The new Cartier exhibit is a crowning glory for the Dallas Museum of Art

Featuring more than four hundred jewels and other lavish objects, “Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity” opens today at the Dallas Museum of Art, the only North American venue for this highly anticipated exhibition, co-organized by the museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

Produced in collaboration with the Louvre Museum and with the support of Maison Cartier, the exhibition is remarkable from several angles. It is a study of the design process, the nature of inspiration and the evolution of style across centuries and continents. This marks, for many of us, a return to museums of 3D objects after the COVID-19 pandemic flattened our experience of digital screen culture. And, notably, it is a stunning achievement for the DMA and its director of six years, Agustín Arteaga.

During his tenure, the DMA enjoyed a string of successes that fused popular appeal with diverse perspectives: the fashions of Christian Dior, the olive groves of Van Gogh, the gold badges of Ghana, and Mexican modernist art highlighting starring Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The prestige of this Cartier project surpasses them all and can be attributed to Arteaga’s long-standing relationship with the 175-year-old luxury brand – he hosted a Cartier exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1999 – as well as at DMA’s The Depth of Islamic Art. The museum has held the Keir Collection, one of the largest collections of Islamic art in the United States, on fifteen-year loan since 2014.

The new exhibition reveals how Islamic art had a formative influence on Louis Cartier as a collector and, more significantly, on his family jewelry and luxury goods business, founded by his grandfather in 1847. subject was something waiting to be explored,” says Arteaga Texas monthly. “It’s crucial in the development of what the Cartier style is.”

“Arab decoration”, studies on Arabic art and Arabic-style motifs, after Jones, La grammaire de l’ornement, Cartier Paris, c.  1910, graphite and India ink on tracing paper.
“Arabic Decoration”, Studies of Arabic Art and Designs in the Arabic Style, after Jones, The grammar of ornament, Cartier Paris, c. 1910, graphite and India ink on tracing paper.Courtesy of Cartier Archives/DMA

The exhibition’s narrative opens with early 20th-century Paris, the style capital of the world, where colonialism sparked a fascination with the art and design of Persia, Arabia, India, North Africa and elsewhere. According to Sarah Schleuning, senior curator of decorative arts and design at the DMA and co-curator of this exhibition, impeccably rendered tight geometric patterns are a feature, but it’s not all.

“You can blow up a manuscript and see animals in it, turbans with embellishments, incredible interwoven geometric patterns next to reciprocal patterns with finial shapes,” she says. “I think it was the density of the ideas and the saturation of the new colors that was really so stimulating and so exciting” for the Europeans.

Louis Cartier and his brothers looked to this world to find materials, patterns, colors and techniques that they could import and interpret to expand their style lexicon, which eventually merged with the codes of the house. For example, jewelry styles marketed as Tutti Frutti were derived from flower and leaf shaped cups and settings found in Mughal India.

“Cartier tries to find a new language to speak to the modern moment, but that moment continues to progress through time . . . so he looks back to find influences and potential sources of inspiration, to create something that evokes the novelty at that time,” says Schleuning, putting “modernity” in context.

In the evolution of the Cartier style, we recognize the broad shifts from 19th century neoclassicism (rehashing Greco-Roman antiquity) to art nouveau (shaping new materials into fluid, natural forms) to the elegant and structured of which Cartier was a vanguard.

Breastplate necklace, Cartier Paris, special order, 1947.
Breastplate necklace, Cartier Paris, special order, 1947.Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier/Courtesy of DMA

Perhaps it goes without saying: the jewels in this show are breathtaking, moving, breathtaking.

And.

I found myself wrestling with the issue of ownership, because we have to. My assessment after absorbing the show is that no tradition could have given rise to the Cartier style. Only Cartier, with its unique alchemy of contributions and individual creativity, could give us Cartier. This show is there to recognize and honor Islamic influence, and I learned a lot from it. Are recognition and honor overdue? Absolutely.

Renowned studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the exhibit by injecting smart technology. The extreme magnifications of certain pieces (a red coral headband, an emerald brooch) and their construction seem immersive and slightly dizzying. A mechanical display continuously transforms between a flat surface and a neck shape, demonstrating how a complicated diamond necklace fits the body. Technology empowers jewelry by making their intricate beauty more readable.

The pieces I actually wanted to wear came in the fourth and final section, covering the era after 1933, when Cartier appointed Jeanne Toussaint director of fine jewelry. Perfectly mastering Cartier’s modern vocabulary, she amplified references, exuberant colors and bold dimensions. The icon of this exhibition, which appears in all promotional materials, is a 1947 necklace with amethysts, turquoise cabochons and diamonds arranged in a laminated breastplate. It’s excessive, and that’s the point. But it paves the way for colorful, chunky pieces that sync with contemporary lifestyles and our boundless appetite for mid-century design.

“What we really wanted to focus on is how, across time, media and geography, artists are inspired to create new ideas,” says Schleuning. “They’re always in pursuit of the most modern ideas, and that’s personified by Cartier in the show. What you see are articulations, kaleidoscopes of creativity . . . and we move that idea throughout I hope people walk away with this amazing idea of ​​what it means to be inspired.

Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity” is on display until September 18, 2022.

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