Diane Venet, wife of the Bernar Venet, remembers the origin of her ground breaking collection: “My passion for artists’ jewellery began one day when Bernar playfully bent a thin silver band around my left ring finger to make me a wedding ring… But this touchingly spontaneous gesture had another effect on me, that of prompting me to discover the too little known world of these unique objets d’art, priceless for their rarity and the symbolic meaning that is often the genesis of their creation”.
Artists’ jewellery is a very particular field. Belonging neither to the world of high jewellery nor to the world of costume jewellery, artists’ jewellery stands very much alone. It is the work of visual artists, painters and sculptors who, on rare occasion, chose to express themselves through the design and creation of jewellery rather than through the medium for which they are best known. For many, creating jewellery was the ultimate gesture of affection for a loved one and inherent to their creative process.
Very few artists make their jewellery themselves. Harry Bertoia, John Chamberlain, Louise Nevelson, Claude Viallat and Alexander Calder are exceptions, the latter fashioning copper, gold or silver wire into finery for his family and friends.
The execution of an artist’s jewellery designs was very often entrusted to precious metalsmiths such as François Hugo, whose work consisted of transposing Jean Arp’s cut-outs, Derain’s Crétoises and Dorothea Tanning’s fantasies into brooches and pendants. At the same time, Giancarlo Montebello’s workshop in Milan produced some the most famous pieces by the Pomodoro brothers, Man Ray, Pol Bury, the Surrealists’ muse Meret Oppenheim, and Niki de Saint Phalle.
The exhibition begins with avant-garde artists who have explored the realm of the “Portrait”. Picasso, fascinated by the sculptural potential of two-dimensional materials, explored this theme with great economy of means, while Derain translated his admiration for Benin in his “bijoutées” bronze heads.
The provocative ideas of the Surrealists are evoked in the “Dream and Fantasy” section, with Man Ray’s perforated mask, the jewellery of Salvador Dalí, and the dreamlike universes of Jean Cocteau and Léonor Fini.
The exhibition continues with a more transversal and resolutely contemporary vision of jewellery in “Metamorphoses of Nature.” This naturalist vein is explored by Lowell Nesbitt with a focus on flowers and by Giuseppe Penone with the imprint of his hand on gold leaf.
The “Memento mori” or vanitas is evoked by Wim Delvoye, who questions religious beliefs in his crucifix pendants in the form of a Möbius band. “Colour” is illustrated by Grayson Perry’s transpositions of his female avatars into jewellery and ceramics, while Niki de Saint Phalle recreates the powerful, playful images of her famous Nanas on a minute scale.
Jewellery can also evoke the “Constrained Body”, exemplified by the oversized woollen necklace by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and a brooch by Orlan, which transcends the codes of beauty by referring to her Self-Hybridization series.
The major modern and contemporary movements are also represented. Abstract art is illustrated by Fausto Melotti and Lucio Fontana’s lacerated monochrome surfaces, which are converted into bracelets. Pop Art, ranging from Roy Lichtenstein to Robert Rauschenberg, humorously and ironically depicts “the American way of life”, while the compressions and accumulations of the Nouveaux Réalistes César and Arman play on the symbols of consumerism. Pol Bury evokes Kinetic Art by incorporating mobile elements into his jewellery, and Takis formulates original ideas on magnetism.
Minimal and Conceptual art are represented by the unique rings that Sol LeWitt created for his daughters, and Pierrette Bloch’s timeless creations infinitely duplicate her motifs. The exhibition culminates with the very active contemporary British scene, spearheaded in the 1990s by the highly provocative Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers. The wider international scene is also present with jewellery by Erwin Wurm and Ai Weiwei. French jewellers are also represented, by Claude Lévêque and Jean-luc Moulène, both of whom created novel pieces at Diane Venet’s request.
Non-exhaustive, subjective, poetic and impulsive, this exhibition reflects the history of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and Diane Venet’s passion for creation: many-faceted, playful and demanding.