Passion show

Lush collection makes a rare stop outside France

The Portland Art Museum has a warning from the curator to go with its latest visiting exhibit: This is a rich meal you're about to consume.

'Matires de Rves,' or 'The Stuff of Dreams,' opens this weekend. The show of decorative arts Ñ porcelain, furniture, jewelry, glass and sculpture Ñ spans eight centuries and comes to Portland from the MusŽe des Arts DŽcoratifs in Paris.

The exhibit's co-curator, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, helped bring last winter's Stroganoff exhibit to town.

'Quirky' doesn't quite describe the disarming Hunter-Stiebel. Wonderfully obsessed is more like it. When she talks about the objects in the show, her eyes go wide and her hands move in antic circles. She pauses and draws in her breath for dramatic effect, and despite her years of study, she still appears caught off-guard by the beauty of the objects.

The exhibit found its way to Portland by a stroke of luck, Hunter-Stiebel explained recently.

After the Stroganoff exhibit closed in Portland, it was scheduled to travel to the MusŽe des Arts DŽcoratifs, located in a wing of the Palace of the Louvre. Hunter-Stiebel went to Paris to oversee its transfer, but, because of a renovation project, the Stroganoff exhibit had to move on to its next stop.

While she was in Paris, waiting for a traffic light to change, an idea struck her:

'Where,' she asked MusŽe des Arts DŽcoratifs curator Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, 'are you storing your collection during the renovation?'

While quite well known in France, the private collection had never traveled outside of the country. Nouvel-Kammerer, like Hunter-Stiebel, wanted to broaden its availability.

Together, they sorted through the vast collection's holdings and eventually struck upon an organizing principle by which to select the objects for the Portland exhibition.

'They must all be useful,' Hunter-Stiebel explained. 'They must all break with tradition and surpass everything that came before. And, most crucially, they must be imbued with some element of the dream, that is, invested with imagination.'

Included in the show are splendid examples of mid-18th century French rococo, a period of sensual delight when fantasy and superb craftsmanship combined. The rococo represents a movement toward the irrational, a new realm for objects where utility and idea merge.

A soft-paste porcelain sauceboat from 1756, for example, is made of 'unctuous, creamy' porcelain. As Hunter-Stiebel describes it, it's like 'no sauceboat that had ever been and that no sauceboat ever will be.' She points out its liquid, wavelike shapes.

Another example of this splashing, churning motion is Germain's silver ewer and basin.

A hair clip and necklace from belle Žpoque Paris show a new interest in connecting the female figure and nature. The golden hair of the woman the set depicts is strewn with blue opium poppies. The necklace is held together with links shaped like opium seeds.

Here is where induced dream states, psychology, art and truth mingle. The concerns of the day Ñ poetry, painting and science Ñ envelop the necklace's wearer.

Another showstopper is a bed that belonged to the courtesan Emille Valtesse de la Bigne. Valtesse was the basis for Emile Zola's X-rated novel 'Nana,' a character composite of the courtesans of the day. Zola describes this very bed in a passage of the novel.

More recent examples of the decorative arts abound. For instance, there are the fixtures designed by Armand-Albert Rateau in 1920 for the fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin's bathroom, and the art deco masterpiece 'Chiffonnier' by AndrŽ Groult, a sensuous bureau with a woman's contours.

Philippe Stark's 'Something Strange Against a Wall' is what Hunter calls 'a feather duster for the brain.' It's an object, she says, that challenges viewers, makes them sharper, deeper. In other words, it benefits the life it surrounds.

But the pice de rŽsistance, for Hunter, is Juste-Aurle Meissonnier's candelabra: a twisting, sinuous tree of silver with three detachable armatures. The piece was designed in the 1730s for a young man who boldly melted his family's silver collection to commission the piece from Meissonnier, the most avant garde designer of his day, who also designed for the French king.

'This object was the face that launched a thousand ships. He transformed the way people looked at objects,' Hunter said. 'He broke all the molds. There is a complete release of imagination, surging up and fluid Ñ but completely useful.'

The show brings together connoisseurship, the passions of private collecting and art history, but most of all, it's about pleasure. And examples of French poetry will be on the walls in keeping with the intellectual spirit of the day.

'The show is nondidactic, it's not about history. It's about experiencing amazing objects,' Hunter-Stiebel said. 'It's a purely sensual experience.'

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