Brilliant Denver Art Museum 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway
The Denver Art Museum has come up with the perfect winter show: Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century, which is crammed to the rafters with "ice" in the form of more diamonds than I could possibly count. Up front, I'm going to admit that I know very little about jewelry (I don't even wear a watch), but I do know a lot about the history of style as it revealed itself in Paris in the twentieth century, and I've got a good handle on the characteristics of fine craft, as well. So if a person like myself, who has little interest in or knowledge of gems and precious metals, found this show riveting -- against my own expectations -- that really says something about how well done it is. And about how good Cartier was during its heyday. The show is a visual marathon, with so many things included that it's downright exhausting. There are some 200 artifacts from the Cartier collection alone, which is maintained by the company, with an additional 55 pieces coming from an array of private collectors.
The show, which is unique to Denver, features an exhibition design by Nathalie Crinière, who also did the Yves Saint Laurent show a couple of years ago. But she took a completely different approach this time. Brilliant was conceived as a maze in which the walls are punctuated by a series of openings evocative of windows -- some suggesting shop windows like the ones at Cartier's own stores. Viewers are able to see the works through these "windows," which are supplemented here and there by more conventional display cases. Given how small and valuable the individual items are, I didn't expect anything that wasn't behind glass or Lexan.
Brilliant was put together by DAM curator Margaret Young-Sanchez, which was a surprise. If you had asked me to guess who among the stable of curators at the museum would be put in charge of such a show, Young-Sanchez would have been near the end of my list since she is the curator of Pre-Columbian art -- a topic that seems far removed from modern-era French jewelry. Asked about it, Young-Sanchez responded enthusiastically, explaining, "I have always loved jewelry, especially antique jewelry. I've had a fascination with the history of it -- how it's changed over time, the different kinds of materials used. So I have that background."
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Young-Sanchez had seen a Cartier exhibit in San Francisco a few years ago, and that made her aware of the Cartier collection. So she got in touch with its staff and suggested doing a show in Denver. What attracted Young-Sanchez to Cartier in the first place was that the collection included a wide range of stylistic expressions done over a long period of time. And there was tremendous diversity, as Cartier has no specific stylistic signature but rather followed -- or often set -- the aesthetic trends of the period. Cartier allowed Young-Sanchez to borrow anything she wanted from its 1,500-item collection. With this freedom, the curator elected to survey the company's stylistic development, beginning with Victorian material from 1900 and proceeding through the modernist works of the 1970s.
Cartier was founded in 1847, but for the rest of the nineteenth century, it was simply one of many respectable jewelers in Paris. It wasn't until the founder's grandsons -- Louis, Pierre and Jacques Cartier -- came into the business (with the eldest, Louis, joining the firm in 1898) that Cartier would be launched onto the path that would ultimately lead to its position as the most important jeweler of the twentieth century.
One way the grandsons did this was by demonstrating that their crafting skills were comparable to those of Fabergé, the famous Moscow jeweler that set the bar for quality. There are several examples in the DAM show of work featuring magnificently etched metal covered in enamels in rich colors. The brothers also began to employ platinum, a super-lightweight mounting material (and previously unknown in jewelry), which allowed Cartier to construct elaborate armatures that could be almost completely covered in stones. Several of these are on view here, as well.
One of the things that really struck me as I proceeded beyond the unbelievably opulent Victorian pieces was the fact that Cartier had begun to make a radical move by embracing art deco nearly two decades earlier than just about any other maker. The firm was clearly a pioneer of modernist design of any kind. In a brooch from 1907, for instance, a square pin set on the diagonal has a grid of diamonds covering it, and above each stone are jewel-encrusted double arching lines forming a geometric pattern. In another, done in 1910, integrated wavy lines of diamonds are set in the center of a sapphire-lined circle. Both pieces look twenty or thirty years newer than they actually are.
World War I interrupted this stylistic development, but by the 1920s, Cartier was back at it, and even had two displays at the L'Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925, the fair from which the term "art deco" was coined. There's a whole section in the DAM show devoted to the work of this time.
In addition to full-blown art deco pieces, Cartier in the '20s embraced various exotic cultural traditions from places like India, Egypt, China and Persia, and used them to create modernist works that incorporated actual antique elements representative of the cultures or made reference to the sources in other ways. The pieces that correspond to each of these stylistic sources are displayed in separate spaces that have the feel of small shops -- and get a little crowded as a result.
But it's worth putting up with the jostling to see these remarkably crafted items, which are often visually over the top. In "Egyptian striking clock," as a prime example, an Egyptianate form is covered in mother-of-pearl panels that are decorated by hieroglyphics in high relief. Around it are gold and semi-precious stones outlining the form, with the whole thing resting on a stunning lapis base. It's spectacular, as are several other clocks of varying descriptions in the show, notably the so-called mystery clocks in which the hands appear to float in the center of a transparent rock-crystal face with no visible mechanism. The secret is that the hands are mounted on thin crystal disks that move via mechanisms hidden in the bases.
Brilliant is essentially installed chronologically, but with some stylistic clusters arranged in groupings that often violate a strict date order. The finale, however, is not chronological, as it surveys nearly the entire period under consideration. For this section, Young-Sanchez selected five well-known clients of Cartier's, each of whom built up personal collections over the years. They are: Daisy Fellowes, Wallis Simpson, Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor and Maria Félix. The selections, each in a separate case, reveal that only Félix, a Mexican movie star, had a collector's vision, while the others simply chose what they liked, with no particular eye for style. Check out Félix's diamond-covered "Snake necklace" with emeralds for eyes -- it's unforgettable.
Young-Sanchez didn't feel that any one period of Cartier's output was better than the others, but I did. To my mind, the work of the 1920s and 1930s was the high point because of the art deco, the moderne, and the exotic Egyptian-style pieces. This is when Cartier was really cooking. Also worth noting is a strain of minimalism that unexpectedly runs though Cartier's creations, especially in the men's wristwatches. The "Tank," from 1919, is a square-faced gold watch with a leather strap -- one of the true icons of twentieth-century design.
Brilliant seems like the perfect holiday show -- lighting up the season, if you will. And that show title is no exaggeration: Cartier's output is absolutely eye-popping, and you don't have to be into jewelry to appreciate that.
Turn the page to see more pieces from Brilliant.
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Brilliant Through March 15 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.