In The Magazine

Kaleidoscopic View

Thursday, October 18, 2018

There’s a mystery to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” that adds to its appeal. For many of the objects ranging from 2600 B.C.E. to the present day, the original owners are unknown. “I like to think this whole show is full of ghosts,” says curator Melanie Holcomb, who oversees the Met’s collection of early medieval art. For half a decade, she’s been working with the museum and consulting curator Beth Carver Wees on the exhibition, which opens November 12. “Part of the reason why there will be barely any mannequins on display is that we want people to wonder who wore this jewelry. The idea is much more abstracted. The body is implied—it’s always there, without being literal.”

On view at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall through February 24, the show delves deep into the purpose and power of jewelry, focusing on its relationship with the body—from the feet up to the head. “It was a long, drawn-out process of narrowing it down to 230 objects from 800 or so of the Met’s collection,” says Wees, who specializes in American silver, jewelry and other metalwork at the museum. “We had many conversations with every department on how to corral all of this material into something that makes sense.”

Walk in and you’ll be welcomed by an installation that breaks the rules of chronological order, a decision that conveys the universality of jewelry and its cultural significance. “Imagine pieces from India next to ones from Africa and 19th-century America. It’ll be a great splash before getting into the nitty-gritty details of time and place,” says Holcomb.

There are five galleries organized by theme to highlight cross-cultural comparisons. Each object is displayed on its own bespoke mount and shown along with sculptures, paintings, prints and photographs to tell a larger story. Starting off is “The Divine Body,” which explores jewelry’s connection to immortality. Here, you’ll find a head-to-toe ensemble from ancient Egypt that was said to accompany the elite into the afterlife. Moving along, you’ll enter “The Regal Body,” where the notion of status and hierarchy will be introduced. Wees shares an old saying: “When you take off your jewelry, you lose your power.” She notes, “We don’t think so much in that way today—Queen Elizabeth is still Queen Elizabeth without her crown.”

“But, is she?” asks Holcomb, in a perfect display of the exhibition’s goal to provoke thoughts and conversation.

You’ll then move to “The Transcendent Body,” which pays tribute to how jewelry can be a tool to recall spirits and ancestors, as well as serve as a gift to the gods. In “The Alluring Body,” the topic of gender comes to light. “In this day and age, it might surprise people to understand that historically, men have been big jewelry wearers,” says Holcomb. “We brought out that point and want to draw specific attention to why jewelry, in some ways, has become associated as a feminine art form.” The work of jewelry designers including Elsa Schiaparelli, Art Smith, Elsa Peretti and Shaun Leane also surface in this gallery.

Lastly, is “The Resplendent Body,” where designs of legendary jewelry houses from Tiffany to Castellani and Lalique are shown. It emphasizes the blend of material and technique for the purpose of ostentation.

In tandem with the exhibition will be a series of educational programs. “I hope people will take away that the very act of putting on a piece of jewelry is an age-old, meaningful practice,” says Holcomb. “There’s a much deeper, richer, universal story here,” says Wees. “What I find very moving is the memory associated with jewelry—whether it belonged to your great-grandmother or you bought it on a trip to Peru.” It’s arguably the most personal form of art there is.


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