Opposites Attract at Memphis’ Brooks Museum
You might think it imprudent to take a child to a museum exhibition featuring works in glass.
Not at Memphis’ Brooks Museum of Art.
I am repeatedly impressed by how this museum makes exhibits meaningful to younger guests. One example: Throughout Soul of a City, on view earlier this year, the Brooks invited guests to use a grab bag of objects – rubber, denim, etc. – to search for matching textures within the works.
This past weekend, in The Brilliance of Tiffany: Lamps from the Neustadt Collection, we crafted our own art glass windows, worked plastic and foam pieces into geometric patterns and sniffed “scent boxes” conjuring the flowers, fruits and trees depicted in Tiffany Studios’ designs.
This interactive room may have been designed with children top-of-mind, but as multi-sensory and interactive as it is, I couldn’t resist “playing” therein.
On to the art: Tiffany Studios designed much more than lamps and windows, and the exhibit presents a comprehensive reminder in displays of sterling silver and desk sets. No matter how quotidian its use, every piece is unmistakably Tiffany: handcrafted and luxurious.
That much, you can predict going in. But what you might learn is how Tiffany Studios’ president and art director, Louis Comfort Tiffany (son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, who co-founded Tiffany & Co.), was influenced by his early work in painting and interior decorating, his travels and his love of nature.
You’ll note it in a Venetian pattern desk set, whose intricate gilded-bronze boxes, reminiscent of travel trunks, seem capable of transporting you anywhere; in the iridescent palette of objects formed of favrile glass, a medium of Tiffany’s invention; and in the nearly omnipresent representation of natural elements in the designs, such as this one:
If it was interesting to learn of Tiffany’s fascination with nature (don’t miss the photo of his greenhouse at Laurelton Hall), it was intriguing to see how his studios interpreted organic elements into its designs. Tiffany is not stained glass, where glass is painted within a frame. It is art glass, where the glass itself is the medium, ready to be shaped into any form. (See the Apple Blossom and Grape lamps, which looked to me much more like free-flowing bouquets than lamp shades.)
Illuminating works crafted primarily between 1890 and 1920, the exhibit creates a local tie through the inclusion of several heirloom pieces significant to Memphis – via museum holdings and local collectors. My favorite is the six-panel Dutch-inspired scene that ornamented Memphis’ grand Hill Mansion, built in 1898; demolished in 1979. The Brilliance of Tiffany remains on display through Jan. 12, 2013.
From the solidity of glass and bronze, take a study in softness: A few feet away from the Tiffany exhibit, the Brooks is currently running Early Quilts from Southern Collections. Though the medium is wispier than Tiffany’s, and without a similar price tag, you could argue that the five quilts on display here share some similarities with the Tiffany Studios creations: Categorized as “fancy quilts,” these aren’t your everyday sleeping blankets. Rather, they were created as “conspicuous displays of fine sewing and design” (in other words, the kind you’d drape over your guests’ bed, then gently pull off before they climb in). And, like the Tiffany pieces, you’ll find organic and geometric shapes at play, as in this square of an 1840 masterpiece believed to be a storytelling quilt crafted by a midwife:
Have you been to a Tennessee art museum lately? What has been your favorite way to interact with the exhibits?