Taking a Shine To Jewelry

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

BALTIMORE -- Jewelry is probably the oldest art form. It's always been one of the most precious and most widely owned. So where's all the respect it deserves? These days, it has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the art world.

A show at the Walters Art Museum, "Bedazzled: 5,000 Years of Jewelry," goes some way to fixing the problem -- but also highlights it.

The exhibition, which opened Sunday, is drawn from the Walters's own holdings, plus some fill-in loans from a private collection. It gives an overview of the whole universe of bijoux.

There are a smattering of lovely bracelets and earrings and diadems from ancient Egypt, from classical antiquity and from Byzantium. But to really do justice to the treasures of those cultures, at a minimum you'd want loans from the landmark holdings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. There also are bejeweled brooches and cloak pins and rings from medieval and Renaissance Europe. You'd need to borrow from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert in London, though, to show the great marvels of those eras.

"Bedazzled" displays watches and ball-wear from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as a slew of flashy objects from the 19th, when diamonds came into their own. From the turn of the last century, there are some rather gaudy flowers made of gold and gems by Lalique and Tiffany. There's also an evening bag inscribed "May 20, 1913, Mrs. Alexander Hecht, Baltimore, Md." It's nothing great as art -- but it's made of more than half a pound of gold, diamonds and sapphires. (Her family's department stores must have been doing well.)

Even Asian jewelry gets a tiny hint of attention, thanks to a few showoff ornaments perhaps worn by one of the last empresses of China.

All of this is enough to tell you, in very generic terms, that jewelry has mattered. None of it takes jewelry particularly seriously. Imagine if the Walters mounted a show that claimed to trumpet all the glories of the history of painting, without a single masterpiece on loan from somewhere else. You can't, because it'd never do it. But jewelry has fallen so far out of favor that just showing any of it off seems like a special event.

The best thing about this exhibition is that it reveals that there were moments, not that long ago, when that wouldn't have been true. Most of the jewelry in this exhibition was acquired by Henry Walters, son of the museum's founder, in the decades after 1900. And for art collectors of his generation -- he died in 1931, at age 83 -- such wide-ranging tastes would have been more the norm than the exception. There was a notion that wonderful human creations of all kinds, from all over, were worth equal attention and study. For a little while in the later 19th century, a majolica dish could sell for as much as a Raphael painting.

By laying out the scope of Henry Walters's tastes, "Bedazzled" presents a vanished world of equal-opportunity aesthetics.

Bedazzled: 5,000 Years of Jewelry runs through Jan. 4 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Call 410-547-9000 or visit http://www.thewalters.org.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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