Enfilade

Exhibition | The Art of Iron

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on May 24, 2018
Florist’s Sign and Bracket, 18th century, France, wrought iron and rolled iron, cut, polychromed, and gilded; fastened with rivets and rings. Sign: 28 × 21 × 5 inches (71.5 × 52.6 × 12.5 cm), bracket: 33 × 52 × 2 inches (84 × 132.5 × 6 cm) (Rouen: Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, inv. LS 2011.0.199)

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Some of the objects included in the exhibition opening soon at The Clark were also included in the 2015 exhibition at The Barnes Foundation. From the press release (8 May 2018). . .

The Art of Iron: Objects from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, Normandy
The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 9 June — 16 September 2018

Curated by Kathleen Morris

The Clark Art Institute is the exclusive venue for the exhibition The Art of Iron: Objects from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, Normandy. The exhibition presents thirty-six historic objects in an installation celebrating the craft and beauty of wrought iron. Salvaged by the founders of the Musée Le Secq during the second half of the nineteenth century, when wrought iron was being rapidly discarded and replaced with modern materials, these pieces tell stories of preindustrial times.

The Musée Le Secq des Tournelles’s celebrated collection originated with Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq Destournelles (1818–1882), a painter who studied in Paris and Rome and became one of the first photographers in France. In the 1850s while photographically documenting various French monuments for a government project, he developed an appreciation for the ironwork adorning towns and ancient cathedrals. This inspired him to begin his own collection, much of which contained objects he salvaged as buildings were renovated or torn down. His son Henri (1854–1925, who changed the spelling of his last name to des Tournelles), continued to add to the collection, and in 1900 he loaned nearly a thousand objects to the Paris Universal Exhibition before donating the collection to the city of Rouen.

“We are so pleased to bring this wonderful collection of decorative arts to the Clark,” said Olivier Meslay, the Felda and Dena Hardymon Director of the Clark. “While wrought iron has long been an intrinsic part of the architecture of most European capitals, the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles collection encourages us to consider this work for its beauty—and to appreciate the exceptional ingenuity of the blacksmiths and ironworkers who took a humble material and elevated it to an art form. The Musée Le Secq is a colleague museum in the French American Museum Exchange (FRAME), a consortium of thirty-one major museums in France and North America that promotes cultural exchange through museum collaborations, and we are eager to share this wonderful collection with our visitors.”

The Art of Iron features a myriad of signs, masterful locks and lockboxes, a variety of utilitarian household objects, and architectural grilles, gates, and balcony railings. The objects are at once strange and familiar, inviting the viewer to marvel at the creative inventiveness and technical skill of their makers as well as reflect on earlier ways of life.

The works included in the exhibition represent a variety of the methods used in creating objects from iron. Much of the work is the result of a blacksmith working at his forge to bend, twist, and hammer rods of wrought iron into shape. Sheets of rolled iron were cut to shape and could be decorated by embossing designs from the back and by chiseling on the surface. Small objects might have been hammered or cast in molds and then welded into place. Many objects incorporate all of these techniques.

“The first time I visited the Musée Le Secq, the collection and its display took my breath away,” said Kathleen Morris, the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Director of Exhibitions and Curator of Decorative Arts at the Clark. “The opportunity to work with this collection has been incredible, compelling me to look closely at the extraordinary craftsmanship and design of these handmade creations. The sophistication and skill on display in these objects is phenomenal—and our dynamic installation will both captivate and delight our visitors.”

Signs

Shop, inn, and tavern signs make up an important part of the collection of the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles. Prior to widespread literacy, in an era before buildings were given numbered addresses, businesses depended on pictorial signs for identification and advertising. The Art of Iron contains fifteen signs representing a variety of business from taverns and inns to drapers, florists, and fishmongers. In many cases these signs hung on equally elaborate and well-crafted wrought iron brackets, which are also included in the exhibition.

Henri Le Secq des Tournelles salvaged many such signs, but he was more concerned with preserving them than with documenting their original locations. However, the location of some shops, such as one advertising a draper, is known. A sign known as “The Dry Tree” once stood on the Parisian street that still carries the name of its shop, rue de l’Arbre-Sec (Street of the Dry Tree). Drapers, or cloth merchants, often used the tree as a symbol of their business, evoking legends from the ancient Near East, a source of luxury fabrics. “The Dry Tree” refers to a specific tree that stood alone in a vast desert and was said to grow on the exact spot where Alexander the Great and Darius fought a great battle in the fourth century BCE. Marco Polo reported having seen this legendary tree during his travels.

A lighted bat-shaped sign that once hung outside the entrance to a cabaret or tavern is a remarkable example of nineteenth-century French ironwork. The bat is a clever reference to the nocturnal nature of this business and suggests a dim and mildly dangerous atmosphere within. The light cavity was later fitted with a lightbulb and electrical wiring—probably in the early twentieth century.

Grilles, Gates, and Balconies

Ironsmiths did not necessarily design the objects they created. In particular, wrought-iron grilles, gates, and railings for buildings were often conceived by architects, and in many cases the smith was probably working from a pre-existing drawing. This in no way diminishes the technical and creative skill of ironsmiths, who often infused their works with individual flourishes. The contrast between the strength of the material and the airy, often delicate lines and scrolls that form the composition gives these objects a presence that hovers between the sculptural and the graphic.

The Art of Iron contains many examples of these architectural elements that served a multitude of practical purposes. Window and transom (over-door) grilles, as well as door and balcony railings, allow light and air circulation while offering security against intrusion or protection from falls. An eighteenth-century Italian grille is one of many objects in the exhibition that includes this elaborate scrollwork.

A magnificent eighteenth-century French round grille, finished on both sides, features the symmetrical monogram GBM surrounded by an elaborate array of scrolls and volutes. It was originally installed in a building on the rue des Vergeaux in Amiens, France, perhaps to echo the spectacular rose windows of a nearby cathedral.

Locks and Lockboxes

Before the advent of banks, personal wealth was largely represented by items such as jewels, property deeds, and objects made of silver or gold. Safekeeping these items with locks or lockboxes was essential to financial security. These utilitarian objects, as well as their keys, were often highly decorated.

An eighteenth-century German strongbox and key is a spectacular example of the locksmith’s skill. The keyhole on the front of this chest is a decoy. The real keyhole is on the top of the box, concealed under the body of the double-headed eagle. Pushing on the eagle’s right talon releases a hinge and reveals the keyhole. The locking mechanism is visible on the underside of the box’s lid. The lock’s functional parts, including eighteen sliding bolts, are embellished with decorative flowers, leaves, and scrolls.

A French safe door (1823), signed by a maker named Poifol, is fitted with a complicated mechanism made of wrought iron and brass, including a mounted English pistol by the manufacturer Wilson. Attempts to tamper with the lock caused the gun to discharge, acting as an alarm system.

Household Objects

The durability of wrought iron made it a common material for many household objects, from cooking and kitchen utensils to wares for the bedroom and garden.

Before the invention of modern stoves, food was prepared over open fires in large kitchen fireplaces using cooking pots and pothooks. The ratchets on the pothook could be adjusted to hold the pot nearer to or further from the flame. Cast-iron pots were essential items in any kitchen and were often given as wedding gifts.

In contrast to the unadorned cooking pot, coffee and spice mills were specialty items sometimes elaborately decorated. The Musée Le Secq des Tournelles has extensive holdings of early spice and coffee grinders, including an eighteenth-century mill crafted by Benoit Tivelier the Elder included in the exhibition. The mill was made in the city of Saint-Étienne, France, a center of production for grinders.

The Art of Iron is co-organized by the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy. Generous contributors to the exhibition include Sylvia and Leonard Marx and the Selz Foundation, with additional support from Richard and Carol Seltzer.

Kathleen Morris, with contributions by Alexandra Bosc and Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau, The Art of Iron: Objects from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, Normandy (Williamstown: The Clark Art Institute, 2018), 112 pages, ISBN: 978-0300237047, $35.

Published by the Clark and distributed by Yale University Press, the catalogue for the exhibition combines stunning photography with fresh and engaging scholarship. An essay by Kathleen M. Morris offers a contemporary perspective on these extraordinary works of art, while current and former curators of the Musée Le Secq provide fascinating insights into the magnificent holdings of the museum’s renowned collection.

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