Tucked away discreetly in a corner of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a beguiling little charmer of an exhibition entitled Circa 1900: Decorative Arts at the Turn of the Century.
Rushing to see the blockbuster exhibitions showcased in the Beck Building, the current crowds of visitors might bypass this low-key, little-sister exhibition in the Law Building, located in the Alice Pratt Brown Gallery to the left of the museum’s main entrance. But please — don’t miss the delightfully uplifting decorative designs highlighted in this hidden treasure.
This comparatively small exhibition presumes little with its humble “Decorative Arts” title, but succeeds brilliantly in illustrating the fact that it’s the (beautiful) little things that make all the difference in our daily lives. The point is, you have to look for these things, just as you have to go out of your way to seek out this little beauty.
Circa 1900 is a collection of decorative and fine art from turn-of-the-century Europe: Period treasures like an etched-glass, Lalique-designed perfume bottle from Paris, a sophisticated sterling-silver cigarette case from England, and a smoky Munch lithograph of an erotic femme fatale.
The assorted objects’ designs range from the botanically beautiful to the insidiously exotic, reflecting the complex breakaway era from 1890 to 1910. These signs of that transition era illustrate the high emotional octane of people changing with their times, springing free from the straight-laced, group-think Victorian era into imaginative, dreamy and creative flights of sensual fancy.
As MFAH curator Christine Gervais wrote so eloquently in the wall text, the artists of the era experienced a rapidly changing world at the end of January, 1901, after the death of England’s Queen Victoria, who had reigned for 63 long years.
“Artists sought to find an art nouveau, a new art, to break free from historical styles,” Gervais explained, noting that the most important inspiration was nature: The transformation and metamorphosis of life.
Now, as we know, there is the nice, sweet, nurturing Mother Nature — whom we can appreciate in the vases and other objects decorated with designs that borrow from her spring raiment, featuring flowers, birds and climbing vines. But then there is the murky, mysterious, dark side of nature — the unspeakable subterranean creature that creeps up and ambushes you like an ill-fated infatuation, embodied in Munch’s dangerously alluring nude, “Madonna (Liebender Weib),” dated 1895-1902.
In this new century of liberating thought and self-expression, Symbolism became all the rage, reflecting the nether worlds of fantasy and dreams that Freud helped popularize with his book, The Interpretation of Dreams. That formed the foundation for what Gervais calls “the decorative hedonism” that defined Europe at that pivotal time.
Illustrating that finely turned descriptive phrase are five lovely old cut-glass perfume bottles, etched with exquisite designs by Lalique and Baccarat. My favorite is a delicate 1909 Lalique-designed bottle of Coty’s “Cyclamen,” bearing tiny, winged female figures floating gracefully to the surface of the fluid still inside. Chiseled into the round glass stopper at the top are the evocative words “COTY,” “CYCLAMEN” and “PARIS.” I invariably break into a smile whenever I see this pretty bottle tempting me from behind the glass. I always imagine the smiles of pleasure of so many women before me, seeing a heart-meltingly beautiful bottle of French perfume like this behind a shop window.
Second on my most-coveted wish list is the gorgeous “Water Lily” vase (1895-1900) designed by Emile Gallé, who is described as the leading maker of Art Nouveau glass in France. One can easily see why. The vase’s creamy, green, voluptuous body of “water” is embellished with a gorgeous cameo of blood-red water lilies sculpted into a glass overlay.
Also noteworthy is a 1903 eggshell porcelain vase designed by Dutch artist H.G.A. Huyvenaar and manufactured by Rozenburg Den Haag. This singularly elegant vase is adorned with a spring garden design of yellow flowers, buds and green vines, with a bird perched on a tendril.
At the back of the gallery, the viewer is compelled to admire how cleverly French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942) worked this naturalistic style into the decorative cast-iron railings that form a balcony, circa 1903-07, which the MFAH borrowed from the Menil Collection. The curator’s wall text helpfully notes that Guimard’s entrance designs for the Metro transformed the streets of Paris in 1900.
The sight of this elegant Art Nouveau balcony always takes me straight to Paris -- first to Guimard’s magnificent Metro entrances, and then to the lovely old Auteuil suburb on the west side of Paris, where one can find a number of gorgeous Guimard-designed residences. Among them is the spectacular Castel Béranger, whose facades feature a splendidly imaginative array of the architect’s distinctive ornamental whiplash designs.
Guimard’s deliciously decorative iron railings, forming gated doorways and window balconies, are not the frosting on the cake on these circa-1900 structures, which have been cherished and maintained so that they still please the eye of the beholder today, more than a century later. They transform a residence, a public transportation entrance, a neighborhood, an entire city into a work of public art.
In the text next to the Guimard balcony that Gervais has presented to the public (like the gift that it is) she also presents us with the gift of this thought-provoking comment from the architect: “When I see a house. . . I think of the spectacle we offer people.”
Just think of all the marvelous spectacles, all the wonderful public art that Guimard designed and contributed to his city, offering Parisians and travelers a charming sight to enjoy along their way, and which everyone can still enjoy today. Here, Gervais offers viewers the spectacle, wrought by Guimard, of a century-old Art Nouveau balcony in a museum exhibition in Houston; moreover, she puts this piece in context by referring to all the spectacular work the architect did that is still standing throughout Paris.
In viewing this display in modern-day Houston, the viewer is able to see that there is a city where the new does not necessarily become passé or doomed to the wrecking ball within 30 or 40 years. That is quite an instructive spectacle. Merci, M. Guimard and Mme. Gervais.
The sight of this beautiful balcony sparks another fond picture-memory from past trips to Paris: Seeing one beautiful old building after another that proudly bear the names of both builder and architect, chiseled into the stone at ground level. Ever since I first spotted one of these building “bylines” on a Paris building, I’ve thought such a practice should be standard operating procedure in every city, particularly my home town. That way, we passersby would all know whom to credit for the spectacles that greet our eyes on a daily basis in Houston.
For me, these circa 1900 objets d’art serve as reminders of how beautiful life really is, and can be, depending upon one’s point of view, and how far one is willing to go to find the beauty that exists. Moreover, they remind me of how each of us presents our own “spectacle” to the world.
Every day, I notice some small detail that makes me smile in appreciation: A beautiful scarf on a woman, an attractive tie on a man, a door being held open by a helpful hand for the person following behind. In context, in our present-day environment of change and uncertainty, these seemingly small details decorate the spectacle of our daily lives and show us how to make our own small, creative contributions, which can add up to a world of difference.
Circa 1900: Decorative Arts at the Turn of the Century is on display through July 31.