You cannot walk through "Celebration: A World of Art and Ritual," opening today at the Renwick Gallery, without understanding the universality of men's and women's need for ceremonies marking the passages of life.
The exhibit, the biggest ever for the Renwick, and one of the most comprehensive ever mounted by the Smithsonian Institution, is an exuberant collection of the sights and sounds of celebrations--600 objects from 60 cultures. It fills the entire first floor. The exhibit is so large it will open in two phases. When the second phase opens on Aug. 26, the exhibit will fill the entire museum.
There are gold embroidered wedding dresses from Turkey, mourning cloths from Ghana, carp kites flown for boys' day in Japan, silver dishes from Tibet, girls' initiation costumes from Burma.
The show is a part of the trend of exhibiting objects from everyday life as works of art. It points out again that an object doesn't have to be useless to be art.
Complementing the exhibit is an ambitious program of dances, music, films and demonstrations, plus four publications, all based on the celebration theme. The multimedia event is a sort of Folklife Fair, moved from the Mall into the Renwick Gallery. The exhibits come from nine Smithsonian museums and were coordinated by Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick, and Ralph Rinzler, head of the Smithsonian folk life programs. Anthropologist Victor Turner was guest curator for the exhibition.
The show makes the point that to celebrate is human. However, it is really too big for the Renwick's cramped space, despite Michael Monroe's sensational design, snaked through a maze-like series of passages cut through the galleries. But too many objects, too many thoughts, all crowd in on the viewers, leaving them with the feeling of having been to a five-ring circus. No country, no one ritual is dealt with in depth.
Even so, thanks to the beautifully designed display cases, some magnificent works stand out. They glorify the ordinary person, who upon occasion becomes a great artist.
* In 1856, Virginia M. Ivey went to the Logan County fair in Kentucky. When she came home, she recorded what she saw and felt about the fair: wagons, trees, fair-goers, horses, cows and buildings. She worked not with paint and brush, but with needle and fabric to make a white-on-white trapunto quilt. The result is a major work of genre art.
* In Japan, at the turn of the 19th century, the kanko drums, translated as "drums of remonstrance," were mounted at the doors to the magistrate's office. Anyone who believed himself harmed could signal his distress and call for redress by beating on the drums. Earlier, the kanko drums, with their gold circles and cocks, symbolized creation, peace and prosperity.
* In Guerrero, Mexico, around 1900, when the dwarf, cave-dwelling rain gods turned their faces away and the land was dry, 12 small boys would dress in masks. The elaborately carved and painted wooden masks, with wavy beards and biting fierce snakes, reached almost to the children's feet. The boys would dance in front of the rain gods' caves at the beginning of the wet season, and behold, the prayers would bring rain.
Also in Guerrero, the young Nahua boys wear crocodile (caiman) figures carved of wood while dancing to elude people who wear fishermen masks and carry nets. The dance ensures good fishing.
* In 1904, in New York, Tiffany and Co. made a loving cup of silver, almost two feet high. The cup was embossed with a marvelous Mercedes racing car, the image of one driven by William K. Vanderbilt Jr., the patron of the Long Island Vanderbilt Cup Races.
* In the early part of this century, in Turkey, the wedding ceremony was no quickie deal. The ritual went on for days. At the end, the bride put on a wedding dress, such as the purple velveteen gown, elaborately embroidered with gold thread and sparkled with sequins, on exhibit. When the groom gave the bride a ring, she then gave permission for him to remove her veil as she kissed his hand. They then dined together, shared coffee, and the matron/witness discreetly retired.
* In Bengal, both brides and grooms wore wonderful marriage coronets, as elaborate as the crown of some great emperor, only artfully fashioned from the shola plant.
* In 1974, the Ashanti people of Ghana wove a great mourning cloth. A member of the family of the dead Ashanti chief wore it for 40 days while the soul of the chief was on his passage to the hunting ground of the otherworld. The brown/black background, stamped with designs, is pierced by a band of silk colored threads.
To be born, to come of age, to marry, to rejoice, to die--ceremonies mark the progression of life. And the way stations of the circle are shown in the Renwick exhibit.
Part I, on the first floor, will continue through June 26, 1983. Part II will open Aug. 26 on the second floor and will continue through Feb. 21, 1983.
Today a St. Patrick's Day celebration, featuring Irish folk dancing and music directed by Mick Moloney, University of Pennsylvania folklorist, will be performed in the Renwick's Great Salon from noon to 5 p.m.