Mastery of an Art: Van Cleef & Arpels High Jewellery and Japanese Crafts
The National Museum of Modern Art – Kyoto, Japan
Until August 6, 2017
The almost industrial-like architecture of The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto gives away no hints of the treasures on display within. Once you step inside though, over 300 items of exceptional beauty are presented in a passionate East-meets-West embrace. Mastery of an Art: Van Cleef & Arpels – High Jewelry and Japanese Crafts brings together these two worlds with a singular objective: to celebrate skilled Japanese and French workmanship.
From approximately 1,200 years ago to the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kyoto served as the capital of Japan – an elegant society centering on culture and eventually becoming renowned for a host of high-grade items.
In the field of clothing, for example, lavish attire adorned with gold brocade, such as junihitoe (12-layered ceremonial kimono), kosode (short-sleeved kimono), tsujigahana (a dyeing technique using vivid images of flowers), and noh play costumes were created. Other notable crafts the region became famous for are maki-e (a lacquer-ware technique in which pictorial expressions are depicted in gold), ceramics and metalwork.
In Japan, outstanding handmade items are referred to as examples of “transcendental workmanship” – called “applied arts” in the West – and are considered to be every bit as valuable as objects of fine art. In fact, Japanese artisans are widely regarded as artists in their own right. It is truly remarkable also that these crafts and manufacturing methods developed in Japan hundreds of years ago have survived to the present day.
Like Japanese crafts, the high jewellery produced by Van Cleef & Arpels are treasured, testament to the exceptional safoir-faire of the maison. Van Cleef & Arpels is famed for its unique style and unparalleled craftsmanship. Milestones in the brand’s storied history – from the Minaudière evening “clutch-box” and “Mystery Set” to iconic creations like the Zip necklace and Alhambra collection – have contributed to a proud legacy that continues.
The virtuoso craftsmen responsible for these works that exemplify the maison’s creative spirit are referred to as “Mains d’Or” (golden hand). Their creations, filled with poetic inspiration, have attracted a worldwide following that includes royalty, stars of the stage and silver screen, celebrities and collectors.
With regard to their craft, Van Cleef & Arpels and Kyoto share a similar heritage – in both cases, highly skilled artisans have transmitted the mysteries of their art to successive generations, transcending both geographical areas and historical periods.
This is the common bond that inspired Mastery of an Art, with over 250 pieces of jewellery from Van Cleef & Arpels’ private collection and several pieces on loan from private owners, along with 60 examples of the finest Japanese crafts (including cloisonné enamel, ceramics, lacquer ware and metalwork).
The majority of jewellery items in the exhibition are derived from Van Cleef & Arpels’ archive of precious works, representing a wide range of stylistic trends that emerged with various historical developments between the 1920s and the 1980s. In another dedicated section, some 100 works of high jewellery, which combine a variety of materials and technical mastery, are on display.
The maison anticipates the exhibition will generate a new context and forge a unique bond between high jewellery, an emblematic example of French savoir-faire, and the 1,200-year history of the traditional crafts of Japan – and serve as a testament to the spirit of cultural exchange and friendship that exists between France and Japan, and more specically, Paris and Kyoto.
Designed by renowned Japanese architect Sosuke Fujimoto, the exhibition is divided into three sections, each telling a distinctive part of the same story: History of Van Cleef & Arpels (archive pieces), Mastery of an Art (high jewellery and Japanese crafts), and A Fusion of Cultures and the Future, an intriguing array of the maison’s high jewellery alongside works of well-known Japanese craft artists who have been ascribed the title of “Living National Treasures” in Japan (such as Moriguchi Kunihiko for the yuzen dyeing method, lacquer artist Hattori Shunsho, and Nakagawa Kiyotsugu for his work in traditional wood crafts, among others).
According to Fujimoto, he came up with a simple and calm, yet elaborate and rich space design in order to bring out the full potential of the harmony between the jewellery pieces and traditional crafts. “In the first section of the exhibition, devoted to the company’s history, I used natural hinoki cypress wood to produce a space that is dynamic, but at the same time delicate and pure,” he says. “In the section containing jewellery and Japanese crafts, the weight of the transparent display cases gives rise to a calm and subtle air, creating a beautiful comparison between sharpness and flexibility, and simplicity and diversity.”
The exhibition, that will run until August 6, took four years to realise – which is when Van Cleef & Arpels CEO Nicolas Bos first approached Ryuichi Matsubara, chief curator of Kyoto’s National Museum of Modern Art, about the idea.
A stroll through the exhibition halls is to get lost in the art and beauty of creation, and the discovery of a magical golden thread that ties the French jeweller to the ancient Japanese capital – despite a distance of over 10,000km.