Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago;
it is a tiger’s leap into the past.
– Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Personal exploration of historical design and fabrication has become effortless, hyperlinked, and cross-pollinated. An emerging nonchalance, moving away from traditional notions that research must always be rigorous or chronological, has yielded transmigratory design elements. The Appropriated Adornment exhibition features these refugee samples, elements that are being domesticated into the contemporary jewelry and metalsmithing vernacular.
Since the nineteenth-century there has been an artistic fervor around historical appropriation. History fuels the creative imagination—those are the words that open the exhibition Past is Present: Revival Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As we began thinking about this exhibition topic, Emily was in the final stages of exhibition planning. And as we talked, Michael spoke about his interest in “aggressive appropriation,” curious to see how far metalsmiths could take a historical concept to really make it their own. Would the result have a recognizable link to history? We were curious to see where you started and where you ended up, and how your statement connected the two.
We were surprised by the variety of the submissions. Naively, we imagined the inspiration would be jewelry history, and in rare instances it was, but the starting points were as diverse as personal biography, science, material culture, current events, and politics. The techniques ranged from traditional goldsmithing to knitting, and the materials included everything from metals to wood to historical artifacts. One thread that ran throughout was the way jewelry acts as a vehicle for storytelling. Narrowing the field was a challenge and we yearned to get a closer look and handle the objects to see and feel the way the various forms, both old and new, blend into one contemporary piece.
The artists featured in this exhibition are reinforcing the fact that adornment has become malleable on a fundamental level. In Fashion at the Edge, Caroline Evans writes "designers call up these ghosts of modernity and offer us a paradigm that is different from the historian's paradigm, remixing fragments of the past into something new and contemporary that will continue to resonate into the future." In thinking about the potential consumer or observer of these ornaments, the narrative might be different from that of the maker. What might they bring to the piece? Will they understand or see its historical reference? Does it have a very different meaning for them? Does it matter?
Writing in the early twentieth century, the literary critic Walter Benjamin called this leap into the past “tigersprung.” Contemporary writer Ulrich Lehmann defines Benjamin’s compound term as a "leap from the contemporary to the ancient and back again . . . It is using styles, ornamentation, and motifs from the past often in eclectic and not reflective combination, to create reference and friction simultaneously."
In jumping into history, you miss all the in-between—the context, how one discovery leads to the next. The field of fashion spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s teasing this concept apart. The runway presentations that resulted were entirely avant-garde and postmodern. They transformed bodies, pushed the boundaries, and looked at history afresh. The springboard of history remains a fertile area for consideration in the study of jewelry. As this exhibition demonstrates, yesterday continues to offer endless resources from which to plunder.
Architecture. Art. Memory. Nostalgia. Politics. Technology. Tradition. Talisman. Nearly all of the jewelry selected demonstrates the tension between progress and tradition. But, few are obvious and each demonstrates the way that jewelry can spark a conversation. It became clear to us that while there was a general consensus on what “adornment” meant, the word “appropriation” led you down many exciting paths—some expected, some truly unexpected.