The Oscars were once a way more glamorous affair. This is the primary take-away from the dazzling, if slightly exhausting, Cartier blockbuster exhibition at Paris’ Grand Palais, imaginatively titled ‘Cartier: Style and History.’ There, hidden in a vitrine in a far corner of the sprawling promo-expo, is a photograph of Dame Taylor, on stage at the 1970 Academy Awards to present the best picture award (that night it went to Midnight Cowboy, whose competition amazingly included the Barbra musical Hello Dolly).
Taylor’s radiant, ravishing, unabashedly plump face is a reminder that there was a time, not so long ago, when hard-earned emaciation wasn’t the pinnacle of female hotness, while her cleavage –almost too ample to be contained by her plunging azure dress– not only manages to be un-trashy, but downright classy. Perhaps it’s because none of Liz’s natural delights, not even those famous violet eyes, can compete with the golf-ball-sized rock nestled right amid that magnificent, and magnificently bronzed, bosom: a 69-carat diamond, given to her by two-time husband Richard Burton.
The diamond’s setting is the work of Cartier, of course, and while the original necklace isn’t present, the image easily steals the show at the Grand Palais exhibition, which assembles 600 jewels, watches and objects made my the fabled maison from its 1847 founding through the 1970s. There are other stunners, for sure. A necklace made in the 1920’s for the Maharaja of Patiala, consisting of six strands of diamonds the size of pebbles, makes you wonder how an ostensibly straight man could get away with such preening flamboyance. David Beckham and Kanye West seem coy in comparison.
The exhibit is worth visiting to see the space alone, the Palais’ imposing grand reception hall, closed until recently for renovations. For the occasion, its soaring ceiling is decked out with a visual feast of kaleidoscopic projections, especially commissioned for the show from Parisian artist duo Antoine+Manuel. It’s the only contemporary touch in this relentlessly historic exhibit, and one of its more enticing elements.
Eccentric Mexican actress Maria Felix’ jewels are another of the show’s highlights. Lore has it she showed up at the Cartier boutique with a baby alligator in tow, so as to better convey the reptilian necklace she had in mind. The result, which took a year to create, is fabulously extravagant, as is a snake the house made for Felix entirely out of diamonds in 1968.
Amid such blinding excess, at times fun, often sumptuous, and sometimes just fairy-tale corny –Kate Middleton’s wedding tiara is here too, on loan by the Queen herself– it’s hard not to wonder, ‘what, exactly, is the curatorial insight here?’ Of course, there’s trivia galore, all enlightening and some of it quite fascinating. You learn, for instance, that founder Louis’ pioneering vision shaped the future of the house, that it is exceedingly rare to find pearls with a rose tint, and that the jeweler was ahead of its time when it dropped the curve-happy frills of bourgeois taste in favor of Art Deco’s streamlined geometries. And if tiaras are your thing, you might just lose your shit at the sight of a circular vitrine at the entrance of the exhibit, with no less than 10 specimens of the princely headgear mounted on a rotating display column — a veritable tiara-spectacle.
But it would seem that in 2014, the curators would have come up with more of an angle, a fresh way to look at such meticulously amassed splendor. It is no secret that Cartier helped underwrite the show, and most pieces are from the house’s archives, so there must have been limitations to how ambitious or irreverent the curators could be. As for the possible conflict or interest, and potentially compromised curatorial integrity resulting from a major brand helping finance a show about its own history, it is so common today, it isn’t even questioned anymore. From Shanghai to Denver, in recent years more and more luxury brands have been sponsoring ‘heritage exhibits.’ Can they deny that the ultimate goal is to boost sales? Hardly. Instead, they hedge criticism by teaming up with serious institutions, whose cash-starved officials and curators can hardly resist the temptation of working on a show with bottomless corporate funding.
And so the Grand Palais’ chief curator, Laurent Salomé, has repeatedly professed to press and media that the ‘content and composition’ of the show were untouched by the firm’s interests. Swallow that if you will. But, regardless, who can blame him? It’s 2013, and the reality is that this is the delicate pickle more and more museums face. Should they satisfy high-brow personal ambitions and mount underfunded shows that few or no one will see, or take the bait and put on blockbusters that please large crowds and bring in some much-needed euros, like ‘Style and History.’
Sure enough, on a rainy Thursday evening over a month after it opened, the exhibit was more than well-attended. Brazilian tourists marveled loudly at Grace of Monaco’s tasteful parures, while fancy bourgeois ladies from Paris 6th and 16th arrondissements approved haughtily of little vanity boxes worthy of Kate Winslet’s character in Titanic.
It’s all good. With just one small appearance, the indelible Mrs. Burton, along with Antoine+Manuel’s trippy overhead projections, more than make up for the lack of stimulus in this grand, shiny, if somewhat uninspired affair.