The first word to come to mind when trying to organize my thoughts and impressions regarding the de Young’s exhibition, The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950 – 1990, is ‘stunning’. That seems a bit obvious and unoriginal, but that is the only way to describe this amazing combination of dress history, opulence, and phenomenal use of technology in an exhibition. The second word that comes to mind is ‘crowded’. This was frustrating when trying to see the individual cases, but at the same time I found it quite gratifying that yet again, a dress exhibition was pulling in as many visitors as the David Hockney exhibition downstairs which is in its final week. Its popularity also proves something I have long suspected of human beings: we really are magpies.
I confess that jewellery, while beautiful, has never been a major focus of my own research. I’ve always been more interested in fabric and cultural borrowing and colonialism (because life is apparently not depressing enough), and never particularly found jewellery interesting. However, I had a revelation at this exhibition that I have only ever had a few times in my life — when I saw my first Jackson Pollock, Marc Chagall, and Frida Kahlo paintings — that there are some things that simply cannot be appreciated through photographs: they must be seen in person in order to understand their beauty and allure.
This was what happened to me at ‘The Art of Bulgari’. I had gone because it was the big, annual exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), and because I knew I should do a write up for Worn Through. I did not expect to walk out with the catalogue any more than I expected to dream of pure, exquisite colour for the next two nights, but that’s what I did.
Brought in by the European Decorative Arts department, the exhibition begins with projections of the jewellery floating across a pure black background as you enter the textile galleries. I have been in these galleries so often that I have the space memorized, and the exhibition design rather awed me. It completely transformed the space so that it actually took me quite some time to get my bearings, creating five rooms where I knew there had only been one. More than that, by going with completely black walls on to which projections could be shown with amazing clarity and colour, they created an intimate feeling without feeling crowded or claustrophobic. It also made the display cases set in these walls in and of themselves jewellery boxes: there was a feeling of anticipation as you entered the second room, and the crowds parted to reveal bright, white, dazzling groupings of the tremblant brooches that first made the house famous.
All of the text panels were done on giant flat screens, a subtle way in which the feeling that everything glowed was actually enhanced. This is also the first time I have ever seen visitors reading all of the text panels all the way through. There were also several such panels that showed images of celebrities both past and present wearing Bulgari jewels in a loop. My impression was that the celebrities and models paled in comparison to the actual jewellery you could see, so I can’t really tell you who was featured in these parades of images other than the obvious actresses: Monica Vitti and Elizabeth Taylor. The exhibition also utilized technology to show even more pieces through digital ‘books’ that patrons could turn pages in to reveal an image of new necklace or other amazing creation. In the next to last room, which displayed the Elizabeth Taylor collection, the images on these pages even climbed a special wall so that they could be seen by everyone, not just the patron using the book. The integration of all these new tools was absolutely seamless, and greatly appreciated by the visitors — there were lines for several of the text panels and books in the same way there were lines for the pieces themselves. There were also several cases that used themed holographic projections before revealing a single, beautiful item, usually a brooch.
In addition to the display cases in the walls (all of which were lined with a white background that had a subtle sparkle to it), there were individual pedestals in the centre of each room showing sets, be they necklace, bracelet, and earrings, or necklace, brooch, and table clock.
The exhibition was divided up largely by decades. The first display room dealt with pieces from the 1950s and 1960s, the second with the 1960s and 1970s, the third was dedicated to the Elizabeth Taylor pieces (there was a platinum with sapphire cabuchon sautoir with matching ring that I’m sure would look lovely on me!), and the last room dedicated to pieces from the 1980s and 1990s. Within these rooms, the pieces were grouped by types: tremblant brooches, sautoir necklaces, tubogas, etc. This was remarkably helpful to me, since until this exhibition I had never actually been sure what a cabuchon jewel was, so it was not only beautiful to look at, it was extremely educational. It also helped that I went through with my mother who gave me a crash course in how to recognize clarity and flaws in jewels — an easy task with such large examples to illustrate the concepts.
I’m afraid I lost count of the number of objects featured in the exhibition, largely because I was too busy oggling all the shiny — I, too, am apparently a magpie. Thankfully the press release tells me there were over 150 pieces. The layout was truly masterful because even with so many pieces, and the projections, and the backgrounds of full-colour design sketches, and the holograms I did not leave feeling overwhelmed by the colours or the glamour. I actually left wanting more.
What I came away with was an deep admiration for the house of Bulgari’s design mastery, and their amazing sense of colour. Not only did they manage to move with the times and fashion, they managed to remain recognizably ‘Bulgari’ as they changed. The integration of Renaissance coins, precious and semi-precious stones, gold with silver, and being able to move between cut gems and cabuchons — sometimes three, even four different colours — to capture the same ambiance as the fashion the jewellery was worn with was truly awe-inspiring. The exhibition proved Andy Warhol correct when he said, ‘I always visit Bulgari because it is the most important museum of contemporary art’.
After leaving ‘Bulgari’ I stopped in the T. B. Walker Foundation Textile Education Gallery, where a smaller exhibition, ‘Lace: Labor andLuxury’, was on display. Curated by Kristen Stewart, there were 12 pieces including both examples of lace from FAMSF’s collection and portraits of men and women wearing lace from the Achenbach collection of prints. Kristen’s goal was to place lace in the context of fashion history, and she definitely succeeded through the combination of etched portraiture from the seventeenth century, and a painting from the nineteenth century, and examples of needle, bobbin, and machine lace. There was an exquisite nineteenth-century jacket of chantilly lace that greeted the visitor as they entered the gallery that I have fallen head over heels in love with.
Through careful selection of a mixture of objects Kristen showed not only the long history of this now-neglected art, but also the wearing of it by both men and women to demonstrate taste and wealth. The exhibition, though small, was as popular as the Bulgari exhibition, with nearly everyone wandering through the Education gallery to see it after shopping the Bulgari store. I also found the pairing of ‘Lace’ with ‘The Art of Bulgari’ was an amazing way to show that while the methods of conspicuous luxury have changed, the practice itself has been with us as long as fashion has. With both exhibitions, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco demonstrated just how amazing, educational, and appealing to broad audiences dress and textile exhibitions can be.
This week I end with the announcement of the final weeks to see the Grace Kelly Style exhibition at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The exhibition closes next week, on 26 January. My heart-felt thanks to Hollie Brown who informed me of the exhibition and its imminent closure through email. This is one of those moments where I desperately wish I had an endless travel budget.
Please do not hesitate to email me your exhibition and other event announcements you would like promoted here, or simply leave links in the comments. Next week I will be assisting with the installation of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles’ new ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition, an experience and review I will share with you on 5 February!
Many thanks to Clara Hatcher and Kristen Stewart of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for images and insights.
Opening image caption: Sophia Loren in a Bulgari parure of cabochon sapphires and rubies highlighted with diamonds, 1960.
Photo: Archivi Farabola