stripped off its stardust (via the items’ association with the most prominent figures in art of the 20th century), this exhibit would have been assigned to the realm of minor or decorative arts. Unfair as this might have been, it would have also allowed the viewer to judge the items for their quality of technique and craftsmanship, regardless of the creator’s fame. To circumvent the difficulties inherent in each one of these decisions, the curator offers a potpourri of possibilities for the interpretation of these objects.  Is jewelry an art form or a craft? According to this exhibit, it is somewhere in the middle. Except the middle is such an uncomfortable place to be.

© Thomaï Serdari