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The National Gallery's Art Nouveau show raises awareness of the Virginia Museum's world-class collection.

Decorative Treasures


With a glittering round of opening parties, "Art Nouveau, 1890-1914," the National Gallery of Art's current blockbuster exhibition, opened Oct. 8 in Washington. Organized in conjunction with London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the show serves up more than 350 mostly dazzling objects from the turn of the last century. These range from a modest-sized bud vase by Austrian designer Kolomon Moser to a highly decorative Parisian Metro subway station entrance that has been reassembled in the gallery's austere East Building. Focusing on eight cities where the fin de siĆ cle design movement flourished — Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Vienna, Munich, Turin, New York and Chicago — the show is full of panache. But for a fuller picture of what curators had hoped to include, visitors will have to travel 100 miles south to Richmond. Yes, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts lent some eye-poppers in the show, including a gold, enamel, glass and pearl choker by René Lalique and a large, color poster touting an American newspaper. But officials here said "no" to some other requests. These included a large Hector Guimard-designed cabinet (c. 1899) and a Louis Comfort Tiffany punch bowl which the New York glass designer created for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Museum conservators ruled these objects too fragile for the trip up Interstate 95. So, although the cabinet and punchbowl are featured prominently in the exhibition's catalog with full-page, color photographs, visitors will have to come here to see them. "It's a great show, no doubt about it," says Frederick Brandt, the Virginia Museum's consulting curator of 20th century design and decorative arts. But he agrees that exhibition-goers would do well to visit the Virginia Museum. Why? "The Virginia Museum has the most concentrated selection of masterpieces of Art Nouveau in the country," he says. "Where else can you find eight pieces by [Scottish furniture designer Charles Rennie] Mackintosh, some of the greatest jewelry and some of the finest Tiffany lamps?" Not to mention, of course, the Guimard cabinet and the Tiffany punch bowl. The glass-and-gilded silver punchbowl exemplifies how interest and respect for Art Nouveau has skyrocketed during the past quarter century. The piece was called "truly monstrous," by one prominent art historian as recently as 1962. But a decade or so later when it was acquired by the Virginia Museum through a gift from the Sydney and Frances Lewis Art Nouveau fund, Tiffany authority Robert Koch called it "the weirdest, most exuberant, most Art Nouveau, most expressionist object of its era ever produced in America… It is certainly Tiffany's masterpiece." In the early 1970s, Frederick Brandt, then a Virginia Museum curator, was a driving force in sparking his institution's interest in Art Nouveau. In 1971, he organized an Art Nouveau exhibition when the style's popularity, not to mention the prices, had not reached the heights they enjoy today. For some, Art Nouveau, which means "new art," is still exotic. The movement grew as a reaction to other more academic 19th-century aesthetic revivals. In the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, the style's advocates reinterpreted their inspirational sources — Japanese art, nature and geometry — in an attempt to create a visual vocabulary reflective of modern life. Designers created a decorative style that combined all the arts — painting, graphics, sculpture, decorative arts and architecture. While the style rejected much of the past, for some, it still expressed decadence. Scholars suggest its abstract forms foreshadowed 20th-century art and design. About the same time Brandt was putting together the Virginia Museum's initial Art Nouveau show, Richmonders Sydney and Frances Lewis (who had amassed a strong mid-20th-century American art collection) became captivated with the style. "The Lewises were collecting postwar paintings and loved to meet the artists whose works they collected," Brandt explains. One of these artists was Theodore Stamos, a second-generation abstract expressionist who invited them to his New York apartment. It was here that the Lewises spotted Tiffany pieces. Brandt says Stamos often directed the Lewises to sales and auctions. "There were no decorative-arts departments in the major auction houses, but the occasional Art Nouveau piece would show up at Victorian furniture sales," he says. "They had the smarts and the wherewithal to realize this was great stuff." Knowing Brandt's special interest in Art Nouveau, the Lewises often phoned him to come see a recent purchase. In 1976, the Lewises donated their considerable Art Nouveau collection to the Virginia Museum — along with a half-million-dollar endowment to continue building the collection. Meanwhile, they stepped up their collecting of Art Deco. Today, both collections occupy part of the museum's West Wing, an extension that opened in 1985 underwritten in part by the Lewises and another prominent Virginia collector, Paul Mellon. In the Virginia Museum collection, and on loan to the National Gallery exhibition, is a woman's bust titled "La Nature." The gilt bronze, silver and marble piece is by Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist. Brandt considers it to be one of the knockouts in the Lewis collection and a highlight of the National Gallery show; in fact it is already an icon of the show. Like other pieces the Virginia Museum has lent the National Gallery, it should raise the museum-going world's consciousness of what's in Richmond. Brandt remembers a curator from Paris' renowned Musee d'Orsay once telling him after visiting the Virginia Museum, "I'm embarrassed you have a better Guimard collection than we do."

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