When does jewelry become wearable art? The answer to that question is on full display at the current exhibit of jewelry made by artists at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs [MAD] in Paris. The show, “From Calder to Koons, Artist’s Jewelry: Diane Venet’s Ideal Collection,” runs until July 8 (with a possible extension), and covers the major artistic movements of the 20th and 21st centuries via an unusual perspective: Jewelry made by some of the most iconic painters and sculptors of that period, often as gifts for loved ones, or for fun.
In a twist from other exhibits that have shown Diane Venet’s more-than 200-piece collection, which has traveled to institutions around the globe, the Paris chapter has expanded to include larger examples of artist’s work in other mediums, as well as jewelry that is not in the Venet collection. When amassed together, these ornaments have been dubbed a “miniature museum.” Miniature in scale, perhaps, but large on content. The exhibition is an exhaustive, intimate look at modern and contemporary art that was made to be worn.
Calling these treasures art, for that matter, rather than simply jewelry (when they can be both), is also central to the show’s message. “The minor versus the major arts — it’s a constant debate, and we have to constantly battle. [These classifications] are very anchored in French mentality,” said the show’s curator, Karine Lacquemant. “There are no boundaries between the arts. That’s also what I wanted to show by presenting textiles, sculptures, paintings. The artists had fun, and I think they consider it art.”
They are not alone. The bulk of the show, which covers the entire second floor of the museum, consists of 256 pieces from Venet’s collection. “I’ve never had diamonds, rubies or sapphires myself, I’m not so interested,” she said. “And when I wear those pieces — because I wear them all — I wear art.”
Venet began building her collection when her husband, the sculptor Bernar Venet, twisted a strip of metal around her ring finger as a marriage proposal. That ring — also on display in the show — marked the beginning of an over 30-year-long passion for jewelry made by artists who typically work in other mediums. “My focus is really painters or sculptors who have been doing jewelry on the side, for someone. Never for commercial reasons,” explained Venet in a telephone interview.
Unlike a painting or sculpture meant to be viewed, not touched, these pieces — whether the subtle, line-patterned rings by Sol LeWitt or the surrealist gold mask by Man Ray — were all designed to sit close to the skin and be seen on the body. As a result, the wearer is an important element of the final art piece.
“The minute it’s worn, then yes, you’re a part of it,” said Venet, about the “babies” in her collection. Each jewel has its own story, she explained, often linked to an artist close to Venet and her husband. “I’m happy to tell anybody asking me what it is. To say it’s Bob Rauschenberg, and I met him in the ’80s in New York. There’s always a story around it.”
Venet also regularly asks artists to make her custom pieces, which they have been known to send to her in the mail, as with a one-of-a-kind, Claude Viallat yellow acrylic necklace. Frank Stella had never made jewelry before he created a baroque gold ring for Venet after she “convinced” him to take up the challenge. “He did it by friendship, for my husband and for myself,” she said. Largely thanks to that convincing, the show exhibits a slew of pieces by artists who are not widely known for having dabbled in jewelry-making. “Ninety-five percent of the people didn’t know that it existed,” said Venet. “I can see the surprise in their eyes — people who visit — they are very surprised that such and such made jewelry.”
The roughly crumpled and carved gold head brooches by Jean Dubuffet, made in connection with his “Meteriologies” period, are one example likely to come as a surprise. There is also the only piece of jewelry Andy Warhol was ever known to make: a watch with images of New York landscapes linked together along the strap.
Only a handful of artists made their own pieces of jewelry entirely on their own, as in the case of Alexander Calder, Harry Bertoia, or Claude Viallat. Others like Picasso, Max Ernst, and Andre Derain relied on the prized metal smith Francois Hugo (the great-grandson of Victor Hugo) to bring their visions to life. GianCarlo Montebello, who still works out of his atelier in Milan, created some of the most famous jewelry designed by Man Ray, and Niki de Saint Phalle, to name a few. Original tools, molds, sketches and letters from the artists, as well as video footage with interviews, are all on display in an area dedicated to these master craftsmen.
No less than 150 different artists are shown in the exhibit, including Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Robert Rauschenberg, de Saint Phalle, Damien Hirst, and Louise Bourgeois. “We realized that we had covered all the artistic movements,” Lacquement said. “The whole history of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century is written here. So I think the show can interest students, schools. Everyone can find something here.”
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