Functional and beautiful: Exhibit showcases common objects of the historic elite

‘The Fine Art of Living’ museum exhibit features useful but beautiful objects once owned by noble elite
from around the world
Friday, July 25, 2008 | 1:01 p.m. CDT; updated 1:12 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 25, 2008
Several works of intricately designed Bohemian glass are on display at “The Fine Art of Living” exhibit. Such objects once played an important role, communicating social, political, religious and cultural information while helping to maintain the social order.

COLUMBIA — In a small, beige-walled room at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, Kelly Archer had her first look at a trio of micromosaics, framed and under glass. The biggest one, no larger than a silver dollar, depicts the Coliseum of Rome in intricate detail. With the help of a magnifying glass, Archer got a better look at the hundreds of colored bits forming the rows of columns and arches.

The tiny representations of places abroad can be found in “The Fine Art of Living: Luxury Objects from the East and West,” currently at MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. The exhibit features an array of useful and beautiful objects once owned by the noble elite from around the world.

If you go

WHAT: “The Fine Art of Living: Luxury Objects from the East and West”
WHEN: Through the spring of 2009. Museum hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
WHERE: Museum of Art and Archaeology, in Pickard Hall on Francis Quadrangle, Ninth Street and University Avenue
ADMISSION: Free and open to the public

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Micromosaics, for example, were created during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the wealthy elite were still embarking on the Grand Tour of countries such as Italy and France, viewed as necessary for the education of European upper-class young men. Micromosaics were collected as evidence of this tour.

“I can’t believe how anyone had the patience to do this,” said Archer, a Columbia resident. “If I were to make one, I would have to use tweezers.”

She said the micromosaics caught her eye because of their size and nostalgia they called up in her; she has traveled to Italy several times, so memories accompanied each look through the magnifying glass.

Objects in the exhibit played an important aesthetic role in the lives of the upper-crust — communicating social, political, religious and cultural information. They also helped maintain and establish social order. For example, several nations established laws regulating who could wear and use lace; in another instance, the type of bird depicted on an ornate square on the uniform of a Chinese civil officer showed his rank.

Mary Pixley, associate curator of European and American art, chose the items for the exhibit.

“First I researched the museum’s collection,” Pixley said. “I recently joined the staff in September, so I wanted to know what my museum was already holding. I noticed all of these beautiful decorative objects, some of which have never been on display before, and decided I could make a multicultural exhibit from the decorative art objects the museum already possessed.”

After the objects were chosen, Rebecca Dunham, Pixley’s research assistant, was responsible for doing all of the research and writing up the labels that would accompany the objects.

“No specific piece gave me all that much trouble,” Dunham said. “These were all common objects of the elite, so I did not have much of a problem with the research aspect. I looked at the files the museum already had, what the piece is, how it was used.”

The difference between this exhibit and others is that each object was once owned and used by someone, namely the noble elite. These objects had to fulfill two purposes: They had to be functional, and they had to be beautiful. Pixley explained it as “a definite challenge for the artisan. The highest quality craftsmen of the time were needed to make some of these objects.”

This exhibit features small, delicate items — ivory sandals from South India, for example, and a Japanese chest called a Kondansu, which held paraphernalia used in the incense ceremony Kodo. The chest comes from the Somada style of lacquer, famous for the technique of sprinkling metallic powder on a wet lacquer surface. There is also an incense stick holder in the shape of a Buddhist lion, made from glazed porcelain in opaque green, yellow and turquoise.

“The theme of this exhibit is objects that are indicative of the wealthy elite and their lifestyle,” said Dunham. “We want to put the object back into the context not of the artist or their style, but of the object’s original use.”

When the objects are put into context, what emerges is a net of traditions and customs no longer in practice.

One such practice was taking snuff — a finely ground tobacco powder popular among the European elite. It was also practiced during the Qing Dynasty in China, because smoking tobacco was illegal. The exhibit has four snuffboxes, all made of gold. One has a pastoral scene, another a small painting of the sleeping Eros, the Greek god of love and lust. The Chinese snuff bottle has a very small and intricate portrait of a man and woman, which was painted on the inside of the bottle.

“I want people to take away a knowledge of other cultures,” Pixley said. “I want them to have an appreciation of beauty and craftsmanship and to see materials they have not seen before, things like the micromosaics. People rarely get to see such objects in museums.”

Dunham said they want people to learn about the lifestyle and daily practices of “this slice of culture, this one specific group of people. We want to educate people on the lifestyle and tell them that these objects were all used for practical functions.”

Ashley Mason, an undergraduate majoring in art history who was looking through the exhibit one day, thinks the exhibit helps redefine what is traditionally thought of as belonging in a museum exhibit and what can be defined as art.

“When we’re in a museum, we do not think about porcelain,” Mason said. “We pass it by because we think it’s boring, but there’s a story behind everything. For instance, I just love this silver plate — it’s just gorgeous.”

She leaned in to get a closer look at scene depicted on the plate, assumed to be the Golden Age in Greek mythology, a time when humans believed they lived at the whim of the gods.

“Just think, this was probably lying on someone’s table and would provide a story, provide these people something to think about during the era of the salon,” Mason said. “Our plates do not provide a story like this anymore.”

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