News your connection to The Boston Globe
Visual Arts Review

Creative sparks on display

MFA exhibits showcase enchanting examples of studio jewelry and textiles

'Jewelry by Artists' at the Museum of Fine Arts includes pieces by studio jewelers such as Mary Lee Hu (top), Arthur Smith (center left), and Harry Bertoia (center right). The 'Ed Rossbach Fiber Art' exhibit at the MFA includes 'John Travolta' (bottom left) and 'Mickey Mouse Lace' (bottom right). "Jewelry by Artists" at the Museum of Fine Arts includes pieces by studio jewelers such as Mary Lee Hu (top), Arthur Smith (center left), and Harry Bertoia (center right). The "Ed Rossbach Fiber Art" exhibit at the MFA includes "John Travolta" (bottom left) and "Mickey Mouse Lace" (bottom right). (david matthews (above, center right); MFA, BOSTON)

You know you've stumbled into an exciting exhibition when the single piece there by Pablo Picasso looks meek and unrealized compared to the rest of the work in the show.

So it is with "Jewelry by Artists: The Daphne Farago Collection," a rigorous and enchanting examination at the Museum of Fine Arts of the studio jewelry movement since the 1940s. Studio jewelers make unique and limited-edition objects, by hand. They focus on form, content, and self-expression, rather than on precious gems. Farago gave the museum more than 600 pieces of contemporary jewelry last year, with about 100 more to come. The gift made the MFA's studio jewelry collection the most comprehensive in the world.

Picasso doesn't truly belong in the show. Francois Hugo, a French jewelry workshop, invited him and other top-tier artists, such as Max Ernst and Man Ray, to design limited-edition pieces. Picasso's gold disk, "Barbu rond pendant" (1974), sports nearly illegible lines from his 1967 pen-and-ink sketch "Femme mue et barbu rond."

This isn't studio jewelry; there's no sense of the artist's engagement with his materials. Exhibition curator Kelly L'Ecuyer uses these pieces designed by better-known artists to compare to those of the studio jewelers. Man Ray's work is ambitious and elegant. His 1970 "Pendant Pending Earrings," were famously worn by Catherine Deneuve in a Man Ray photo of the actress. Ultimately, though, the studio jewelers designed work that was grittier, livelier, and more daring than that of the artists engaged by the workshops.

The studio jewelry movement follows trends in the art world. In the 1940s and 1950s, Modernism focused jewelers on clean lines, functionality, and respect for the character of materials. Kinetic artist Alexander Calder made a natural leap into crafting jewelry. His earrings had movable parts, like his mobiles. The 1941 silver "Necklace" he made for his sister, featuring dozens of fluid hourglass shapes hanging like saber teeth, is both lean and audacious.

In 1942, The New Yorker dubbed Sam Kramer a "surrealist jeweler," and his works bridle with edgy, dark references. His "Lovers" brooch, made with his wife, Carol Kramer, sports two jaunty, nearly abstract silver figures, flagrantly interlocked.

With the 1960s came references to Pop Art, collage, found materials, and cultural obsessions of the day. Elsa Freund's "Space Pendant With Circlet" features brilliantly glazed terra-cotta pebbles and glass, set in a network hanging beneath a choker. The deep blue and translucent green pebbles might represent a constellation.

Academic programs in jewelry making pushed the art to new levels in the 1970s; innovative techniques began to sprout up. Mary Lee Hu wove metal wire into shapes from nature. Her lovely "Choker #48" (1979) features a pudgy bud woven from lacquered copper, from which a silver flower emerges.

The exhibit embraces more trends in studio jewelry, from the concept of body sculpture -- such as Bruno Martinazzi's brawny, startling "Goldfinger" bracelet from 1969, depicting a hand grabbing the wearer's wrist -- to the use of low-end materials -- such as Styrofoam balls in Robert Ebendorf's 1985 Wilma Flintstone-style "Necklace." Every avenue the show goes down offers delights.

One piece, by British artist Wendy Ramshaw, pays homage to Picasso and puts his pendant on display here to shame. "Girl Before a Mirror" (1989), is a silver and black enamel ring stand -- in essence, a small sculpture -- based on a 1932 portrait by Picasso. Its striations, protrusions, and geometry pointedly touch on those in the painting, yet this remains a fresh, original work of art.

"Ed Rossbach Fiber Art From the Daphne Farago Collection," also on view, suggests that Farago's collections run as deep as they run wide. Here, close to 45 pieces attest to the wit, vigor, and relentlessness of the legendary textile artist, who died in 2002. A scholar and a craftsman, Rossbach studied historic textiles, from Coptic Egyptian tapestry to 18th-century French weaving, and deployed all the techniques he learned, stretching them with contemporary materials and conceptual twists.

The exhibit cleverly dug into the museum's own textiles collection to provide a backdrop for Rossbach's work (and a few pieces by his wife, artist Katherine Westphal). His "Hornets Nest" (1964) basket of coiled raffia, painted over with gesso to give it a weathered look, stands near similar baskets made out of coiled willow or cottonwood by Western Apaches in the 1890s. "Gold and Silver," his 1975 damask glittering with metal thread, blows up a botanical detail from a French brocaded silk damask hanging beside it.

Much of the work brims with Rossbach's irreverent, Pop-inflected sense of humor. Mickey Mouse was a favorite of his, not only for the Disney character's iconography, but for what his name has come to represent: overly simple. He tatted a gorgeous, complex and funny "Mickey Mouse" lace in retort. It echoes 17th-century European lace pieces, but uses several colors.

Rossbach's energy -- curious, intuitive, inventive, and thorough -- runs through this exhibit, which is a brief, in-depth lesson in the history of textiles around the world. Lucky for us, it's as light-hearted as it is stringent.


Jewelry by Artists: The

Daphne Farago Collection

Ed Rossbach Fiber Art From the Daphne Farago Collection

At: Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through March 5, 2008. 617-267-9300.