Published: July 2, 2002
Matières de Rêves:
By Karla Klein Albertson
HARTFORD, CONN. – Exhibitions always begin with a curator’s dream, and Penelope Hunter-Stiebel went into her reverie when she revisited the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and realized the entire collection was languishing in storage during an extensive renovation project. The New York-based decorative arts specialist — once a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — is now consulting curator of European Art for the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.
A close friend of Portland’s dynamic director John Buchanan and his artistic wife/partner Lucy, Hunter-Stiebel has been the catalyst for several exhibitions that have emerged from this West Coast museum on-the-move to national prominence. After opening at the originating institution in February, the 100 masterpieces in “Matières de Rêves” are on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum through August 11 and will proceed to the Birmingham Museum of Art in September. All three venues, strong in their devotion to the decorative arts, make perfect settings for this extraordinary show.
Paris may seem a long way from Portland, but the two museums had already cooperated for the sumptuous Stroganoff exhibition Hunter-Stiebel had organized in 2000. Located in the Marsan wing of the Louvre, the Musée had been her stomping ground as a student of the decorative arts. The curator remembers, “It was the greatest place to study. You had comparative material and documented pieces — you could really learn from the originals.” In fact, she states formally in her introduction to the exhibition catalog: “I continued to learn, not just from the objects, themselves, but also from the scholarship of the museum’s curators. The pioneering work in the 1960s and 70s of curator (and later director) Yvonne Brunhammer was my guiding star in developing the Twentieth Century Decorative Arts collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
Hunter-Stiebel had returned to Paris, hoping that the Stroganoff exhibition could travel there, but realized that the Musée des Arts Décoratifs was in no shape for a show. Indeed, the date for completion of the renovation and reinstallation is now 2004. But as she prowled through the storage areas with Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, the museum’s senior curator, the American proposed, “Why don’t you let us do an exhibition? These wonderful things can tour the United States and present your museum, which is very well-known in France, to an new audience which, I’m afraid, is totally unaware of it and its treasures.
“She had all the keys — literally one of those classic chatelaines — and we went from the topmost attics, climbing on rickety ladders in the dark, through to the brand-new subterranean galleries below that are like brilliantly lit operating rooms,” recalls Hunter-Stiebel. “We looked at everything and brought together an exhibition that would be not only a profile of the institution, but also an introduction to the aesthetic possibilities of the decorative arts, to which that institution is devoted.”
The private Musée des Arts Décoratifs — which fronts on the Rue de Rivoli — is in one wing of the Louvre Palace but is in no way connected to the national Louvre Museum. The complex history of the institution began in the Napoleonic era with the Emperor’s desire to show off the very best France had to offer, which resulted in nine Industrial Products Exhibitions between 1796 and 1849. A desire to make useful things beautiful as well led to the creation of the Union Central des Beaux-arts appliques a l’Industrie in 1864 and eventually the Union Central des Arts Décoratifs in 1882. Both involved museum collections to illustrate what they were talking about, and the decorative arts collection was first displayed in its present space at the Pavillon de Marsan of the Louvre on May 29, 1905.
Over the years, the collection has benefited from prodigious gifts by connoisseurs and by the artists who created the wonderful objects. To cite only a few examples, Samuel Bing bequeathed material in the Art Nouveau style in 1922, and 160 carved ivory skulls collected by the Baroness Henri de Rothschild came in 1925. In 1965, Prince Louis de Polignac, married to Jeanne Lanvin’s daughter, left the museum the contents of the couturier’s beautifully fitted apartment.
Designed by Armand-Albert Rateau, the bathroom from this famous residence is part of the current exhibition, and the Musée’s abiding theme of utility combined with aesthetics was Hunter-Stiebel’s watchword in choosing objects for “Matières de Rêves.” She explains, “The renovation of the museum made it possible to travel their greatest pieces, which would never travel otherwise. The difficulty was, how are we going to make them accessible to a museum visitor? I really wanted this not to be a didactic exhibition of the history of the decorative arts, but rather an aesthetic experience.
“So we came up with these criteria for selecting our works of art,” continues the curator. “First, they had to meet and surpass all the standards of utility. Then, the top standards of craftsmanship had to be met. And they had to surpass the tradition — they had to go one beyond their type as it existed before. Every one of those things has an extra element, a leap of the imagination, that takes it from being an artifact to being a work of art.”
She is happy to cite examples: “That’s true for the aquamanile from the Middle Ages which was for washing your hands before you ate. Part beast, part man — pure imagination. And it continues straight through to the most recent works, like the Dubuisson desk of 1989, which is a great semicircle, an extremely complex mathematical arc given a skin of parchment so that it is the most sensuous and intellectual statement at the same time.”
These chronological bookends suggest the sweep of the exhibition, which begins with pieces like a Thirteenth Century oak chest organically twined with wrought iron, then offers great usable examples of Baroque, Nouveau, Deco and Moderne style along with everything in between. And it becomes obvious in conversation that Hunter-Stiebel fell in love with every single object during her visits to those storage areas. Asked to pick an ultimate favorite, she notes, “The Meissonnier candelabrum is one of the most important objects made in the history of European art because it changed the face of Europe for 50 years; it initiated the brand new style that is now called Rococo. It took three print views to be able to record this spiraling, surging form — it’s almost liquid, like a geyser. The original is in the show. My greatest moment was when Odile Nouvel opened the white enamel cabinet in the storeroom and there it was, laid out on the shelf. I picked up the Meissonnier candlelabrum and held it in my hands; it was the most exciting moment of my career.”
Hunter-Stiebel concludes, “Objects can surpass their circumstances and their need for usefulness which they must fulfill. I want people to take away the feeling of possibilities. We are so inured at the end of the Twentieth Century with the feeling that the accoutrements of life shouldn’t be expected to be beautiful, that there are things we have to have technologically, but the era of aesthetic possibilities was over. I don’t believe so — and I think the show really demonstrates how it’s always been possible. It just takes a leap of the imagination in any era.”
The catalog is a perfect take-away from the exhibition — not too heavy, not too light — with photos and entries on every object and brief essays on the museum, its collections, and renovation. The Wadworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 am to 5 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm. For information, 860-278-2670 or www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
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