Masters of craft
French high jewellery meets traditional Japanese arts in Van Cleef & Arpels’ latest exhibition in Kyoto. Charlene Co takes a look
With its ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, sprawling gardens, tea ceremonies and geishas, Kyoto is a city that inspires and delights. Japan’s imperial capital for more than 1,000 years, its vibrant arts scene has grown from a long tradition of craftsmanship, making it the perfect backdrop for Van Cleef & Arpels’ latest exhibition.
The heritage show at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto (Momak) was four years in the making. But that’s not unusual— Matsubara Ryuichi, chief curator of Momak, says such exhibitions are not taken on lightly. “There are complexities and very rigid rules to observe when carrying out an exhibition in national museums like the Momak,” Ryuichi says. “For instance, it cannot be commercially driven, and the exhibition has to be curated entirely by us.
This was something Nicolas Bos, president and chief executive of the French jewellery house, completely understands. “I appreciated that Mr Bos respected my work and gave me complete freedom. Perhaps more importantly, he expressed that Van Cleef & Arpels’ chief aim for this exhibition is to promote knowledge and nurture an appreciation for the arts—objectives that are very much in line with ours. So, after several visits to their workshop in Paris, and seeing last year’s exhibition in Singapore, I was thrilled to do this.”
“Mastery of an Art: Van Cleef & Arpels— High Jewellery and Japanese Crafts,” which runs until the first week of August, is the latest in an annual series of heritage exhibitions from the French maison. Other exhibitions have been held at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, the Bowers Museum in California, and last year at the Artscience Museum in Singapore.
Bos says there is incredible interest in the craftsmanship and tradition of jewellery, and the exhibition aimed to nurture this. “Transmission is very valuable to us and is something we do wholeheartedly. We started to do these exhibitions in part out of frustration that, while there was a genuine interest in and fascination for the intricacies, craftsmanship and heritage of jewellery, there
weren’t—and sadly still aren’t—nearly enough opportunities to nurture this interest on a large, far-reaching scale,” Bos says. “We hope to change that through these exhibitions.”
The Kyoto show is Van Cleef & Arpels’ second heritage exhibition in Japan—the first was held at the Mori Arts Centre Gallery in Tokyo in 2009. “Japan, and in particular the Kansai region [where Kyoto is located] has always been of interest to us,” Bos says. “We’ve had quite a few projects with schools and universities here, and have met with quite a few local craftsmen. And Kyoto really is the centre of craftsmanship in Japan, having been the emperor’s residence for over a thousand years, attracting the best artisans to the city.”
The jewellery house was clear from the start about where it wanted to exhibit in Kyoto: Momak. “While most museums do either fine arts or decorative arts, the Momak dares: it’s versatile and pushes boundaries— going from displaying artefacts from the Heian period, to cutting-edge Japanese photography, to 19th-century ceramics, to French impressionists,” Bos says. “For us, the point of collaborating with museums is to be able create something different for the visitors, and we felt that the Momak would be able to deliver that experience while still respecting the arts.”
The exhibition features 260 high jewellery pieces from Van Cleef & Arpels—many of them borrowed from its archives in Paris— which are displayed alongside 60 works by Japanese artisans. It’s impeccably arranged in three themed areas designed by innovative Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. The first section offers a look at the history of the French jewellery house, which dates back to 1906. Some of the maison’s most recognisable pieces are on show, including the Zip necklace made for the Duchess of Windsor in 1951, a birdcage commissioned by an Indian prince in the 1930s, and a brooch featuring its patented “mystery-set” technique. In the second area, more than 100 high jewellery pieces are juxtaposed with about 50 Japanese works that include hand-painted vases, ceramic pots, cast iron figurines and an extraordinary juni-hitoe, or 12-layer ceremonial kimono.
The third part of the show celebrates the rare skills of Japan’s “living national treasures.” Among the contemporary artists featured are Moriguchi Kunihiko, who is known for his yuzen dyeing technique to decorate kimonos using rice paste; Kitamura Takeshi for his ra and tate-nishiki weaving techniques; and Nakagawa Kiyotsugu for his beautiful woodcraft. Their works are also displayed alongside Van Cleef & Arpels pieces.
This is an exhibition that explores the parallels between French and Japanese culture, and celebrates centuries-old craftsmanship. But the museum’s Ryuichi has a word of advice for visitors: don’t get too preoccupied searching for similarities between the French and Japanese works. “While techniques and themes are sometimes similar, what truly brings these pieces together is the sense of history, peerless craftsmanship and pride for the craft—which also drives the point of the exhibition’s name, ‘Mastery of an Art,’” he says.
Bos agrees, saying the exhibition is more of a dialogue. “We’ve given Ryuichi free rein in the curation of this exhibition, and the result is an aesthetic, very poetic and quite emotional dialogue between Japanese and French cultures, and jewellery- and craftmaking. I feel that the exhibition really works as an experience—you create your own journey. There are no rules. If you come out of this exhibition interested, extra curious and enriched without necessarily feeling that you’ve gone through a lecture or something completely organised, then I feel that Van Cleef & Arpels has accomplished what it set out to do.”
Mastery of an Art: Van Cleef & Arpels—high Jewellery and Japanese Crafts runs until August 6 at The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan
Jewelled DELICACY A craftsman works on a brooch from Van Cleef & Arpels’ L’arche de Noe collection