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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“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.

teco

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