By Dr. David Cowan
But, is it art? You say. In western society, jewellery is seen by many people as a personal adornment certainly, a consumer foible perhaps, a fetish depending on preferences, or simply an indulgence. It can also be viewed as cultural or spiritual. The Medusa exhibition in Paris wants us to see it as art. Just like the face of Medusa in Greek mythology, the exhibition states its aim to display jewellery that attracts and troubles the person who designs it, looks at it or wears it.
The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris offers a 1961 quote by Roland Barthes to explain how gemstones became jewellery and art:
“There has been a widespread liberation of jewellery: its definition is widening, it is now an object that is free, if one can say this, from prejudice: multiform, multi-substance, to be used in an infinite variety of ways, it is now no longer subservient to the law of the highest price nor to that of being used in only one way, such as for a party or sacred occasion: jewellery has become democratic.”
The accent in the exhibition is on the avant-garde artists and contemporary designers who have reinvented, transformed and detached from its own traditions. It is organized around four themes of Identity, Value, Body and Instruments. Each section prologues the often negative preconceptions that surround jewellery and the deconstructs them to reveal jewellery’s underlying subversive and performative potential.
There are over 400 pieces of jewellery featured, including the creations of artists, jewellery-makers and high-end jewelers. The artists include Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Louise Bourgeois and Sylvie Auvray. A highlight, and the feature of the exhibition poster, is a reproduction of Salvador Dali’s Ruby Lips from the years 1970-80 by Henryk Kaston, which is a broach of 18 carat gold, rubies, and cultured pearls.
Jewellery is most associated with women and consumerism or wealth. The majority of men usually content themselves with a watch and a ring or two, perhaps a bracelet, tiepin or pin badge. It is only recently that more men have experimented with jewellery, wearing more rings, bracelets and body piercing pieces. However, this feminization of jewellery is itself a later development, and the use of male jewellery a return to previous times. The industrial revolution allowed the production of more jewellery for women reaching down through levels of society, rather than as emblems of male power.
As gender discussions continue unabated today, the discussion of gender relationships with jewellery becomes even more open. Jewellery does, after all, play an important part of identity and identity politics. The use of items may indicate one is a punk or a biker, a fop or an alpha male. Religious significance in the use of jewellery is also highlighted, which also relates to the use of power and rituals of power in the political sphere.
The avant-garde jewellery makers and designers include René Lalique, Art Smith, Tony Duquette, Bless and Nervous System, while the contemporary creators include Gijs Bakker, Otto Künzli, Dorothea Prühl, and Seulgi Kwon. Prominent in this category is The Crown created by Vivienne Westwood, made of white and gold metal, velvet, faux crystals, plastic based pearls and faux ermine fur, and featured in her Autumn-Winter 2000/01 Gold Label runway show. Ted Noten's Superbitch Bag (2000), particularly in the context of debates about gun control and the Weinstein scandal, gives one pause to think.
But not all is left to the avant-garde, the more traditional high end jewellers feature, including Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Buccellati. Particularly impressive here is the Serpent Necklace by Cartier Paris. Created in 1968, the necklace is made of platinum, white and yellow gold, with 2,473 brilliant diamonds totalling 178,21 carats. The serpent has eyes of pear shape emeralds, and an enamel body with green, red and black accents.
Fifteen works and installations by contemporary artists, including Mike Kelley, Leonor Antunes, Atelier EB and Liz Craft are laced throughout the exhibition, echoing the themes of the four sections. These works show art as decoration and ornament, shedding light on the relationship between jewellery, the body and the world. Another aspect shown to us is a number of anonymous, ancient and non-Western pieces. These included prehistorical and medieval works, punk and rappers’ jewellery, and some items of costume jewellery.
The curator Anne Dressen, has done an outstanding job putting together an appreciation of diverse ways of understanding jewellery and its relationship with bodies and society. The note earlier on the impact of the industrial revolution highlights the economic questions of production, which also include the moral concerns over the ethical sourcing of diamonds and gold, or the cheap labour used to produce and sell luxury items in developing and newly industralised economies. Dressen curated the exhibition in collaboration with Michèle Heuzé and Benjamin Lignel and scientific advisors.
To answer the question is it art, or just bling, this exhibition demonstrates very clearly the argument in favour of art. I’m inclined to agree, and such inter-disciplinary displays are only to be welcomed. So long as there are bodies and societies to adorn, there will be controversial places for jewellery to perform a role in creating and reflecting identity and taste.