A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity at the Powerhouse Museum has been the great word-of-mouth exhibition over the summer. There have been many enquiries as to when I’d be reviewing this show, which I’ve been keeping in reserve – partly because it’s tempting to hold back on an exhibition that runs until September, and partly because I can make no claims to having any expert knowledge of jewellery.
Nevertheless, A Fine Possession is an event that commands attention. Jewellery is a neglected art-form in most Australian museums although it exerts a much greater hold on the public imagination than the high-profile contemporary art one sees at a biennale. On two visits to this exhibition I’ve been struck by the way viewers seem completely absorbed by the items on display.
Many people viewers are entranced by the level of craftsmanship – a quality that never loses its wow factor. One can only be dazzled by the fine detail in pieces by Fabergé or Giuliano, but it’s no less amazing to realise that an Italian gold ring featuring five tiny pictures of birds is produced by a micro-mosaic technique using specks of coloured stone.
The exhibition is a showcase for the Powerhouse’s impressive jewellery collection, which has never previously been surveyed in such a comprehensive manner. There are 700 pieces in a show supplemented by loans from private and public collections, including 70 items belonging to antique dealer, Anne Schofield, who was one of the prime movers behind this event.
Schofield’s small, very readable book of last year, Jewels on Queen, is the closest thing to a catalogue for the exhibition. A mixture of guide book and memoir, this publication reproduces some of the most striking pieces in A Fine Possession, although it provides little in the way of background information.
The lack of a scholarly catalogue is the one big criticism of an event that aims to be more than a popular spectacle. The curators, led by Eva Czernis-Ryl, have avoided a simple chronological lay-out. Although the items on display range from antiquity to the present day, they are grouped thematically into nine sections: Belief & Magic, Love & Death, Nature & Culture, Style & Revival, Gold & Identity, Status & Wealth, Men & Adornment, Modernity & Change, Evolution & Revolution. The last incorporates a broad selection of contemporary approaches to jewellery.
For most viewers the obvious highlight of this encyclopaedic collection will be a wattle spray brooch given to the young Queen Elizabeth II on her 1954 tour of Australia. The brooch, made by Hungarian émigré, Paul Schneller, for the firm of Drummond & Co. quickly became a favourite. HRH wore the brooch throughout that first tour, and has been wearing it at regular intervals ever since. For a limited time it is on loan to this exhibition, where it sits sparkling in a corner, light glinting from a mass of white and yellow diamonds.
The Queen’s brooch belongs to the flashier end of the spectrum. Although a large amount of jewellery is meant to give an impression of wealth and power, there are numerous other reasons for wearing a brooch or a necklace. A simple, homemade crucifix cut from a piece of metal is a stark token of religious faith. A necklace of human teeth may be intended to confer a shamanistic power on the wearer. A badge can be a sign of rebellion or a coded message.
The section called Love & Death brings together examples of “mourning jewellery” from the 18th and 19th centuries. Mostly brooches, pendants and rings, these pieces often incorporate the initials of a loved one, a portrait or photograph, and perhaps a few strands of his or her hair. If such curios seem morbid today it is because death has become more remote to us than it was to the Victorians. As a society we have less time for religion, and are less inclined to believe in an afterlife. Rather than allow for a protracted period of mourning we are encouraged to seek “closure” and move on.
Far more common than those pieces of jewellery associated with death, are those in the service of love. All of life’s courting rituals have been conducted with pieces of jewellery, usually in accordance with established social conventions. Many of these pieces partake in a shared language of flowers, animals or precious stones that were legible to people of another age or another culture.
Rarely did a master jeweller draw on a floral or animal motif without being aware of a deeper meaning. This was the case with the Egyptians, who used the scarab, or dung beetle, as a symbol of rebirth into the spiritual world. It was the case for every culture that needed a symbol of strength, passion, wisdom, fidelity, or some other desirable quality.
Over the centuries varieties of precious stone have built up their own fund of symbolism and mythology, related to their colours and properties. The diamond was associated with purification and said to have healing powers. The ruby was linked with the blood of Christ, or with holy fire. Sapphires invoked celestial mysteries.
A piece of jewellery is always a communications device, but this is especially noticeable with works such as the gold brooches made as souvenirs of the Australian goldrushes. They are packed with information – from native fauna and flora to tiny renderings of the miners’ tools. Such narrative ambitions are rare because most jewellery speaks to us in more generalised terms.
The recent history of the art-form is also a record of our increasing literalness. When Gertrude Stein wrote: “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in 1913, she was giving voice to a modernist sensibility that refused the layers of meaning that had been embraced by the Romantics.
As we move into the modern period there is a marked tendency towards abstraction, as jewellers veer away from the natural world and adopt a machine aesthetic. This is clear enough in the transition from the flowing lines and organic forms of Art Nouveau to the angular designs of Art Deco. It was a turn from the emotional to the rational.
Part of the rationality of Art Deco was its ability to adapt itself to changing economic circumstances. With the Great Depression, what began as a luxury style for an élite market soon became a form for mass consumption. Instead of ivory, onyx, jade and platinum, late Art Deco jewellery was made out of Bakelite, a hard plastic that could be easily coloured. There was nothing pure about Art Deco, which drew its inspiration from many different periods and cultures, from ancient Egypt and tribal Africa to the modern industrial world.
In this, it emulated the copycat tendencies of the designers of the 19th century, who took ideas from each new archaeological discovery. The exhibition, and the Schofield book, feature an Egyptian-style necklace and earrings in gold and lapis lazuli, made by a Roman designer in the 1870s; and intaglios depicting scenes of Greek mythology from the same period.
The forms of the past, once invested with genuine religious feeling, return in the guise of fantasy and nostalgia. As the show creeps closer to the present day the serious, ceremonial purposes of jewellery give way to a pervasive playfulness. This is typified by a tiara by Fiona Hall, featuring a frieze of Xanthorroea plants, made from the tin used for sardine cans. Even more irreverent is David Bielander’s Wiener neckpiece (2009), which borrows elements from a designer chair by Michael Thonet (1796-1871), to create a necklace seemingly made from sausages.
If there is one work that encapsulates the many contradictions of contemporary jewellery it is Otto Kunzli’s Black Mickey Mouse (1992), which manages to be both playful and menacing. A heart-shaped brooch with Mickey Mouse ears, the piece pays homage to the realm of popular culture, while suggesting there is something deadly about the way we entertain ourselves. Kunzli made the brooch after spending time in the United States, and it reflects his ambivalent attitude to American life. It is less a celebration of pop culture than an elegy for higher cultural aspirations – an effective dark note at the conclusion of a carnival.
A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity
Powerhouse Museum, until 20 September
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 14th February, 2015