Decorative art has never held my attention much beyond its obvious cosmetic appeal and nod to a seemingly more gentile societal behaviors, but the show Taking Shape: Finding Sculpture in the Decorative Arts, mounted by the J. Paul Getty Museum and Temple Newsam House has changed all that. I now find myself knee deep pondering craft. These impressive objects, dislocated from their original context, leave behind their supporting role and occupy the art arena as autonomous sculpture.
This is the underlying premise of Taking Shape. But this context of autonomy, as somehow a more potent or significant, higher purpose for sculpture feels like a modernist false pretense. We late 20th century creatures have been conditioned to attribute the “big idea” to the isolated, solitary museum presentation and have been distracted from seeing the mastery, the political clout of decorative art. Pretty crafty.
Distraction is our normal state in which to experience decorative art or architecture. We travel through environments from the general to the specific, mostly unaware, conditioned by expectation exactingly prepared by the designer. As the team program you buy for a sporting event prepares one for the experience of play, so do the decorative interiors provide a game plan of carefully coordinated choices designed to inform the participant of particular social behaviors. They provide metaphor for social practices and prepare you for the impending task at hand; particularly the elaborately conceived interiors, such as those of eighteenth-century elite society. The ritual of entry, the ritual at table are all set ups assembled as a guide for the ritual of court. These objects focus and construct societal praxis.
As previously seen in the work of Adrian Saxe, many pieces in Taking Shape are objects whose functionality is subservient to the ritual moment. Such is the case with the pair of superb silver and painted bronze sugar casters attributed to Guillame Martin (France, 1689-1749) and Etienne-Simon Martin (France, 1703-70). These figurines are full of surprise and paradox. The sugar, either granulated or powdered, could be funneled into the open receptacles of the hollow bundles when the separately cast upper portions of the cane are removed and then, once they are attached, shaken through the piercing. Not exactly easy to fill, but even less friendly to use. By shear virtue of their size and more explicitly their weight, their functionality is a moot point compared to the supporting role they played as part court ritual.
First in line to collect these fine fellows was Madame de Pompadour. An avid collector, de Pompadour wrote “I fully approve of this so-called madness, which feeds so many paupers; I get much more pleasure out of distributing gold than from hoarding it.” It is not hard to imagine the splendor of luxury goods that adorned her table to which these sugar casters belong. In September 1752, the marchand-mercier (dealer) Lazare Duvaux recorded in his daybook that he was “to clean and restore two lacquered figures carrying sugar canes, and polish the silver sugar canes and flowers” for Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, an important patron of the arts. This note led scholars to guess that these decorative figures may have belonged to this famous paramour. These figures are two of only a few objects documented as having been in her possession that still exist today. No other decorative pieces made in the 1700s combining bronze and silver are known.”
It is hard to turn away from the grief that this imperial authority imposed upon its people, but I cannot help but wonder if the burden under which these cane carriers operate is lightened by the delicious, delicate rendering of the silver reeds and lacquered robes, or even more so by the splendor of the setting to which they belong. They may not be the most willing of entrants in the royal maddness, but they sure look good doing it.