Decorative arts exhibitions of 2002

An international survey of the offerings


The most important decorative arts event of 2002 is without question the exhibition on Renaissance tapestries at the Metropolitan (14 March-19 June). Tapestries, like sculpture, are the art that people tend to treat as backdrop and ignore. The Met will compel us to look at them, and appreciate why they were valued above Titians in the 16th century. Unfortunately, there is no other event of such art-historical ambition among the other decorative arts shows elsewhere this year, but in sculpture the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is back on old form with its exhibition of baroque terracotta models (14 March-7 July), reminding us that it is a great centre of excellence where this field is concerned. It is also putting on a show with a simple theme, tiaras, which will, however, be full of scholarly interest for jewellery and social historians, and literally dazzling, with numerous royal loans—this being The Queen’s jubilee year (21 March-14 July).

The Russians are continuing the rediscovery of their pre-Revolutionary history—and earning a bit of hard currency—by sending an exhibition about the noble Stroganoff family to the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. This concentrates on 18th-century paintings, drawings and decorative arts, assembled from the Hermitage and other museums where they ended up after their confiscation at the Revolution.

The market for post-war design has been booming for the last five years; it fits with modernist interiors and an informal life style, so it not surprising to see museum exhibitions taking a serious look at the subject. “Vital forms: American art and design in the atomic age” started at the Brooklyn Museum and is at the Walker Art Centre until 12 May, moving on to the Frist Centre for the Visual Arts in Nashville, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Phoenix Art Museum. The Denver Art Museum specialises in this area, and has put on “US design 1975-2000” with figures such as Venturi and Gehry. This tours the US until 2004.

While the Musée des arts decoratifs in Paris is undergoing its apparently interminable refurbishment it is sending a pot-pourri of its most showy objects to America, including the bed of the famous courtesan, Valtesse de la Bignes, model for Zola’s Nana. “Matières des rêves” is at the Portland Museum in Oregon until 28 April, then in Hartford, Connecticut, and Birmingham, Alabama.

For decorators and textile historians, the highly specialised Musée de l’impression sur etoffes at Mulhouse and the Musée du papier peint in Rixheim, both in eastern France, invite us to discover the “seduction of the motifs which unite us to plants”, press release language for an exhibition of wallpaper and printed textiles with plant motifs, from the 18th century, through the Second Empire to Art Nouveau and the 1970s: “Comme un jardin” lasts from 16 March to 3 February 2003.

A candidate to be the most important single-designer show this year is Giò Ponti at London’s Design Museum (3 May-6 October). A Milanese, he was founder-editor of Domus magazine, architect of Milan’s slender Pirelli building, and a propagator of excellence in industrial design, with a liking for bright colours and exuberant patterns.

A big event for the contemporary glass world is the opening of the new Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington State, US. Glass is the hottest selling of the contemporary crafts in the US, and Washington State is home to numerous glass studios, the most famous being Dale Chihuly’s. The museum kicks off with an exhibition of the two classic glass sculptors, the Czechs, Stanislav Libensky and Jarolsalva Brychtova (6 July-27 October).

Brittle and ephemeral, and all rarer for that, are the sugar sculptures being made by food historian Ivan Day for a royal jubilee exhibition at that slice of France that is the Bowes Museum in the north of England. These figures dressed the tables of the aristocratic for 600 years—indeed, Meissen porcelain figurines are based on them. The show inevitably has a short run (1 June-22 September) as they are perishable.

Last, because one can be certain that no newspaper will pay any attention to it, as library shows are always ignored, the Bibliothèque royale in Brussels is putting on a show of stained glass windows of the old Netherlands as depicted in its manuscripts. Potential discoveries here, I am sure.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Decorative arts'