Millennia of riches sparkle at the Walters

art review

October 19, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Baltimore art collector Henry Walters had a great eye for painting and sculpture, but he also had a thing for bling.

While he was expanding the art collection that his father William began assembling in the mid 1800s, Henry amassed one of the most wide-ranging private jewelry collections in the U.S., including works by Tiffany & Co., Rene Lalique and others.

His greatest finds form the core of Bedazzled: 5000 Years of Jewelry, a lavish exhibit that opens today and runs through Jan. 4, 2009, at the Walters Art Museum.

Drawn from the vast collection that Walters left to the city of Baltimore when he died in 1931, and supplemented with works on loan from New York-based gemologist Benjamin Zucker and others, this is one exhibit that lives up to its name. It contains 215 objects that reflect 5000 years of jewelry making, from 3000 B.C. to the early 20th century. They range from some of the Walters' most admired masterpieces to objects never shown before.

Around-the-world highlights include an iris corsage ornament by Tiffany & Co. that is decorated with 139 sapphires, diamonds and other gems and won the grand prize at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle; a ceremonial Chinese headdress from the 19th century; gold bracelets from the 1st century B.C. that were discovered in a tomb in present-day Olbia, Ukraine; a pair of eagle-shaped garment clasps from 6th-century Visigothic Spain; and an Art Nouveau enamel-and-sapphire brooch displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Mo.

Curated by Sabine Albersmeier, the museum's Associate Curator of Ancient Art, Bedazzled offers a comprehensive look at the makers, givers and recipients of jewelry and how customs have changed throughout history.

Showing the wide range of techniques and materials used, the survey underscores the importance of jewelry, not only as an expression of artistic creativity, but also a means of conveying information about the people who wear it, including their wealth, social position, values and beliefs.

The Walters is one of the few museums in the country that could mount such a diverse show, taken largely from its own holdings. That's almost entirely due to Henry Walters and his collecting activity during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

His father, a railroad magnate, began the art collection but hardly acquired any jewelry; the few pieces he did purchase are contained in one glass case at the beginning of the exhibit. Henry, by contrast, had a strong interest in jewelry and bought objects from many different periods and cultures.

The museum continued to purchase jewelry after his death and received donations from others. The Walters' collection includes several dozen rings that Henry gave a niece, Laura Delano, and that she, in turn, donated to the museum.

Two more pieces in Bedazzled with a Baltimore connection are a gold mesh evening bag that belonged to Mrs. Alexander Hecht, whose family operated one of the city's best known department stores, and a stickpin worn by the writer H.L. Mencken, donated by his brother August.

The exhibit shows objects in roughly chronological order, starting with ancient Egypt and Greece, moving up through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque period, and into the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the most sophisticated groups of jewelry makers is also one of the earliest, the Etruscans from the early centuries B.C. The Walters has some of the best work that survives from that period, including a delicate pair of gold spirals. Another impressive section comes from the Renaissance, when wealthy patrons commissioned artists to create elaborate pendants and dress ornaments.

Part of the exhibit's significance is what it tells about different cultures. In ancient Egypt, fish from the Nile were not only dietary staples but worshiped as gods, as illustrated by a pendant from the 14th century B.C. Ancient Romans wore gold bracelets and rings in the form of snakes, which symbolized fertility and were thought to ward off evil. Greeks incorporated coins into their jewelry as a sign of wealth.

The exhibit also explores how technological breakthroughs increased the possibilities for creativity, including advances in the production of multicolored glass, diamond cutting and gem setting.

This is not the first comprehensive jewelry exhibit that the Walters has ever organized, but it's the first in several decades. Ironically, it almost wasn't going to be shown in Baltimore.

Bedazzled was conceived as a traveling exhibit only. But the response was so overwhelming in the cities where it was displayed, Nashville, Tenn., and Sarasota, Fla., that the Walters' directors decided to mount an expanded version in Baltimore.

For this exhibit, the curator added objects that couldn't travel to other cities, such as fragile glass pieces, and included paintings, busts and other works from the Walters collection to demonstrate how various pieces of jewelry were worn.

There are separate sections devoted to jewelry from Asia and to finger rings, described as the only type of jewelry worn continuously through the ages.

The museum also expanded an area about fakes and forgeries, showing that even Walters wasn't immune to being duped once in a while. A related display provides an overview of stylistic revivals in jewelry making, such as the 19th-century practice of creating objects that looked as if they were made by the Etruscans or Egyptians.

Bedazzled is one of several arts events that public officials are promoting in a new tourism campaign, and it's not hard to see why. The Walters has been likened to a giant jewelry box. Starting today, it really becomes one.

if you go

Bedazzled runs through Jan. 4 at The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. General admission is free, but this special exhibition costs $4-$8. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.

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