“Jewellery attracts and disturbs…” Medusa, Bijoux et Tabous

By cloelea, Nov 8 2017

Photographs of triibal jewellery and face ornament by Gijs Bakker
Bagues Promesse, Brune Boyer, 2008
Kit Chew Your Own Brooch, Ted Noten

“Like the face of Medusa in Greek mythology, jewellery attracts and disturbs those who design, wear or gaze upon it”.

I went to see the jewellery exhibition: Medusa, Bijoux et Tabous, at the Musee d’art Moderne de Paris (http://www.mam.paris.fr/fr/expositions/exposition-medusa-0). The building in itself (it is part of the Palais de Tokyo) gives an impression of heaviness (it does look a bit like communist architecture) and run down which is a bit disappointing, as a choice location for such a subject as jewellery, but on the other hand, it gives an ambiance of sobriety which helps focus on the objects presented.

The first vision you have when you enter the exhibition is two giant red eyes looking right into you, with a fly crawling on one of them… Then you see a succession of items of jewellery or items identified/called “jewellery” by whom made them/wore them.

I already knew it was an eclectic collection of jewels from various eras and countries, from classical to contemporary times, from cheap materials to luxurious brands, from famous artists/designers to unknown craftsmen, with a specific focus on contemporary creations. However contrary to what I expected, the classification display was organised in such a way that all genres were mixed. I found that very unique and eye-opening, since most of the time, jewellery is segregated into the various categories this exhibition tried to overrule for a time.

Instead, the focus was on questioning our own idea and definition of what is jewellery (deconstructing the preconceived ideas we often have about jewellery), on showing the far extent of the world of jewellery and its evolution (presenting the role of jewellery throughout time and space) and on giving a different/new vision of jewellery, as a very distinctive art form of its own. The exhibition was accordingly divided into four main themes: Identities and Subversions, Values and Counter-Values, Bodies and Sculptures and Customs and Functions.

Identities and Subversions (assignation, domination, disobedience):

Traditionally jewellery is identified as being characteristic of women, as a marker of beauty and seductiveness, but also as characteristic of codified constraints (with the jewellery given during rite de passage at various stages of a woman’s life) and as an essential attribute of masculine power, a highly codified expression of identity and power (medals or royal attributes for example). It has slowly become in the 20th century more of a vehicle of self-expression for both men and women.

Values and Counter-Values (established values, counter-values, other values):

“Jewellery is inherently bound up with notions of value associated with its constructive materials. The official history of jewellery is that of an elite”. It is most common to see jewellery as the utter most marker of materialism due to the materials used but also to the way people like to display their wealth, like wearing a diamond.

On the other hand, “Studio jewellery, contemporary jewellery (aka author jewellery) as well as costume jewellery resolutely uphold alternative values, sometimes deliberately contesting the criteria that underlie the economy of traditional jewellery… Jewellery can be inspired by current events or relay convictions, political or otherwise. Often the sentimental value of an item takes precedence over any direct relation to the market value of its materials. ‘Contemporary’ jewellery is also grounded an iconoclastic desire to rebel against a system of values and aesthetics perceived as reactionary and restrictive”.

Bodies and Sculptures (corporeal, autonomous, co-dependant):

“The decorative quality of jewellery, which lies between sculpture and ornament, is both a blessing and a curse. Indeed, jewellery’s relationship to the body is considered deeply problematic, limiting its scale and defining its range. Being the art of little things, it is seen as a ‘little’ art, a subcategory comprising wearable ‘mini-sculpture’. This point is of contention to me, as I don’t see how we can differentiate contemporary jewellery from sculpture is we admit that jewellery can be seen as autonomous from the body and stand on its own. In my opinion, it is an intimate art, directly linked to the body otherwise it is not jewellery. As I mentioned in a previous post (http://cloelea.moonfruit.com/blog/4593645380/%E2%80%9CThe-myth-of-wearing-jewellery-is-not-real%E2%80%9D-Peter-Skubic/11163448?preview=Y;use_flash=1), jewellery has be have the potential to be worn, even if it is not comfortable or possible for a long period of time, the possibility should be a prerequisite.

Customs and Functions (ritual, utilitarian, speculative):

“Jewellery has never been ornamental or aesthetic. Its many economic, social, and –equally important- magic and ritual functions often coexist side by side”. Jewellery has always and still is related to ritualistic functions, as well as more utilitarian ones: birth bracelet is a start!

Even though it is a difficult task to determine what are the limits of the jewellery world (and it is easy to see during the exhibition that each of us might have different ideas on the subject), it was a comprehensive collection of what can be considered as jewellery, with some (but not enough) interesting descriptions or analysis of the idea behind the object. Contemporary jewellery (though not exclusively contemporary) often has a slanting tendency to be at least a bit conceptual or meaningful and therefore it does require a text to understand the idea behind the object, or the voice of the maker behind the jewel. That is why the catalogue of the exhibition is an invaluable addition to seeing the exhibition to understand better what it is all about!


Two very different photographs: the first one is of a woman wearing a traditional wedding outfit from Algeria (1980?), and the other one is a woman wearing a face ornament made by Gijs Bakker (1974).

“Les bagues Promesse”, by Brune Boyer (2008): l’une avec empreinte du mouvement de la main et l’autre vierge (“Promise Rings”: one with the imprint of the movement of the hand and the other one still empty).

“Kit Chew Your Own Brooch”, by Ted Noten (1998).

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