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The Met explores the roles jewelry and self-adornment have played throughout history.

By Phyllis Schiller


More than most other art forms, jewelry is intended for the body. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is shedding light on this powerful form of self-expression with its exhibition “Jewelry, The Body Transformed.”

The charge was “to make it big,” says Melanie Holcomb, the show’s chief curator. “Jewelry does not always get the attention it deserves.”

To fulfill that request, she worked with a team of five other curators from different departments within the museum, drawing from the Met’s own collections to show how the practice of wearing jewelry is culturally interconnected. A total of 225 objects are on view, dating from 2500 BCE to 2017. Of these, 195 are jewelry; the rest are photographs, sculptures and paintings “to enrich the story the jewelry is telling,” Holcomb says.

“Many ‘modern’ jewelry trends have roots in the ancient world,” she elaborates. “These are old, old impulses. Jewelry is the oldest art form, predating cave paintings by tens of thousands of years. We humans are the original canvas.”

Visitors get to experience that connection as they walk through the door, where cases are set up in a “staircase effect to bring to mind reference points on the body,” Holcomb says. “The first type of jewelry you see is for the feet and ankles, and it is displayed at the height of your feet and ankles. As you move to the next row, you’re moving up to the hips and the waist, and then the neck and throat and finally ending up at the head.”

The pieces span the unexpected and the expected — “golden sandals with toe coverings for an Egyptian royal wife, circa 1450, and an exquisite diamond necklace by Dreicer & Co., circa 1905,” she continues.

From there, five sections explore the ways in which “putting jewelry on the body is an act imbued with meaning that transforms us in a variety of powerful, often overlapping ways.”

The Divine Body

“This section is all about the link between jewelry and divinity and immortality,” says Holcomb. “Because this is such an ancient notion, this is the one section where almost everything on view comes from the ancient world.”

Included is a collar made of flowers and leaves that belonged to the boy King Tut from the 14th century BCE. “It reminds us that original forms of adornment were often taken from nature. It illustrates the Egyptian notions of the divine. It’s jewelry for the gods; that’s why the Pharaohs wore it.” The pieces, she adds, have enormous symbolic weight: “This was the jewelry to take you into the afterlife.”

The Regal Body

Jewelry as a status symbol is the theme of this section. Whether it’s Imperial Byzantium or African kingdoms of the 1500s to 1600s, “how and what you wear is connected to your rank,” Holcomb notes. Among the items here is another kind of collar, a pectoral dating from sixth-century Byzantium and made of gold coins.

“These coins are representations of the emperor, so they have amuletic status. They’re meant to protect and heal and carry the power of the emperor,” says the curator. In a similar vein, she points to an ivory bracelet from 17th-century Africa: “Its iconography of Portuguese traders and amphibious mudfish is linked to the power of the king.”

The Transcendent Body

Jewelry can operate “as a currency between the spiritual world and the human world,” says Holcomb, as illustrated here in pieces from Africa, coastal New Guinea and India. “It’s jewelry that either conjures up the ancestors or speaks to the gods.”

One spectacular example she cites is a pair of granulated-gold earrings from India that wrap around the ear, dating to the first century BCE. “The granulation is used to create a tiny elephant on one ear, and on the other, a tiny tiger — creatures that themselves are wearing jewelry.”

The Alluring Body

The idea that women wear jewelry to make themselves objects of desire shows up in multiple cultures, such as marriage jewelry from India and courtesan hair combs from 19th-century Japan. Pearls, too, “have a history totally connected to eroticism,” Holcomb says.

One example of contemporary jewelry that turns the notion of the alluring female on its head is the 2000 interpretation of the yashmak, a type of veil once worn by some Muslim women of the Ottoman Empire. “It is very much linked to modesty,” explains the curator. “Shaun Leane, the jeweler who worked with Alexander McQueen, reimagined this idea with a work made of aluminum and Swarovski crystals. It represents jewelry in a protective role, covering the face, arms and much of the torso, and very much looks like a piece of armor.”

The Resplendent Body

The last portion of the exhibition is all about the bling factor, the “look at me” statement. Along with jewelry from Western Africa and Indian Mughal jewelry, here is where you’ll see Western brand names, says Holcomb, including a “stunningly beautiful enamel and opal necklace by René Lalique, the famed artist jeweler. It’s a spectacle in all the ways we understand, in terms of design, material and manufacture, and just sheer beauty.”

Overall, the show highlights how meaningful the practice of wearing jewelry can be. “We think of jewelry as a superficial pleasure, and certainly viewers can enjoy the show on that level,” sums up Holcomb. “But it also reveals that the act of adorning ourselves is one of the most profound acts we engage in as humans.”

Image: “Jewelry, The Body Transformed” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from November 12 through February 24, 2019. metmuseum.org

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2018. To subscribe click here.

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