Cartier’s Islamic Art on show in Paris at Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Cartier’s Islamic Art on show in Paris at Musée des Arts Décoratifs

More than 500 pieces, including jewellery and objects from Cartier trace the origins of the jeweller’s interest in Oriental motifs.

From October 21 to February 20, 2022, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is presenting ‘Cartier et les arts de l’Islam: Aux sources de la modernité’ (Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity), a major exhibition that traces Islamic art’s influence on the objects created by Louis Cartier, Cartier Founder, and the designers of the great French jewellery Maison, from early 20th century to today. Co-organised by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Dallas Museum of Art and arising from a collaboration with the Musée du Louvre and the support of Cartier, it shows the influence of Islamic Art on the high jewellery Maison Cartier in the design of jewellery and precious objects.

More than 500 pieces, including jewellery and objects from Cartier, masterpieces of Islamic art, drawings, books, photographs and archival documents, trace the origins of the jeweller’s interest in Oriental motifs. The exhibition explores the origins of this influence through the Parisian cultural context and the figure of Louis and Jacques Cartier, two of the founder’s grandsons, who played a major role in creating a new aesthetic suffused with modernity.

Cartier’s Islamic Art on show in Paris at Musée des Arts Décoratifs
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The American architectural firm DS&R (Diller Scofidio & Renfro) was commissioned to design the exhibition’s scenography. The exhibition is organised as a themed chronological tour divided into two parts, the first of which explores the origins of the interest in Islamic art and architecture through the cultural backdrop of Paris at the beginning of the 20th century and reviews the creative context among designers and studios as they searched for sources of inspiration.

The second part illustrates the lexicon of forms inspired by Islamic art, from the start of the 20th century to now. From the outset, according to those in the know, visitors will find themselves immersed in these shapes and motifs with three of Cartier’s iconic creations set against masterpieces of Islamic art. Along the North Gallery, people are invited, room after room, to explore the creative process and the initial sources of inspiration in jewellery design.

The books in Louis Cartier’s library and his collection of Islamic art were made available as resources for designers. Louis’ personal collection, reconstructed thanks to the archives of the House of Cartier, is represented through several masterpieces reunited for the first time since the dispersion of his collection. Charles Jacqueau was an important as well as brilliant member of Cartier’s team of designers. A selection of his design drawings is presented, thanks to a loan from the Petit Palais, Fine Arts Museum of Paris.

The exhibition continues by exploring Jacques Cartier’s travels, including to India in 1911, where he met with Maharajahs of the subcontinent. The trading of gemstones and pearls offered him a way into the country. It enabled him to build relationships with Maharajahs all the while collecting antique and contemporary jewellery, which he would either resell unchanged, use as inspiration, or dismantle for integration into new designs.These different sources of inspiration, and the Oriental jewellery that enriched the House of Cartier’s collections, helped to redefine shapes as well as craftsmanship techniques. The head ornaments, tassels, bazubands (an elongated bracelet worn on the upper arm) came in a wide range of shapes, colours and materials to suit the fashions of the time.

The flexibility of Indian jewellery led to technical innovation, new settings and different methods of assembling pieces. Incorporating different parts of jewellery, fragments of Islamic works of art referred to as ‘apprêts’, and the use of Oriental textiles to create bags and accessories, was also a hallmark of the House of Cartier in the early 20th century. The second part of the exhibition, in the South Gallery, is dedicated to the lexicon of forms inspired by Islamic art, particularly thanks to the collections belonging to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Musée du Louvre.

Although famed for its ‘garland style’ jewellery, from 1904 onwards, Cartier began developing pieces inspired by the geometric patterns of Islamic art found in books on ornamentation and architecture.Enamelled brick decorations from Central Asia and stepped merlons, amongst others, form the basis of a precursory repertoire later described as ‘Art Deco’. The patterns and shapes from Islamic art and architecture, sometimes easily identifiable, at other times broken down and redesigned to make their source untraceable, became an integral part of the stylistic vocabulary of the designers. Today, they still form a part of the Cartier repertoire, as illustrated by the contemporary jewels, which complete the exhibition.

The Islamic civilisation occupies a unique position in the close-knit network of relationships between the Western world and societies beyond its borders. It has been amplified over the centuries by the highly diverse cultural facets it offers, as well as its geography, stretching from the original Mediterranean Basin to more distant lands, from Andalusia to India. A highly political and aesthetically rich subject, the relationship between European artistic creation and Islamic art is anything but incidental, as reflected in the keen awareness of the historical context, from the diplomatic alliances between France during the reign of François I and the Ottoman Empire of Süleyman the Magnificent, to the colonial and imperialist conquests of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – a mix of fascination, violence, and domination.

While Edward Saïd’s criticism of Orientalism remains a seminal work, many more recent exhibitions and studies have shown just how much the arts of Islam have shifted from “a passive object of study to that of an active subject of exchange,” to use the words of Rémi Labrusse, professor of contemporary art history. Labrusse’s work has provided a much deeper understanding of the role and influence of Islamic art on Western art, both in Europe and across the Atlantic, notably in the mid-nineteenth century - a fascinating period that gradually ushered in the emergence of an understanding about cultural identities that were diverse, as well as their assimilation in multiple artistic and aesthetic projects.

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