Metro, Arts

MFA Exhibit Explores Inspirations Provided by the Past

Fitting for an exhibit that focuses so much on time, the posters for Past is Present: Revival Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts are some of the first that greet visitors to the museum and the last they pass before they leave. Follow the signs across from the coat check, and double doorways lead into the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Gallery. The square space is dimly lit except for the illuminated cases along the back wall and in the center of the room. The cases draw the viewer in, and the rich gold and minute-colored stones glow against this background.

Each of the necklaces, bracelets, or earrings showcased in this exhibit tells a story of the communication between past and present. Even before visitors enter the actual gallery, two pieces in the entryway create this juxtaposition: a carved winged scarab beetle from ancient Egypt, and an almost identical brooch by the French jewelry house Cartier made in 1924. There are differences: the Cartier piece is more simplified and geometric, evoking the Art Deco period of the 1920s. Its deep turquoise wings appear more delicate, and graphic bands of sparkling diamonds are offset by thick black outlines. The similarities between the two that were created thousands of years apart, however, are more striking.

This pairing,which shows the reinterpretation of ancient influences, raises questions about history, culture, and the role of jewelry that define the rest of the exhibit. Egyptian revival pieces, inspired by breakthroughs such as the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, make up one of its four main themes. The other three—Archaeological, Renaissance, and Classical Revival—are highlighted in the central case.

“It was hard to decide what to choose because we have a lot of strength in that area,” Emily Stoehrer, the Rita J. and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at the MFA, said. “In the end I was thinking about the gallery and how it would lay out and working with the designers and the design team.”

Stoehrer decided to focus the exhibit on just four “revival themes” to showcase the “design elements and techniques” unique to each theme. In the center of a Renaissance revival necklace, pearls and intricate pink, green, and blue floral patterns drip from a long chain. The piece was created in 1900 but appears timeless.

“The idea was born from wanting to showcase the museum’s 19th century collection,” Stoehrer said. “If you go around and look at the dates on some of the pieces, you realize … they were very contemporary pieces when they came in, so that was very exciting.”  

Many of these 19th century pieces served as physical memories of the past for wearers. Individuals who traveled Europe on the “Grand Tour” collected jewelry that showed the distinct style of each city they visited. Italian works often included tiny painted or carved mythological scenes to echo the roots of that culture.

From the center, the exhibit fans out in a series of cases. Although the cases “loosely” grouped around the themes of memory, technology, and design, Stoehrer notes that the organization is not explicit in the exhibit. Instead, each case has a different, more specific theme.

“That became a way for the visitor to approach each case and understand the topic that was being outlined,” Stoehrer said. “Each case has its own story.”

The arc of the cases along the back wall encourages the audience to move through the exhibit, to see transitions, and circulate between them. Organizing each case by theme rather than a specific time period or medium invites the viewer to consider the commonalities and communication across cultures.

A case on money and currency shows these connections. The Italian jeweler Castellani created pendants in the 1870s and 1880s with ancient coins from Corinth and Syracuse. Another necklace from Bulgari includes coins with images of Hercules, but was made a century later in 1980. These pieces are presented alongside Kathy Buszkiewicz’s Savior bracelet from 1996, made from paper bills. The familiar green and white colors of money are transformed into a new pattern, raising questions of the idea of value and the transformation of a society over time.

“I want to show that the revival movement wasn’t something that was just in the 19th century,” Stoehrer said. “This is something that predates the 19th century and also continues. Because of the depth of our collection, I was looking to make those comparisons.”

In addition to directly incorporating ancient images, revival artists also showed a renewed interest in techniques such as enamel and granulation. One of Stoehrer’s favorite pieces, a series of small gold dove and cupid figures, shows these tactile qualities.

“It’s so small but so exquisite,” Stoehrer said.“If you look at the hair on each of the cherubs, each curl is one individual granule. The craftsmanship is really unmatched.”

Stoehrer also selected certain paintings for the gallery that invite the viewer to reflect on how these pieces would have been worn in daily life and “continuing the narrative and setting the tone for the time.” In “Tibullus at Delia’s House” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, for example,  the amphora and snake forms in Delia’s jewelry show the styles of both ancient and 19th century art, repeating the idea of timelessness and the beauty of the past.

“I hope that people will visit and see that these are really timeless themes,” Stoehrer said. “In the ebb and flow of different moments there is this continuous thread throughout jewelry’s history.”

Featured Image by Miranda McDonald-Stahl/ Heights Editor

March 2, 2017