"Yes, it's pretty, but how did they wear that?"
A little girl stands, perplexed, before an enormous jeweled brooch. Almost four inches in diameter, and completely paved with gemstones, the bow-shaped brooch presents a formidable wardrobe challenge.
"People wore different clothes back then," her grandmother replies.
The girl's question haunts us through the exhibition. Viewing an enameled 18K gold "dog collar" from 1899, another visitor wonders if Victorians really dressed their dogs in black velvet and gold. There are gold powder boxes too diminutive to hold powder, and diamond collars too substantial for dancing.
From February 10 through June 10, 2007, the Legion of Honor will display 153 pieces of jewelry, all of them Masterpieces of French Jewelry. The earliest pieces in the exhibition date from the 1880s, and the exhibition continues through the 21st century. There are pieces by famous Parisian jewelry houses, such as Cartier and Boucheron. There are also pieces by individual artists, such as
The labels direct us to read the work in aesthetic terms. In Winter Landscape, an Art Nouveau brooch constructed with 18K gold, enamel, glass, and black pearls, we admire cuff bracelet by JAR, and to admire the geometric composition and arresting color in a geometric brooch dating from 1935. Masterpieces has little interest in the historical or the didactic. The pieces stand alone, glittering seashells washed ashore.
Jewelry, with its connotations of intimacy, has a curious ability to incite empathy. Made strange by time, these pieces conjure a world at once alien and familiar.
The pieces bring the past close in a way that paintings do not. Perhaps this is because we read jewelry as part of an ensemble, attached to a living being. In the museum, the pieces are "empty," their owners absent. This absence, or emptiness, leaves us free to fill in the blanks.
In this respect, it is less artwork (with its grand connotations of autonomy and presence) than artifact. We must invent a persona for the owner of that miniature powder box, with intricate carved agate blossoms and diamond inlays. We must conjure a character out of Wharton or James, dining by candlelight in Old New York, or a Venetian palace. We can visualize Liz Taylor in a caftan, wearing Richard Burton's gift -- the Taj Mahal diamond, reset by Cartier. (The diamond, a gift from Shah Jahan to his wife, is watery and unfaceted, engraved in curving script.)
Consider Fouquet's matching ebony necklace and bracelet, a stark circular form punctuated by four gold disks and shimmering bands of chrome and gold. Who might wear such a thing with its strange resemblance to certain avant-garde sculptures? Consider a miniature watch manufactured by the Cartier company: a small rock crystal elephant perched atop a watch outlined in diamonds. These are the small details that finish a portrait.
Because jewelry remains an important mode of communication in our culture (witness the wedding ring, the cross on a chain, the studded cuff), these pieces refuse autonomy. A visit to Masterpieces resembles a visit to a top-end jeweler, a walk through Tiffany or Shreve, but without the giddy thrill of feeling the piece on one's own skin.
As we walk through the exhibition, my friend Heather turns to her mother and asks, "Is this as good as the Gem Show in Tucson?"
Jane thinks not. "At the Gem Show, everything is for sale."
Jane's comment underscores the difficulty in collapsing "art" and "culture." The line between the two might be blurry and indistinct, but that line constitutes the museum's traditional raison d'etre. If we wish to place "jewelry" on par with "painting," we must reinvent the museum. And not simply by widening the net to include consumer commodities as well as high culture (thus transforming the museum into a species of high-end boutique). Rather, the museum must offer visitors an experience distinct from a visit to Prada or Gucci, all about spectacle, upward mobility, and aspirational lifestyles.