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Love of history helped curator bring three designers’ work together for the first time in 108 years
Go up to a lover of the finer things in life and ask them to name someone known for decorative arts and one of three names will be tossed back:
Thanks to the effort of one gay man with an overweening love of art and design, those three artistic houses are now in one incredible show, the first time the trio’s works have been together on this scale since the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.
Stephen Harrison is the curator of the “Artistic Luxury” show, running through January 19 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It brings together pieces from sources as diverse as Queen Elizabeth of England, Russian businessmen, and Joan Rivers, who happens to have a lush collection of Fabergé jewelry that would make a czarina jealous.
The seeds of the show were sown a couple of decades ago, when Harrison was a boy in the South.
“My interest in art and design really began with an interest in historic architecture,” he noted. “Where I grew up in Louisiana, we didn’t really have an art museum, so my grandmother and my mother took me to see old plantation houses.”
“That really awakened in me a love of looking at history through object, through the things that people owned and made,” he continued.
“Later on, I continued to follow my interest in historic architecture, and that led me to looking at objects that went into these historic buildings, and I discovered that was where my true passion lay, in studying decorative arts,” he concluded.
During his tenure at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the idea for the show began to take form. Originally, he thought about a show on the work of Fabergé, perhaps best known for his clockwork eggs, prized gifts for the royalty of Europe.
“I didn’t really want to do a show with just Fabergé because we’ve had so many shows of just Fabergé,” he realized.
He delved further into the idea, realizing that to really understand the artist and his work, you had to place it all in context, “What were the factors that went into the way his things looked? Who were his peers, his rivals, his clients?”
“Most people don’t realize that Fabergé, Tiffany and Lalique lived at the same time and were great rivals,” he explained. “They only ever showed together at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, so I thought that was a great time to focus on. For me, that was an exhibition just waiting to be done, and no one else had done it.”
“What I found was, there was a rich rivalry and a very, very dynamic interplay back and forth in their work,” Harrison noted. “You see them approaching the same questions of design, though in different ways. They were very diverse in their stylistic motifs, they all embraced early modernism, again in very different ways, and I think that will come out very well in the show.”
He outlined some of the difference between the three, in style and in their clientele.
Louis Comfort Tiffany, known best for stained glass compositions, was famous for “layering glass in order to create a three-dimensional effect, almost like painting with glass without actually painting.”
“Many of Lalique’s clients were actors and actresses, men buying for their mistresses, very much on the fringe of avant-garde society, but also conventional society, too, flocked to his door,” Harrison explained. A scion of Jeptha Wade, after whom Wade Park is named, purchased an enameled Lalique comb at the World’s Fair that is now in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection.
Beyond Fabergé’s fantastic designs, Harrison noted, one of the most notable features was his “use of Russian stone, how he uses all these multicolored agates and hard stones that are found in the Ural Mountains and Siberia. It’s just amazing how he’ll take a stone and use the variegations of the coloring in the stone itself to imitate or enliven whatever it is he’s creating from it.”
“He’s famous for his animals carved out of stone, and we have a paperweight of three puppies playing on a mat. He made it out of marble and used the colors to make the black and white fur of the puppies,” Harrison enthused.
It took Harrison nearly six years to gather the 275 pieces that were loaned to the museum for the exhibit, which are complemented by around 50 items from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s own holdings.
“The real basis for the Fabergé in the show is our own great collection of Fabergé, and that will be featured,” he said, although he noted that the “number of loans from private individuals are what sets this show apart from others.”
He also focused on pieces that have not been in previous exhibits, which is what necessitated going to those private citizens. That means a great number of them haven’t been on the “exhibition circuit” of other museums, and some have not been on display since the early 20th century.
“One is a fantastic Tiffany window of three magnolia blossoms that was shown at the World’s Fair and then bought by a Russian and taken back to St. Petersburg,” he said. It was put in storage at the Hermitage during the Bolshevik Revolution, he added, and this will be its first time in a modern exhibit.
Some lenders were harder to convince than others.
“One lender in particular is very paranoid about the Russian mafia stealing his works to take back to Russia,” he noted. “That was a consideration, certainly.”
“The queen was not very difficult,” he continued. “What I find particularly admirable is that Her Majesty reviewed the loan application herself. She reviews all loan applications for her collection.”
“I find that in a woman who deals in state matters every day, that she takes such an interest in her own collection is quite admirable,” he posited.
“I can tell you one of the most enjoyable situations was Joan Rivers, who is lending to the show, and for that it took me about a year to be granted an audience and interview with her, so I went one afternoon to her glorious apartment off of Fifth Avenue,” Harrison recounted. “I came up in the elevator, and here she came, and was perfectly made up from the neck up, as if she were about to go out, and from the neck down, she was in a powder-blue terrycloth housecoat with pom-pom slippers, which just slayed me.”
“As we would talk, her maid would bring another piece of Fabergé jewelry out for me to see, and at one point these things were stacking up and I wondered how these things would look being worn,” he remembered. “I asked Joan if she wore any of these, and she said she normally wears reproductions of these pieces that she sells on QVC.”
“She put them on her terrycloth housecoat, and by the time she was done, she looked like Queen Mary,” he laughed. “It was absolutely hilarious.”
After an hour, Harrison excused himself and went downstairs to a pay phone, calling Cleveland high-society florist Charles Phillips and telling him he had an hour to find out the name of Rivers’ own florist. Phillips called him back in 57 minutes, and Harrison sent her a huge bouquet of tulips.
“About a month later, I got the most beautiful thank-you note from her in which she pledged her support for the exhibition, so we will have five pieces from her collection,” he said.
Tickets for the show are $17; $12 for college students and seniors, and $8 for children 6-18. The Cleveland Museum of Arts is located at 11150 East Boulevard in the University Circle area. For more information, go to www.clevelandart.org or call 888-2620033.
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