Plain or Fancy, Restraint & Exuberance – What Do You Prefer?

‘Art never expresses anything but itself’*

Plain or Fancy? Plate T.G, London 1655-56 Silver, Metalwork gift of Rev. Alfred Duane Pell, 1903 courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Plain or Fancy, restraint and exuberance what would you say is the category this plate falls into? Most of you I suspect would say immediately plain…but is it really?

On closer examination we discover that it is made of British Silver, the highest grade of silver metalwork of its time. Its markings are a Leopard’s head crowned; the Lion passant; a London date letter for 1655-56 and a Maker’s Mark, the initials T.G., which appear in a dotted oval. Each of these marks are an aspect of its cultural and social development story and history.

Whatever way you look at it silver has always been expensive, making this a plate belonging to people of reasonably high status in society. The now faded ‘decoration’ on the top rim of the plate makes for added interest! It is an inscription – the initials GW to AM, surrounded by scroll work and pretty detail. Their presence ensures that we know it is a presentation plate given to two people, either for a wedding or some other significant occasion. Whether the letters were originally part of its provenance, or whether it was handed down through a family, they were likely to have been very ‘fancy’ people of their time.

Tureen and Ladle, by Christopher Dresser (British, Glasgow, Scotland 1834-1904 Mulhouse) Electroplate (silver coating yellow metal) and ivory courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Design and the decorative arts reflect the very essence of our culture, its attitudes and philosophies, its fashions and passions. By examining all forms of art we can feel elated or uplifted by them or, just as easily respond in a negative way. How we respond depends on our knowledge or, how our imagination is stimulated visually.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently displaying and contrasting austere works of art with ornate ones, encouraging viewers to examine them, not only in the light of their own time but in regard to the social and cultural mores of our own. Its a thought filled process and a clever concept the curators have come up with.

The exhibition Plain or Fancy: Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts poses us the question when should we practice one, or encourage the other? And, is our response to the question only aesthetic?

In a departure from a conventional chronological presentations, the show raises many questions, encouraging visitors to explore their own reactions to what it is they are actually seeing.

The tension between austerity and opulence has been around for a long time. With this show the tension is not about defining or identifying quality or whether something is in ‘good or bad taste’. Instead it touches on historical moments when austerity and flamboyance in design were actively debated.

The Master spoon from a set of silver spoons with finials representing the Apostles of Christ; Silver, parcel gilt 1592/93 courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Gift of Mr & Mrs. James B. Mabon, 1967

For many ‘plain’ means sophisticated, while others find it exceedingly boring and very dull. For some fancy means ‘decadence’ pure and simple and yet for others it means ornate.

What do these terms mean for you?

At The Met in New York some 40 works of art are on view, drawn from the Museum’s extensive holdings of European decorative arts, and include ceramics, metalwork, and works in glass ranging in date from the late 14th to the early 20th century.

The show doesn’t attempt to provide answers, just presents the evidence and poses questions that many will perhaps struggle to answer.

Jasper Cup with Gilded-silver mounts Made in Prague, Purchase Mrs. Charles Wrightsman in honor of Annette de la Renta, 2000 courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This stunning Jasper Cup with gilded-silver mount and foot not only looks historically significant but also important. It was made in Prague in the third quarter of the 14th century. It’s a surviving example of western medieval lapidary; carved from a semiprecious stone, one that we know upon view is both exotic and precious.

Giving it a mount of gilded silver refers to its importance.

A sixteenth century source relates the story of how Charles IV (crowned at Rome 1355; died 1378) sent men into the foothills of the Ore mountains northwest of the city to find glorious stones to decorate the royal chapel and cathedral at Prague he was constructing. Geologists in more recent times have found abandoned shafts of mines dating to that period, nearby to Cibusov.

Its jasper is beautiful, with amethyst bound into the material which makes it as spectacular as it is rare. Jasper like this was a favourite with the ancient Romans, and no doubt many people in the past may have confused it as being more ancient than it is based on that knowledge. A notion, the curators at The Met suggest, the original craftsman who made it would have clearly enjoyed.

So, are you ‘plain or fancy’? And, how do you imagine our historical counterparts would feel when faced with such a question?

For instance; when he became First Consul of France in 1799, just before the turn of the new millennium, Napoleon Bonaparte found only 167,000 francs in cash in the French treasury with debts amounting to 474 million. Under his thrifty management industry in France prospered and within a year for the first time in 130 years, he unified France. This worried his enemies, especially the English.

Napoleon was faced with the plain or fancy conundrum following the French Revolution, when he discovered the extraordinary amount of ordinary workers in France that were heavily involved in its so-called ‘luxury’ industries.

Should he keep them in business or put them out of work? Should he wear plain clothes or fancy ones trimmed with lots of gilding and braiding? And what about jewellery, should he wear a plain silver ring or a gold one embossed and studded with precious gems.

What about his headpiece at his coronation? Should that have been a simple laurel wreath made from green leaves to be discarded when finished with, or made out of gold that became so heavy when it was finally finished it needed to be pruned?

Napoleon always said he only took on the ‘trappings of Empire’ and established his own court to keep them all in work. It also helped that it kept them too busy to riot or protest. However he would have finally having reached the top in both status and responsibility, understood how Queen Marie Antoinette felt when, in endeavouring to ‘save public funds’ by wearing muslin instead of silk, she was verbally abused by the silk manufacturers at Lyon because she was threatening both their industry and livelihood.

Throughout the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century in England it was the French or Italian cut of your clothes, with perhaps a partiality for prattling about poetry that provided physical evidence of your ‘European’ enlightenment.

You could engage in conversation over tea about your collections of antiquities, curiosities, medals, gems, statuary, books, paintings and prints brought back from your Grand Tour, which became increasingly important. These were required to fit out your new, classically inspired home with goods that reflected correct taste – correct being the key, taken from the perfect correctness of classical architecture.

If they weren’t in correct taste, whether it was good or bad taste became irrelevant and not really worth considering at all. “Taste” in all matters relating to the arts, including fashion then, in so many ways is an unsatisfactory word. However it does remain perhaps the only single word, which expresses an immutable quality of discernment, criticism and perception.

This vase and cover is indeed classical, of renowned excellence in design by Karl Friedrich Schinkel of the German manufactory Werner & Miet, Berlin. It was made around 1810. It is made from glass, with gilded yellow metal mounts and it is standing on a marble base. It was a gift in honor of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012 by Mercedes T. Bass. The matte milk glass it is made from was developed in Bohemia and the mounts were cast in a new way that minimized manufacturing time and became prefabricated components that could be assembled rapidly, therefore making them objects that could be strived for by the burgeoning middle classes of thee time.

Nothing ever happens in isolation. We are all connected, even if some of those connections are tenuous. What one person does always affects what happens to another both personally in families and professionally at work. Six degrees of separation is a reality in our ‘shrinking world’.

In ancient Greece and Rome, just as in our own time imported commodities were seen as a threat to the local economy; they were condemned as a symptom of those involved in social mobility and the passionate pursuit of status. While for those at the top grandeur had its place and being plain became associated with moral virtue and purity. An example would be the ‘Amish’ in America, who still pursue today the latter idea and ideal.

Eating off a plate c1850 emblazoned with the motto ‘waste not want not’ would no doubt put many people off their dinner. It was used as an aspect of its decorative style, which was designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) for this stoneware tazza made by the ceramic firm of Minton at Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

Pugin it seems, sincerely believed that objects made with ‘moral intentions’ were all about promoting a ‘wholesome’ existence. Perhaps he thought some of it would rub off on the user of his plate if they were constantly reminded of the agricultural and economic problems of the 1840’s in England when this motto was so frequently used.

Pugin also believed that an aspect of the classical style was deceptive construction and that the only truly honest construction was that of the Gothic style, developed during the European Middle Ages, which he championed a revival of.

Throughout history there has been many ‘severe styles’, generally following on from ‘excessive’ styles.

The most recent perhaps would have been the 1980’s when the new socially mobile ‘Baby Boomer’ generation were travelling far and wide and learning about the world around them.

Drinking true champagne from France in your Villa in Tuscany in the north of Italy or, in Provence in the south of France, became an objective to pursue. Restrained in both its philosophy and intent a villa was a rustic house in the countryside in which you could contemplate all your ‘simple’ tastes in life, which were not really very simple at all.

As the curators at The Met remind us; such a moment of debate also occurred during the 18th century, when the Rococo style was derided by advocates of Neoclassicism.

English artist William Hogarth was always at ‘War with the Connoisseurs’ He campaigned for spontaneity and asymmetry, writing in 1753, “Simplicity, without variety, is wholly insipid…” Simplicity ‘enhances the pleasure of variety in that it pleases the eye. The variety which causes a beautiful experience should, so to speak, be tempered by simplicity. On the other hand: simplicity without variety at best does only not displease.’ He debated his theory of visual beauty and grace in a manner that was accessible to the common man of his day in his ‘The Analysis of Beauty’ published in 1753.

It was, as modern day historian Ernst Gombrich described, ‘Hogarth’s ‘grim campaign against fashionable taste’.

During the same year, the whimsical fantasies of Rococo designers, which were rooted in nature’s capriciousness, were ridiculed as both excessive and depraved. The taste for fanciful Chinese subjects was mocked as the “monstrous offspring of wild imagination, undirected by nature and truth.”

Bowl (Jatte à anses relevées or jatte écuelle) Sèvres Manufactory (French, 1740–present) Hard-paste Porcelain, Purchase, Mrs Sid R Bass gift in honor of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, and Anonymous Gift, 1997 courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Plain or Fancy the show at The Met NY does mean to point out that all our aesthetic responses are never neutral and that all our judgments have roots in our culture, our socioeconomic status, generational values, and aspirations.

Art is the visible expression of something profound and invisible; in whatever medium is used and whatever form it takes, it is shaped by the culture and age that produced it.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

*Oscar Wilde

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

February 26 – August 18, 2013

Wrightsman Exhibition Gallery,
Main Floor, Gallery 521

Modernism was not the first movement to cast a shadow on ornament and adornment, though it was the most effective one. This exhibition contrasts austere works of art with ornate ones, encouraging viewers to examine their own responses and to consider them in the light of different stylistic imperatives of the past. Drawn from the Museum’s collection of European sculpture and decorative arts, the exhibition follows the theme from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century.

Organized by Luke Syson, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge, and Ellenor Alcorn, Associate Curator, both of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.??Installation design is by Michael Langley, Exhibition Design Manager; graphic design is by Mortimer Lebigre, Graphics Designer; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Metropolitan Museum’s Design Department.

Education programs include exhibition tours and a Friday evening program during which visitors will participate in a multi-sensory exploration of the question of “Plain or Fancy?” through several collection galleries.

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