In the fiery Hades of the furnace, on the altar of the anvil, in the sobering cold of the tempering water bucket, iron is pushed, pulled, pierced, pounded and formed into an infinity of shapes.
Few materials are as malleable as iron. Few materials take the great strength of arm and firmness of purpose of iron. Few have its versatility, to be transformed into necklaces, tables, spinning wheels, weathervanes, axes, locks and some things you'd be hard put to name.
All the solid wrought virtues and verities of iron are surveyed in an exhibit of 100-odd iron objects from the 18th to the 20th century on view through Oct. 24 at the Renwick Gallery, 17th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
The village blacksmith is no longer to be found under the spreading chestnut tree.A series of inventions produced machines whose brow did not sweat nor arm tire: the nail factory in the 1790s, the tool factory in 1840, the mechanical horseshoer at the time of the Civil War.
The great frivolities of decorative ironwork, ornamenting balconies, doors and fences from New Orleans to Savannah, had their final flourish in the art nouveau era of 1890 to 1910.
The great craft revival in the United States in the 1960s started with pottery, went on to glass, textiles and wood, reaching iron only in the 1970s. In 1970, Brent Kington at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale held a blacksmithing conference that served as a catalyst to the craftsmen. Other workshops followed.
In the Renwick show are magnificent new works like Albert Paley's mild steel gate (and a smaller show of his work on another floor); George Martin's chair and footstool with an iron frame and a leather sling; the handsome room divider by Joel Schwartz; and the hilarious Rube Goldberg-like popcorn popper by Bernard F. Hosey. Then there are the historical pieces such as the 1930 music stand, high art moderne by Hunt Diederich; the fireplace set made by Daniel Boone VI; and the sampling of all the wonderful tools made in all those now long-since-gone village smithies.
The show, originating at the Southern Illinois University museum and art gallery, is accompanied by a splendid catalog tracing the history of the craft.