All that glitters is not gold in three newly installed galleries of works from the Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert collection, opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Most of the artworks are made of silver or silver-gilt--sometimes combined with porcelain, enamel, wood, seashells and gemstones--but they compose a dazzling display.
Ranging from an Anatolian ewer (pitcher) raised from a single sheet of gold, circa 2500-2000 BC, to an 1880s Viennese dish inset with 13 enameled scenes from classical mythology, the objects reaffirm that the Gilberts have become mega-collectors of decorative arts. The British-born couple came to the United States in 1949 and began collecting British silver about 20 years ago. Arthur Gilbert, who made his fortune in real estate development and investment, has been a trustee at the museum since 1977.
The Gilbert collection is no secret here, as the museum previously has staged exhibitions of it and a roomful of the Gilberts' mosaics adjoins the new suite of silver and gold galleries, but the new installation is the most complete to date. On view are more than 200 silver and gold works that have been given or promised to the museum.
Considering the volume and breadth of the collection, curator Martin Chapman faced a challenge when he arrived at LACMA last October. Charged with overseeing the new installation, he decided to put the most spectacular pieces up front, just to the right of the entrance to the Ahmanson Building.
"My idea was to show the high points of the collection in a treasury," he said during an interview at the museum. Inspired by \o7 Schatzkammers \f7 (treasuries) of late 16th- and early 17th-Century German noblemen, he and exhibition designer Bernard Kester have created a dramatic, darkened room that grants each spectacular object a red-fabric-lined, spot-lighted cubicle of its own.
The installation is a case of inspired showmanship, but it serves the objects well because they can be seen one at a time--in all their astonishing detail. "These are not utilitarian objects; they were made for show, as vehicles of craftsmanship," Chapman said. A German beer tankard, made of silver-gilt, rock crystal and agate, for example, is supported by three tiny lions that are fully finished underneath. If the tankard were passed around and turned over, the most demanding inspectors would find no flaws.
A silver nef (ship) with tiny figures climbing the rigging and main mast and others dining in a cabin on the poop deck is likely to be a crowd pleaser. This wonder of craftsmanship, made about 1610 in Germany, leaves no surface undecorated and offers many narrative possibilities. The piece did have a function, however--it conferred status by marking the place of the most prestigious person at a table.
Craftsmanship was a serious business in the 16th and 17th centuries, when many of these objects were made. But the finest designers could also have a sense of humor, as in two pieces that Chapman calls "German jokes." One, a glass wager cup with a silver-gilt finial instead of a base, cannot be set down until it is empty and it must be displayed upside down. The other, a hawk-shaped cup made of silver, silver-gilt, coconut shell and semiprecious stones, flaps its wings if anyone tries to drink out of it.
Exotic materials were favored by makers of \o7 Schatzkammer \f7 objects, Chapman noted, so the coconut-shell hawk is quite at home here. So is an elegant rhinoceros-horn beaker with a silver-gilt rhino on its cover. Another animal, the partridge, is particularly well represented in a lifelike bird-shaped cup made of mother-of-pearl, silver, silver-gilt and gemstones.
Once Chapman had installed the treasury, he was left with a vast array of silver, which he has divided into two galleries--one housing work from Continental Europe and the other from Britain. In addition, an adjacent foyer contains an ornate silver throne and footstool made for an Indian maharajah, an Indian howdah (saddle for an elephant) and a glass and silver-bronze table.
The Gilbert collection does not constitute a complete survey of European silver work, but Chapman has installed the Continental gallery in a chronological progression, beginning with an Italian hunting cup made about 1480-90. The varied display includes two massive pairs of gates from Kiev, a German toilet service and a group of silver-mounted Oriental porcelains.
The \o7 piece de resistance \f7 is a silver-gilt ewer and basin made in 1789-90 by French master Henri Auguste for British collector William Beckford. "They are deceptively simple," Chapman said of Auguste's works. "The refinement achieved by the French in the final days before the Revolution is rarely outclassed."