It’s taken a couple unwanted delays for Cincinnati Art Museum to get Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry open, but it’s been worth the wait. The museum has done a wonderful job displaying it; Cynthia Amnéus, the museum’s associate curator of costume and textiles, has really made it look sparkling. The show, up through Jan. 17, should be a hot holiday ticket.
The exhibit, organized by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and drawn from a private collection, provides a well-organized history lesson on the turn-of-the-20th-Century Art Nouveau movement. Beginning on the balcony and flanking either side of the main entrance to the gallery are works of Art Nouveau predecessors and contemporaries.
The movement draws influence from the organic shapes of Baroque architecture, the mythological themes of the Pre-Raphaelites and the cryptic nature of the Symbolists. Art Nouveau artists also shared aesthetics with their contemporaries in the Arts and Crafts movement. They both had an appreciation for the handcrafted over the mass-produced object.
Arts and Crafts textile artist William Morris (1834-1896) is featured prominently on the balcony. The English artist used organic dyes in his large, floral textiles. The thorny leaves and curvilinear stems of his flowers are motifs also found in Art Nouveau. Morris’ work is more than decorative; it represents the social consciousness of these artists. At the turn of the century, industrialism made goods available to more people on a cheaper scale. Art Nouveau artists appreciated these advancements but they also rejected the mass production of art, favoring handcrafted works.
The exhibit features work by European and American artists and designers. The movement in America was less flamboyant than in France, but the results are just as stunning.
The exhibit’s main gallery is dim and mysterious — it’s like exploring a labyrinth filled with precious objects. The walls are a deep teal that matches the colors found in much of the displayed jewelry, including “Pendant Necklace with Swallows” (c. 1990) by Victor Gérard. Curvilinear shapes are painted on the walls, echoing Hector Guimard’s designs for the Paris Métro.
Many of the works are mounted with special fixtures, which blend perfectly with the jewelry. Objects of similar color and/or subject matter are paired. For example, a small orange vase (1910-15) by the Daum Freres studio of Nancy, France, matches perfectly with Lucien Gaillard’s “Necklace with Bleeding Hearts” (c. 1907). Both objects bear the small pink flower known as the bleeding heart, a popular motif from this period.
Flora and fauna are the prevailing subjects of the jewelry. While there is nothing new about making fine jewelry inspired by nature, it had never been done like this before. The artists rejected the so-called “tyranny of the diamond” — particularly in the Victorian Era, which preceded the movement, the diamond reigned supreme. Art Nouveau artists did something revolutionary; they found the diamond boring and used it sparingly, favoring less expensive and more vibrant gems.
For the first time the sapphire, the opal and even colored glass could steal the show. An Art Nouveau sapphire is to a perfectly cut diamond what a funky, artist-made purse is to a Gucci handbag. And the world was ready for that change. In this exhibit, an oddly shaped pearl is a far more interesting centerpiece for Charles Desrosiers’ “Orchid Brooch” than any perfectly rounded white pearl. Other precious materials, including gold, are sometimes nothing more than a thin border for a flood of brilliant purple enamel, as in “Pendant-brooch with Pink Carnations” (1901-02) by René Lalique.
The rarest gems of this collection are a handful of pendants, brooches and belt buckles with a morbid appeal. They depict creatures of the night and demonstrate an interest in the occult. The crowning jewel of these is Maurice-Philippe Fourain’s “Pendant Necklace with Two Intertwined Serpents” (1911). The serpents coil around each other and form a dagger shape. Their heads are far too big for their bodies. Their tongues lash out in an exaggerated hiss and their eyes are red and bulbous. Distorting nature to make it more beautiful or even grotesque is another defining trait of Art Nouveau.
Mythological beasts such as the griffin, chimera, mermaid and sphinx were also fascinations for these artists. Unfortunately, there are only a few displayed at the CAM. There are the “Hair Comb with a Profile Dragon on Wave” (c. 1910), by an unknown artist, and the “Pendant Necklace with a Female Head and a Sphinx” (c. 1900) by Emmanuel-Jules-Joseph Descomps. It would be thrilling to see a mermaid or a satyr present in this collection.
As Yvonne Markowitz writes in the exhibition catalogue, such work can represent a fin de siecle (or “end of the century”) sense of pessimism. As the 20th century loomed, a fear of change drove the artists back to medieval and Gothic art for inspiration. Spiders and serpents could therefore represent their fears. The French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline called them “the insomnias of the world.”
Yet, these frightening beasts are depicted on some of the most gorgeous and delicate jewelry ever made. That’s just the dichotomy of Art Nouveau. The jewelry is as fickle and imperfect its human wearer.
IMPERISHABLE BEAUTY is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 17.