Brilliant is beautiful. The Cartier legacy, undeniable. The accounts of its clients, historically compelling. You won't be sorry to see these pieces of jewelry — they're unlike anything most of us come across in daily life, and some of the pieces have rarely been put on display. The exhibit design, as always at the Denver Art Museum, is well-crafted.
So I liked Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century, which opened this week. However, I wanted to love it, and I didn't.
The 250-object show is curated by Margaret Young-Sánchez of the DAM and designed by Nathalie Crinière, who did Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective two years ago. Again, Crinière has created a sumptuous atmosphere that winds pleasantly through the exhibit sections, complemented by sheer screens with video projections of Cartier-wearing dames and some double-sided display cases that look quaintly like windows, allowing you to see the objects from both front and back. Thanks to these aspects, and some mirrors, the exhibit looks much larger than it is, with what appear to be illuminated grand corridors.
(Those mirrors are deceiving, so be careful. Both I and my companion nearly walked straight into them accidentally.)
Unlike YSL, though, which wove a tender story of the designer, Brilliant is less relatable. The DAM insists that because we all wear jewelry, we all have a bridge to what's on display. But I found myself feeling more like a tourist in a big city, peering into the windows at an exclusive jewelry store.
It's great to have another blockbuster devoted to applied arts. As was the case in YSL, these objects and wearables have been raised to the level of high art, as well they should be, given the intense craftsmanship that goes into them. Brilliant is best when it focuses on just that; a section devoted to the Cartier workshop is one of the best parts of the show.
The earlier parts of the exhibit are also fetching. There you see the company's forward-thinking creativity — works reflect the rise of Art Deco, and the fascination with exotic cultures — and innovation. As smoking became more socially acceptable, accessories became popular gifts, and the DAM's showcase of nifty Cartier smoking accouterments is indeed a marvel of design. Even more basic pieces, like a wristwatch, take on greater significance because Louis Cartier is credited with inventing the modern men's wristwatch.
The clientele linked to the works is fascinating, too. We see a stunning necklace crafted for the Maharaja of Patiala; Marie of Romania's 478-carat sapphire pendant; Mrs. William Randolph Hearst's sapphire-studded bracelet; a silver clock awarded to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943 for the U.S.' "decisive role" in World War II.
These are all products of a larger history of cultural practices, events and figures. But that track goes awry in the show's "grand finale," which is devoted to five women who were famous Cartier clients: Daisy Fellowes, María Félix, Wallis Simpson, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.
The five are no doubt part of the Cartier story, but I'm not here to marvel at Wallis Simpson, and the women certainly don't draw me closer to the artwork at hand. Celebrity has a distancing effect, and that's the last thing you want when you're trying to get audiences to care about what they're looking at.
I left YSL convinced of the importance of Saint Laurent and the innovation of modern clothing styles. I left Brilliant impressed with the sparkle, but largely unmoved. The distance makes all the difference.