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The Shape of Things: A Brief Journey through Maker & Muse

The Shape of Things: A Brief Journey through <i> Maker & Muse</i>
February 27, 2020 By: Alyson Cluck, Curatorial Assistant

The Shape of Things: A Brief Journey through Maker & Muse

The world of refined “adult” jewelry—say, gold, diamonds, and pearls—is not everyone’s cup of tea. (I count myself among such people.) But regardless of your interests or relationship to these objects, I would encourage you to set aside your preconceptions of what jewelry can be when entering the Frick’s new exhibition, Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry. More than a display of exquisite or sumptuous pieces, this show launches you into a lively, bohemian era at the dawn of a new century, effectively whisking you through five regions in Europe and the United States where painters, architects, and designers began crafting new kinds of wearable art. Proposing new forms, materials, surfaces, and techniques, their handcrafted and experimental designs were intended not only to transform an individual’s outer look, but also to intervene in larger spaces and structures, whether they be the spirited cabarets and avant-garde cultures of Paris or Vienna, or the industrialized cities and women’s movements of Great Britain, New York, or Chicago.

Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach (German, 1861–1918), Octopus Waist Clasp, c. 1900. Silver-gilt, opal, garnet, chalcedony. Photograph by John Faier, © 2014 The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Though Maker & Muse is by no means a small exhibition—it lays out more than two hundred works—it’s worth slowing down and looking closely at these intimate forms. Patterns rise and fall as you make your way through each section. In one corner featuring the jewelry of German metalsmiths who were inspired by French Art Nouveau, you’ll encounter a brooch containing a small seductive mermaid perched on an actual twist of salmon-colored coral, as well as an ornate waist clasp shaped like a bulbous octopus with sprawling limbs, a milky opal body, and beady garnet eyes. In the display case next to them, the aquatic gives way to the abstract, with pieces that are boldly simplified, geometric, and compact—a mark of the Austrian group known as the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop). Other cases feature jewelry from Great Britain, France, and the United States, where artists experimented with various enameling techniques to produce painterly effects and to emphasize the handwrought, tactile nature of their craft.

Installation view of Maker & Muse.

For me, spending time in Maker & Muse conjures the same sentiments and joys of travel: of seeing how different societies, in this case concurrently and at times intermixing with one another, produced unique forms of artistic expression. It shows you how an object’s appearance (its shape, lines, motif) is never solitary or meaningless but was crafted within a network of circulating ideas and impulses. Focusing on this interrelationship between an object’s form and context takes us beyond the subjective qualifiers of beauty or personal taste, and instead helps us view history—and life, in general—in fuller, more complex terms.

What follows is a brief journey through four objects in the show, each harboring stories about the environments and makers that shaped them.

    

Attributed to Nelson Dawson (English, 1859–1941) and Edith Dawson (English, 1862–1928), “Birds in the Trees” Cloak Clasp, c. 1900. Silver, enamel. Photograph by John Faier, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Our first stop is turn-of-the-century Britain, where many talented jewelers—especially women and husband-and-wife teams—were working in the cities of London, Birmingham, and Glasgow. The couple Nelson and Edith Dawson were prominent in these circles. They switched from painting to jewelry making shortly after their 1893 marriage, with Nelson specializing in design work and Edith producing the colorful, dense enamels for which they are best known.

This cloak clasp is a typical example of their craft, where the metalwork (often rounded or square) serves as a simple framing device for Edith’s nature-inspired imagery. Forgoing the use of expensive materials (gold, precious stones), the Dawsons instead relied on the ancient technique of enameling, in which powdered opaque glass is applied and fixed to a metal surface through firing. This was a conscious decision in line with other jewelry makers who were influenced by the British Arts & Crafts movement of the nineteenth century. Reacting both to the luxury market and to the devaluing of craftspeople in the age of industry and mass production, these artists embraced certain methods, materials, and imagery that harkened back to simpler times and were intended to make their work more sustainable and affordable for people to buy.

Nevertheless, because these objects were painstakingly handcrafted and unique—you can see this in the clasp’s two largest pieces, each being a miniature work of art—this form of jewelry was not particularly efficient or economical to produce. Even so, this type of work appealed to progressive and independent-minded women, including famous British suffragettes who often wore necklaces and other pieces of jewelry with the symbolic color scheme of green, white, and violet (the first letters signifying “give women votes”).

The specific function of the Dawsons’ clasp is also significant. Unlike a traditional necklace or bracelet that is purely ornamental, this clasp would have been used to fasten a woman’s cape or cloak over a long flowing dress, all part of the reform clothing movement spreading across Britain. In doing away with the restrictive attire of the Victorian era, Edith Dawson and her contemporaries were helping to secure new forms of freedom for women—from fashion to politics to professional artistic careers. 

                   

René Lalique (French, 1860­–1945), Brooch, c. 1900. Carved ivory, gold. Collection of Nelson Rarities. Photo courtesy of Christie's.

The renowned French jeweler René Lalique is well represented in the Art Nouveau section of Maker & Muse. It’s worth getting as close as you can to his sixteen works in order to appreciate the full range of his creations, which include a spiky edged aquamarine necklace, delicate floral motifs rendered in glass and gold, and two imaginative works—an ivory brooch and a tiny gold ring—both featuring the twisting, interlocking bodies of nude women. The ivory brooch, pictured here, presents not only an awkward perspective but also an extremely unusual subject matter. It hovers somewhere between the sensual and the grotesque, with the two figures alternately embracing and pushing beyond their womb-like enclosure.

To depict a woman on jewelry—let alone two women, conjoined in the nude—was a radical move on Lalique’s part. Indeed, until Art Nouveau, it was extremely uncommon in France to find female figures (apart from classical subjects) represented on such objects. Unlike his British contemporaries, however, Lalique’s risk-taking was aimed at a small, elite clientele consisting of wealthy patrons, courtesans, celebrities, and performers, some of whom doubled as Lalique’s personal muses. Not only was this group more inclined to support his bold visions of the emerging “new woman”—a subject both celebrated and reviled in French modern culture—but they also could afford to purchase his jewelry, which incorporated costly amounts of gold, diamonds, and pearls.

Lalique’s influence on artists within and beyond France is also notable. He often experimented with materials not ordinarily found in high-end jewelry, such as glass, enamel, ivory, and horn. Elsewhere in this show, you’ll see several stunning pieces made in horn by Lalique’s admirers.

Most significantly, though, Lalique’s work helped define the style of Art Nouveau, which looked back to the earlier French Rococo period for inspiration. In his ivory brooch, for example, the three-dimensional curves, folds, and sinuous lines forming the two women’s bodies and their circular gold hair are hallmarks of Art Nouveau’s visual language. A counterpart to Lalique’s jewelry in the exhibition is François-Raoul Larche’s Loïe Fuller Lamp, an object that captures the billowing and illuminating effect of Loïe Fuller’s famous “Serpentine Dance.” Both Lalique’s and his peers’ artistic approach sought to embody the transformative energy of a new era, while at the same time projecting these forces far and wide for others to grasp.

Installation view of François-Raoul Larche (French, 1860–1912), Loïe Fuller Lamp, 1899–1905. Gilt-bronze, electrified. Collection of Macklowe Gallery. Photo by Ben Matthews.

Our last stops take us across the Atlantic to New York and Chicago, where various styles and techniques were unfolding in art jewelry. 

                

Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848­–1933) and Julia Munson (American, 1875–1971), Necklace, c. 1910. 18K gold, pink sapphire, plique-à-jour enamel. Tiffany & Co. Archives.

One approach can be seen in this delicate double-stranded necklace by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Julia Munson from around 1910, eight years after Tiffany founded his jewelry workshop in New York. Featuring two rows of gold filigree roundels, green plique-à-jour enamel, and four pink sapphires placed inconspicuously (or enticingly) on the clasp, this piece illustrates the elaborate, sensual detailing and lavish production typical of Tiffany’s jewelry business.

Admittedly, the full effect of this necklace can only be perceived up close, especially the intricate plique-à-jour enamelwork, a technique you will also see in the Art Nouveau section of this show. Difficult to execute, plique-à-jour enamel—which translates to “letting in daylight”—is achieved by removing the backing from a design in order to make the enamel translucent. It produces a luminous effect similar to standing in front of a stained-glass window, a field in which Tiffany famously excelled.

Having come of age within the nineteenth-century Aesthetic movement, where “art for art’s sake” was a central tenet, Tiffany was above all concerned with an object’s beauty rather than its underlying meaning or message. The materials he used (large quantities of gold and colored gemstones), as well as the designs he developed with his studio assistants, reflected his penchant for “exotic” motifs that he observed during his extensive travels to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Aided by a team of young jewelers, including Julia Munson, Meta Overbeck, and many other anonymous women, Tiffany crafted his work for an affluent clientele that reveled in his sumptuous, labor-intensive approach to jewelry making.

                                     

Portrait of Madeline Yale Wynne by Frances and Mary Allen, 1908. Courtesy of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA.

Finally, farther west, in Chicago, women and men were actively shaping their own distinct jewelry movement, though theirs was principally inspired by the ideals and designs of the British Arts & Crafts movement, which they learned about through magazines, apprenticeships in England, and lectures given by visiting artists. With no overarching, monolithic style, the jewelry in this section appears delightfully varied and at times idiosyncratic. Like their British counterparts, Chicago craftspeople were interested in carving out an alternative space separate from the city’s industrial production and apart from society’s mainstream tastes.

Madeline Yale Wynne (American, 1847–1918), Belt Buckle, c. 1907. Silver, turquoise. Collection of Memorial Hall Museum, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA.

Among my personal favorites here are several objects by Madeline Yale Wynne, who began working with metal at age ten when her father, the inventor of the Yale lock, introduced her to metalworking. Wynne shared a Chicago workshop with her brother, where she fashioned brooches, buckles, and pendants set with stones and pebbles of irregular sizes, shapes, and textures. The belt buckle pictured here, made from pierced silver and turquoise stones—materials native to the American Southwest—boasts a heavy, organic profile and suggests Wynne’s attempt to tap into a larger regional or indigenous aesthetic.

Especially striking about Wynne’s practice, and the careers of the jewelers around her, are the essential aspects of teaching, mentorship, and collaboration that together helped create a flourishing jewelry community in the Midwest. Their regular activities of hosting exhibitions and training others not only strengthened their own work and relationships, but also provided vocational skills to a wide variety of people, including many women, recent immigrants, and, a decade later, returning veterans from World War I.

As this brief trip concludes, I hope that the act of looking closely at several works in the show may lead you to continue journeying into other regions and periods and to see what patterns and connections emerge. You can reserve tickets to see the variety of stunning works in this exhibition here.
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