PARIS — An exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs shines a spotlight on the contribution of Islamic arts to a pillar of France’s luxury industry: the jeweler Cartier.
Museum director Olivier Gabet, speaking to the exhibition’s title of “Cartier and Islamic Arts — In Search of Modernity,” said it “put everything on the same level, [proving] the excellence from one world to the next, from one generation to the next, from one culture to another — an invitation to dialogue between cultures — and how human ingenuity is [all we need] to create anew.”
The exhibition focuses on the production of the high jewelry house from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day, informed by archival documents from the house; masterpieces of Islamic art exhibited in early European shows on the field, and the central figures of Louis and Jacques Cartier, grandsons of house founder Louis-François Cartier, who traveled the world to source stones and amass cultural elements that would then nourish their design teams.
Considering cultural appropriation, Gabet explained at a walk-through on Monday that the exhibit was “the exact opposite: people like Jacques Cartier defended [their sources of inspiration] to prove that they were just as beautiful and valuable [as Greco-Roman antiques and 18th-century paintings].”
According to Gabet, the exhibition “validated in retrospect” the reason for the museum’s creation in the 19th century, when the founders — which included the jewelry house — put together collections meant to inspire artists and craftspeople.
A coproduction between the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Dallas Museum of Art, with the collaboration of the Louvre museum and the support of the house of Cartier itself, the exhibition came about when the Louvre acquired a late-16th-century Mughal pen case that was once part of Louis Cartier’s art collection.
Carved out of walrus ivory and encrusted with gold, turquoise and silk, the object gave birth to the idea that a large portion of Cartier’s productions bore the influence of Islamic art and architecture, according to Gabet.
“Our entire [four-year] preparatory work was about proving the contribution of these arts, through their motifs or colors, to the Cartier aesthetic,” said Judith Henon-Raynaud, head curator of patrimony and assistant to the director of the Islamic Arts department of the Louvre.
She is one of the four curators of this exhibition alongside Heather Ecker, the Marguerite S. Hoffman and Thomas W. Lentz curator of Islamic and medieval art of Dallas Museum of Art; Evelyn Possémé, head curator of the ancient and modern jewelry department of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and Sarah Schleuning, the Margot B. Perot senior curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art.
The exhibition was imagined in two parts, featuring more than 500 pieces, spanning from 885 to the late 2010s — historical artifacts and jewels alike. Henon-Raynaud cautioned against viewing Islamic arts too narrowly, given that the geographical reach of the civilization went from Spain and the Persian empire to the Arabian peninsula and borders of modern-day China.
Facing the entrance, a 1924 Cartier vanity case in gold and platinum is juxtaposed with a 19th-century Iranian wood and marquetry box, their surfaces bearing a similar frame design, while a court belt with stylized palm motifs woven in silk and silver is placed nearby with a diadem in platinum, diamond and sculpted turquoise palms.
Occupying the central nave, monumental screens bring selected pieces to life — a tiara and a necklace that can be detached into bracelets, in particular — taking them from their inspiration to the finished items, as a way to transcribe “the way illustrators from the house of Cartier translated the bi-dimensional geometric motifs inspired by Islamic references into carefully conceived artifacts capable of reacting to gravity and the organic surface of the body,” explained a statement from scenographer Elizabeth Diller and her DS+R design studio team.
One case shows the progression of Cartier designs, from the opulent garland style of the Victorian era to the geometric designs that became synonymous with Art Deco style.
The north gallery takes a look at the sources of inspiration available, ranging from books and early photographs to ceramics and antique jewels. One sketchbook shows snapshots of Egyptian monuments juxtaposed with zoological illustrations and swirling motifs.
Central to this part is Louis Cartier’s personal collection of Islamic arts, which he made freely available to those who worked for his family’s business, starting with illustrator Charles Jacqueau, whose sketches features prominently in the exhibition.
Giving a date to when Louis Cartier’s interest began is difficult, according to Henon-Raynaud, who places it between the first exhibition on Islamic arts at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1903, and another in Munich in 1910. By 1912, he appeared as a lender to subsequent exhibitions.
Scattered after Cartier’s 1942 death without being catalogued, his collection was painstakingly reconstructed by the curators using early archival photography, sketches and even invoices, although these proved difficult to parse, given the family’s early trading of antiques.
In the south gallery, the repertoire of shapes such as teardrop-shaped motifs called boteh and mandorla; geometric designs inspired by architectural features; or cloud collars — a design itself imported from Chinese aesthetics — was explored in depth, from their original forms to the creative process that led to their Cartier incarnations.
While direct links could not be made between the ancient objects exhibited and the Cartier items who shared their motifs, curators made to select items that had been presented at exhibitions at the turn of the 20th century as they likely would have been seen by the Cartiers and their creative teams, explained Henon-Raynaud. She pointed out how green palms and red-orange poppies of Iznik ceramics were transcribed using coral and emeralds, or how articulated bracelets owed their design to the elaborate brickwork of a mosque.
The final pieces in the exhibition provided further proof of the continued influence of Islamic arts in the house’s production: a 2017 pearl bracelet had a nephrite jade amulet engraved with a surah from the Qur’an, dating to 18th-century Iran, as its centerpiece. An articulated necklace, shown on a robotized bust that rose up and flattened out completely, was at once abstract and reminiscent of the geometric patterns seen elsewhere in the displays.
The exhibition opens to the public on Thursday and runs until Feb. 20, 2022. It will then travel to the Dallas Museum of Art where it will run from May 14 to Sept. 18 under the title “Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity.” The English-language edition of the catalogue will be published by Thames and Hudson on Nov. 4 in the U.K., and April 12 in the U.S.