Banqueting Room at the Brighton Pavilion (1815-22)

It’s a well-established historical fact that people who lived in the eighteenth century were nuts. A rosy reflection of the past may suggest that life at that time was one great well-manned episode of Masterpiece Theatre, replete with cravats, needlepoint, witty conversation and polished napkin rings.  Although Mr. & Miss Seventeen-Hundreds knew their way around a whist table, they are also the people who first systematically excavated Pompeii–in the very same decade that they stoked up the early blast furnaces; they overthrew kings and invented new countries; they peered deep into microscopes and sailed across oceans to unknown lands.  Their widely ranging activities lead to the brief, fizzy movement known as Chinoiserie, the first significant blending of Occidental and Oriental taste.  (And without taste, what does archaeology, industry, governance, science and commerce really matter?)

During this period, China was accessible primarily to merchants (who were very interested in the commercial possibilities of learning about Chinese manners and taste in order to exploit them for home markets) and missionaries (who were only interested in those lessons insofar as they might change/correct them).  Among the former, William Chambers, a merchant for the Swedish East India Company, saw even more potential in the ceramics and pagodas of Canton than did his professional brethren.  In the midst bargaining for spices and tea, Chambers was so inspired by his surroundings that he gave up his lucrative career and turned to architecture.  He built a reputation by serving up fabulous buildings in the Western tradition, but never lost his love for the East.  In London, significant royal work fell to him, from the massively civic and awesomely Neo-Classical Somerset House to the expansively recreational and fabulously Picturesque Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The Pagoda, Kew (1762)

To ornament the gardens, Chambers cooked up an architectural banquet, including a domed “Temple of Aeolus” (ancient Greek ruler of the winds, associated with seafarers–interesting choice for the former merchant), as well as a “mosque” and something named after the Alhambra (both of these latter, sadly, long gone).  Rising above them all, a slender Chinese lookout tower still stands.  Called the Pagoda, this 163-foot tall structure bears striking resemblance to the tapering pagodas that Chambers had seen in China.  It cuts a rather dour figure these days, but two and a half centuries ago it was the stuff: originally the metal roof panels were painted in bright colors and provided perches for a swarm of eighty gilded dragons.  Eighty!  It’s another historical fact that the world needs more dragon ornaments on its buildings.

The Pagoda at Kew became one of the signature monuments Chinoiserie, the French term for “like Chinese, but just sort of” preferred among the international crowd that used it, for its more more elegant and sensual resonance than the English Chinesesqueish, the Italian Cinesetto, and definitely the German Chinesischesorientierenbegeistertlecken.  Chinoiserie blended motifs that were lightly lifted from Chinese traditions with a certain Rococo sensibility (which is sort of an oxymoron), and availed itself to further influences from mysterious parts of the globe.  As a frothy mix of exotic cultures, formed around a Western view of what the “non-West” looked like, it created a new style that ended up speaking not so much of the cultures from which it drew, but instead revealed the delight in the fantastic within the culture that built it up.  It has been said that Chinoiserie allowed Europeans to stay home and surround themselves in the artistry of a place to which it was unlikely they would or could ever travel; it is perhaps more true that they ornamented their lives with fanciful settings that could only be the result of their imaginations’ flights of fancy.

The Chinese House, Sanssouci, nr. Potsdam (1755)

Through its local fame and its publication in lush folios, the Pagoda at Kew became the most famous of a number of similar structures that sprang up across European gardens and villas in such countries as Belgium and Germany; even Italy got in on the act.  Fancy people built swanky pavilions in an extravagant style that was accepted as “Chinese” through the inclusion of tent-like roof forms or populating the joint with figures of people in hats shaped like woks. Usually these buildings were not of great functional consequence, but instead served as grandiose picnic shelters or places to convalesce after a grueling match of croquet.  Such is the case with the little structure here, on the estate at Sanssouci (from the French for “without care”).  The porch is ornamented with gilded andostensibly “Oriental” people seated beneath palm trees; dragons perch on the heads of windows; its interior features a brilliant 360-degree painting that includes more exotics, parrots and buddhas than you can shake a riding crop at.  The Chinese House sets a new standard for effervescent architecture.  If you shake this building, it will explode, covering you in a bubbly, sticky liquid that smells like candied ginger.

“Chinese Bedroom,” Claydon House, Buckinghamshire (1760s)

For those who liked to keep their exotic interest more, ahem, private, Chinoiserie was adaptable to a variety of intimate interior spaces.  In Buckinghamshire, the stern façade of Claydon (whose blind arch over the central Palladian motif makes the whole facade look like it is frowning) screens a “Chinese bedroom” from prying eyes.   Surely the glory of carver Luke Lightfoot (truly, that’s his name), the elaborate frosting of woodwork around the door, chimney and bed proscenium (excusez-moi?) is truly a wonder in its fantastic display of faces, figures, flora and fauna, all of it like some dreamy memory of China, but not China itself.

library ladder for Badminton House (1782)

Because it was usually seen in the realm of the ephemeral and private, and because it was so tied to the fickle tastes of a certain kind of consumer culture, lasting architectural examples of Chinoiserie are rare.  However, its legacy in the decorative arts is rich. Fabrics festooned with phoenixes and wallpapers bearing fantastical mountain landscapes abounded in private homes.  Certain furniture, and other objects used by Europeans that had no complement in China, posed a certain challenge to designers.  Oftentimes, curvaceous and otherwise Rococo chairs and settees would be tricked out in painting, marquetry or upholstery with Chinese motifs.  For more sober applications, say, an American university or an English library ladder (left), panels of fretwork provided a knowing, cool nod to la vogue pour Chinois among those reserved folk who liked to be in with the in crowd, but maybe not all in.

ice cream cooler (1805)

The adoption of Chinese motifs into European lifestyles lead to some interesting cultural clashes.  It might be one thing to store one’s potpourri in porcelain ware featuring a happy Buddha in a floral gown, since fragrances cheered Buddha: sandalwood incense burned at the temple is pretty much the same thing as lavender that scents a lady’s boudoir.  Less direct is the link between ice cream and China that would explain a Chinoiserie French ice cream cooler (left).  No doubt the Sèvres porcelain factory also produced Chinese-styled chocolate pots that also provided the European’s breakfast table appropriately exotic vessels to serve drinking chocolate, a new luxury from another part of the world.

Le Jardin chinois (1742)

In the fine arts, Chinoiserie was rarely a stand-alone approach to painting and sculpture, but it was adopted into a variety of arts produced for domestic display.  Table-top sculptures of mandarins and little temples fused Chinese themes into Rococo styling.  In one significant application of Chinoiseie in canvas painting, Francois Boucher, who never met a flirty scene he didn’t love, assimilated Chinese decor into his sweet Rococo visions of peasant sweethearts for fashionable French parlors.  The fact that “Asian Rustics” frolicking in a picturesque landscape (left) didn’t look much different from “European Rustics” frolicking in a picturesque landscape (here), beyond the costumes and the setting, did not bother anyone much.

another dragon!

Perhaps the apotheosis of Chinoiserie was achieved at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where architect John Nash revealed that if inspiration from one exotic culture is good, inspiration from a half-dozen is better.  He freely adopted Indian, Arab, medieval, Chinese and other traditions in the conception of a particularly exuberant style.   How exuberant, you ask?  How about so many dragons, that the twenty-first century keepers of the Pavilion challenge kids to try and find all the dragons in the place (you can play along with the Dragon Quest by following this link).  Few other projects so encapsulate the West’s fascination with Eastern exoticism, as well as their unbridled joy at mixing varieties of motifs that had neither historical, geographic nor cultural relationship. This is seen in the very names given to the prevailing architectural style of the Royal Pavilion, which is as stylish as it gets.  Dazzled critics alternately called it Neo-Mughal, Indo-Saracenic and Hindu-Gothic.

And who could blame them for their confusion?  The Royal Pavilion reached a lofty height of conjoining disparate and vaguely recognizable vignettes into a wholly unprecedented concoction.  It is an architectural version of waking from a dream which makes no sense when the narrative is retold, but seemed so real in the dreaming. Such is Chinoiserie, even when its products do not look Chinese at all: the stunning Dunmore Pineapple (below) is often grouped under the umbrella of Chinoiserie, even though there is nothing specifically Chinese (or generally Asian for that matter) about a giant pineapple-shaped dome rising over a Palladian motif at the center of an otherwise simple limestone hothouse.  But more important than it not being Chinese, is the fact that it isn’t anything else identifiable, either.   Qu’est-ce que c’est?  Chinoiserie!

party pooper

The Royal Pavilion represents the last gasp of eighteenth-century fervor for exoticism that encompassed and fueled the West’s interest in Chinese design.  Such stratospheric flights of fancy were brought crashing down to earth by the weighty demands of aesthetic theory for shrewdly judged precedents that could contribute to cultural morality.  Architects like Nash and Chambers had become too rowdy, requiring the discipline of theory’s equivalent of a big wet blanket to set things straight again.  Cue Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who rattled on to the scene to hurl three mighty tomes through the diaphanous gauze of Chinoiserie taste.  He gave clearest voice to this change in attitude, sort of the first frost after a long warm summer, in a publication of 1843, in which he blamed architecture’s “Bable of confusion” on private judgment of architects who had strayed too far from home, both imaginatively and physically.  Depending on their itinerary, globe-trotting architects returned to their homelands thusly: “One breathes nothing but the Alhambra, another the Parthenon, a third is full of lotus cups and pyramids from the banks of the Nile, a fourth, from Rome, is all dome and basilica.”  (If you like that, it’s just a taste.  Few writers do indignant like Pugin.  Get more here.)

Ol’ Man Pugin shut down the party, threw everyone out of the house and chased all the kids off his lawn.  As his ideals spread, no self-respecting architect could possibly parlay an upward-turned roof or dragon ornament into anything suitable to modern European or American culture, for the nineteenth-century’s understanding of China at the time portrayed the country as possessing none of the virtues valued by modern Western society.

here be no dragons.

The eighteenth-century’s thrill in the extraordinary could not withstand the directives for architects to bow beneath the burden imposed by weighty historical theory.  Chinoiserie was pushed aside, making way for the nineteenth century’s Greek state capitols, Italianate society clubs, and Gothic churches.  Chinese design appeared rarely as a significant influence, resuscitated only in the early twentieth century in movie palaces, and more recently in a kind of revival that is pretty in a chilly way, and lacks the freewheeling verve of the original.

Although Chinoiserie enjoyed just a brief season, it offers a balmy alternative when one wearies of the chill that can arises around cold Modernism and stern Classicism.  Caught between the pull of technological advance and the weight of historical awareness, it may be well to follow the lead of those clever eighteenth-century people who refused to accept that there were only two choices, and instead went skipping into a sunny, hazy, weightless world of delight and fantasy inspired by the other side of the world.

The Dunmore Pineapple, Scotland (1761)

“good design” at the Smart Museum

Lindig tea pot -Smart Museum, Chicago

Otto Lindig, earthenware tea pot (1929)

Typically when the phrase “Mid-Century Modernism” is bandied about (in Our experience at MoT, this happens most frequently among architects and design school faculty–who can bandy with the best of ’em), the speaker assumes everyone to understand that the century in question is the twentieth.  Those talismanic words should prompt the listener to instantly conjure heroic images of, say, anything that Mies van der Rohe might have designed, built, sat on, worn, drank from, driven or smoked.  This is the typical image of what “Modernism” means; it is a picture painted primarily by a group of critic/historians like Sigfried Giedion and Carl Condit, who arranged design history of the post-Industrial Revolution era into a neat, tidy ascending line beginning with the “functional” aspects of the British Arts and Crafts and finding its apex in a narrow, if undeniably significant, band of work that fits within the confines of the International Style.  In this story, proper twentieth-century design is industrial, ahistorical, purely “rational” and above all else über-functional.  If the theory is taken to its extreme, We would have to say that twentieth-century designers really had little imaginative involvement in the calculation of practical objects: don’t blame (or praise) me; the zeitgeist made me do it.

Marianne Brandt, metal tea pot (1924)

A more recent development in criticism and scholarship recognizes that the movement which still commonly commandeers the term modern (the problem with this word-hijacking is another tale for another day) is much messier and harder to pin down.  It appreciates that the Mid-Century Modernism of Mies, et al., was not a foregone conclusion, nor the only reasonable development of the era.  Instead, it looks to earlier periods to work out the difficult details to find the fuller story, believing that the previous century’s middle had some pretty interesting things happening too, and they were often the result of creative individuals thinking, well, individually.  This is the kind of approach taken by the Smart Museum’s exhibition “Mid-Century: ‘Good Design’ in Europe and America, 1850-1950.”

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, glass tea pot (ca. 1931)

The exhibition reveals a strong sense of the real quality of work in this century (+/-), and the great range of design that could be considered “good.”  Given the fact that the exhibition has no loaned objects, and is relatively small, its scope is especially admirable.  “Good Design” communicates the diversity of form/aesthetic arising from different designers’ interests/taste; We are delighted to see that the website text actually refers to taste (as in “aesthetic preference”) as a viable consideration within the design process itself as well as a factor for the critic/historian to weigh with other contextual issues.  Exemplary works like the trio of tea pots shown here reveal drastically different forms (organic and mechanistic), materials (natural and industrial) and general qualities (opaque and transparent) even while performing the same basic function.  All of them designed by Germans within six years of each other, the vessels exhibit their designers’ different views of what modern form should suit the function of brewing tea.

Edmond Johnson, metal processional cross (ca. 1891) & A. W. N. Pugin, dessert plate (ca. 1849)

Such comparative display pieces related by time and place abound through the exhibition (behold the family of vases . . . consider the herd of chairs . . .), within an overall narrative that is is roundly inclusive for the century advertised in the exhibition title.  It opens with two Gothic Revival works, including the requisite A. W. N. Pugin piece (as all good modern design exhibitions seem to do lately–although one wonders how Pugin himself would feel about being colored a proto-modernist while his unwavering Catholicism is cleanly cut from the discussion: he is represented not by church fittings but rather a cake tray).  Associated with these, as they are within the historical record, are some nice Sorta-Nouveau works, including a very pretty biscuit tin from Liberty & Co. (and if you are a regular here at MoT, you know We always reward extra credit for the inclusion of Liberty in any undertaking).

Archibald Knox, metal 'biscuit barrel' (ca. 1903)

Vilmos Huszár, maquette for a side chair (1918-19)

The exhibit catalogues some famous items, such as those drawn from the well-worn path of the Prairie School (including–you guessed it!–a Robie House dining set, abiding by Illinois law that nineteenth/twentieth century design exhibitions MUST include the Robie House dining room furniture and at least one Frank Lloyd Wright window per 5,000 SF of exhibition space).  But it also includes some surprising and interesting unknowns.  One piece that was new to Us was a maquette for a side chair by Hungarian de Stijl designer Vilmos Huszár.  It’s a crude little thing, but shows that Gerrit Rietveld was not the only one obsessed with primary-colored planes and lines back in the 1910s.  (Speaking of “humble” work, there is also a jarringly coarse Mies drawing on display that makes one wonder, if Herr Ludwig was better at freehand sketching, would he have relied on the straightedge and compass so much?  Who knows how differently the twentieth century might have turned out if he had just learned to draw back in Aachen.)

Charles and Ray Eames, leg splint (1942) & chair (1946)

In short, “Good Design” is a terrific little exhibition that assesses famous designers along with the less-well-known for a comprehensive view of a richly diverse period.  The catch phrase, good design, is cited not only for the general idea of reformist design in the period 1850-1950, but is taken from a series of competitions and exhibitions that were the joint work of MOMA in New York and the Chicago Merchandise Mart.  We would have liked more fleshing out of this collaboration, but are satisfied to have been made aware of it; the curator of this show (Richard A. Born) is a good teacher, and makes us want to get a book from the library to find out more about that nibble of Chicago design history, as well as this Hungarian Huszár, and makes us think that maybe We should read a little more about Archibald Knox while We are at it.  With its placement of the usual suspects (like Mies’  lounge chair for the German Pavilion in Barcelona) among lesser-known points of contrast (like a folding chair with woven cane seat and back by Dane Hans Weber that begs to be compared with the Barcelona lounger), made this much more than a university museum trying to make do with whatever it had in storage (as such, it was much more successful than the Art Institute’s recent Arts and Crafts exhibition).  Seeing that famous Eames chair next to a leg splint reinforces the idea that these iconic pieces did not solidify out of vapor but had strong connections to historical events: in this case, the designers’ association with wartime activities.  The arrangement is straightforward, with variety set within four historically consecutive timeframes.  The wall text was helpful enough without being overbearing; it felt very much like a place for discovery and/or teaching–as indeed the whole museum is curated to serve education at several levels.

Exhibits such as this one help to repair the damage done by several generations of modernist critics pushing an agenda that was historically inaccurate and also, well, just sort of boring.  Whereas the famous MOMA show of 1932 organized by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock worked overtime to squish examples from Plano to Brno into a strict and unforgiving thesis, the Smart exhibition takes the evidence and tells the story that the objects communicate.  It’s a richer, more honest and smarter look at a great century of design.

Hans J. Wegner, folding chair (1949) & Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, lounge chair (1929)

“Mid-Century: ‘Good Design’ in Europe and America, 1850-1950” at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago: July 8 – September 5, 2010

Museum Credits:

Otto Lindig, Glazed slip-cast earthenware tea pot (1929; Gift of Barry Friedman, 2004.384a-b)

Marianne Brandt, hammered sterling silver and ebony tea pot (designed in 1924; anon. gift in memory of Liesl Landau, 2006.19.1-2006.19.4)

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, glass tea pot (ca. 1931; Gift of Barry Friedman, part of a tea service: 2004.395, 2004.396, 2005.29a-b, 2005.30)

Edmond Johnson, wrought and cast metal Processional Cross of Cong with gilt, silver, enamel, and glass decoration (ca. 1891, 1967.121.2)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, glazed stoneware Dessert Plate (ca. 1849, 1997.7)

Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co., cast pewter Biscuit Barrel with enamel inlay (ca. 1903, 1997.23a-b)

Vilmos Huszár, painted pine maquette for a side chair (1918-19, 1988.80)

Charles and Ray Eames, leg splint (1942, 1984.28) and Chair (1946, 1984.23) both molded and bent plywood

Hans J. Wegner, oak-frame folding chair with woven split cane seat and back (designed in 1949, 1991.353)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, chrome-plated steel frame lounge chair with leather upholstery (1929, 1985.31)

“apostles of beauty” (arts and crafts exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago)

crop morris cray 1885

"Cray" panel (William Morris, ca. 1885)

The new exhibition at the Art Institute (click here for the website) certainly delivers the beauty. Only a biased Modernist or partisan Classicist would fail to find something to love in this show, which is stuffed with furniture, textiles, lithographs, ceramics, metalwork and a dozen other kinds of art, most of it dating from the 1870s to the 1910s, and all of it related one way or another to the Arts and Crafts movement that began in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

But that vastness of enterprise is part of this imperfect exhibition’s undoing. Its broad sweep goes far beyond the content that appears to be announced in the exhibition’s advertisement as Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago. By reading the advertised subtitle, one might expect to see and learn about art and design in those two places and the transmission of ideas between them, and not a collection of Arts and Crafts goods that somehow found their way to area collections. The curators have used the preposition “to” rather broadly; the journey of Arts and Crafts ideals is actually from Britain to a dozen other places in America, and finally to Chicago—but then beyond: the show concludes with Scottish furniture and German criticism. And, although the approach to the Arts and Crafts as a philosophical point of view more than a stylistic movement is valid, the exhibit uses this as an excuse to bring unexpected disciplines into the tent while leaving some we’d expect to find there at the periphery, if not abandoning them out in the cold.

D. G. Rossetti Beata Beatrix 1871

Beata Beatrix (D. G. Rossetti, 1871)

The exhibition begins promisingly enough, with a brief acknowledgement of the movement’s founding fathers: A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Beatrix, at left, represents all of the Pre-Raphaelites). It’s a brief overview, but reasonably solid, although the suggestion that Pugin’s Catholicism was an excuse for his medievalism is stated in terms that are a little strong. (But more of him later.)

The immediate impact of these progenitors as portrayed in the following room provides the strongest display in the five-part exhibit. Fans of the Arts and Crafts will thrill at the very walls shouting out the glories of the movement with well-known quotes from Morris and C. F. A. Voysey, with some of their famous works close at hand. It’s a wonderful collection, chockfull of things you expect to see in a big Arts and Crafts show: Philip Webb’s iconic Morris chair (see one by clicking here), a range of Voysey and Morris textiles, the Kelmscott Chaucer (see another copy by clicking here), metalwork by M. H. Baillie Scott. And there are some unexpected delights (which is what a big exhibition is supposed to have, right?), like two big Edward Burne-Jones cartoons for stained glass windows (click here). Better yet, the kinds of things I was hoping to see in a Chicago-centric show: Marion Mahony Griffin’s lush renderings (on satin!) of Wright designs and Chicago illustrator Will H. Bradley’s zincographs for the locally-published Chap-Book are delightful and on-point. Also interesting is the small section on Ukiyo-e prints as part of the concurrent “Japanism” in the later nineteenth century, which touches on the influence of Japanese prints in America, specifically among Chicago collectors and the impact of Japanese goods at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that was followed by a Ukiyo-e exhibition at the Art Institute designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908. There were enough compelling ideas in that one corner to mount a separate exhibition.

bradley chapbook

Chap-Book (Will Bradley, 1895)

The intellectual clarity and visual thematic purpose so clear in that display fell apart upon crossing the threshold; the rest of the show gave me the distinct impression that the curators had filled out the rest of the exhibition with whatever was lying around upstairs, and/or got tired and forgot what it was they set out to accomplish in the first place. Ostensibly this part of the exhibition was intended to portray the general sweep of Arts and Crafts influence in America, but it was not comprehensive enough to really do that job, nor did it enhance the “Chicago” angle of the exhibit. With the exception of two small pieces by Midwestern jewelers Marie Zimmerman and Mildred Watkins (whose pendant necklace is one of the loveliest objects in the exhibition), the exhibition takes an artistic and intellectual freefall into a realm that includes admittedly nice things (Greene and Greene furniture, Arthur Wesley Dow paintings, more than enough of the Gustav Stickley catalogue), but they do not enhance the Britain/Chicago angle. At all. And their selection seems incredibly hit-or-miss. This is especially true of the display of some two dozen Pictorialist photographs which apparently have some philosophical underpinning in common with the Arts and Crafts movement, but their inclusion was really a stretch. Mind you, there are worse things you can do with your time than look at Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, but this part of the exhibition in particular reveals significant mission drift—especially on the heels of what felt like a really good start.

The exhibition increasingly suffers just from plain old bad design: wall text without clear connection to displays, elements strewn far and wide through the room. Even in the one corner set up like a little sitting-room, the objects were treated so individually that it became painfully obvious just how challenging it is to show the Arts and Crafts—a movement tied to the “total work of art” environment, and the intimate domestic scale if ever there was one—in a museum setting (although, for the record, it’s not impossible: the Delaware Art Museum displays a fine collection of Arts and Crafts decorative arts and Pre-Raphaelite painting in a colorful gallery complete with Morris Wall paper and period-appropriate furniture that visitors are allowed to use). The irony of this movement, dedicated to beautifying ordinary objects and obliterating the notion of “fine” art, sequestered in a museum that has the gall to charge $60 for a family of four to visit, suddenly dawned on me as a sad legacy of this exhibit.


Vase (Teco Potteries, ca. 1910)

The final room is the most disappointing for anyone who came for a celebration of Chicago design in the context of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Such parallel movements as department store development (earlier we read a note about Liberty of London and see a tiny sampling of Liberty goods; how interesting it would have been to compare Mr. Liberty with Marshall Field), social reform and education are all alluded to, but not really taken up. Text and a photo reference Hull House, but I could only find a single example of its craft production on display. Instead of looking more deeply into these lesser-known subjects—which have a very strong philosophical connection with the roots of the movement in Britain—, we get another load of Wright furniture and Sullivan ornament which is, you know, fine and all, but we’ve seen these things before. There’s a little (actually, too little) from local craft firms Teco, Gates Potteries and the Kalo Shop; their pottery and silver are both Chicago-specific and Arts and Crafts-inspired. More of this—which would have emphasized the role of Chicago like the exhibition title suggests—and fewer pieces of crummy Mackintosh furniture—allegedly part of the proof of the international quality of the movement, which again seems off-point—would have been very welcome. A few local goods that are rarely seen, and maybe for good reason, includes some incredibly clunky pieces by George Maher, and an orange velvet curtain with a thorn design that is really pretty great—but, it hung in a house that Maher designed for some very wealthy folks in Evanston: not exactly an example of the reformist story that is suggested (but not illustrated very well) on the other side of the room.

By the time I was at the end of the room and ready to exit—nearly blinded by one more far-too-brightly-lit stained glass by you-know-who (which reminds me: honestly, do we need another exhibition poster featuring another Wright window?)—I had the same feeling as I do when I am grading an essay by a student with a really good thesis, but who feels compelled to include every scrap of research he’s completed. That is understandable for a college student learning to self-edit; it’s not OK for the curatorial team for a big fat exhibition.

Lastly, my disappointment bordered on distraction by a final bit of wall text featuring a quotation by Hermann Muthesius (from his publication The English House—although the exhibition doesn’t tell us that), who, it turns out, is the source of the reference to “apostles” in the exhibition title. In 1901 he wrote of the Arts and Crafts:

Once the movement had gathered momentum, another way out emerged: the way of modern art. The essential means towards it had been the ethical values practiced by those apostles on the basis of medieval art, the sincerity, faithfulness, and pleasure taken by the workmen in their work, in general: the good workmanship, genuine materials and sound construction, in particular. The medieval forms that the apostles had advocated as indispensable concomitants of these values disappeared at last and out of the ashes rose the phoenix of modern art.

Muthesius is a provocative and significant choice to physically cap off the exhibition space that was opened with Pugin, the most medieval of the “apostles.” The means by which Pugin’s moralizing design theory eventually was hammered and bent into the ideas which spawned the Modernist movement of the 1920s is a fascinating road: you can draw a line (maybe not a straight one, but a line nonetheless) from the Red House to the Bauhaus. But that little intellectual thrill is only available if (1) you have read a whole bunch of books about this period and (2) if you go looking really hard for some sort of (intellectual) saving grace in this show.  But more importantly, interesting as the Pugin-Muthesius connection is, it too is off-message.

Because of the curators’ inconsistent treatment of their subject and scattered design of the galleries they don’t really accomplish the aim of making the exhibit more about Arts and Crafts philosophy than turn-of-the-century style; nor does it follow through on the promise of celebrating its host city.  In spite of the exhibition’s uneven quality and shifting points of view, it does accomplish the task of bringing together a variety of aesthetically delightful objects, from chairs to jewelry and from books to textiles.   The ultimate message of the “apostles” may be obscured in its translation from mid-nineteenth-century Britain to twenty-first-century Chicago, but the beauty of the objects transcends even a clunky exhibition.

crop voysey purple bird 1899

"Purple bird" (C. F. A. Voysey, 1899)

“Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago”runs from November 7, 2009 to January 31, 2010