NEW YORK – An exquisite collection of jewelry over the ages from cultures globally, including some from India, is the focus of the exhibition ‘Jewelry: The Body Transformed’, which will open to the public at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from November 12, through February 24, 2019.
The exhibition, comprising of some 230 objects, at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, traverses time and space to explore how jewelry acts upon and activates the body it adorns.
The exhibition has a dazzling array of headdresses and ear ornaments, brooches and belts, necklaces and rings created between 2600 B.C.E. and the present day. It will be shown along with sculptures, paintings, prints, and photographs that will enrich and amplify the many stories of transformation that jewelry tells; how it served as an extension and amplification of the body, accentuating it, enhancing it, distorting it, and ultimately transforming it.
“Jewelry is one of the oldest modes of creative expression—predating even cave painting by tens of thousands of years—and the urge to adorn ourselves is now nearly universal,” said Hollein, Director of The Met.
Several curators and staff of the museum gathered for a preview of the exhibition, to the media, on November 5.
“To fully understand the power of jewelry, it is not enough to look at it as miniature sculpture,” said Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “While jewelry is ubiquitous, the cultures of the world differ widely regarding where on the body it should be worn. By focusing on jewelry’s interaction with—and agency upon—the human body, this exhibition brings in a key element that has been missing in previous studies of the subject.”
The exhibition features jewelry from around the world presented in a radiant display that groups these ornaments according to the part of the body they adorn: head and hair; nose, lips, and ears; neck and chest; arms and hands; and waist, ankles, and feet.
Galleries are organized thematically by the kinds of performances jewelry orchestrates.
The Divine Body will examine one of the earliest conceptions of jewelry—its link to immortality. There is a rare head-to-toe ensemble from ancient Egypt that accompanied the elite into the afterlife, as well as items from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, implicated in one of the most mysterious rituals of ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Also highlighted is regalia of the rulers of Calima (present-day Colombia), who were lavishly covered in sheets of gold.
The Regal Body examines the use of jewelry throughout history to assert rank and status. Among the examples on display are sapphires and pearls from Byzantium, finely wrought gold from the elites of Hellenistic Greece, and ivory and bronze from the royal courts of Benin.
The Transcendent Body focuses on how jewelry is used to traverse the temporal and spiritual realms. This section celebrates jewelry’s power to conjure spirits, appease gods, and invoke ancestors.
Sculpted images and exquisite jewelry from India underscore the active role of gold ornaments in Hindu worship.
In the section, there is an early 12th century sandstone sculpture from a temple in Uttar Pradesh. The sculpture represents one of many celestial or semi-divine attendants, dancing reverently for the main deity of the temple, according to a curator.
The eye-catching jewelry and costume emphasize surface ornament-especially as a contrast to the smooth, abundant flesh. The exaggerated pose focuses attention on the figure’s lively contours. The spikes on the crown, the swaying necklace, and tassels around the waist amplify the impression of rhythmic, dancing movement, and lend verisimilitude to the abstract body.
There is also a riveting Jasmine Bud Necklace (Malligai Arumbu Malai), a marriage necklace made of gold, from the late 19th century, with its origin in Tamil Nadu.
Elaborate necklaces of this type were presented by the groom’s family during wedding celebrations of the Chetiar community, a Shaivite mercantile caste, and formed part of the bride’s wealth (stridhan) thereafter.
The necklace was initially part of a dowry given to the bride by the groom at a climactic moment in the ceremony, the three knots ritual. This form of necklace is known as a Kali-Tiru; the elaborate Thali type generally includes a central Shiva and Parvati on a medallion. The four fingers of the central pendant are understood as denoting the four Vedas.
There is another Jasmine Bud Necklace, from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The ornament is inset with ruby and with tapering extensions.
There are also a pair of gold royal earrings from India, from the 1st century B.C. While splendid jewelry adorns the regal and divine figures represented on early stone sculptures and terracotta plaques, few actual ornaments still exist. It is thought that jewelry was not kept and reused but instead was melted down possibly to avoid transmitting the karma of the former owner.
In addition to clusters and rows of beads, each earring is decorated with a winged lion, and elephant and two vases filled with vegetation. Put on by slipping through a distended earlobe from the back, they are worn with the lion facing the wearer’s cheek and the elephant on the outside.
The place of these earrings in the history of Indian art is assured, not only for their intrinsic beauty, but also because of the light they shed on the superb quality of early gold-smithing in this region.
Early Indian statues of both male and female figures were usually portrayed with elaborate jewelry that sometimes seemed fanciful, since very little comparable jewelry from that period survived. The discovery of this pair of earrings provided the first tangible evidence that the jewelry depicted by the sculptors was in fact based on real exemplars, for a very similar pair is shown on a first century B.C. relief portrait of a Universal Ruler, the Chakravartin, from Jaggayapeta.
These earrings, judging from their material worth, the excellence of craftsmanship, and the use of royal emblems (a winged lion and an elephant) as part of their design, were most probably made as royal commissions. Each earring is composed of two rectangular, budlike forms, growing outward from a central, double-stemmed tendril. The elephant and the lion of repoussé gold are consummately detailed, using granules, snipets of wire and sheet, and individually forged and hammered pieces of gold.
The two pieces are not exactly identical: On the underside they are both decorated with a classical early Indian design of a vase containing three palmettes, but the patterning of the fronds differentiates the two earrings. They are so large and heavy that they must have distended the earlobes and rested on the shoulders of the wearer, like the pair worn by the Chakravartin.
Also in the Transcendent Body section are adornments from Coastal New Guinea, splendidly fashioned from shell and feathers, that speak to jewelry’s capacity to channel the spiritual well-being of the wearer.
The Alluring Body section explores how jewelry engenders desire. Woodblock prints and period ornaments convey the ways in which hair dressing indicated a courtesan’s availability in Edo Japan. Photographs and jewels highlight the eroticism of pearls in the Victorian era and beyond.
Also, jewelry designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, Art Smith, Elsa Peretti, and Shaun Leane document how contemporary artists push the limits of glamour, courting danger and even pain.
The Resplendent Body call out the marriage of material and technique for the purpose of ostentation. Why wear jewelry, if not to be seen? Examples include the opulent adornment of the Mughals; the aesthetic of accumulation in the gold and silver jewelry of the Akan and Fon peoples of West Africa; and the elegant designs of such legendary jewelry houses as Castellani, Lalique, and Tiffany & Co. Contemporary jewelry makers—including Peter Chang, Joyce J. Scott, and Daniel Brush—who question and re-imagine notions of luxury and adornment, is also celebrated, in the exhibition.
Standout pieces in the exhibition include gold sandals that belonged to the funerary accoutrements of an Egyptian queen of Thutmose III in the middle of Dynasty 18. Similar gold sandals were found on the mummy of Tutankhamun, one of Thutmose’s descendants who ruled at the end of the same dynasty.
Modern pieces include the humungous ‘Night in the City’ necklace by the American designer Joyce J. Scott. It’s made of glass and metal beads, PVC, photo and laminated print, synthetic suede, nickel silver on thread, wire and monofilament.
A riveting piece is also the ‘Yashmak’, designed by the British designer Shaun Leane, made for Alexander McQueen. Made of aluminum and Swarovski crystal, it looks stunning adorned on a mannequin.
An array of education programs have been organized to complement the exhibition, at the Met. Some of them include noted historian Wendy Doniger and Robert Baines in conversation about the sources from which jewelers draw inspiration in a Sunday at The Met (January 6, 2–3:30 p.m.).
In a panel called “The Ethics of Jewelry,” jewelers and industry experts will consider the current interest in the use of mined, lab-produced, and sustainable materials. The program is part of a MetFridays evening that will also feature talks, conversation, and art-making activities. (January 25, 5–9 p.m.)
Met curators will also discuss the context and function of personal adornment in the lecture series “Jewelry Seen and Unseen” (January 30, and February 6 and 13, 11 a.m.). Also, Met curator Beth Carver Wees and corporate archivists Annamarie Sandecki (Tiffany & Co.) and Levi Higgs (David Webb) will speak about “Jewelry Icons of New York” (February 3, 2 p.m.).