“Jewelry: The Body Transformed” Shines Bright at The Met

All photos Laurel Marcus
Rene-Jules Lalique (ca. 1857-99) gold, enamel, opals, amethysts
Click images for full-size views

Which art form came first — jewelry making or cave paintings? If you said the former, congratulate yourself — jewelry is not only the world’s oldest art form, it predates cave paintings by tens of thousands of years! Found throughout history and across cultures jewelry takes its place of honor while serving to “amplify the human body, accentuating, enhancing, distorting, and transforming it,” according to the wall text at The Met’s new exhibition “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” where I attended a press preview yesterday. The exhibition opens November 12 and runs through February 24.

Gorget, French ca. 1600, Steel, Gold

Jewelry is of course worn in life, and in the time of the Egyptian kings also in death as a form of protection in the afterlife. You will see many examples of these and all types of jewelry ranging from 2600 B.C.E. to the present. From the “Crown of the Andes,” a gold votive headpiece made for a larger-than-life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary in a 16th-century Colombian cathedral to a sterling silver “Crown of Thorns” by British jewelry designer Shaun Leane made for a model’s head in a 1996 Alexander McQueen fashion show.

Gold Hair Rings in a wig, Egyptian ca. 1887-1813 B.C.

As you enter the first gallery, you’ll see a sampling of all manner of wearable decorative items from various times and places juxtaposed in dramatically lit cases. Embellishments which festoon the wearer from head to toe are considered jewelry — from headdresses and hair ornaments to face jewelry encompassing the nose, lips, and ears; to the neck, chest, and waist; arms and hands; ankles and feet.

Evening Gloves, Elsa Schiaparelli, Made in France (1935-40)

The following galleries contain vignettes displaying thematic excerpts of global history. Cultures and time periods collide enabling visitors to compare and contrast. Interestingly, in the 230 pieces presented here every one of the 17 curatorial departments of The Met is represented from music (ankle bracelets with bells), to photography (portraits of women such as Josephine Baker and Coco Chanel in pearls), to arms and armor (jewel encrusted swords).

Melanie Holcomb, curator

“I sometimes call this space an enchanted village,” remarked Melanie Holcomb, curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “It invites you to wander around and find what catches your eye. This is not your typical jewelry show — we are pushing and pulling at different examples to explore the category.

“The Jealous Husband Necklace” — Alexander Calder 1940

We want you to contemplate what jewelry is. Why do human beings adorn themselves with jewelry? Instead of asking what materials or makers, we are cutting across time and space to find out how jewelry makes us, not how jewelry is made. The power and agency of jewelry does something for and to us.”

“Night in the City” Necklace, Joyce J. Scott, 1990

Holcomb described how the exhibition is grouped into broad themes, many of which overlap. These are “The Divine Body,” (which examines the link between jewelry and immortality) “The Regal Body,” (jewelry worn to assert rank and status particularly among royals) “The Transcendent Body,” (examining the power to conjure spirits, appease gods and evoke ancestors), “The Alluring Body,” (dealing with romance and desire); and “The Resplendent Body”(luxury and opulent jewelry).

Gold sandals and Toe Stalls, New Kingdom Dynasty 18, Reign of Thutmose III, ca. 1479-1425 B.C.

The exhibition made possible by Albion Art Co,. Ltd, and culled from The Met’s permanent collection is “a richly layered experience urging you to think about jewelry in the broadest ways and to zero in on a piece with all of its exquisiteness,” the curator added. “While jewelry may seem superficial, the act of adorning ourselves is one of the most profound acts we engage in.”

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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