The showiest display at the County Museum of Art is not the current blockbuster "Impressionist to Early Modern Painting From the U.S.S.R." It's a pair of decorative arts exhibitions, elegantly installed on the lower level of the Ahmanson Building.
"The Art of the European Goldsmith: Silver From the Schroder Collection" (through Sept. 7) presents 79 silver and gilded-silver objects collected by a British banking family. "Art Nouveau Jewelry by Rene Lalique" (through Aug. 18) offers 57 ornaments of astonishing delicacy, primarily from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.
Being decorative is the business of decorative arts, but this duo has really outdone itself. Imagine a 16th-Century Dutch "Nautilus Cup" and you'll taste the flavor of the Schroder collection: The bowl of the cup is shaped like a nautilus shell and engraved with sea creatures. A mermaid riding a "molluscan monster" balances the bowl on her head. Silver straps cast in the shape of fish secure the cup to its base, while a monster's head topped by a warrior and hound sits above it.
There's more detail to this dazzling vessel, but you get the idea. Standing just under a foot high, this elaborate piece of showmanship has about as much to do with quenching thirst as a designer gown has to do with protecting a body from the elements. A few of the Schroders' 13th- to 18th-Century utensils actually may have been used on special occasions, but they were meant to be display objects.
What this array of European metalwork revealed, according to the exhibition catalogue, was not only "the great wealth of the patron, but also . . . his sophistication and learning."
The complex decorative "programs" applied to the European silver might portray the virtues, the senses, mythological themes or the lives of historical figures. A tazza (ornamental plate on a pedestal) chased with four scenes from the life of a Roman emperor comes from a set of 12 such works based on Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars."
An Italian ewer and basin from the early 17th Century sets forth the Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders as an allegory of Grace and Chastity.
Some chalices and tankards have simple, clean forms, in tune with modern taste, but the typical work is dripping with Mannerist detail and bristling with finial figures. It may have a handle in the shape of a nude figure or a base that emulates a tower of Gothic buildings.
One of the most modest-looking pieces shown is a 16th-Century version of the Swiss Army knife. This silver-gilt spoon-and-fork combination also contains a whistle, a toothpick and an earpick.
"The more complex the form, the more recondite the classical allusions in the decoration, and the more abstruse the philosophical program of the ornament, the more they were admired," writes the late J.F. Hayward in the exhibition catalogue. Less was not more to people who wanted every square centimeter of a vessel to be packed with meaning.
Today we tend to see such work as expensive baubles. They are costly all right--silver has long been cherished for its inherent market value as well as for the forms it takes--but these artworks can't be dismissed as trinkets. They say too much about the people who commissioned, constructed and appreciated them.
When you find a drinking horn that stands on a silver griffin's leg, a wager cup capped by a moving windmill or a ewer in the shape of a sailing vessel, you see evidence of a highly developed society--and of affluent people entertaining themselves with ever more complicated symbols of their status.
Compared to the heavy-handed show of wealth and power in the metalwork, Lalique's Art Nouveau jewelry seems almost diaphanous. Its ostentation is woven into a seductive web of lithe nudes, flowing hair, gorgeous blossoms and magical animals and insects. You can't get much more decorative than an enameled and jeweled gold pectoral that blends a woman's form with a dragonfly, but the best of Lalique's fantasies transcend their genre and craftsmanship.
Lalique (1860-1945) is bestknown for his glass creations, but it was jewelry that led him to that material. Before 1914, when he devoted himself exclusively to glass, he distinguished himself as a jeweler of amazing technical facility and originality. One of his best-known clients was Sarah Bernhardt, who wore his jewelry on stage . . . in pieces large enough to be admired by her audience.
The current exhibition commemorates the 30th anniversary of the death of Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian oilman and financier who acquired the preeminent collection of Lalique's jewelry as he amassed more than 150 pieces.
Some of the most stunning examples are too fragile to travel, but those that made the trip to Los Angeles certainly reveal the essence of Lalique's skill, grace and imagination.
Working with gems, enamel and precious metals, he was perfectly at home with the Art Nouveau movement's frankly decorative ideals. Lalique took to its sinewy forms like seaweed to water, and let them lead him into a wonderland of enchanted forests, romantic trysts and iridescent insects. Peering into the brooches, pendants, tiaras, combs and necklaces in the exhibition, you find such intimate sights as kissing couples, nymphs in the woods and Ophelia reclining.
Flowers open around human faces, beetles and grasshoppers meet head-to-head while a heavenly light permeates pastel landscapes. It's a fantasy world where humankind and nature are blissfully entwined, but, in case you are wondering, dogs had nothing to do with it. The objects labeled "dog collars" or "dog collar plaques" were not made for canines. These rectangular ornaments were attached to pins, ribbons or chains and worn as brooches or necklaces.