the “lesser arts” at the Met

It’s a well-known fact that looking at (or preferably, living with) fruits of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements makes one a better person.  If either or both of these movements is/are new to you, please see other clever and insightful blog entries, like this one, or this one or this one or this one or this really good one (but definitely not this one) to find out more.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a lovely, if small, collection of British designers who represent the mid-century roots of pure Arts and Crafts (founded in the idealism of William Morris) and its later Nouveau blossoming (which came to terms with industry and capitalism in a way that would have made Morris pout).  We leave the debate between the idealists and realists to MoT‘s Department of Aesthetic Theory and report on our quick romp through this small happy place at the Met.

We saw this view (to the left) at a distance and it pulled us in like a tractor beam.  The whole time we were focused on the large piece next to the funky little chair and stammering WebbWebbWebbit’sgottobeaWebb.  Sure enough, it is, and even though our camera skills were not quite up to par (shaky hands, all that Philip Webbness in front of us) (some people would get nervous taking a picture of Nick Rhodes; we freak out in front of a Philip Webb cabinet) (well, full disclosure: we’d be pretty shaky in either situation), you can see it better here.  And you should, so you can get a better view of the Burne-Jones painting on it too (although our color is better).  But in our picture, it’s sitting there next to a Pugin chair (not THE Pugin, but rather THE Pugin’s son, Edward, but still.); details here.  We still wince a little bit to see the products of this movement set up in a museum, in the exact setting they were not supposed to be a part of (and indeed were designed in opposition to); the same could be said for the wonderful ceramics at the top of the page (American relatives of the things featured here), which sort of wince and grimace in their colorless cases, on glass shelves, blasted by sunlight.

Knox, “Thrym” Design (ca. 1905)

Under somewhat better conditions, we find this terra cotta number by Archibald Knox.  Oh Archibald Knox: where were you when we were selecting topics for our dissertation, and blinded by American architects and their fabulous domes?  Better late than never: we are happy to have found you later in life.  To the left, this jardiniere (French for “plant pot”) was designed by Knox and made by Carter & Co. for Liberty & Co. just after the turn of the century.  It’s a marvelously simple form, and although we are skeptical that having the handles so low in a piece that’s supposed to carry a big plant would really work, we forgive you Archie, because that big Celtic Nouveau knot is wonderful, and the glaze on this pot so rich and varied–just look at those highlights to the left of the knot.  We don’t believe we’ve ever seen anything in nature that could be potted here and survive the comparison. (Hot for Knox?  Check out these people who have also got it bad.)

Knox, Claret Jug (1901)

And if we weren’t dazzled already, then there is this claret jug (left), that Knox designed for Liberty (Met info here).  We don’t drink claret, and have already forgotten what Wikipedia told us about the little green stones (chrysoprase) that adorn the vessel.  But we will make it our birthstone and vow to down claret by the gallon if it meant we could do it with this stunner in our house.

Lo and behold, so close to the Knox pieces, is a reminder of our first real Arts and Crafts love, C.F.A. (Charles Francis Awesomely) Voysey, represented at the Met by this little swath of velveteen below (details here).  So pretty, so fine.  There’s something about the soft hues, the sneaky bird, the tulip (our favorite flower: how did you know, CFA?), in that drumbeat repeat and stiff geometry that remains engaging.  (But that’s it?  why so little love for Voysey, Met?  Where’s this nutty cast iron fireplace?  And the dozens of other things you ought to have for us?)

velveteen Voysey (1890s)

Also under-represented is Christopher Dresser, who at least is shown through one of his excellent toast racks (below).  It’s almost Bauhausian in its industrial straightforwardness, but then has those little bulbous connections, the playful rivetty elements at the bottom, and the overall exuberance of a jaunty crown that reminds us no, no: Walter Gropius had nothing to do with this (indeed, Herr Sourpuss was born two years after Dresser knocked out this little beauty).  For more on the toast rack, read this from the Met, but we have our doubts about their write up: letter rack?  No way, this is totally for toast.  And we are not toast people.  But, again, we’ll indulge, and wash it down with claret, if we can take it home.

Toast of the town: Dresser

And there’s more.  There are silver belt buckles with sea creature/dolphin kings:

Anna Wagner, Austria (1904)

And this chair designed by French people we don’t know, but who have very fancy names that you can learn here (names as fancy as this awesome chair).

Henri-Jules-Ferdinand Bellery-Desfontaines, SERIOUSLY (1905)

And Lalique pendant of kissing PEACOCKS, for crying out loud, enamelled gold with opal, pearl and diamonds (if our picture doesn’t have you in tears yet, try this one, and if that doesn’t do it, check your pulse).

Lalique (French for “mmmwah!”) (1901)

And oh yes, one more piece by Knox, a silver and champlevé piece (below) that we still can’t decide if it is better used to eat our soup or adorn our hair.  We do know that champlevé is a very, very old-school method of enamelling closely associated with Celtic traditions and we like to see that in our friend Knox; it’s truer to the intellectual foundation of Arts and Crafts than some of his other things, and its philosophical foundations too.

Which reminds us of something that was said by one of Knox’s biographers and is now repeated by every lazy curator who throws together an Arts  & Crafts show: What Charles Rennie Mackintosh was to furniture, Archibald Knox was to metalwork and jewelry.  Now, we understand the sentiment since Mack is such a big freaking deal in most circles, but since we see him as designer of prissy Ikea prototypes, we’ll just say that Knox rocks our world, and leave it at that.

This exhibition, a tiny piece of the Met, includes some wonderful things that warm our heart, but their display leaves MoT‘s Curatorial Critic cold.  When will curators learn that they need to build little domestically-scaled rooms for the proper display of these wonderful objects?  They were designed, fabricated and sold for home use and enjoyment.  Their treatment as those artifacts that Morris called the “Greater Arts” just isn’t right.  Just as a sculpture removed from a Buddhist temple should not be displayed in the same was as a Renaissance portrait, the “Lesser Arts” require a different setting: one more domestic than clinical, more contextual than object-oriented.  For the sake of the goods and the people who love them, change it.  Or, send them home with us.  We’d be happy to put them on display in the domestic wing of MoT HQ in an appropriate setting and at the proper scale for consumption–ours and the “public’s,” we promise.

Knox three times

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One thought on “the “lesser arts” at the Met

  1. Great post, but only one small quibble here….Mackintosh was a real hack when it came to furniture, so trying to build up Knox by comparing him to the Mack seems to actually weaken the argument. Sure, it LOOKS like he’s the mack daddy, but A.) try sitting in any chair he designed and see if you don’t need an orthopedic surgeon afterwards and B.) it was built rather shoddily and has a reputation for falling apart under use. I think Knox deserves a better model for comparison…..Greene & Greene perhaps?

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