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Médusa Exhibition: Jewelry, an Art well worth writing about

As a gemologist, I am never shy about my love of jewelry but lately I haven’t written about it as much. While in Paris this summer, the Médusa exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne hit the spot on my grid, at the junction between art, jewelry and a 3rd dimension that made this visit a highlight of my summer! Ready to make the most of Médusa, I had signed up for a 3-hour conference which turned out to be…a Writing Workshop in French!

The exhibition was not just your typical showcase of aesthetically beautiful jewels signed by the big names from the Place Vendôme. Although many of the glamorous suspects were spotted…

Van Cleef & Arpels, Zip necklace, 1951

Instead, Médusa aimed to rock preconceptions about jewelry.

With over 400 pieces, I will cover only a few themes here and I hope you go see it. It’s on until November 5th, 2017.

Jewelry and Identity.

Jewelry usually conjures up a “feminine” attribute or ornament but it’s much more complicated than that.

René Lalique, Art Nouveau Gold and Enamel Serpents Pectoral, 1898-99, on loan from the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon

Witness this conical Golden Hat from the Bronze Age. 

The repeated circles and symbols were used to make astronomical predictions which in turn would have helped with agricultural decisions. Definitely phallic too.

Jewelry as a symbol of power, worn by men. Louis XIV wanted the biggest diamonds.

Bazuband upper arm band, Cartier London, 1922

Maharajas piled them in exquisite designs worn with pride as a symbol of their power and wealth. Now only rappers go for such a “big look”.

Lauren Greenfield, Generation Wealth exhibition. Showing Limo Bob wearing 33lbs of gold chains and jewelry. Generation Wealth – Lauren Greenfield

Today, socially accepted male jewelry has become a lot more functional, stirring clear from “feminine” jewelry worn by women as a “futile” ornament.

But wait, how “feminine” and “futile” was the original female “jewel”, the chastity belt?

There is a whole debate to be had about jewelry as a binding object, linking giver and receiver.

Louise Bourgeois, Necklace based on a 1940 drawing

Case in point with this necklace that leaves no doubt about how artist Louise Bourgeois felt about the subject.

Evelyn Hofer, Anjelica Houston wearing The Jealous Husband (a necklace from 1940 by artist Alexander Calder), 1976

Same with this 1940 Calder necklace called The Jealous Husband. Not really fostering the mobility usually associated with Calder!

But you could say forms and underlying meanings endure to this day with this whip bracelet by Hermès.

Pierre Hardy for Hermès, Bracelet Fouet

Jewelry and Value

Looking at the value of jewelry is another big theme. 

Cowrie shells like the ones on this majestic necklace were used as currency for trade in Africa. Then came coins as currency but they also made their way into jewelry, with Bvlgari elevating the trend to an elitist object of adornment.

With the economic character of jewelry comes the relationship between what’s authentic and what’s fake – made of noble materials such as precious metals and gemstones or materials of limited value.

By extension, such ornamentation is also associated with seduction and a projected image. Here again, airing between truth and deception, this sometimes gives jewelry the repulsive side of its coin.

Yet, flip the materialistic trait associated with jewelry on its head and you get objects with no intrinsic value yet encapsulating limitless sentimental value. 

It’s the very first piece of jewelry a child receives and the one every parent will cherish: a plastic Birth Bracelet.

No gold, no gemstone necessary, just a healthy child…who will one day make you wear a penne pasta necklace with as much pride as if this Art Nouveau Lalique piece was yours.

Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Lalique created naturalistic yet emotionally charged designs as this video on TheFrenchJewelryPost explains.

René Lalique, Art Nouveau Noisettes necklace, 1899-1900, on loan from Les Arts Décoratifs

Art Nouveau jewellery vowed to be creative and bold in design rather than a showcase for expensive gemstones. Lalique preferred mastering enamelling techniques to achieve colors and textures thanks to the versatile nature of glass.

And as such, Lalique delivered true artistry with a small portable object called jewelry, perhaps achieving a sculptural rendering making it something other than a “miniature” art?

Jewelry, the Body and Art

Looking at a kinetic bracelet like this one created by artist Pol Bury in 1968, it’s easy to see the lines between art and jewelry getting blurred.

The bracelet becomes a small scale version of his sculpture work at Palais Royal.

Same with Louise Stevenson’ necklace which is as much Art as her monumental sculptures.

By becoming very large, some pieces of jewelry actually dissociate themselves from the wearer to become an extension of the body. Case in point, the Crown. You don’t need to see the Queen of England to “feel” her presence. The Crown represents its wearer or rather its “custodian”, as Elizabeth Taylor described herself in relationship to her vast collection.

Avant-garde artist such as Nam June Paik, also known as the father of video art, was early on this link between jewelry and body. Look at his 1967 necklace. 

Nam June Paik, Sense Amplifier, Inhibit Driver, 1967

I think it’s wonderfully titled: Sense Amplifier, Inhibit Driver.

It’s a “technological” accessory, extending the body of the wearer out. I can’t help but seeing a parallel with Fitbit bracelets recording what our body does while the Apple watch as an extension of our phone unfortunately contains a big part of our brain!

So, call me “futile”, I will keep wearing “feminine” jewelry everyday. There is much more than meet the eyes when you think about it as a social object but I did not anticipate it would put me on the spot like it did that night.

Welcomed by the lovely Laurence Verdier, I was told I was attending an Atelier d’Ecriture (Writing Workshop). Something writers and journalists sign up for. Knowingly.

I showed up there at 7pm, straight from 4 hours spent at Picasso Primitif at Quai Branly on the other side of the river Seine. With my stomach really asking for dinner, I was ready to drop it but do I ever do that? Nope. And I am so glad I did not.

Our assignment was to pick one of the empty jewelry boxes in the exhibition and to make it “speak”.

Photo Credit, Sandrine Merle

We had 30 minutes to write then it was reading-out time! Even though I am French, I am much more comfortable writing in English so this was tough but it also liberated me in ways I can’t quite express with words. As if a confirmation that writing, in any language, had always been part of my grid…If you speak French, let me know your thoughts!

J’ai abrité une étoile jaune, une étoile d’or. Une étoile comme cette autre en tissu rugueux qui, à trop briller, attirait les convoitises, la jalousie et la haine. Jusqu’à la mort.

Résistante ayant participé à maintes opérations ayant permis à nombre de familles juives de quitter la France occupée, Françoise Leclerc avait décidé de fondre tous ses bijoux de famille, ces médailles d’aïeuls inconnus, méconnus qu’elle ne pouvait porter. Inutiles mais de valeur, Françoise voulait que son or prenne la forme des vies qu’elle avait sauvé, la forme d’une étoile associée aux Juifs.  De tissu, cette étoile se fit d’or, un bijou. Une broche qu’elle déclarait avec aplomb lui rappeler ses nuits de guet où les étoiles du ciel brillaient. Où chaque silence disait que la vie finirait par s’imposer.

Cette étoile, elle voulait l’arborer de son plein gré, en toute liberté, mais cela déplaisait. Beaucoup. Trop.

Par peur qu’une telle provocation déchaîne d’autres fureurs, son compagnon déroba l’étoile d’or et l’échangea contre un anneau tout simple, pour demander la main de Françoise. Elle dit oui.

Un an plus tard, il me retrouva, moi l’écrin abandonné et vide…et y rangea le bracelet de naissance de leur fille, Anna. La vie avait triomphé.

Note: Françoise Leclerc is no fiction.

Cartier, Gold Star pin, 1940’s, photo credit Sandrine Merle

She was in the Resistance and she did have her jewelry melted into a gold star pin made by Cartier. I noticed it during the exhibition. All the rest is a figment of my imagination, inspired by the Médusa exhibition.

Go explore more jewelry pieces at Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris until November 5, 2017. Or check out more stories on my friend Sandrine Merle’s website.


© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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