Review / Innovative ‘Cartier’ makes a ‘stunning’ exhibition

craft / “Cartier: the Exhibition”, National Gallery of Australia, Parkes, until July 22. Reviewed by MEREDITH HINCHLIFFE.

‘Cigarette case’, 1907, gold, silver, enamel, diamonds. Photo by Nils Herrmann.

This is an ambitious exhibition – in several ways.

Cartier was in the vanguard of jewellery designs, and it is the sophistication of designs and high quality craftsmanship that are the highlights of the exhibition.

If viewers admire these two aspects of art – which are surely the basis of good art – but are uneasy about the opulence and total over-the-top and ostentatious display of wealth, I urge anyone to put aside any qualms.

Cartier Paris, Hindu necklace, 1936, altered 1963, platinum, white gold, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies. Photo by Nils Herrmann.

In addition to the jewellery, an important aspect of the exhibition is the large number of framed drawings showing the designs. Some are displayed with the jewellery, others arranged to show a range of designs. The arrangement of the stones are clearly detailed, as in a photograph of study for the setting of the “Maharaja of Patiala necklace”, 1928. Similarly, the “Hindu necklace”, 1936, shows the life-sized stones, shining in their settings.

The design of the exhibition itself is outstanding. The space has been divided into different sections, as a friend suggested “into small jewel boxes”. The sections trace the social history of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

‘Studies of Egyptian motifs’, c.1910, graphite and gouache on buff tracing paper. Photo by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier.

Cartier always emphasised originality through its unique style, although the works reflected the artistic and cultural landscape of the times. Hence, we see the influence of Egypt in pieces from the early 1920s, when Egyptomania appeared in architecture, city streets, ocean liners and interior décor in smart apartments in France and New York.

The period between the two world wars was one of Cartier’s greatest moments. Stores were established in London and New York and the firm’s reputation had been well established. Royalty, and the rich and famous, were patrons, undoubtedly in part ensuring the firm’s success. Cartier embraced Art Deco before World War I and was one of its greatest practitioners during the 1920s and early 1930s. Concurrently, it absorbed influences from the “exotic east”. Inspiration was drawn from China Thailand, Japan and India.

‘Cigarette case’, 1930, gold, platinum, lapis lazuli, turquoise, diamond. Photo by Vincent Wulveryck.

The explosion of popularity of smoking spawned an industry in the creation and sale of accessories of all kinds, to aid smokers. Cartier created numerous cigarette cases for male and female smokers, including one from 1907 and another from 1930. Both in blue the first is enamel and gold with rose-cut diamonds, the latter is in lapis lazuli with gold, platinum, and turquoise and is distinctly art deco.

‘Greyhound vanity case’, 1920, platinum, pink, gold, onyx, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, citrine, amethysts. Photo by Marian Gérard.

Following World War I, when women had entered the workforce in greater numbers, they smoked, put make up on in public, visited dance halls and were seen in public places more frequently. Several vanity cases, which held a lipstick and powder compact, are on display. A particular favourite of mine was a special order, apparently for one of the Cartier brothers’ wife. Small precious stones are set into two greyhounds facing each other, both with a paw held over a greyhound puppy. The diamonds are offset by two emerald trees, on a black onyx ground.

Cartier was innovative and this can be appreciated in the works being displayed. They began using platinum around the turn of the 20th century. This was apparently daring, as previously it had been associated with industry and science. Carter used platinum as it was light, strong and ductile, but it was not until 1912 it was designated a precious metal.

The exhibition replicating Cartier jewellers’ workstations. Photo provided by National Gallery of Australia.

Another “jewel box” in the exhibition shows the workshops. Many people – men and women – were employed as designers and jewellers, who made the settings, cutters, who cut the stones, as well as polishers, and setters. I can see the tools they used, and the different processes that were undertaken to create the jewellery. I can see plaster casts for early tiaras, brooches and necklaces, were kept to provide accurate records in case of future need. And often pieces were remodelled and remade, so undoubtedly they came into their own. There are excellent descriptions and explanatory notes describing the processes.

Over 300 works are on exhibit and I encourage readers to invest the time to see it in full. It is a stunning exhibition.



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