Giving a lot and asking a lot Art: The Victoria and Albert exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art has it all, from fine art to a fig leaf. But it demands attention, too, if the viewer is to fully grasp what it's all about.

October 12, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

From the tremendous to the tiny, the sublime to the silly, the demanding but rewarding exhibit "A Grand Design" has it all.

A 19-foot-long Indian rug and an ivory box less than 2 inches high. A beautiful Chinese jade horse's head 2,000 years old and a hideous evening gown made last year. The plaster fig leaf hung strategically on the copy of Michelangelo's "David" whenever Queen Victoria came to call.

Those and 251 other objects from London's Victoria and Albert Museum form the mammoth exhibit opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art today. Brought to us after 10 years of planning and at a cost of $5 million, "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum" is surely the most ambitious show any Baltimore museum has ever organized.

It's also demanding of the viewer, both because of the nature of the V&A and because of the BMA's selection, organization and presentation.

The V&A was founded as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851, a world's fair of products from around the globe, held in London and housed in the technologically innovative glass and iron building known as the Crystal Palace.

Up to the V&A's time, museums were the preserve of scholars, connoisseurs and the titled. The V&A, however, was established as a museum of popular education. It began with a collection largely of applied (decorative) arts intended to improve the products of British industry by instructing artisans and manufacturers and raising the taste of the public.

As an institution for educating the masses, the V&A became the model for subsequent museums all over the world, including many in America.

But unlike most other museums, the V&A's holdings are not primarily paintings and sculpture -- though it has some of both and some of both are on view here. Its collection of 4 1/2 million objects is mainly devoted to that functional world encompassing everything from furniture and silver to musical instruments, from clothes to chalices and jewel caskets.

The BMA, with seriousness of purpose, decided not to simply select a carload of gorgeous objects and put on the usual "treasures of " exhibit.

Instead, it has attempted to tell the 150-year history of the V&A through its objects, and along the way to teach something about what museums are for and how and why they collect.

Yet nowhere in the exhibit itself is this purpose stated in so many words, so visitors will have to "get it" gradually as they go through.

And they will have to read a lot of texts and labels and concentrate hard to get all the show has to offer. Although it includes many great works, the selection was chosen to illustrate the scope and breadth of the V&A's holdings. Magnificent examples of furniture, sculpture and silver mingle with fabric samples, architectural fragments, radios and shoes.

Decorative arts have long been a significant field of study at the BMA, and its decorative arts collection constitutes one of the museum's more important holdings. So the BMA was a logical choice to organize this show. It has risen to the challenge with a thoughtful, educational presentation in keeping with the V&A's history.

Those seeking an unbroken succession of masterpieces may be put off. Those who take the show on its own terms will find it a journey of discovery, with much to learn and a wealth of fascination in most of the objects.

The pieces have been installed in galleries that have arches and columns to establish an appropriate architectural ambience. But this didactic exhibit needs the complement of dramatic vistas and a sense of the splendid that the installation fails to deliver.

Some pieces are poorly placed, and works that could make grand statements get small quarters. Specially created cabinets provide easy-to-read labels but are clunky looking. A few pieces are poorly lighted (the V&A put lighting restrictions on some objects), and narrow openings between sections may present problems for crowds.

Still, the idea of the V&A's development comes through. Walking from gallery to gallery, visitors will get a sense of the show's six divisions, each one devoted to a different aspect of the V&A's collecting history.

Section 1

* Industrial Arts and the Exhibition Ideal:

Because of its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the show has a baker's dozen of the most elaborate works shown there and at other 19th-century world's fairs.

It begins with Henry Courtney Selous' painting "The Opening of the Great Exhibition," a group portrait of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and a horde of officials and grandees. Velazquez it isn't, but as a historical record it has its place.

Other works here include a magnificent Indian sari of silk and gold thread, a silver and jeweled chalice designed by the noted Gothic revival architect and designer A. W. N. Pugin, and a 27-inch-tall blue and white ceramic jug.

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