DMA delves into glitzy designs with stunning ‘Cartier and Islamic Art’ exhibition

In “Cartier and Islamic Art,” the museum has met the moment. That’s the Dallas Museum of Art, working on its new exhibition in collaboration with luxury goods maker Cartier and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

The show, which debuted in Paris and now makes Dallas its only U.S. stop, explores how the fabled French jewelry house was inspired by and adopted forms from Islamic art, architecture and design to fashion its own modern design style. The more than 400 objects on display (only about 40% of it jewelry) include pieces from Cartier, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Department of Islamic Arts at the Louvre Museum and the Keir Collection of Islamic Art on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art, among other loans.

And it arrives at a unique time.

Those who survived the pandemic lockdown, physically and financially, emerged with an urgent need to be bowled over, over and over again. Restraint would not do, no matter how tasteful.

Nor would subtlety, however sublime. The craving, for many, was for excess, extravagance, indulgence. The kind of items that can be resplendently yours and ours through the prism of Paris.

Cigarette case, Cartier Paris, 1930, Gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise, diamond. Cartier Collection.

It all began with Louis-Francois Cartier, who got started in jewelry in 1847 in Paris. His son Alfred joined the business. So did Alfred’s sons, Louis, Pierre and Jacques. They had a sister named Suzanne who evidently was not in the picture except to make an advantageous marriage for the Cartiers into an eminent haute couture family, as did Louis, who became his sister’s brother-in-law.

They were not unlike the Marcuses in Dallas, where four brothers, called the Marci, sons of the founder, understood that the merchandising of beautiful things at Neiman Marcus had to be built upon beauty itself. Indeed, the current president of the DMA’s board is Catherine Marcus Rose, granddaughter of the eldest Marci, Stanley.

Louis was the Stanley Marcus of Cartier. It was he who led the flagship in Paris, dispatching his brothers to run branches in London and New York. It was Louis who, like Stanley, was a born collector.

Eye on tomorrow

Books, photographs, objets d’art — all fed his inspiration for creative design that made Cartier more than a company. Opulent and elegant, it also navigated the world with an eye always on tomorrow.

Louis saw the wristwatch coming, as men grew impatient with the pocket watch. Hence this show tantalizes with the glory of its timepieces, to be worn or displayed as clocks on walls or tabletops.

He saw women, soon to be emancipated — at least somewhat — shortening their skirts, cropping their hair and smoking cigarettes. What followed, of course, were handsome cigarette cases. And not only for women. Cole Porter’s wife, Linda, made it a habit to give her husband a cigarette case on the opening night of every show. Almost certainly some were from Cartier.

Louis rode the wave of art nouveau, then art deco, with geometric motifs making for a style in his jewelry more linear, more modern. He was always “in search of modernity,” the subtitle of the current blockbuster at DMA.

This meant more pendants and long necklaces, not just those hugging the neck in the way of the Windsor women. While nobody knew better than Louis that diamonds are a girl’s best friend — he sold plenty of them in tiaras, necklaces and bracelets — he nonetheless advanced from these fantastic stores of value to color, combining sapphires and emeralds in what came to be called “peacock décor,” as detailed in the exhibition’s splendid catalog.

Louis liked to match turquoise blue with “the flecked deep blue of lapis lazuli, [like] the hues of ceramic tiles used in Iranian architecture.” He reveled in Iranian architecture, Indian miniatures, Egyptian statuettes, ancient Chinese jades — the more exotic, the better — and transposed treasures from what was then called the Orient into glories to glamorize women of the West.

Installation photo of the new exhibition "Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity"...
Installation photo of the new exhibition “Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity” at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Toussaint’s impact

One of his most important acts of genius was hiring and promoting the flamboyant Jeanne Toussaint, as director of the S Department (S for silver and soir, or evening) and then as creative director of fine jewelry.

The Jeanne Toussaint necklace, two strands of diamonds with a formidable pendant, became so renowned it was called “the star of Ocean’s 8.″ It adorned Anne Hathaway in the 2018 film.

Enamored of Indian jewelry, Toussaint had “gemstones cut into beads and strung together,” the catalog says. Pendants became simpler, still lavish but sometimes only on long lovely chains.

Nicknamed “the panther,” Toussaint made friends with the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Gabrielle Chanel and Cristóbal Balenciaga, and she designed jewelry with their clothes in mind. Her creations were worn by the duchess of Windsor, Barbara Hutton and Mona von Bismarck.

A stunning necklace in diamonds and rubies belonged, a guard told me, to Elizabeth Taylor, famous for what she called her “twinklies.” This piece is definitely a twinkle to end all twinkles.

Ewer, late 10th-early 11th century, rock crystal, with enameled gold repairs and fittings by...
Ewer, late 10th-early 11th century, rock crystal, with enameled gold repairs and fittings by Jean-Valentin Morel (1794-1860), French, The Keir Collection of Islamic Art on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art.(Brad Flowers)

It’s jarring to realize that in 1933, as Toussaint was taking over Cartier in Paris, Hitler was coming to power in Berlin. Even as we luxuriate in this extraordinary exhibition, female broadcasters in Afghanistan are not allowed by the Taliban to appear on screen unless they’re heavily veiled, and filmmakers are under arrest in Iran.

Nonetheless, it was once a glittering world, reflected in sumptuous ballet productions in Paris like Scheherazade. But even that is suspect now in its evocations, since a huge yacht named Scheherazade, possibly owned by Vladimir Putin, is stranded in a port in Italy.

That doesn’t diminish for a moment the dazzling paradise lost — and for a moment found — mounted by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro at the Dallas Museum of Art.

A great installation is a work of art in itself, and this procession of galleries — dark and dramatically lighted, with walls of projected wonders — is magical.

Details

“Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity” runs through Sept. 18 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St. Open Saturday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Special exhibition tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and military, $16 for students, and free for members and children under 11. All visitors must first reserve a free general admission ticket for the DMA on their selected date. Reserve tickets at dma.org.

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