Unless you have a preexisting passion for antique pewter, appreciating the Long Beach Museum of Art's "From Tavern to Tabernacle: Decorated British and European Pewter, 1600-1800" requires a bit of imagination.
Pewter, in and of itself, is not a valuable or especially attractive substance, and its history has been less than illustrious. It isn't the sort of material that was typically encrusted with jewels and gold leaf; it rarely graced the tables of kings or popes, and it wouldn't have impressed a discerning duchess. It is, in the words of the museum's director, "a somewhat more egalitarian metal" that met the day-to-day needs of middle- and upper middle-class homes before the widespread production of ceramic and glass.
When pewter objects were decorated, as all in this exhibition were, it was simply, and usually by the craftsman who made the piece rather than a trained decorative artist. The 60-plus objects on view in the exhibition, in other words, aren't exactly eye-catching.
But Kenneth Barkin, professor of European history at UC Riverside and curator of the exhibition, approaches his subject with a historian's affection and finds value, even inspiration, in the humble stature of these objects. He's not sentimental about them, however. As he points out in the catalog: "The survival of pewter commode pots serve to prevent us from romanticizing the history of this tin alloy metal."
In fact, it's the very ordinariness of the objects that makes them so worthy of attention, as they constitute a genuine glimpse into the everyday life of the average 17th and 18th century European.
Among the objects included in the exhibition are plates, cups, tankards, flagons, sugar casters, tea caddies, mustard pots, salt boxes, coffee pots, a chandelier, and a bed warmer (which was apparently rare--and presumably unwise--because the hot coals that were to be placed in the warmer were liable to melt the pewter). Barkin organizes these objects according to their iconography into five thematic categories: religious imagery, plants, marriage and family, animals and work.
Because these themes reflect such basic aspects of daily life, they tend to overlap and often appear in rather unlikely places. It is not uncommon, for example, to find religious imagery on a beer tankard.
Within the five categories of objects are numerous subcategories, such as nationality, age, maker, function, shape and style, all of which are duly outlined in the exhibition's copious wall texts. Particular attention is paid to four of the primary types of decoration in this period: wrigglework engraving (thin, zigzagging lines pressed into the surface of the pewter with a sharp instrument), relief decoration (built into the molds in which the pewter was cast), punch decoration (which involved stamping a design onto a plate edge, lip or lid), and hammering (just what it sounds like).
The importance of the show from an academic view is its distinction as "the first museum exhibition presented in this country to explore the diverse subjects and techniques used by European artisans to embellish pewter in the early modern period." The majority of the objects are notably rare for one reason or another: a unique motif, an unusual size or an atypical combination of patterns.
One of the most striking pieces, for example, is a wooden tankard with pewter overlay that is the only one of its kind known to depict a female figure.
In the absence of a more general historical context, which this tightly focused exhibition justifiably opts not to supply, the distinction of these objects' rarity may be lost on most lay viewers. Their artistic charm need not be, however.
This is where the imagination comes in handy.
It's helpful to remember that the ornate Passover plate from Amsterdam--beautifully decorated with an eight-point star and an alternating ring of tulips and pomegranates--graced a real family's table in the 1690s; that a 1625 flagon with an elegant, Matisse-like hunting scene once poured real wine; and that a plate inscribed with the words "THE GIFT IS SMALL, THE LOVE IS ALL" was once given to a real couple in honor of a real marriage.
These objects, which register their age in dings and dents that their soft surfaces absorb all too easily, are relics from an intimate corner of history. They're not the sort of glittering props that fill the sets of period movies, but, given a little patience, they have their own tales to reveal.
Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 439-2119, through Sept. 8, 2002. Closed Mondays.